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Clairo’s Wide-Open Spaces

Claire Cottrill became a Gen Z hero for her deeply openhearted songs, but ended up wondering whether she wanted to stick with music at all. So she headed to the country to find herself and a way forward
Peter Ash Lee for Rolling Stone


It’s noon in the Catskills, and Claire Cottrill is thinking about buying a barn. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs as Clairo, recently purchased more than five acres of property in nearby Massachusetts, and she has big plans to use its well, churn butter, and convert that prospective barn into a studio. “There’s privacy that I’ve been craving for a long time,” she says. “When I’m there, I genuinely feel like I’m on a different planet.”

Cottrill got a taste of the country life back in the fall, when she spent a month at Allaire Studios, recording her second album, Sling, with producer Jack Antonoff. Located on Glen Tonche, a 20-acre estate hidden on a mountaintop outside of Woodstock, New York, Allaire is one of music’s best kept secrets, a spot where artists like David Bowie and Norah Jones have recorded in relative seclusion. “Every person that heard of it was like, ‘Oh, that place is closed,’” Cottrill says. “It has zero internet footprint, which is probably for the best, to keep [it] as serene as possible.”

Six months after recording wrapped, Cottrill is back at the studio, having come up from her current home in Brooklyn to give me a tour of the space. She greets me in a plain white T-shirt and frayed bermuda cutoffs. White socks poke out above her black Blundstone boots the same way her new bangs tuck out of her half-bun. With her suave sunglasses perched on the bridge of her nose, she looks like she owns the place. And maybe one day she will. Cottrill loves it here so much, she says, that if the owner, Randall Wallace, gave her a key, she’d proudly wear it on a necklace.

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Photograph by Peter Ash Lee for Rolling Stone. Hair styling & Make up by Allie Smith for Bridge Artists. Styled by Stephanie Tricola for Honey Artists. Shirt by R13. Earring by Alexander McQueen.

We walk through seemingly endless wooden, high-ceilinged rooms adorned with paintings, marble busts, and patterned rugs. The equipment is vintage; the piano dates from 1893. The property has the charm of the Overlook Hotel on a summer day, where the sunlight and greenery decrease the probability of a haunting to about five percent. Cottrill claims she only gets the heebie-jeebies in a dusty billiard room, but thankfully, it’s far from the wing she lived in last fall.

We settle at a rustic wooden table in the studio’s blue-tiled kitchen. Behind us, a Telefunken Concertino radio rests next to a bag of treats for her new dog, whom she’s named Joanie (after Joni Mitchell). Cottrill sips tea out of a white ceramic mug, her legs crossed in an avocado chair. She can come off as shy, but as the two of us sit alone in this silent room, she sounds relaxed and confident, talking about how the studio became a crucial refuge from the past two years. “Everything’s clicking as to why I’m so happy here, and so unhappy in other places,” she says. “This record has changed everything for me, because I was fully going to quit music.”

It took the pandemic for Cottrill to realize she needed to slow her life down. She’d toured relentlessly since she was 19, when her bedroom-pop song “Pretty Girl” went viral on YouTube (the clip now has more than 75 million views). Her 2019 debut, Immunity, struck a chord with millions of Gen Z fans thanks to its glittery indie-pop songs about depression and bisexuality. She’s become the perfect hero for teens who broadcast their every intimate thought and impulse to the world, writing confessional gems that inspire fan comments like, “Every day is hard, but this makes it a little easier. Thanks for existing.”

Cottrill’s music is rooted in almost stunning sincerity. “One thing that’s particularly interesting about Claire is her lack of armor,” Antonoff says. “She has this incredible toughness through sensitivity. She’s just open to it all.”

As Cottrill’s career took off, life on the road began to feel like a blur. “I felt like I was in someone else’s body,” she admits. “When there’s, like, 40 shows, it’s easy to feel like you’re not even there. But we forget that someone has planned a whole weekend around it. You just feel like a fucking asshole.”

Anxiety and depression had plagued Cottrill for most of her life, but being in the spotlight heightened her disorders. At one point during the Immunity tour, Cottrill was so stressed that her hair began to fall out. She lost a significant amount of weight, eating only two small portions a day. “I was hanging by a thread, and I can say that in full honesty,” she says. “I was close to really losing my shit and not wanting to be here. I didn’t really see a reason.”

As the pandemic hit, Cottrill quarantined at home in Atlanta with her family. Under the same roof as her parents and older sister for the first time in years, she began to contemplate parenthood. “I was spending so much time with my mom, I realized, ‘Holy shit, am I going to be a mom one day?’” she remembers. “It was one of those thoughts that I didn’t want to let myself feel, because I’m 22. It felt like a silly thing to be thinking about. But I saw my mom as an individual, rather than just my mom.”

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Clairo photographed in May 2021 for Rolling Stone. Earring by Simone Rocha Peter Ash Lee for Rolling Stone

Cottrill took on a new kind of responsibility in December, when she adopted Joanie. She’s a rambunctious mix of five breeds that include Chow Chow and Great Pyrenees, with a silky, butterscotch coat and button-shaped black eyes. Her new companion brought the themes of the new album into focus. “The idea of becoming domestic actually made me feel like a person again, and I think that that was the one thing I had always been lacking,” she says. “She gave me a purpose.”

Sling is cozy and introspective; it’s easy to imagine Cottrill in a Henry Diltz photo from the Seventies, sitting in front of the piano she recently learned to play, inspired by artists like Blossom Dearie, Judee Sill, and Carole King. Cottrill incorporated strings and horns on the album, which she attributes to recording upstate. “Seeing mountains every day when you’re making music, I suddenly felt the urge to put a horn on a song,” she says.

Not only is Joanie featured on the cover of Sling — cradled in Cottrill’s arms in the snow, as her paw graces her cheek — but there’s even a track named after her. The instrumental captures the dog’s energy over the course of a day, with snippets of her snoring and hitting the chimes with her tail.

On Sling, Cottrill looks back on the early “googly-eyed, deer-in-headlights” years of her career and viral fame. “I was so desperate for validation in the beginning,” she says, now outside on a bench made from a vintage Ford pickup. “I just really wanted to be liked.” She voices regrets with the kind of maturity that makes her sound less like a 22-year-old and more like a rueful indie-pop version of Rose at the end of Titanic — someone who’s seen a life go by — she should have slowed down, she should have trusted her gut, she should have called home more often. She explores these feelings on “Bambi” (“Rushing so I can beat the line/But what if all I want is conversation and time?”) and “Amoeba” (“I can hope tonight goes differently/But I show up to the party just to leave”).

Then there’s “Blouse,” the devastating centerpiece of the album, where Cottrill describes being sexualized in the music industry. It features Lorde on backing vocals; the singer recorded her parts in New Zealand, and the day was so stormy that you can faintly hear raindrops in the background. “Why do I tell you how I feel/When you’re too busy looking down my blouse?” Cottrill sings over her own delicate acoustic guitar. “If touch could make them hear/Then touch me now.”

“That line is really important to me, because it just captures so much of what that experience feels like,” she says, revealing that she doesn’t attend studio sessions alone anymore after instances of being asked out. “I was pissed off. I was pissed off that that’s a part of this, and that I’m just supposed to accept the fact that that’s a part of it. I have moments where I wonder if it even matters what I write. I put in so much effort, but is it going to get to a point where I’m just overly sexualized again? You’re so desperate for someone to hear you out that you just let them do it.”

Cottrill chose “Blouse,” what she jokingly calls “the depressing acoustic ballad,” as the album’s only prerelease single over other, lighter tracks. “It’s a bold decision, but I’m super confident in it,” she says. “It’s a good introduction to the album, because it’s the one song that doesn’t need constant context.”

There are several animals in attendance at Allaire. Cottrill introduces me to dogs, kittens, and guinea pigs, which are nuzzled in a cage next to a dusty Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball machine. As we walk through the grassy courtyard — a communal space she plans on modeling her new home after — she compares the month she spent here to summer camp. “I wanted to try something new, [and] that was living on a mountain with 10 people and never leaving,” she explains. “We just cooked dinner every night and ate in this room that resembled a mess hall.”

She guides me to a master room and a canopy bed, where Antonoff stayed. “I didn’t even know about this room until after he claimed it,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Hey! This is the biggest one!’”

Cottrill first met Antonoff, whom she describes as a big brother, over ramen in Los Angeles in January of last year, and felt so understood by him that she burst into tears. “I was crying that entire lunch,” she says. “He confirmed things that I was feeling that I wasn’t telling anybody about: being depressed, even though I managed to have a music career. I felt so guilty for being terribly sad while the best thing that’s ever happened in my life happens to me.”

The Bleachers frontman, who has produced hits for Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and other top stars, remembers that cathartic day. “The crying became a running joke,” he tells me. “But I recognized something in her that I’ve felt, which is that things are really great on paper, but you’re going through a lot and it’s unrecognizable to some of the closest people in your life because all these cool things are happening for you. When some of your dreams start coming true, it doesn’t make any of the bigger questions in life any easier.”

After that lunch, Antonoff offered to collaborate with Cottrill, and was surprised when she declined. “I can’t believe I said no!” she recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I don’t think I am mentally prepared to do a record with you, sorry. Your albums are so huge that I’m petrified.’” She came around after she wrote “Reaper,” a song she felt was good enough to bring to Antonoff.

Antonoff introduced Cottrill to Lorde last year through FaceTime, and they spontaneously decided to collaborate. In addition to “Blouse,” Lorde also contributed vocals to “Reaper.” Cottrill returned the favor by singing on Lorde’s new single, “Solar Power.” “It’s still really hard for me to wrap my head around these people giving me the time of day,” Cottrill says. “Without that support, I don’t know if I would have been able to finish the record. And they like it, which is sick. They’re not bullshitting me. I’m just recently starting to accept it, because now I actually believe in this music.”

We put Joanie’s leash on and set out on a hike up to the lookout. A gray-shingled tower looms over the mountain, but since it’s locked, we head to a giant rock that looks over the Ashokan Reservoir — right where a portion of Bowie’s ashes were apparently scattered.

“You ever have songs that follow you?” Cottrill asks. “‘Let’s Dance’ by Bowie has followed me my entire life, in ways I can’t even describe. Like, 3 a.m. in a train station or in an airport, and it comes on.” She continues walking, crunching pinecones beneath her feet while Joanie follows along. “It’s like he led me here.”

Cottrill traces her love of upstate New York to her upbringing in Massachusetts, where the nature she has come to crave was right in her backyard. Her family relocated from Atlanta to Seattle when Cottrill was seven, and a few years later, they settled in Carlisle, a town a little more than 40 minutes outside Boston with a population of about 5,000. It was an idyllic place to grow up, but Cottrill didn’t appreciate it at the time. “I was so obsessed with leaving that I deprived myself of a lot of things I could have enjoyed,” she explains. “I expected everything to be so much bigger, and the world would open up and I could be whatever I wanted.” She was so fixated on fleeing that she wasn’t prioritizing friendships. “I had a tough time really opening myself up to people,” she says. “I was holding back. Maybe it was assuming we’d move again, like it wasn’t even worth it. I didn’t want to get hurt.”

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Vest by Zimmermann, Pants by Rag & Bone, Earring by Alexander McQueen Peter Ash Lee for Rolling Stone

Although she had what she describes as a happy childhood, Cottrill has always dealt with some form of depression. “I always felt like something was hugely missing,” she says. “I just wasn’t sure what it was. But I was just waiting for the moment where something would happen and then it would be fine. ‘I’ll be happy when this happens.’ And this was a theme that was running through my life.”

Cottrill began taking guitar lessons at a nearby church when she was around 13, but quit after a few sessions and taught herself with the help of YouTube. “I was very impatient,” she says. “I was nervous that the more I technically knew about music, the less I would see it as a free-form thing.” Her father, Geoff, introduced her to Motown, while her mother, Allie, got her into Cocteau Twins. But she describes the Chicks’ Fly as “biblical.” “‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ was my fucking song,” she says fondly.

She spent years uploading songs on the internet, comparing her SoundCloud account to a diary. During her senior year of high school, in 2017, she contributed to a Father/Daughter Records compilation tape benefitting the Transgender Law Center. On a tracklist of DIY artists like Fern Mayo and T-Rextasy sat “Pretty Girl,” a bedroom-pop gem Cottrill wrote in a single day. “It was just a little thing,” she says, still in disbelief. “It wasn’t supposed to be anything.”

That summer, Cottrill reached out to the label and asked permission to create a video for the song. (She later pulls this email up on her phone, cracking up when she remembers that she couldn’t perform at their event because she was getting her wisdom teeth removed.) For the clip, she sat in her bed lip-synching into a webcam, holding a near-empty Dunkin Donuts iced coffee with sunglasses and pigtails. “I could be a pretty girl, I’ll wear a skirt for you,” she sang, using excessive hand movements while shaking her head.

“On the day I made this, my hair was greasy, my skin was bad, I had nothing to wear, and I didn’t want to leave bed,” she wrote in the YouTube description. “The song is about a relationship I had where I felt I needed to be the perfect girl for another person.… I felt that the only way I could make this video was to have a lot of fun looking disgusting and not caring at all! It’s OK to have flaws, and it’s OK to embrace them, and it’s OK to be silly and stupid.”

About a week later, Cottrill left for college, joining the music- and entertainment-industry program at Syracuse University. Days later at a party, she checked her phone and realized the “Pretty Girl” video had hit a million views. A student even approached her about it: “They were like, ‘It seems like you’re doing fine,’” she recalls. “Like, ‘Why are you [here?]’ That was when everything snowballed.… You don’t get to choose when it happens, and it’s the best and worst part about it.”

Cottrill completed her first year at Syracuse, meeting her best friends Claud and Josh Mehling (the three of them recently formed the band Shelly with Noa Frances Getzug). She balanced classes with her newfound fame — making it out of economics with a D — before dropping out to open for Dua Lipa on tour.

Cottrill got a manager and signed with Fader, which led to backlash after it was revealed that her father, a marketing executive, was friendly with the label’s founder, Jon Cohen. The “industry plant” accusation still stings Cottrill to this day. “I’m nervous to talk about it, because I want to make sure I say this right,” she says, readying herself. “I signed with Fader because I’ve known Jon Cohen my whole life. There was a sense of accountability and protection. I definitely am not blind to the fact that things have been easier for me than other people’s experiences. It would be stupid of me to not acknowledge the privilege I had from the start to be able to sign somewhere where there’s trust, to be able to sign a record deal that doesn’t revolve around keeping myself afloat financially.

“So I fully recognize that,” she continues, “but I would be stupid to not use that relationship in a moment where I was really scared and really confused. I would be stupid to not want that guidance from somebody that my family trusts. People just think what they want to think and I can’t stop that, but I am getting better at explaining it for what it is.”

Cottrill proved herself with Immunity, co-produced by former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. She became a queer icon thanks to tracks like “Sofia,” where she discovers her crushes on women (“You know I’ll do anything you ask me to/But oh, my God, I think I’m in love with you”) and “Bags,” where she debates telling a friend she wants more (“I can’t read you, but if you want, the pleasure’s all mine”).

It’s often thought that Cottrill came out as bisexual in a tweet in 2018, but she doesn’t see it that way. “For some reason I felt like people knew that about me,” she says. “I am not trying to take up tons of space in the community, so I don’t always want to talk about it. That doesn’t mean that my experience isn’t important, it just means that someone can explain it with more grace and understanding than I can.… It’s odd that I didn’t really explore that very much in this record.”

Cottrill recently revisited Immunity on the two-year anniversary of “Bags.” Hearing the album now, she feels like a completely different person. “It’s not in a negative way. I just didn’t realize how much had actually happened to me between these records,” she says. “Immunity is talking about all the things I feel, but Sling is getting to the root of the problem.” When I ask her about the musical differences, she breaks out into a laugh. “I learned what vibrato was!” she says. “This is a whole new thing for me.”

In late June, I visit Cottrill’s Brooklyn apartment a day before she moves out. Cottrill answers the door in jean shorts, a plain black hoodie, and Teva slip-ons that resemble two miniature sleeping bags. She looks at ease as she gives me a hug.

Joanie excitedly runs toward us, wearing a blue harness with a toy secured between her teeth. “I’m really thankful that we have nice downstairs neighbors,” Cottrill explains. “Because it will be seven in the morning and she’ll have a bone in her mouth and then she’ll see somebody and she’ll just drop it, all the way down the stairs. It’s the loudest thing ever.”

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Vest by Thom Browne, Pants by Rag & Bone, Earring by Alexander McQueen. Peter Ash Lee for Rolling Stone

Unbuilt cardboard boxes lean against the living-room wall, underneath a red Kit-Cat Klock that supplies just the right amount of kitsch. A giant sheet of brown paper is taped nearby with Sharpie sketches of Joanie, her roommates Claud and Josh, and a cat with a giant “X” across it. Cottrill’s items are littered throughout the living room and open kitchen, from an exercise bike and several bags of Joanie’s turkey-and-chicken dog food. Cottrill recently purchased a blue Subaru Forester, which she’ll drive tomorrow to her new home. Her father will drive up from Atlanta in a U-Haul to deliver some family heirlooms, including a sugar chest built by her grandfather. Her grandparents have been filling it with items throughout Cottirll’s life, and now, she’ll finally be able to open it.

Cottrill premiered “Blouse” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last month, bringing along a Fever Pitch poster for the host to sign. She takes the massive poster of the 2005 rom-com out of the cardboard tube to show me his inscription, which reads, “See you at the Green Monster!” on Drew Barrymore’s cheek. “It’ll be the first thing I hang in my house,” she says ecstatically.

Fallon marked Cottrill’s first performance since the pandemic, and she calmed her nerves by restricting herself from caffeine or any sugary foods. “I wasn’t expecting to be booed off the stage, but I could not have predicted such a warm embrace,” she says, noting that a few fans have since stopped her on the street to praise “Blouse.” “I was just so floored by how many gave a shit.”

In fact, a great many give a shit. Cottrill’s devoted fanbase has already figured out the song title “Amoeba,” solely based on a photo of Sling for Record Store Day, where it’s mentioned on a tiny promo sticker. One account even recently begged Rolling Stone to “drop the Clairo interview already.” There are countless Instagram accounts devoted to Clairo, providing fans with updates on new music and photos of her throughout the years. “Listen, they infiltrated my grandmother’s Instagram,” she says. “I’ve genuinely seen new pictures of myself as a baby through some of these amazing accounts. You have to give it to them. There is so much I want to do for them with this record. That relationship is really something I cherish a lot. ”

We sit at the kitchen table, Joanie taking turns pacing the wooden floor and resting in between our feet. There’s a hanging string-of-pearls plant that has seen better days, while a paper bag of Uber Eats sits on top of a garbage can. We discuss the track list on Sling, and now Cottrill is the one asking me a question: “What’s your go-to?” she says. “I’m just curious.”

I tell her it’s “Just for Today,” a song that expertly melds bleakness and beauty as Cottrill sings, “Mommy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the hotline again,” in the chorus. She hadn’t planned on including the song on the album, but ultimately added it after she dropped it on social media in January and received overwhelming feedback. “It was a kind of response I had never really seen,” she says.

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Clairo photographed in May 2021 for Rolling Stone Peter Ash Lee for Rolling Stone

Although Cottrill alluded to suicide in the Immunity opener “Alewife” — where she recalled a high school friend calling the police because she thought Cottrill was going to take her own life — “Just for Today” shows her confronting her depression more directly. She didn’t technically make a phone call; she joined the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s chat room while having an anxiety attack in bed. “Using that resource was really rare,” she says. “I’ve never actually done that. It was a pivotal moment, because I was recognizing that I was reaching out and trying to feel better.”

Cottrill has come to terms with her mental illness (“It just is this chemical balance in your brain”) but that doesn’t make it any easier. Her depression and anxiety has lately been so intense that she’s barely left her apartment over the past month. “Even running errands freaks me out,” she says. “The more that I try to ignore that I don’t leave the house, I’m starting to realize that maybe changing my environment could be beneficial.”

When I point out the irony between this and her career choice, Cottrill begins to laugh. “Right? Isn’t it so funny?” she asks, her hood now fully covering her face. “It’s an unlikely pair, for sure. It makes me so anxious, but this is my life.” Later, she tells me, “I don’t even know if I could continue to do this forever. If it comes to a point where I have to choose between the two, I might have to quit. And I’m OK with that. I’m just hoping that I get to a point where I don’t have to make that decision and that I can just go about this in a healthy way, which I think I’m starting to.”

Cottrill thinks about turning 23 next month, and the growth she experienced in the past two years. “I started to actually act on the things that I always meant to do,” she says. “I always wanted a dog, so I got a dog. I always wanted to make a record that sounded like Sling, so we did Sling. It feels like it’s such a nice release to remember that I listened to myself.”