BEFORE FOREST CLAUDETTE was Forest Claudette, they went by another name. And before that name (which we won’t use here, because “it was a whole copyright thing”), they were Teddy Elk. And before Teddy Elk, they were Kobe Hamilton-Reeves, born in a small town in the Dandenong Ranges of Victoria to two classically trained musician parents and an older brother who would grow up to form the ARIA-certified and nominated electronic band Northeast Party House.

There’s a reason for their ever-changing aliases. Claudette is just 24 years old, so it’s safe to say they’re only just now beginning to peek out from that cocoon of late adolescence in which one is still working themselves out. That process of self-discovery is evident across their musical releases, even though they’ve been dropping tracks at something of a breakneck pace: Their first single, ‘Creaming Soda,’ was released in July of 2022, and was quickly followed up with their debut EP, The Year of February, just a few months later in September. Now, less than a year later, they’re releasing their second EP, Everything Was Green, which further cements their ongoing growth as a person and an artist. But even if they’re still a work in progress, they know for certain that music is — and has always been — a crucial part of their identity.

“Music’s always been around,” Claudette tells me over Zoom a few weeks before their sophomore EP launch. “I learned violin growing up, my mum taught me and my brothers. And then when I was in year seven, I started learning guitar, which was a big thing, because mum had never let any of us transition into things that weren’t ‘good for our brain’.”

It wasn’t until their older brother Zach Hamilton-Reeves formed Northeast Party House that they began to realise music — the contemporary kind, not just the classical stylings their parents preferred — was a career they could also pursue. “So I started writing my little songs, playing guitar and just being — well in hindsight, the stereotype,” they laugh. What stereotype in particular? “Just like, a loser with a guitar. Ok, not a loser, but definitely someone that thought they were cooler for having guitar lessons.”

A loser they certainly are not, but there is something particularly endearing about Claudette. Perhaps it’s their apparent love of quirky beauty trends (during our call, they have little white squiggles of eyeliner on each eyelid — it’s very Hunter Schafer in Euphoria); or the cheesy grin and laughter they keep dissolving into (you can spot it in their Instagram selfies); or perhaps it’s the way they refer to hot chips as “chippies” (they just devoured some before our call, they sheepishly admit). They’re considered yet confident in the way they speak, though that sureness of self wasn’t always a given.

In 2017, when they were in their final year of high school, Claudette planned to team up with their best friend as a musical duo, the aforementioned Teddy Elk. When their friend dropped out to focus on studying, Claudette chose to keep the moniker, go it alone and enter Triple J‘s Unearthed High competition with a Gang-Of-Youths-esque song called “Doors”. But after a year in the Teddy Elk persona, they had to admit that they were less sure of their musical identity than they had hoped. Things just didn’t feel quite right, so the name was archived and it was back to the drawing board.

“[Teddy Elk] was created not only for another purpose, but also just when I was making music in a way that I didn’t really know what I was doing, or who I was sonically, or even who I was as a person,” the now-Claudette explains to me. “And it felt like all I could think about was me being a kid and I just needed to, I guess, evolve.”

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IT WOULD TAKE another two years — along with another fleeting alias, a deep reflection on their past and their identity, as well as a global crisis or two — for Claudette to arrive at the pseudonym they now wear so comfortably. Of course, they could have stuck to their birth name, Kobe Hamilton-Reeves (“it’s like I had an association with Kobe Bryant, it’s a cool sounding name and whatever”) but they felt the need to “establish a separation” between their private self and the version of them they would present to the public.

“Just for my ego and my peace of mind. Like I am a person, a regular person — no matter what happens in my career of writing music and performing,” they say. “I guess in some ways it is an armour, and it changes in different contexts. I think as I grow as a person, so does my music. But Forest is really just how it is portrayed. When I think about performances, appearances, all of that is persona. It’s a type of energy, it’s an expectation … And then afterwards I get to be me again.”

And so after Teddy, the search began again. They briefly flirted with another name that didn’t work out because somebody else got to it first, but then the onset of the Covid pandemic offered some (forced) time for reflection. And while the pandemic was raging, so too was the new peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police officers in the USA. Growing up in a “remote and beautiful” place, Claudette hadn’t had much opportunity to connect with the Black community. They didn’t even recognise “the fact that we were, like, removed and ‘other,'” until they moved to the city and realised they were, in their own words, a “fucking country bumpkin”.

“My brothers didn’t see ourselves a lot in community and around,” they say of their youth, recalling a time recently when they looked back at class pictures and that ‘otherness’ really hit home. “I was like, fuck, that’s weird. And just recognising what that might have done. And how I felt, and why I felt the way I felt, you know? So in an effort to connect more with my community, and also in an effort to understand it more, I think I was like, I need to… be representing, and offering something back.”

In reflecting, they’ve realised the way that “growing up in whiteness offers you privilege,” even to a small degree, and even if it comes at the cost of kinship and community. “You can assimilate, you can be affluent, you know what I mean? You know how to move in those spaces. And I remember being like, really aware of, and also proud of the fact that I could get along with anyone. But later I realised that that I could get along with anyone in spite of how I felt in that situation,” they say. “So there’s things that I’ve had to unlearn and devalue.”

So when Black Lives Matter took centre stage in mid-2020, Claudette was in the midst of a re-education. “At the time I was really quite stressed about feeling like everything I did needed to pay homage to the Black experience. And I was really feeling a pressure to write about it all the time. And that got really fatiguing and it was obviously self-imposed, but something I felt nonetheless,” they tell me.

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THE NEWLY-MINTED Forest Claudette first broke out via TikTok, where their management had convinced them to upload some covers and drum up a bit of excitement. To say it worked is an understatement. A cover of Steve Lacey’s “Bad Habit” has 427,000 views; one of Frank Ocean’s “Provider” has over 460,000 views; another of Kendrick Lamar’s “Pride” has over 870,000. In the comments, Claudette is flooded with comparisons to their idols: “OMG THIS IS COOL YOU REMIND ME OF STEVE,” writes one TikTok user. “Looks like steve sounds like frank ???????” queries another. “Can you just make franks next album for frank?” someone demands.

At first they were cynical of the social media love, and the unending comparisons. But they’ve grown to feel grateful for them too. “I can recognise that I can sound like [Ocean] at times, and obviously I’ve been influenced by him. But yeah, it was a funny thing,” they say. “I appreciate it now for what it is. It has allowed me to connect with people far before I was able to put out music and that was a really beautiful thing.”

Creaming Soda, their first single, is a moody, croony, and yes — Frank Ocean adjacent — meditation on their initial foray into the music industry as Teddy. It was a perfect debut release, showcasing their vocal and lyrical prowess with clever wordplay: “Heavy thoughts too much carry-on / So I check ‘em as baggage / Now, I’m too bored to board / Losing my train of thought / Left my gate open you’ll manage”.

Now, they’ve added a second EP to their catalogue. You would be forgiven for assuming that this number of releases in such a short amount of time wouldn’t equate to much tangible growth — but that assumption is incorrect. Everything Was Green is a smooth-like-butter RnB release that is succinct and confident yet vulnerable underneath. It cements their position as an alternative R&B artist who calls upon the stylings of the artists they admire — Frank Ocean, Moses Sumney, Brittany Howard, Tyler, the Creator — while adding their own particular flavour and offering their own lens of experience through their diaristic writing.

Even on their first EP, Claudette was determined to make clear to listeners their desire to carve out a sonic universe for themselves; one that honed in on a clear concept while still offering room for exploration. With Everything Was Green, “I still feel like I’m establishing the kind of confines of the spaces that I’ll be operating in, you know? It needs to operate in a spectrum … it won’t be just this, or it won’t be just this,” they explain.

“I’m always discovering things, but at the same time, I think I have an idea even now of the kind of far reaches that I want to access and expose people to. So if The Year of February is one wall, then maybe this is another side of that, but there’s maybe a couple more to come.”

Since last year, Claudette has been spending time living in Los Angeles — their first time travelling and living alone. And so Everything Was Green speaks to a departure from safety and a journey into an unknown and sometimes uncomfortable future. “Everything was green is that separation. Like, I am Forest, and I’m Forest because I grew up there. And I am constantly surrounded by that; that’s my favourite colour,” they explain. “It’s all these things that mean being safe, and experiencing life without those things is such an exciting thing, but also sometimes daunting thing to do.”

The EP isn’t necessarily chronological, but it does chart a sort of cycle Claudette found themself in during that period of solitude, and also in the wake of a breakup. It starts — as so many things do, Claudette notes — with love and with heartbreak, in “Two Years”. From there, “there’s like a process to me that kind of unfurls, and it’s like you lose a safety net, but then also gain a freedom. And sometimes you push that freedom too far — so that freedom is “Mess Around,” and then pushing it too far is “Motor in the Sand”. And you find the boundaries of what is fun, what is scary, and what is free, you know?” they say. “Everything is chaos. But also like in that chaos, I can choose and find the kind of peace of mind that I need.”

The crashing down to earth is followed by a reconnection to gratitude, reflected in “Hi Vis Teeth,” and a playfulness evoked in “Pool Boy”. It’s all got a solid groove to it, a catchiness that you can’t help but sing along to (trust me).

That upbeat groove grinds to halt when the EP reaches its final track, “Violence”. “I hear the sirens / My heart is silent / I can’t breathe,” Claudette croons tenderly over a lush soundscape of gentle guitar and violins. That softer sound was intentional — it’s a song that cradles you in its palm as it speaks of the titular violence that is so cruelly inflicted upon the Black experience. “We just didn’t want it to feel traumatic. And I think oftentimes because of what it is to be Black, it kind of is that,” they say. “And I guess it offers folks that aren’t black or POC to sit in that without feeling so confronted.”

“It’s just like a real sober look at everything I was trying to write about for so long. And I’m so proud of that song, ’cause it’s just exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it,” Claudette says. “It was important that the end kind of opened and also felt vulnerable.”

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Album art for Everything Was Green | SONY

LOOKING FORWARD, THE ever-prolific Claudette of course has no plans of slowing down.

When I ask what they hope for themselves in the future, they cite “finding my centre more, and just spending more time there” as their priority. “I feel like over the years, it’s something that I’ve passed through a lot, but not a place that I’ve spent a lot of time in for like, a long period. So that’s something that I’m excited to work on and work towards.”

“But then in a tangible sense, it’s like playing more shows and just experiencing the people that have connected with the music so far. And just putting out more music and seeing how people feel about it, and also just trying to take stock and appreciate what I have and what I’ve done and all the work that goes into it,” they continue, adding that they’re “just excited to grow and, you know, do more of all of it, I suppose”.

Those dreams are already coming true. In January they opened for Flight Facilities at the Australian Open Finals Festival; in April they toured Australia to open for Ruel and played Groovin’ The Moo Bendigo. In June they’re set to open for Lastlings on their Australian tour, and in July they’re taking to North Byron Parklands for one of the biggest local festivals an artist can attach their name to — Splendour in the Grass.

Each performance offers a new opportunity to find new fans, of which there will surely be legions, given their affable stage presence and catchy sound. They hope that those who discover Forest Claudette will enjoy the beauty of using their lyrics and sound as a vehicle for their own self-exploration.

“People have reached out and they’ve shared some really intimate and beautiful things about how the music has touched them, and that’s a really surreal thing to happen,” they say. “So that is easily the most special part of putting music out — knowing that it can reach people and they can feel different or take solace in it, or be excited and have fun or whatever.”

They may be young, and happily evolving still, but they’re wise enough already to recognise that for an artist, the most beautiful thing is to let go of your creations and allow them to be moulded into the forms of others’ experiences — to melt into salves for their own wounds and become the words they couldn’t find on their own tongues.

“Knowing that they can put their own experiences into it … I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot. Like, I write the music, and I would like to write the music specifically for myself, knowing that people will take it and put themselves into it, almost to the point where it’s not mine. You know what I mean?”

Everything was Green is now available to stream or purchase.