Clairo’s ‘Pretty Girl’ Went Viral. Then She Had to Prove Herself.
Posted May 23, 2018 6:10 p.m. EDT
Less than a week after finishing her freshman year at Syracuse University, the singer, songwriter and producer Claire Cottrill, who performs as Clairo, was in the back seat of a chauffeured SUV, eating Chick-fil-A and living out the surprising mundanity of her music-industry dreams.
“I’m literally the most inexperienced person,” Cottrill, 19, said, reflecting giddily on the series of firsts that had greeted her in Manhattan after final exams.
As an emerging artist with a viral song (“Pretty Girl”) and a fresh phalanx of devoted personnel (manager, publicist, label), Clairo was spending two days performing the awkward get-to-know-you dance with publications, agents and streaming services such as Spotify that will, ideally, be partners on her path to fame. But while such glad-handing can quickly become a chore, Cottrill was bubbling with wide-eyed possibility, like Charlie on his golden-ticket tour, even as she was asked to fire finger-guns into a camera for promotional GIFs.
In the elevator down from a SiriusXM interview, during which she’d picked nervously at the sleeve of her Palace sweater, Cottrill, who is often mistaken for a precocious middle schooler, grew teary-eyed at the genuine interest being shown in her work. “I feel like a little star right now,” she said.
Both a culmination and a beginning, the release on Friday of Clairo’s debut six-song EP, “diary 001,” marks a bizarre period of flux for the singer, whose woozy, homemade pop concoctions are blooming into something bigger. Though she had been releasing charmingly lo-fi music online since her early teens (including acoustic covers of Mumford & Sons and Frank Ocean), everything accelerated for Cottrill last summer with “Pretty Girl,” which she wrote and recorded herself on GarageBand and uploaded to YouTube with an equally crude — yet representative — video: a girl, alone in her room, singing directly into her laptop.
Nearly 15 million views later, Clairo was another potential breakout from a self-starting generation of songwriters unbeholden to genre or equipment, who innately understand branding and the currents of the online zeitgeist. Yet given the force and velocity of her ascent — and her beginnings in an internet-based DIY scene (Bandcamp, Le Sigh, Rookie) — Clairo has also come in for criticism regarding her careerism and connections.
Almost as quickly as fans began worshipping her as “mom!” and “queen!” in comment sections, Cottrill inspired a digital counter-movement that questioned whether some shadowy Svengali had engineered her success — conversations not unlike the skepticism and conspiracy-mongering that accompanied the rise of Lana Del Rey and Lorde. Focusing largely on her father, Geoff Cottrill, a marketing executive who has worked for Coca-Cola and Converse, message boards, student newspapers and YouTube lit up with takes that undermined Clairo’s agency and questioned the legitimacy of her seamless self-presentation and viral video.
“I’m not going to discredit her art, I’m just going to question her authenticity,” explained the YouTuber HYPESAGE! in his video titled “Clairo’s ‘self made’ indie bedroom pop a facade?,” which has been viewed more than 136,000 times. “Industry plant” — the catchall slur among music fans for someone undeserving of their buzz and opportunities — has become a constant refrain.
At first, that criticism stung, though it also struck her as barely veiled sexism, Cottrill said over pizza the day after her media blitz. “The fact that there has to be a man behind my success when I genuinely have worked so hard is frustrating,” she said. “At the end of the day, when people say, ‘Oh, she’s an industry plant,’ I’m like, ‘No, I just have representation, like every single other artist you listen to.’ I’m not the first person to get a manager.”
“Pretty Girl,” which she initially recorded for an indie-rock compilation benefiting the Transgender Law Center, was organic and took off without any marketing muscle or shortcuts, Clairo insisted. “I put it on YouTube, and then the algorithm just ate it up,” she said, which led to interest from major labels, including Columbia, RCA and Capitol.
“Things just happen afterward when things go viral,” Cottrill said. “People reach out.” She did have an advantage: knowing where to turn amid the surreal, smoke-and-mirror haze of internet hype.
Cottrill’s father consulted an old friend, Jon Cohen, an executive at Cornerstone, the marketing agency behind The Fader magazine. Cohen later signed her to a 12-song deal with his company’s Fader Label and introduced Cottrill to Pat Corcoran, Chance the Rapper’s manager, whose company Haight Brand took her on as a client near the end of 2017.
Corcoran, 28, praised the fullness of Cottrill’s vision, from her direct, diaristic songwriting to her high-school vlogs and social media. “She lives very artfully,” he said. “It made me feel young again.” He brushed off any insinuation that Clairo was manufactured.
“There are major-label artists that are getting pushed by the biggest companies in entertainment — Sony, Warner Bros., Universal — and they can’t even accomplish what she’s done from her bedroom,” Corcoran said.
Cottrill, who grew up in a small Massachusetts town, sowed her interests both online and in local scenes, frequenting house shows in Boston and Philadelphia. Her early songs were guitar-based, inspired by lo-fi singer-songwriters like Frankie Cosmos and Calvin Johnson. But as DIY musicians like PC Music began flirting with pop sounds and signifiers — and streaming further eroded musical borders — Cottrill turned to beat-making on her laptop.
The “diary 001” EP bridges both worlds, building on the coy, understated bedroom pop of “Pretty Girl” and “Flamin Hot Cheetos” toward sturdier numbers like “4EVER” and “B.O.M.D.”, which could pass for Top 40 hits, if not for Cottrill’s wonderfully flat affect. With soft, sugary synths, playful electronic drums and vaguely R&B melodies, Clairo songs are the thoroughly modern type — Spotifycore? — calibrated for repeated streaming from computer speakers.
If Lorde was a child of Tumblr’s collage of influence, Clairo is a playlist baby, smearing moods like a DJ might. (She also makes SoundCloud mixes as DJ Baby Benz.) “I’m a producer at heart,” Cottrill said.
But her embrace of pop, and the surge it’s given her career, also made Cottrill uneasy, especially as her every move has become fodder for dissection on Reddit. She recalled a particularly dark night in her dorm room at Syracuse — where she studied in the Bandier music business program — when the negative comments sent her into a spiral of shame and sobbing.
Cottrill called Shamir, a singer she’s known since she was 16, whose early career arc was similar. “He made me feel like I wasn’t so alone in all this,” she said, referring to the parts of virality that aren’t so “peachy.”
Shamir, in an interview, added: “I’ve seen this girl grind from the beginning.” He warned her that “this industry is just built to eat up young girls and young artists in general,” he said, and urged Cottrill “to make sure that her support system is strong.” In New York for her promotional visit, Cottrill seemed centered, and exuded relentless positivity even as she acknowledged the weirdness of her position. “It’s crazy to feel like you have to sell yourself and just, like, be almost ... marketable,” she said. “I’d never thought of it that way.”
But the perks were apparent. She had finally convinced her parents that her taking leave from Syracuse was wise — Clairo will open for Dua Lipa and play festivals this summer before a headlining tour — and brightened at every mention of a future opportunity.
A last-minute night session at the storied Electric Lady Studios, to record a song for a movie soundtrack, was a gift, not a slog. “I never thought I’d go to Electric Lady in my whole life,” she said. “Now we’re just dropping by casually.”
“Oh my God,” Cottrill said as she flitted around the studio, sampling vintage equipment. “This is overwhelming.”
She didn’t leave until 3 a.m.