Full disclosure: Up until now, the only interview MTV News had done with Cailin Russo was from April 3, 2014, after the singer-songwriter had starred in Justin Bieber’s music videos for “All That Matters” and “Confident.” The article‘s headline read, “Justin Bieber’s Extremely Hot Model ‘Friend,’ Cailin Russo, Shares Helpful Tips On Being Hot.”
Clearly, we were all due for an update.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect: Last week, Russo dropped The Drama, an EP comprised of six songs she wrote in the aftermath of a crumbled four-year relationship. The night of its release, she celebrated with a headlining show in L.A., which marked her longest set to date and her first time performing many of the new songs.
“I literally exploded onstage,” she said to MTV News a few days later. “I was like, ‘I can’t hold it in anymore.’ I walked out in a full wedding gown with this six-foot train and then stripped into a leather bra and panties. It was fucking awesome.”
That stunt, along with the EP title itself, should tell you that Russo does in fact have a flair for the dramatic. It’s in her blood. Her dad, Scott Russo, fronts the punk band Unwritten Law, and Russo grew up going to shows with him and sing-screaming her heart out at Warped Tour; it was what she called “a super privileged, one-of-a-kind life.” Initially, she resisted the idea of pursuing music herself, thinking, “That’s dad’s thing.” But in high school, she started tinkering around in the studio with him and they ended up collaborating on a handful of (mostly unreleased) songs that she wrote and he produced. Around the same time, she fronted a high school band called Super Groupie and got into modeling and Bieber video-starring.
Despite being surrounded by music, though, she never actually intended to be her own artist. “I really struggled with imposter syndrome for a solid couple of years,” the 26-year-old admits. “[It took] up until really this year to fully embrace being an artist and feel an identity in saying that.”
Following a few poppy R&B cuts she released in 2017, like “September Rose” and “Pink Sand,” The Drama is the first fully formed taste of what Cailin Russo the artist can do. She made the EP all throughout 2018, after quitting the self-fronted band Russo and reverting to solo music. It began as something else entirely — she initially conceived it as a conceptual project about Hollywood called Nectar City. And then, well, shit happened.
“My relationship started crumbling, and I started writing about it,” she recalls. “I was at this party in L.A. with my other ex-boyfriend — my follow-up ex-boyfriend — and the name The Drama just hit me like a fucking puck in the head. I was like, ‘That is the way to encapsulate four years of my relationship,’ and that’s what The Drama is about.'”
The first song she wrote was the driving, defiant “No Time,” which, ironically enough, is the kiss-off track that closes the EP; on it, Russo declares, “I move on quickly, and you ain’t coming with me.”
“I caught my ex doing some weird, shady shit, and then I wrote this poem at the dog park, and it was ‘No Time,'” she explained. “I was like, ‘Oh, this would be a fun pop song. This is like a Taylor Swift song.’ And then we ended up making it into some hardcore rock song.
“And then, after a series of events post-‘No Time,’ I was still in the same relationship and I was really going nuts,” she continued. “I ended up doing something super out of character and super fucked up. So I wrote a second poem, ‘Declaration.'”
“Declaration” became “part one” of The Drama: the opening track and the admonition that lets listeners know off the bat that Russo is flawed but forthright. “This is a declaration of a fuck up,” Russo sings over fuzzy guitars and a pulsating beat. “And I don’t expect a single teardrop / Whoa, I am ashamed.”
“I carry a lot of guilt. It’s like, ‘I fucked up’ before you hear the rest of the story,” Russo says of the shockingly self-aware song. “Even though now, I feel otherwise, because I don’t think I have to be as hard on myself as I was. But at the time I was very much, ‘This is where I want this story to start. I don’t want you to think that the other guy’s a bad guy,’ you know?” She pauses. “Now, I’m like, ‘fuck you’ to that guy. I’m a fucking angel.”
Throughout the rest of The Drama, Russo continues holding a mirror up to herself with undressed lyrics, grungy aesthetics, and a razor-sharp voice. She playfully considers a love that’s too good to be true on “Sicko,” reminisces on an ex who let her disappear on “Fade,” and reckons with her newfound freedom on “Good Bad Decisions.” The EP’s only loose thread is also one of its high points: the deliciously campy “You Touch Me, I Touch You Back,” a sexy slice of Thriller-esque pop that you might hear in a horror movie (or on Euphoria, which is Russo’s ultimate dream).
One of her key collaborators on The Drama was producer Chris Coady, best known for his work with Beach House and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The latter band’s influence is all over “You Touch Me,” which Russo admits is “totally not cohesive” to the rest of the project, but which succeeds in showing us yet another facet of the sound that she herself is still cultivating. The EP gives us one chapter of her life and, moving forward, she wants to drop a few one-off singles and then work on a full album that captures the “liberation” she’s currently feeling.
“I think The Drama is such a beautiful foundation for what’s to come,” Russo says. “It’s the ’80s, hard, synth shit, but I don’t think that’s my sound. I think it’s just the beginning.”