By Danielle Chelosky

A couple years ago, a burgeoning underground pop star worked as a receptionist at a hair salon in St. Louis, Missouri. “I wasn’t the best employee,” the 24-year-old Slayyyter, who more formally goes by Catherine Slater, tells MTV over the phone in early April. “My music started to blow up and I was so preoccupied with that. I would just sit at my desk and be on my phone like all day.” She’d read what publications like The Fader or Paper magazine posted about her; she was helping people with their appointments by day and “having this little underground pop thing going on at night.”

That was her last minimum-wage job. It afforded her the ability to buy beats from producers and visuals from artists while living with her mom and her sister. That was all she needed to make her chaotic club anthems about sexuality and internet culture that subsequently exploded on Soundcloud and Twitter. “Mine” was one of her first hits — a song with a traditional structure that involves a lot of infectious repetition and memorable lyrics. She gained momentum primarily through Stan Twitter; she knew how to get posters’ attention because she was one. And now she’s a full-time singer, unveiling her debut album Troubled Paradise on June 11 via Fader Label.

She also dropped out of college for this. Briefly attending the University of Missouri for a year, Slater studied marketing while trying to learn about the music industry whenever she could. She skipped classes to watch Max Martin’s songwriting workshops on YouTube, gradually absorbing how the magic of a successful pop song unfolded into a simple formula. Gradually, she realized that one of the keys to pop stardom was her persona — allowing her physical self to dissolve and materialize into what she describes as a “blonde bimbo Barbie,” something that intrigued people, making them wonder if she was even real. “I got really into Y2K culture,” she says about this character she took on. “[Nostalgic celeb social account] Pop Culture Died in 2009 was a big influence on me — with Lindsay Lohan and all. I wanted to create my own identity of being a pop star from that era.”

Those marketing notes came in handy when cultivating a devoted following online. Her fans were suddenly doing all the work for her, recommending her music to Charli XCX and seeing Charli put one of her songs on a public playlist when Slater had only a few singles out. It was clear that she fit in with this current era of pop stars — like the innovative Kim Petras or eccentric Caroline Polachek — especially during the experimental era of hyperpop. Her hit “Daddy AF” encapsulates the internet’s obsession with hedonism (“I been fuckin’ models / I been poppin’ bottles all night”) and its need for succinct, catchy, memeable mantras: “Daddy as fuck / I feel daddy as fuck” (she says that phrase 42 times in under three minutes).

Making Troubled Paradise was a challenge. Not only because of the pandemic, but because putting together a full, cohesive collection of songs wasn’t something Slater was used to. Though she already has a self-titled project from 2019, it’s technically considered a mixtape. “[The music industry] isn’t like it used to be, where people spent years and years crafting these perfect albums and then they put it out and it’s a smash success,” she says. “You have to be so fast with everything now because of TikTok trends and just trends in music. It’s been commodified like fast-food consumption in a way.” People enjoy her songs — and any pop or hyperpop songs — because they’re a quick spurt on a playlist, probably best enjoyed at a club or a party. They’re more vibes than they are individual pieces of music.

However, this new record forced her to experiment with her process, testing out new techniques she’s picked up since her earliest days of making music at night after her salon gig. Tracks like the single “Cowboys” or the Gone Girl-esque anthem “Serial Killer” have storylines and arcs. She even let her genuine darker feelings spill into some songs, like on “Clouds”: “I wish they knew what goes on in my head / Sometimes feels like I’d be better off dead.” There’s also the more persona-filled cuts like “Throatzillaaa,” which she points out, laughing, is “literally a disgusting song about sucking dick.” Even though she built a career off of using the typical formula she studied to churn out superficial, clubby pop songs, she allowed depth to seep into Troubled Paradise.

And she deserves that ability to let her character go for a song or two. She works hard — so hard that she started developing her next record immediately after finishing this one. Burnout is a familiar sensation for her, and she doesn’t mind. “I feel like overall it keeps me on my toes, keeps me working fast on different things,” she says. The pandemic didn’t impede on the process of actually making Troubled Paradise; a bunch of tracks still needed to be done when quarantine started, and she was stuck in a studio apartment Airbnb in Glendale, California with time on her hands. Still, she was extremely familiar with making music with producers remotely, thanks to her early days on Soundcloud — it was like a return to form.

It was inevitable that this record would contain more than Slater’s signature sound. As someone who creates excessively, she never wants to do the same thing over and over. “I definitely had some Avril Lavigne influence,” she says, and points to “Villain,” a synthy sass anthem, which reckons with the way the music industry treats women: “I’m no villain / But they want me to be one.” She thinks her fans will like her expansion into different genres, which includes a lot of fuzzy pop-punk and some intriguing synthwave, though it’s hard to tell with stans — they’re pretty unpredictable.

“On one hand, I feel like I love [stan culture] so much because I feel like the memes and the jokes are what put my music on the map,” she says. “But there’s also a side where you’re put under certain criticisms and it’s a bit more ruthless than other fanbases.” She’s tried to keep her real name private, withholding it from the media in an attempt to keep fans and press away from her family. But as her star has grown, so has her presence: She has her own Wikipedia page and fan forums dedicated to her. “I used to always say that my last name was Slater, and that my name is Catherine Slater. I still might legally change my name to that one day. Who knows,” she says. “But I think at this point privacy has gone out the window a little bit.”

Still, once an artist has climbed to a high enough rung on the ladder of internet fame, they’re often afforded more breathing room. Slater is using hers to open herself up to the world with this new era. She knows it’s time for her to step out of the digital realm as the character she is and stand before everyone as a three-dimensional real person whose songs are only getting better from here. “I feel like there’s always room to be emotional and to be funny and have different facets of my personality shine through,” she says. Now fans will get to know more about who’s behind the character.

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