V chatted with the viral sensation about her candid new EP 'diary 001', touring with Dua Lipa, and why people are throwing Cheetos at her on stage.
V chatted with the viral sensation about her candid new EP 'diary 001', touring with Dua Lipa, and why people are throwing Cheetos at her on stage.
Text: Jake Viswanath
Sometimes the littlest things can take you to unimaginable places. Perhaps no one knows this better than Clairo, the Syracuse student who created music on GarageBand in her bedroom and uploaded it to SoundCloud simply for safe-keeping, expecting absolutely no fanfare. She had no clue what was coming: over 12 million combined online streams and an audience hungry to know just who Clairo is. The singer, songwriter, and producer's debut EP, diary 001, gives fans their first glimpse, each quirkily-titled single acting as its own diary entry, all full of candid college confessions and amusing ramblings distilled into intricate melodies and unexpectedly punchy lyrics.
But to pigeon-hole her into the bedroom pop plethora would be an injustice to her versatility. She jumps from sparkling synth-pop vibes, courtesy of PC Music master Danny L Harle, on the charming "B.O.M.D." to thumping R&B bass as she answers the phone on "Hello?" Clairo is determined to make an impact on the world stage, but don't assume that you already know what she's made of—she'll start proving it herself on tour with Dua Lipa and making her festival debut this summer. Before she heads out on the road, she stopped by the V offices to chat about making music, balancing college life with studio time, and why people throw Cheetos at her on stage.
What got you into music?
I think my parents are the first influence on me, music-wise. My dad was into Motown and soul and my mom was into British '80s pop, like The Trashcan Sinatras. I grew up on that. It was great. They were the first people to really bring music into my life. As I got older, I went on the Internet and was looking at YouTube videos and saw people doing covers. My friends started making music and then I started making covers because I was like, "I don’t have anything to write, but I like music.” So I would just cover Frank Ocean songs. Towards 14, 15, I discovered Bandcamp and SoundCloud and started writing demos, then immediately uploading them just because I didn’t want them on my computer, but I wanted to be able to access them somewhere, like on the cloud, almost. So I just put them all on SoundCloud and did not think twice about it. It just spiraled from there. I would just make anything and post anything. My friends were doing the same thing, so it was kind of normal. We were just doing it.
It was just a hobby that connected you?
Yeah. We all kind of dreamed about being musicians, but the narrative around being a musician is it’ll never happen to you. It’s not something that just happens, one in a million shot, all those things that just make you feel like it’ll never happen. So we were just kind of like "fuck it". Since it’s not gonna happen, let’s just continue uploading, no one’s going to care. And you know, the Internet. I think we underestimated the power of the Internet a lot, in all it can do and who it reaches. It’s a lot more than you think [laughs]. When you’re just making something in your room, you’re not thinking that this box with a screen is gonna make you famous. You don’t think you’re putting yourself out there because you don’t see it on the other side.
You’re creating music in a time where that lo-fi, authentic sound is taking off.
My friends were in that scene and I wanted to be a part of it. It was the first scene that I was actually apart of, in general. I made a bunch of friends that played house shows in Allston, Massachusetts, which is in the Cambridge area, downtown. So I’d have my mom drive me to Allston, Massachusetts and drop me off at a college kid’s house and I’d go play with my electric guitar and sing. Then I’d just talk to these other kids that were doing the same thing and they just all got it. I didn’t have a lot of people at my school that did it, but through the Internet and through Facebook and finding collectives that did shows. Boston Hassle was a cool thing. They put on a bunch of shows. This girl who runs this collective called Shomun Collective (3:50), they did a lot that I followed. It was all just like the Internet kind of guided me, in a way, where I could make the music that I wanted to and find people that connected with it. Being a part of the scene was really cool and it still is really cool. I like communities in music and I think they’re really important.
Have you found other communities since you’ve broken out?
Yeah. This whole thing where artists are being pinned as this whole new wave of bedroom pop, it’s been cool. "Bedroom pop", the term, is a little weird for me because it’s hard for me to accept being put into any box because I feel like I just always want to change. The friends I’ve made from this genre have been really cool because we get put in lists from blogs and we get grouped together in playlists. Eventually, you just reach out to them and you’re like, “Hey, this keeps happening to us, let’s just be friends.” And then you do, and you start having conversations about the whole experience that no one else on the planet can relate to besides you two. I’m very much a people person, so it’s probably the best part.
What inspires your music?
I think a lot of different things. I like to say that I have my foot in a few doors with the way I am as an artist. I love rap music, I love pop music. I can love all kinds of music and appreciate them and it all inspires me to create different kinds of things. I like to talk about Grimes a lot because she was the first girl producer that I ever really found online. I guess what was hard in the beginning, for me, was that I loved music but I was like, “Oh, I don’t have the resources, I don’t have all this fancy equipment,” like, blah blah blah. And then I read up on Grimes and she made her number one hit on GarageBand. It was like, "Shit, I can do it." Those are the things that drive me to make music that feels good to me. I very much am drawn towards people that feel the same.
Do you find that you write about your own life, or are you an observer?
I definitely write about my own life. I think writing from experience is therapeutic for me. It also makes me very vulnerable, though, I’ve realized. People go through my Instagram and they’re like, “Oh my god, is this what this is about? Is this who this is about?” It’s crazy because when I write songs, I don’t even think about that. But I do also like to write music from different perspectives. One of my songs that’s on SoundCloud, it was for my psychology final. I was like, “Can I make a song?” I’ve actually made music for a lot of school projects, which is really weird, but I made a song from the perspective of someone, I think it was your subconscious and about all the urges we suppress as humans, like violence and sex and all that, so I wrote it from that perspective. It wasn’t a scary song, it was just a song, but I like writing from my side and things I observe. I obviously can’t speak for other people, so it’s made off things, usually.
How did you balance your career while being a full-time student?
It’s hard. It all kind of happened as I got there. I remember during my second week at Syracuse, “Pretty Girl” hit a million views. Everyone around me was like, “What are you doing? Why are you here?” I was like, “I don’t have a choice, my parents want me to go to school.” They didn’t really get it at the time. They were like, “The Internet isn’t real, do your homework. Just because you have views on the Internet doesn’t mean you are famous.” Like Internet fame and real fame are different, which is what I had thought, but at the same time it’s kind of not different at all, which is what I learned. As things progressed and got crazier, it just was hard. But I mean, school did become an escape for me when I didn’t want to go on the Internet or look at comments. I would just put my head down and do work, go hang out with my friends and go to McDonald’s after class like everyone else [laughs].
Were you ever recognized on the street by kids you didn’t know?
There would be weird things at parties, like, “Oh my god, you’re Clairo, right?”. I would be like [groans], I would just make a weird noise and say like, “Uh, sorry, yeah I am", apologize to them [laughs]. I still have a hard time accepting when people come up to me. I don’t know how to act, but it’s cool. It’s awesome. I’m just an awkward person when it comes to that. I’ve had so many times where people would come up to me and they’re nervous, but I’m way more nervous than they are. They look to me to make them comfortable, but I look to them and I’m like, “You’re supposed to help me” [laughs].
I actually think that’s a common thing with celebrities.
Yeah! It’s weird because when it happens to you, when you get a certain amount of attention, I think people expect it to fall into place with being a good performer and knowing how to handle those interactions and just being able to handle all of it, when the only thing you’ve really done, the only thing that you’re really comfortable with, is just making the art. I’m good at making the art when I’m alone, but all the other things I’m learning afterwards, I’m learning it while it’s happening, which is a cool thing. It’s cool to have people see me grow. This isn’t all just happening before I blew up. It’s during it, so everyone can know I’m awkward and don’t have my shit together.
Growing up on the Internet, a lot of artists don’t have that option where they shield themselves all the way off. That relatablility is key to a lot of fans.
Yeah. It’s crazy because, at least in my case, I always thought that artists would make a bunch of music, post it somewhere private, and then delete all of it once they found what they wanted to do. But then I tried that before I could decide what I wanted to do and before I could really decide on what my sound was. People were looking up my demos and the stuff that I didn’t want people to hear. But now I’ve learned that I don’t have a sound. I feel like I’m just ever-changing and I want to keep going that way. It's a blessing in disguise, almost.
The best artists are always ones who change over time.
Yeah! It’s important to me to keep changing and to adapt. I love new things. I love learning new things. I love being around new people and learning what they’re like, what their life is like. It’s important to me to not just close myself off. I like to absorb. I love to make art, but I love to absorb the world.
I’d like to talk about “Flaming Hot Cheetos.” Who’s not going to be attracted to a song with that title?
You know what? It’s funny because it wasn’t a thing where I was like, “Oh, people are gonna click on this if it’s called ‘Flaming Hot Cheetos.’” What happens with SoundCloud is, at least for me, when I make a song and I don’t have a title, I’ll look around the room and I’ll either do random letters as the file name or I’ll point at something in the room and I’ll name it that. I had just finished a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos, so I was like, “Oh, ‘Flaming Hot Cheetos.’” Put it on my desktop, went to SoundCloud, dragged the file in there. What SoundCloud does is it takes the file name that you’ve named it and it uploads it in a way that looks like a title, and I was like, “That’s really funny, it says ‘Flaming Hot Cheetos.’ I should just keep it as a joke.” I keep doing that. I keep doing things as a joke and it just takes off… which is annoying [laughs]. I wish I could do something seriously for once and it takes off.
Take me into what “Flaming Hot Cheetos” is actually about.
It was about some guy that I was like, I didn’t know if we were dating, I didn’t know if we were just hooking up. I obviously liked him more, he was unclear. It's just one of those situations that everyone has at some point. I learned a lot about myself through that writing process. I made the beat in a really short amount of time. I wrote the song in one sitting. I always feel like I learn a lot about myself while I’m writing or after I process the song. The line, “I’m a romantic/I never remember how things really happen,” I realized that I do that so often with so many things. When things are really shitty in relationships, I won’t realize it until it’s over. Why did I even deal with that? I was so blind I just was thinking about all these good things that don’t even exist. All these ideas that aren’t there. After that song came out, it helped me change my mindset. I set a new standard for what I deal with and relationships I have. It was a big moment for me.
I don’t even like actual Flaming Hot Cheetos, but I gravitated toward the song title like, “What is this?”.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s weird. I hadn’t had Flaming Hot Cheetos in a long time. I just randomly picked them up that day and had some. I actually don’t even eat them that often at all. People always ask me that.
“Are they your favorite food?”. Like, “No.”
[Laughs] They’re not my favorite food! People threw Cheetos at me at a show.
They threw five bags of Cheetos at me. It was wonderful. I ate them onstage, it was funny. But it’s just like, what? I guess I tweeted, “Yo, throw Cheetos at me, that’d be funny.” People listened though. There are people at the other end like, “I’m gonna throw Cheetos at Clairo."
People are oblivious to sarcasm sometimes.
Yeah. It was definitely a joke, and then five bags were thrown at me. [Her manager, Mike] was on side stage and the security guard was like, “Do they hate her?” We were like, “Nah, we’re good, it’s like her thing” [laughs]. I died. It was so funny.
Total side note, but that reminds me: I saw Santigold live once and for her opening she had people sitting on pool chairs eating Cheetos.
[Laughs] I’ll look that up, that’s funny. Cheetos are on a comeback.
Let’s talk about your newest single, “4EVER.”
I wrote that song the night before I left for Syracuse. I was really nervous about school. It was my first year at college, and I wasn’t sure if Syracuse was the right choice for me. I’d only applied to small schools and Syracuse was this massive school. I was entering this music business program. I wasn’t sure about anything, I was having trouble in a relationship. There were so many questions on my mind. What I like about that song is that you can relate it to your own experience or it can be this whole existential thing. The lyrics are, “Is it ever gonna change?/Am I gonna feel this way forever?/Are you gonna be around for me to count on?”Like college, is college gonna be the right thing for me? Am I gonna make friends or am I gonna be a loner? Do I like this person? Are they gonna be in my life five years from now or am I gonna hate them? Those are the questions that you ask yourself but don’t actively think about. It was a song I’ve worked really hard on. It was the first song that I turned into a real finished product in the studio, from a proper demo to a proper song, and it was crazy. The process was very different than what I’m used to, but I definitely appreciate the song a lot more just because we spent seven months on it, reworking it and changing the arrangement. Luckily, I had great people come into the studio and help me figure it out, but I’m really proud of that song and I’m really happy that people like it because it’s my favorite song to date.
Was this your first step in venturing beyond just uploading on SoundCloud?
Yeah. I had almost uploaded it, then I was like, “Wait, it’s a good song. I already did this with ‘Pretty Girl,’ let me take a step back and not upload the first thing I make.” So I sat on it for awhile and then I finally got management and representation and started going into the studio. We go in the studio and the engineer, Ashwin, laid down this crazy funk bass on it, and I talked to my friend Deaton Chris Anthony — he makes crazy '80s R&B music. I reached out to him and I was like, “This song, I just need you to put a funk bass over this song. That’s all it’s missing.” He was like, “I got you” and then gave me the bass line for the chorus. Ashwin did the bass for the rest of the song and then I had the Burns Twins. Eddie Burns is my drummer, he and his brother helped me with the arrangement of the song and helped me build up and break down in the song because I know what sounds good, but I have a hard time putting the good parts in places where it’s supposed to build up. It was the first time I let go having one hundred percent control. It was a cool process for me. It was important and I couldn’t have done it without them. It was a good feeling to finally accomplish what the idea originally was. I had this idea of what the song would be, but I just couldn’t do it on my own, so it just felt really good to have a finished product that I was super happy with and satisfied, because I don’t want to be dissatisfied with my songs. It was very important to me.
Tell me about your new EP, I love the title diary 001.
The thing is, for me, each song on the EP is supposed to be a different diary entry from a different part of my life. Each song sounds really different. There are trap elements and then there are pop elements and funk. There’s a lot of different moods, but if you see it from a diary perspective, where you go to your journal on a different day and you’re feeling different. It doesn’t have to just be one thing that you’re running with. Maybe it can just be like a collective of thoughts, so hopefully that point gets across when it comes out.
You’re going on tour with Dua Lipa — super exciting! How did you feel when that offer came in? Did you know who she was?
Yeah, of course I knew who she was! She’s amazing. I really like her. I always say this, but I think pop music is really cool. I don’t think you have to hate pop music just because everyone else does. I think radio pop is really underappreciated production-wise. Dua Lipa’s really cool, she’s really edgy. She’s doing it right. I’ve loved her music for awhile, so when the offer came in, I was genuinely shocked, obviously, because I never thought that I would be a part of her journey, but so thankful. And I saw that Tommy Genesis did another leg for her and I was like, “This is cool.” She’s doing these left-field opener choices and I’m with it. Let’s just go for it and do it. I’m excited to get to know her and talk to her about the whole process and just make a new friend [laughs]. Hopefully we end up sending each other dog pictures by the end of it. It’s a whole new realm that I’ve never been in before and I’m super out of my element, but I think it’s gonna be really good.
When you’re performing, what message do you aim to leave behind?
I just want people to have fun. I want it to be enjoyable. I want people to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. I don’t want someone to leave being like, “Ugh, didn’t dance once.” Like, I just want them to be having fun, even if their head’s just bobbing a little bit, feeling it, because why not? That’s why I’m excited to keep performing and traveling and hopefully making a difference somehow.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. At this point, there’s no way I could even predict what could happen because I didn’t predict what happened to me. I hope I continue to do what I’m doing and I hope that it betters people’s lives somehow just because it’s special.
Any specific goals or ventures unrelated to music?
I really like working with artists and seeking out new people to work with, so I just want to continue to make music with new people and keep listening to others and then making my own stuff.
Anyone you dream of working, dead or alive?
David Bowie? The reason why I’m so obsessed with evolving and change is obviously because of him. I would just like to have a conversation with him, just sit down and speak to him for three hours.
I think we all would.
Seriously. I think everyone needs a David Bowie conversation [laughs].