Two years ago, Houston, Texas native Alaina Castillo was an unassuming high school senior at Clear Falls High — who was covertly building her own mini-empire on YouTube’s ASMR community. In her first of several videos, titled “Sing You to Sleep,” she soothes her viewers’ senses with an extra hushed rendition of a Billie Eilish song and whispers, “I hope you’re in a nice little sleepy land and dreaming of cookies.”
Tapping her fingernails on her iPhone case, she adds with a smirk: “and tacos from Taco Bell.”
Long before they secured Grammys and major label record deals, young artists like Justin Bieber and Alessia Cara grew sizable fanbases by singing on YouTube. As her videos have amassed millions of plays each, the 19-year-old Castillo is hoping to follow a similar path of success.
“I once told my parents that if I got 1,000 followers, they’d have to take [my videos] seriously,” she tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. Upon surpassing a million views on “Sing You to Sleep,” lamented a fan on YouTube: “She’s not our little secret anymore.”
Castillo’s reach has also carried over to Spotify, where her original song, 2019’s “I Don’t Think I Love You Anymore,” has garnered over 3 million plays. Her sudden ascent on the platform caught the attention of the global streaming giant, which recently announced the launch of its new program RADAR: an international artist development program dedicated to rising musical talents across 50 different countries. As the sole representative from the United States, Castillo will receive a dedicated marketing effort from Spotify: including a mini-documentary, a show on YouTube’s emerging artist channel COLORS, as well as a series of Spotify Singles recordings. “It’s just insane how far I’ve come since the very beginning,” she says. “I only used to sing in church.”
Born to a Mexican father and American mother, Castillo first discovered her gift for singing in their church’s choir in League City, a suburb of Houston. “My mom sang in the choir, and wanted me to as well,” says Castillo. “But even in middle school, I knew I didn’t want to pursue choral singing.” At home, Castillo was developing a vastly different vocal style, characterized by a hyper-controlled, but lightweight soprano that is tailor-made for lullabies. It’s a style that better suits her introverted personality — and served as a safe method of keeping her parents at bay, while she recorded in her bedroom and taught herself how to make her own music on Garage Band. “My parents wanted me to be on a set path,” she says.
Castillo studied biology at the University of Texas in Austin, in hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon. However, she describes her first year in college as overwhelming. “I’m a studious person,” she explains. “I used to stay up so late because I enjoy succeeding academically. But I hit rock bottom, emotionally, and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know who I was doing it for. The only thing that made me feel in control of my life was singing.”
In the fall of 2018, she independently released her first original song, “Let Me Know” — and was promptly approached by management group Fine Group Entertainment. She spent her freshman year flying out to Los Angeles on a monthly basis, where she eventually recorded with producer RØMANS: the architect behind hits by Khalid, Ella Mai and Demi Lovato. The product was her first EP, titled Antisocial Butterfly, which she released through RØMANS’ label, Chosen People, in 2019. “I’m such an indoor person,” she says of title. “But I become this butterfly when I’m singing in the studio. When I’m writing, when I’m like getting into what I love doing, that’s when I really come out.”
The acclaimed producer encouraged her to integrate her Latina heritage by singing in both English and Spanish. Songs like “No Importa” and “Mentiras” proved a welcome challenge for Castillo, who like many U.S.-born Latinos, can admit she’s more fluent in English than she is in Spanish. Still, she cites inspiration from Rosalía as much as she does Ariana Grande.
“Growing up, my dad’s family spoke Spanish, but he didn’t really speak it to us,” muses Castillo. “So in high school, I really tried to learn Spanish [by] talking to my cousins, my grandma, a lot of friends who knew Spanish.” At the same time, she also used the Internet to pick up phrases in Croatian, Japanese, Italian and French. “I love different cultures,” she says. “I love how many different ways there are to say the same thing.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Castillo has made no big motions towards signing to a label. But she and RØMANS are currently at work on her upcoming full-length album, which is set for release March 2021. Learn more about Spotify’s RADAR program here.