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Clairo — winter 2018
Clairo wears rollneck jumper BOSS, jeans Levi’s, earring and belts Palace Costume, nose ring worn throughout Claire’s ownPhotography Hart Leshina, styling Stella Greenspan

Clairo IRL

Claire Cottrill is the archetypal pop star for the digital age – in her new music, she's ready to get real about the offline battles she faces

Taken from the winter 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

Like many Y2K babies, Claire Cottrill grew up online. She came of age at a moment when multifaceted identities were quickly becoming the norm, fired by the rapid growth of social media. Cottrill’s world expanded when, at 13, she taught herself to play guitar by watching YouTube videos. It got even bigger a couple of years after that, when she started uploading lo-fi pop demos to Soundcloud under the name of Clairo – and even bigger at 16, when Rookie magazine covered her music. At 18, everything changed when she went viral.

Cottrill is the first to admit how crucial the internet has been to shaping her experience: as an artist, as a minor celebrity, and as a person. “I would never take back all the hours I spent talking to other people online, and creating my first Tumblr,” she muses, speaking on FaceTime, with a strip of sunlight falling across her bare face. “All those experiences were so big for me, because having to face my real life was so painful.”

The Massachusetts-born songwriter, now aged 20, is speaking literally when she talks about the pain of her regular life. At 17, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, leaving her with an ache in her joints so severe she is sometimes unable to walk. “Even just going downstairs would hurt so much,” she explains. “The internet gave me freedom.”

The chronic pain that Cottrill faces will come as a surprise to many of her fans – aside from a recent tweet to mark World Arthritis Day, she has never discussed this aspect of her life in public. The Clairo persona has given Cottrill an escape route from her day-to-day existence, and a safe space to explore the plasticity of her identity (as many teenagers find online). In her self-directed video for “Pretty Girl”, the viral gem that brought her to fame in 2017, Cottrill is the picture of freedom. With unbrushed hair and unbothered facial expressions, she deadpans her rough-around-the-edges pop song into her MacBook camera. The song itself, with daintily scathing lines like “I could be a pretty girl / shut up when you want me to”, hits out at society’s expectations for girls.

 “Pretty Girl” formed the centrepiece of Cottrill’s debut EP diary 001, released in May. The sweet, self-contained release is a catalogue of the extremely vivid feelings of being a teenager (“Am I gonna feel this way forever?” she sings on “4EVER”) over glimmering synth melodies and beats that have the soft thud of thumbs on a phone screen. When we speak, Cottrill has just finished touring the EP around the US and UK, including support slots for Dua Lipa – an experience that she describes as a “really rough time” with her arthritis. After spending some time over the summer in an LA studio working on diary 002, she flew home to Atlanta. Now, she’s in bed, having spent the morning binge-watching Brit-comedies – Peep Show and old editions of The Big Fat Quiz of the Year – with her mum.

It’s in this rare moment of downtime that she’s reflecting on her next steps, and why she wants to start talking publicly about life with an autoimmune disease. “(My arthritis) takes up so much of my daily life that I’ve wanted to hide it from the people who listen to my music,” she says, “because it’s the one group of people that don’t know about it and don’t ask me.” Previously, she explains, she felt that, if she didn’t allow the disease to be a part of her life, it couldn’t have power over her. “I didn’t want it to be real, and a part of me thought the more I suppressed it, the more it would just go away. It feels really good now that I’ve finally allowed myself to let it be a part of me. Ever since I let myself identify with it, (that) I actually do have a disability that I’ve been hiding, I’ve been writing the best music I’ve ever made.”

“There’s no way you could plan something like a viral video happening” — Clairo

While touring is a bigger physical effort for her than for many musicians, Cottrill relishes the experience. “As corny as it sounds, I’m just genuinely so excited to meet everyone and to finally put faces to (fans’) names that I see all the time,” she says. “For so long, I’ve been living this life behind the screen. I was sick of it. The adrenaline I get during shows takes the pain away. You forget you have (arthritis) for a second. That’s the best part.”

Whether on stage or off, Cottrill’s music occupies a permanently logged-on space that feels instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the blue glow of a screen: it’s sincere and open, yet preoccupied with ideas of authenticity. On diary 001’s opening track “Hello”, the elastic hook goes: “You’re just one click away… / from something real or fake”.

What Cottrill wasn’t prepared for was the extent to which she herself would become a victim of the internet’s obsession with the ‘real’. When “Pretty Girl” blew up in 2017, she found herself at the centre of a Reddit-generated whirlwind, after some sleuths figured out that her dad is Geoff Cottrill, a marketing executive who used to run Converse’s Rubber Tracks music studio programme. Geoff Cottrill has connections in the music industry, which meant that his daughter definitely had more options (and savvy advice) available to her than the average teenager who goes viral. But critics stripped agency from Cottrill by accusing her of being an “industry plant” – making the strange assumption that a middle-aged man could better engineer a viral success than a teenage girl. (Either way, Cottrill rejoinders, “There’s no way you could plan something like a viral video happening.”) The whole sexist episode carried traces of deja vu, echoing the scandal that surrounded Lana Del Rey in 2012, when it emerged she had committed the heinous crime of previously trying to make it as a musician with a different name and image.

Cottrill says the experience has made her feel tougher. She’s breezy when she explains that she’s grown a lot this year, and her skin is thicker than ever. “I’ve pretty much stopped reading what people say about me, because it’s not true,” she quips, keen to get off the subject. “I’ve spoken about it in the New York Times, I spoke about it on Beats 1; people still come at me for it. I just stopped caring. I’m really focused on my health right now; I’m focused on just bettering my life as a whole.”

Already, Cottrill’s mind is far away from that first project, and she’s deep in the excitement of creating diary 002, a record that she says carries the spirit of girl groups who ruled the world before she was born: TLC, Destiny’s Child, the Spice Girls. This time, she’s making a showcase for her voice, which until now has been muffled by layers of production – a result of both aesthetic choice, and a shyness that comes with creating your music in private. “A year ago when I was in the studio, I wouldn’t even sing in front of people!” she laughs. “They were like, ‘This is a studio – you have to get over that.’ I’m finally past that point of being scared now.”

“It’s crazy that me doing that for myself had an impact on someone else. I never thought I’d have that authority” — Clairo

While Cottrill has reaped the benefits of creating an online fantasy, some of her sweetest moments have been the result of radical honesty. In May, she came out to her Twitter followers in the most 2018 way ever – with a tweet that no non-Clairo fan, or person over the age of 30, would understand: “B.O.M.D. (‘Boy of my Dreams’) is also G.O.M.D. for ur information”. (During our chat, Cottrill is undecided on labels, but describes herself as “not entirely straight”.)

 “After “Pretty Girl”, I was reluctant to talk about my personal life, because I just felt like everyone knew so much, so why would I give them more?” Cottrill recalls. But after the heartwarming response to her ‘coming out’ tweet – she received scores of messages from girls who were empowered to come out themselves – she lost her cagey attitude. “It’s crazy that me doing that for myself had an impact on someone else. I never thought I’d have that authority. So I think that’s why I feel it’s time for me to get real about my arthritis.”

As she prepares for this new era, Cottrill has done what many young people have done in 2018, and deleted all her Instagram posts. For Generation Z, there’s no bigger allure than a clean digital slate, and that’s exactly what Cottrill wants for diary 002. “I’m way less focused on the internet, and way less focused on what people are saying online,” she says. “I’m focused on what’s happening in my life, for real. So I was like, ‘Why not just delete all my posts?’ I wasn’t even thinking about other people, it was just me. I wanted to do that for myself.” 

Hair Lauren Palmer-Smith at Lowe & Co, make-up Natasha Severino at Forward Artists using Sisley Paris, photography assistant Mark Underwood, styling assistants Rika Nurrahmah, Manuel Parra, production Henri Collective

Clairo’s diary 002 EP is out next year