SOUTH TAMPA — In an age of social media and an increasingly interconnected world, teenagers grow up with increasing amounts of social pressure to be the best version of themselves.
That perfect version often includes earning a traditional high school diploma and heading off to some lofty university to pursue an undergraduate degree. With lives pre-written, they shelve their lofty dreams and move robotically through life's milestones: first party, first kiss, high school graduation, college graduation, first job, marriage.
Yet South Tampa's Natalie Claro represents the all too often underrepresented side of teens — a unique brand of wild, unabandoned ambition that exists only at the fragile border between childhood and impending adulthood.
And that ambition is yielding big things: a debut album, Disconnect, that dropped this weekend and coincided with an appearance at the Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands in Orlando; a release party set for June 22 at the Crowbar in Ybor City and plenty of play on college radio stations across the nation and here at home on WSUN-FM 97.1 (97x).
The source of her success was evident earlier this year at Local 662, a St. Petersburg bar where Claro regularly performs. In the quiet before she took the stage, isolated groups of people gathered in opposite corners of the room with drinks and cigarettes. Claro stood at the back of the room, fidgeting with the strings of her guitar and fiddling with the cord of her microphone. Tidbits of conversation drifted across the room.
With a nod to the lighting technician, Claro began to sing. Her voice, a unique blend of alternative rock and folk, soared over blending synthesizers and acoustic guitars and drew audience members toward the stage the way a bright light attracts flies. The audience melded together as did the guitar, bass, drums, and Claro's voice.
Claro cultivated that performance through years of songwriting, onstage performances and practice.
In 2015, the summer before her sophomore year of high school, Claro found her first break in a Hard Rock Café, securing a spot in the Tampa Bay Acoustic Music Festival.
After that, Claro took matters into her own hands, shelving an early song she cut with a producer that left her unsatisfied and retreating to her room to dissect the components of the music she loved.
"There's guitar, drum, bass, and vocals but there's more than that," Claro said. "There's synths and there's all these sound effects you can do. When you produce a song, you layer. You record all the instruments and the vocals, but it's not done. You have to mix it."
She released her first EP, Atychiphobia, in December 2016 after learning to self-produce her music. It included Mountains, a song that Claro's audio engineer Andrew Boullianne raves about.
"The reason I like it is because it's folky but it's also got some electronic elements," Boullianne said. "That's kind of the summary of her whole album. She can take an acoustic instrument and also pair it with a bunch of electronic. It's cool, it's different."
By the time her junior year arrived and her music began to find a home on 97x, Claro found that her focus had drifted toward music rather than school.
"School was starting back up and I didn't want to go back to school because I was having so much fun performing," she said.
Imbued with idealism and her dream of becoming a rock artist, Claro traded in a traditional high school education for homeschooling. The decision wasn't easy. On one hand, homeschooling meant less time spent with friends at Plant High and no participation in traditional high school events like homecoming and prom.
On the other hand, abandoning a traditional high school education came with a host of benefits. Homeschooling gave Claro more time to perform, write, record and work toward her dream of attending the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.
Homeschooling also presented an avenue for a potentially better form of self-directed education.
"I see where Common Core is going as just too much of a straight line of bringing all the students together to be on the same level," said Natalie's mother, Yvonne Claro. "And she's not on the same level as others. I don't want to stifle her in any way."
Claro is now completing her high school diploma with a state program that allows her to finish by the end of this school year. She's also completing plans for a summer tour and hopes to release dates in the next few weeks.
Clearly, she has embraced her new lifestyle as an up-and-coming rock artist.
"I work at night, so I sleep in," Claro said. And then I get up and then it's go time. I'm always planning things and emailing people and promoting myself. I'm never idle.
"It's basically all investing right now," Claro said. "And someday it's going to pay off."
Contact Jennifer Luo at firstname.lastname@example.org.