Sabrina Claudio | The Exponential Hook Sounds Better This Way
It’s a Saturday in February 2018. I’m perched on a vermillion barstool in a West Hollywood café, guzzling a Jasmine Green Tea, priced at an offensive $4.50. A woman dressed in a leopard print coat, floral blouse, and Supreme beanie ambles by, trailing a hairless Chihuahua who struggles against physics to drag its keeper wherever the hell it so desperately needs to be. The pseudo-dog is adorned in a sweater with the word Slay monogrammed on it. It stares up at me, shivers, and—I swear to God—winks.
Flash forward 15 minutes. I’ve crossed Hayvenhurst Avenue and am now sitting in the living room of a well-to-do apartment cluttered with books and records in an appealing, Bohemian way. Having just experienced a quintessentially "LA" moment, part of me expects that my scheduled sit-down with rising-R&B songstress Sabrina Claudio will be much of the same. After all, Claudio is a 21 year-old, Puerto Rican-Cuban dynamo whose brand of R&B nouveau is quintessentially of this moment.
“You from around these parts?” I ask her, like some grizzled Leone cowboy, fully envisioning that she lives in a high-rise with a view of Sunset Blvd, similar to the space we currently share.
“No way!” she pleasantly replies. She stays several respectable and unpretentious 'hoods over. I let myself sink in, growing comfortably numb to the chatter of publicists and hairdressers in the background.
For an artist fresh to fame, Claudio isn’t overwhelmed by the iPhone recording her, or the watching eyes of the cameras in the hours-long photo shoot she’ll undertake post-interview. One potential reason: Claudio has been cultivating her online presence since she was 14, daring to post numerous R&B covers to YouTube.
Her rendition of Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life” was the first to stick, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve heard Claudio cradle a note—she has a voice sugary enough for the grapevine; mangoes, peaches, and limes. “Sweet Life” wasn’t her first cover, or even her fifth, but now several have eclipsed a million views.
If a million feels substantial, try 10 million on for size. Three of her tracks—“Belong To You,” “Confidently Lost,” and “Unravel Me”—already boast ten million listens on Spotify, although those numbers will likely have multiplied by the time this feature is published. While it’s not uncommon for cover artists to turn commercially successful in this Insta-age, it’s also far from a foregone conclusion. Many can sing a chart-topping hit; fewer can write one.
In a matter of 10 months Claudio has released two collections suffused with such successes. Her Confidently Lost EP is 26 minutes of tasteful R&B morsels; sexy sketches of an artist finding her identity. The tracks range from the electric, Aaliyah-aligned “Tell Me,” to the static “I Don’t,” where Claudio concludes the song by repeating the title refrain a dozen heartbreaking times. It’s equally easy to imagine hearing Confidently Lost at a party in either Baldwin or Beverly Hills.
Confidently Lost peaked at Number 18 on the US Heat charts, and in October, Claudio’s About Time mixtape was unveiled to wide acclaim from outlets ranging from NPR to Billboard. This says something about R&B’s increasing mainstream popularity, but it also says something about Claudio. Halfway through our interview, I’m still attempting to pin down what that something is.
What makes Sabrina Claudio destined for superstardom?
Born and raised in Miami, Claudio moved to LA with her family in 2012 to pursue a music career. She was 16 at the time and admits that the transition wasn’t always the smoothest.
“It was a reality check to come into contact with people who really don’t have your best interests at heart,” she tells me. “I know now that this sort of seediness can come with the territory, especially in L.A., where everybody is trying push their own creative career forward.”
YouTube views notwithstanding, Claudio’s supernova ascent to stardom has taken her by surprise. She admits that “the speed of everything” has shocked her, even if she’s worked tirelessly since swapping shorelines. She shakes her head diffidently, and moments later lauds the tight-knit network that helped her avoid the landmines of the field. It’s the sort of sentiment you’d expect from an artist with several albums under her belt, but Claudio is still writing her first.
Rejoinders such as these underscore a larger point: in spite of her youth, Claudio is taking her success to heart, not head, like a person who knows the path is still uphill. And while it’s naive to judge humility as the winning evidence—not her obvious talent or multicultural appeal or, yes, undeniable sightliness— in Claudio’s destined case to sell out stadiums, I wouldn’t underestimate the worth of a level head in a cut-throat industry littered with creeps connected to the very top of the food chain. After all, Claudio’s parents aren’t the first to home school a child with superstar dreams, nor are they the first to move across the country for a shot at a record deal. Most of these fairy tales end as horror stories, and Claudio seems mindful of the fact that few come out unscathed.
About Time is equal testimony to Claudio’s matured state. The tracks are written with subtle sophistication; word-paintings headier than color by numbers. Take “Unravel Me”, which incorporates a disintegrating falsetto to explain a failing relationship. As Claudio stubbornly clings to her enigmatic nature (“you’ll never unravel me”), Canadian producer Stint scales up the reverb, leaving the listener high and dry.
“Frozen” pulls off a similar trick. Words like “us” and “exist” hesitate with the cadence of a Kyrie crossover, purposefully sung half-a-step slower than they should be. It’s almost like Claudio is in on the joke; she knows that the clock stops for no one.
The clock’s creeping presence has given Claudio’s career an unwitting urgency too. As the intro to the mixtape deftly puts it, “this time, next year/ What will it look like?” She’s au fait to the fickle winds of success, and understands that her window of opportunity can close at any moment. It’s why Claudio felt pressured to release her second collection of tracks a mere 7 months after her first, and it’s why every song on About Time fixates on it.
“Whether it was losing time or not having enough or giving too much to a lost cause, all the tracks were about the same theme,” she explains.
“Clearly, I was anxious about the new release, so time felt very much of the essence.”
Only twice during our conversation is Claudio ill at ease. The first instance occurs when I ask if her newest track, “Cross Your Mind,” forecasts a new direction for her catalogue. Featured in Fifty Shades Freed, “Cross Your Mind” is decidedly more pop than previous efforts, a fact Claudio willingly admits.
“We didn’t seek out to make a poppier track, it just happened in the process of recording... and the Fifty Shades people gravitated to that one,” Claudio tells me. “But in terms of seeing myself continuing down a particular road of sound, I don’t know. I try not to box myself in.”
The second instance of friction takes place when discussing her music videos. Image has been a consistent talking point for Claudio’s pundits. Whether the conversation has centered on her mixed Latin descent, fit figure, or luscious lips, flattering descriptions of Claudio’s appearance have managed to make their way into almost every lead. It’s a fact that renders Claudio restless.
“I receive a ton of feedback on my appearance, but I like to think that it’s really all about talent. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and I’d be naive to think that the way an artist looks doesn’t play a part in their success.”
As for being half-Cuban and half-Puerto Rican, Claudio relates a Miami childhood with bossa nova and merengue-filled fiestas, memories shared with those who also shared bloodlines. However, since moving to LA, she does perceive a chasm.
“The industry is a total melting pot, so there are fewer people here interested in the music I grew up with,” Claudio postulates. “With that being said, people are actively looking for cultural diversity. Hispanic artists have an important voice, and I think more people want to hear it.”
In preparation for this feature on Claudio, there was one label I kept coming across: “timeless.” It was usually written in respect to her voice and visual aesthetic, but I think the timeless label speaks to her personhood, not just her artistry. Even though Claudio arrived at exactly the right moment—the time of Soulection ballyhoo and Tumblr fangirls—I’d wager she’d find success in any era.
It’s these age-defying characteristics, ironically, which make Claudio destined for superstardom—if not today, than in the very short future.
As we conclude our interview, I pepper her with a rapid fire round of questions—a bit of Sabrina Claudio trivia. She (slightly) prefers Puerto Rican to Cuban Food, Astrid to Joao Gilberto, and laments the impossible choice between Beyoncé and Rihanna (“Wow, that’s just a cruel question...), but ultimately goes with her fellow Caribbean Queen. Before I exit an afternoon charged with (mostly) heady dialogue, one final set of Q&A’s strikes me as imperative. “Cats or dogs?” I ask. Claudio doesn’t hesitate, “Dogs.” “Favorite breed?”
“Boston terrier—I have one and love him.” “So you are into ugly dogs then?” I ask. Claudio puts up her hand, throws back her head in (exaggerated) disdain. “Excuse me, my dog is not ugly. Boston Terriers, pugs, chihuahuas—they’re all beautiful. ”Then she pauses, makes me answer the hard question: “Are you one of those dog elitists?”
Written by Jonathan Lipshin
Photographer: Emanuele D'Angelo.
Stylist: Zoe Costello at Jones Management.
Makeup: Marla using Hourglass Cosmetics, Lancôme, and Make Up For Ever.
Producer: Mike Stacey.