Clairo’s Syracuse year was a time of mutual inspiration

Clairo's year at SU inspired creativity

The singer-songwriter found mentorship and inspiration in Syracuse.
Published: March 23, 2022
Clairo at The Roxy in Los Angeles in 2019
Clairo performs live in Los Angeles in April 2019.

For a 2021 Rolling Stone profile, music and culture editor Angie Martoccio spent time with Claire Cottrill, 23, professionally known as Clairo. That summer, Clairo had just bought property in Massachusetts and was on the brink of releasing her album Sling. The past four years have been a whirlwind for the Atlanta-born singer-songwriter. She first gained fame from a viral YouTube video, becoming an innovator of bedroom pop. Now, after releasing music and touring the country, she collaborates with artists like Lorde and Jack Antonoff. This spring, Clairo’s Sling sees her crossing the United States. And this summer, she’ll kick off another tour that includes major musical events such as the Governors Ball in New York City and Glastonbury Festival in England.

But how did she get there? One stepping stone in Clairo’s journey was her time in the Bandier Program for Recording and Entertainment Industries at Syracuse University, under the direction of program director Bill Werde. Arriving at school in 2017, just after the release of her viral video, “Pretty Girl,” Clairo spent her freshman year at Syracuse before leaving to focus on her music full time. Nevertheless, many of her early songs and videos reference SU and its special music community.

The premise of Clairo’s “Pretty Girl” music video is quite simple. She sits in her bedroom playing with little objects, trying on sunglasses, and gesturing and mouthing the words to her bedroom-pop song. Her lyrics are seemingly riddled with typos and written like a text message. But in the video’s description, Clairo’s intention is clear — she mentions that she wrote the song to help herself embrace her flaws. The video now has more than 80 million views. 

Audio arts graduate student Matt Clemens was a freshman at the same time as Clairo in 2017. He remembers being at a party with his friends when they saw Clairo, and the conversation immediately turned to her viral video. The buzz surrounding her at SU stemmed from her inspiration to other students, he said.

Clemens said she’s a great artist in that she got recognized for bedroom pop, a sub-genre of indie-pop that consists of independent artists making music in their bedrooms. A simple Google search plugs Clairo as one of the trailblazers for the DIY genre, and Clemens said she really paved the way for a lot of other artists.

SU alumna and singer-songwriter Grace Krichbaum said that Clairo especially affected the DIY mindset for many artists on campus.

“Most of us are broke and we also were making music in our bedrooms, and [Clairo’s] kind of proved that it works,” Krichbaum said. “It’s inspiring. I feel that she made so much with so little.” 

Clemens agrees, and noted that Clairo is not the first musician to make their mark on Syracuse. He mentioned Lou Reed  — the legendary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and founder of the Velvet Underground — as an additional alumni inspiration.

“I think people just have a lot of artistic vision and I think people just generally like to support each other,” he said. “There are just a lot of people who are not into the college lifestyle of going out to a frat house or something like that, and are yearning for something different. And I don’t know, the music scene here offers that.”

The nurturing creative environment that helped Clairo is still going strong. On any given night, student-run house venues are packed with people and energy, and students also perform at shows at the the Westcott Theater, at downtown bars and restaurants and even in the Schine Underground at Schine Student Center.

“I really love where it’s at right now. There are a lot of super exciting musical acts coming up, even more than when I was in undergrad here. It’s a super exciting time,” Clemens said. “Shoutout to Clairo, and shoutout to what’s poppin’ right now. It’s dope.”

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Clairo strums her guitar at her April 2019 show in Los Angeles.

A college montage flashes across the screen as Clairo’s hit song “4EVER” starts to play. The YouTube video features shots of Clairo and her best friends frolicking around Syracuse and SU’s campus. There are even cameos of college students at house parties. Bill Werde, director of the Bandier program and former editorial director at Billboard magazine, has worked with many up-and-coming artists, and says that “4EVER” is his favorite Clairo song. He praised his former student.

“Claire remains the only student that I ever told to drop out… she really had a shot to do something special, and it was absolutely worth it,” he said.

Werde was Clairo’s program director during her time at SU from 2017 to 2018. She was quiet at first, and he didn’t know about her viral music and videos until another student alerted him, he said. Despite hearing countless student projects, he said his thoughts were clear after hearing “Pretty Girl.” 

“She just had a really natural gift for melodic hooks, and I think more importantly, this X factor of being able to communicate feeling and narrative,” Werde said. “Some people just have the gift and some don’t.”

Werde, along with other directors and professors in the program, encouraged Clairo to feel good about taking time off. He said the situation was different than a student getting a bit of buzz — it was a rare opportunity. After all, he said, getting students ready for careers in the music industry is the purpose of the Bandier program.

And Clairo has been resolute in doing things on her own terms, by not over-exposing herself to the media and staying true to her own vision, Werde said. He said by extension, her integrity and meaningful work translated into the fierce loyalty of her fans.

Part of Clairo’s vision included social media, which changed the industry’s idea of success, Werde said. Being able to experiment and upload her own music and videos initially helped Clairo rise to fame. 

“There was a lot of sad-girl, sad-boy, socially conscious indie-pop type stuff going online, and I think Claire was just a better songwriter than most of them,” he said. “If you listen to her first full album, it was clear how much more ambitious she was and how much more talented she was than just that first song.”

Since the release of her single “2 Hold U” in early 2017, Werde said she was really able to expand on her sound, tackle more mature themes and deliver more complex schemes for her writing. He said some artists may feel pressured to release a full album of hit songs like “Pretty Girl,” but Clairo pushed the boundaries and delivered so much better. 

Many of Clairo’s early songs directly reference Syracuse, and Werde said she took influence from friends in her program, like Josh Mehling and Claud Mintz (known professionally as Claud), who have gone on to their own success. While he cannot speak directly for Clairo, he observed that some of her friends from her time at Syracuse helped her feel safe and grounded amidst her rise to stardom. 

“That’s a tumultuous period in an artists’ life,” he said. “I think everyone in the Bandier program, whether they were with her when she was here or just have followed in her footsteps here, feels really protective of her and really proud of her.”

So why is “4EVER” his favorite Clairo song?

“It’s such a moment in time that’s personal to me,” Werde said. “It makes me think of Claire at that time, it makes me think of me at that time, it makes me think of Syracuse at that time… she’s just a special part of the Bandier program history.”