- Words Aimee Phillips
- Photography Natalia Bien
In just two years, Alaina Castillo has gone from posting song covers and ASMR videos on YouTube to racking up tens of millions of streams around the world on her own bops. We caught up with the singer who's just "taking it one day at a time."
When we catch up over Zoom, bilingual pop star on the rise, Alaina Castillo, is sitting in her minimalistic bedroom. In view, a comfy grey sofa blends gently with a pebble colour painted wall. I feel instantly relaxed, which, needless to say, is not the usual atmosphere created by Zoom. Like her surroundings, however, Alaina is a calming presence. It’s no wonder then, that before her music career took off, the young star began to make a name for herself with ASMR videos. Although diving into the ASMR community wasn’t a long-term goal, “that was just me trying to hop on trends,” she explains.
With her long brunette hair perfectly coiffed and tumbling down to the side, Alaina speaks softly and eloquently. The warm persona that she emanates is doubtless tied to her mounting success and popularity with fans across the world.
With a mind that’s scientific as well as creative (she studied Biology at the University of Texas in Austin), it may come as no surprise that Alaina’s rise to fame has been strategised since the beginning. “I used to have this whole set up for the videos I was gonna post and the covers, what days, everything like that,” she explains. When she noticed that ASMR was taking off on YouTube, Alaina decided to get involved. But rather than following a pre-existing format, the budding musician wanted to put her own spin on it. “I wanted to find a way to turn that into something that I was doing,” she says, “so I thought, what about lullaby acapella singing, sing you to sleep vibes?”
Her first ASMR video posted back in 2018 now has 1.6 million views (and counting). The subsequent ASMR-integrated covers gained hundreds of thousands of views, and in one video’s case, 4.2 million. Alaina now has 850K YouTube subscribers, and it’s no surprise. Holding a microphone close, fairy lights illuminating the room, Alaina Castillo covered the likes of Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Elvis Presley. Truth be told, it’s actually very relaxing.
But Alaina was keen to show that she was capable of more than just ASMR, so shared beautiful renditions of The Weeknd’s “Earned It” and Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” as well as uploading her own original music. “I think I just had to learn how to make it my own, cos ASMR is its own community and I didn’t wanna be known as an ASMR artist because that’s not all that I do,” she says.
Describing herself as “shy, antisocial [and] super awkward”, Alaina also admits she is “outgoing, happy & switching between 8 different personalities depending on what time of night it is and who I’m with or how comfortable I feel.” How then, does she find it navigating the music industry – a place notorious for its extroverts? Whilst her personality might be more reserved, it’s in music that Alaina blossoms. “When I sing, it’s just a different persona that I take on because I’m in that moment with the meaning of the song,” she says. “Through my music, that’s how I express myself. That’s how I put my personality out there.”
Alaina confesses that she’s not one for partying, “maybe a little bit of fun here or there,” she grins, “but nothing big.” Instead, she prefers to kick back at home; the place where she doesn’t have to put on a front and can just be herself. Her new song, “tonight”, captures this sentiment perfectly.
An ode to all her fellow introverts that have gone out, only to wish they were back at home, Alaina is heralding the fun pop bop as an “antisocial party song”. Staying in is the new going out, it seems.
“Whenever I’m out, I’m just constantly thinking, ok when I get home, I’m gonna start cooking, I’m gonna watch Netflix, it’s gonna be great!” she says, smiling wistfully. “ ‘tonight’ goes through that motion of me wanting to go back home and relax. Outside you have to put on – not a different personality – but at home, you can just turn on the lights, turn on the music and it’s fine. ‘tonight’ has those kinda vibes. Because even though I like to stay at home, I also like to have fun and vibe out.”
“I mean, even before quarantine, I stayed in all the time,” she laughs.
“tonight” is Alaina’s first single following her critically acclaimed ‘the voicenotes/mensajes de voz’ EP, which was released in both English and Spanish. The 4-song project, which was created with her regular collaborator, Romans, has already had over 14.8 million Spotify streams. The EP’s numbers add to the 49 million streams she’s accrued to date. If that’s doesn’t wow you already, let’s get into the stats. Elsewhere, Alaina’s star power is shining just as brightly. On TikTok, she has over 1.5 million followers and her YouTube is close to 1 million. Considering that her first single “i don’t think i love you anymore”, released last October, has over 4 million YouTube views and her debut EP ‘antisocial butterfly’ gained half a million views in its first week, Alaina’s rise can be safely marked as meteoric.
Despite all of this, Alaina Castillo feels like “nothing’s really changed,” although she puts this down to quarantine. Spending time at home and the studio with in-person performances on hold, the acknowledgement of her rising fame hasn’t properly begun. “I think I’m just gonna take it one day at a time because sometimes I get way too freaked out and I start overthinking everything and it makes me feel very nervous,” she explains. Despite the waves of excitement and anxiety that understandably come with a growing profile, Alaina reassures me that she’s got a handle on it. “These are amazing things,” she says, “it’s just learning how to take in everything that’s being thrown at me in an amazing way.”
As a young artist with a very online fan base, feeling under pressure from social media would be completely understandable. The stress many people associate with the platforms has led many of those in the public eye to voice their concerns about its effect on their mental health, with many deciding to tune out in order to restore a sense of inner peace. Whether they’re taking breaks, deleting all their posts, handing the reins to their management teams, or quitting completely (and sometimes later re-joining), social media is a tough place to be a celebrity. From Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift to Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and yes, even Kim Kardashian West, the incessant beating drum of comments, DMs and posting can take its toll.
When asked about her relationship with social media, Alaina Castillo rather refreshingly says that she likes it, using her accounts as a way to interact with her fans. “I like to be able to talk to them [her fans] because when I was just doing YouTube covers in the very beginning, it would only be like 10 people who watched my videos and they would comment and it was just me communicating with those 10 people. Now that it’s built up, I have DMs and a number that I can text people off of. That’s just my way of talking to them and letting them know that they’re the reason I’m doing this, so I just want to make them as happy as they’re making me,” she explains.
“I like it because it’s another way to get closer to them. Especially in our day and age, everybody uses social media. Some people put a bad spin on it, but I think that especially during this time when everyone’s quarantined, everyone needs people to talk to. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re glued to your phone, it’s just another way of expressing yourself.”
Used only to communicate with her fans, Alaina’s Instagram bio contains a telephone number that her 194K followers can text her on. But what do they talk about? “I mean, everything,” she says. Obviously there’s been the “occasional weird text” but Alaina dismisses these with a flick of her wrist, grinning and rolling her eyes an endearingly un-bothered way. It’s good to see that she doesn’t let the sporadic creep get to her. Fortunately, most of the messages are wholesome texts are from her fans – the purpose for which the number was intended. “It’s just talking about how they’re doing. If they have any problems they’ll come to me about it or just little memes… it’s another way to get to know their personality as well because I’ll see those same people on my Instagram Live or YouTube and they’ll be like, ‘I was texting you about my cat earlier!” or something,’ she laughs softly.
As Alaina’s star continues to rise – and she inevitably has less time on her hands – does she think she’ll continue to use the number to chat with her fans? “Yeah, I hope so,” she affirms. “I know it might get harder later on but even if it’s just to have a way to talk to them, that’s something I really, really want to continue on because that’s something I’ve been doing from the very beginning, staying in touch with my fans and the people who listen to my music.”
Alaina Castillo holds her fans in mind as much as possible. In fact, her fanbase is one of the key reasons why she releases songs in both English and Spanish. “There is that whole other audience that speaks Spanish,” she tells me. “Especially for ‘Voicenotes’, that’s such a vulnerable EP that I wanted it to go out to more people so they could understand that and get the vibes from it; get the messages that I wanted to send across.”
“I just really liked the translations in Spanish because it has a touch of poetry,” she says. “It made it very beautiful and that’s why I like singing in different languages – it changes it up and it adds a different feel to it.”
“When I’m in the studio, sometimes I’ll sing in Spanish, sometimes in English so that’s what we put into the songs, depending on what sounded like it fit more naturally.”
Another reason for her bilingual releases, of course, is to represent both parts of her upbringing. Alaina grew up in Houston, Texas with English as her first language, but her father also spoke Spanish. “It’s always been something I’ve been super proud of, my heritage, where I come from,” Alaina explains. “Even when I was growing up my dad didn’t really speak in Spanish to me so I had to learn it on my own, which made me feel even more connected to it because I had to go out there and try new things.”
It’s this love of exploration that has led Alaina to continue to explore language and learn phrases in Italian, Japanese and Croatian, amongst others. “I’ve just always been fascinated [with language],” she tells me. “When I was in high school, it took me into a path of learning languages because I had a friend from Italy, I watched a lot of anime so Japanese, I had friends from Croatia, things like that. I just like to be a part of that.”
To have achieved all that she has in such a short timeframe is nothing short of incredible. What drives Alaina Castillo to keep striving day after day? “I think it’s just thinking about myself – not in a self-centred way, it’s just that when I started singing and posting covers on YouTube, it was at a very low point in my life. I wasn’t happy and I needed to be happy,” she explains. “How can I make sure that life isn’t controlled by other people and that I’m creating a life that I will look back at and be proud of and happy of? And now that’s just what I think of. In the studio whenever we’re creating things and I go up to sing, it’s like the happiest feeling when it clicks; the melodies, the lyrics, everything comes into play. That’s what’s keeping me going, remembering that life is short, and I have to be happy. The things that I’m doing are making me happy and making other people happy too.”
And in life, what more could you want than that?