NEXT BIG THING
Alessia Cara: Pop’s Future Is ‘Here’
The teen sensation behind an R&B smash opens up about her rise from YouTube cover artist to Def Jam signee rocking the Tonight Show stage.
Maybe Alessia Cara was always going to be a star. After all, who begs their parents for a guitar as a 10th birthday present in order to form an all-girl band—The Lilacs—with her cousins, replete with a hand-drawn CD booklet thanking “all my fans around the world”? But on the night of July 29, the world witnessed the actual moment when she became one.
The setting was The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Cara was set to make her TV debut. According to a source close to the matter, after becoming mildly obsessed with her debut single “Here,” a silky-smooth R&B jam about teen house party ennui, Fallon had personally ordered his booker to track down the Brampton, Ontario, native and have her perform on his program first. Complicating matters is the fact that Cara, who is only 19, has always suffered from stage fright; it’s the very reason why she started a YouTube channel at the age of 13, performing covers from the comfort of her bedroom.
As the song begins, backed by The Roots of all people, you can spot the nervousness in her eyes, which dart back and forth and seem a bit tearier than usual. And every so often, between each gesticulation, she clenches the microphone for support. Then it happens. About 2 minutes and 45 seconds in, Cara snatches the mic off its stand, and, swaggering at the camera, launches into the bridge: “I’m stand-offish, don’t want what you’re offerin’ / And I’m done talkin’, awfully sad it had to be that way / So tell my people when they’re ready that I’m ready / And I’m standin’ by the TV with my beanie low, yo I’ll be over here.”
“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” says Cara. “I was nervous for four days prior.”We’re seated on a couch a few weeks later in the offices of Def Jam, the label that signed Cara last July. On the coffee table in front of us lay a plethora of magazines bearing the faces of her renowned labelmates Justin Bieber and Kanye West.
“Why is it all about Kanye and Bieber?” she jokes. “Where am I?”
Cara is back in New York for a string of small, sold-out shows promoting the release of her EP Four Pink Walls—as well as a bigger one performing at the U.S. Open’s Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, where up-and-coming artists like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber have graced the stage in years past. On the strength of her brilliant first single, “Here,” she’s garnered plenty of comparisons to Lorde for her soulful-beyond-her-years delivery and championing of the outsider.
And Cara’s backstory is, truth be told, quite similar to her fellow countryman Bieber. Following her brief stint getting down at family functions with The Lilacs, and just as she was turning 14 and on the cusp of entering high school, Cara decided to start recording videos of herself playing covers on her acoustic guitar, from Gnarls Barkley to Amy Winehouse. She’d upload the videos to a YouTube account under her birth name, Alessia Caracciolo (she is of Sicilian descent).
“I thought, ‘OK, I can’t do this.’ I didn’t like anything I was writing, so I stopped doing originals and started doing covers,” says Cara.
“I was really too shy to sing in front of people,” she continues. “I could never go up in front of an audience and sing, so my way of ‘cheating’ and practicing for the real thing was to make those videos. It was my way of easing into it, and it was good practice.”She began to gain a very small following online, and one of her clips caught the eye of the daughter of the founder of EP Entertainment, a production company aligned with Universal Music Group. The folks at EP took a shine to her, and gave Cara the option of having demos sent to her to perform or writing her own music. She opted for the latter.“I just didn’t feel like it was right,” she says. “A song doesn’t feel like mine if it’s sold to me. I want to be in the room and feel like it’s being created by my own brain.”
EP paired her with their hot new songwriter signee, Sebastian Kole, and instrumentalists Kuya Productions, and set them up at a Toronto studio to record demos. Cara, then 16, would go to the studio around 6 p.m. after school and stay until midnight. The routine lasted for about four months. “We’d write a song a day,” she says. “I was hiding the studio sessions from my friends, because I didn’t want them to know. I’d sneak off to them after school.”
One of those songs was “Here.” The idea for the track, about a girl trapped at a party and annoyed by everyone there, was based on an actual shindig Cara attended back when she was 16.“I went to this party of one of my good friends in his basement. I’d gone to other parties there and they were fine. But this time I didn’t know anyone, and the few people I did know seemed to know everyone else,” she recalls. “So they were all dancing, laughing, drinking, singing, and smoking together. I don’t drink much because I’m a singer, and I don’t smoke, and I don’t dance at all, so I was just sitting there alone listening to the music—and I didn’t even know the music that was playing. Overall, it was just an uncomfortable, weird experience.”Since she didn’t drive, Cara had to phone her mother to come pick her up early, and during a studio session the following day, she began complaining to Kole about the lame party. “It turned into a rant in song form,” she says.And don’t worry, the party-thrower and her pals are cool with it—in fact, Cara recruited several of the people at that very party for the music video to “Here,” which shows her navigating the smoky basement while the rest of her friends are frozen still.
After four months of recording in Toronto, Cara had a collection of demos. But with her high school graduation looming, her parents still viewed her music-making as a “hobby,” and wanted her to go to college. So they compromised, agreeing to let her take a year off to get signed and if nothing happened, she’d go to school.
So Cara began shopping an assortment of five demo tracks—including “Here,” “Stars,” and “Outlaws” off her upcoming LP—to virtually every record label out there.
“I went to all the labels between New York and L.A. with my guitar, playing my demos. It was a whole year of both trying to fix these demos and trying to get signed. It was like a never-ending series of job interviews, trying to convince people I was worthy,” she says.
Def Jam eventually liked what they heard and scooped her up. Since the demos she’d recorded in Toronto were very stripped-down to just her singing over piano or guitar, the team at Def Jam paired her with producers Pop and Oak as well as Malay, who’d collaborated with Frank Ocean on Channel Orange. It took just eight days to re-record the songs, a mixture of pop and R&B, for her EP.Cara is also a member of the now-vibrant Toronto music scene that, between Drake and The Weeknd—two artists she’d love to collaborate with, by the way—is having a moment.
“It wasn’t cool, and now I feel Toronto is becoming cooler,” she says, before chuckling. “You know, I actually didn’t grow up watching Degrassi, but I saw the commercials and knew the characters. I didn’t realize that Drake was the guy from Degrassi. I had to piece it together and go, ‘Oh! He’s Aubrey Graham.’”
She adds, “I have met the 6 God and got my blessing in… he’s so, so nice.”
One thing she did witness when she was a teenager was Drake’s version of Cribs. Called Degrassi Un-Scripted, a then-16-year-old Aubrey gives a guided tour of his Toronto childhood home—amazing Jewish grandma included—in what’s now become a cute reminder of where he came from.
“He had all these books filled with lyrics and said, ‘I’m also an artist, and my artist’s name is Drake.’” Cara smiles. “It’s so cool to see him go from that to this.”