Alessia Cara is an award-winning singer-songwriter who began her music career at 13 years old by sharing acoustic covers of well-known songs on the internet. The Canadian-born talent from Mississauga, Ontario, looked up to the likes of Justin Bieber and Amy Winehouse and had dreams of becoming a star herself. After being discovered and signing a major label deal with Def Jam, Cara quickly turned her dreams into a reality and became a familiar name in the industry. In fact, she has now become the voice for a whole generation of listeners.
Alessia wears a full look by Etro
Alessia wears a Zimmermann dress with Enrico Cuini heels
Alessia wears Sarah Wang
Like a lot of fans, we were introduced to Cara after the release of her viral debut single, Here, in 2015. Fresh out the gate, Cara’s first song created an instant buzz online and resonated with hundreds of thousands. Described as an “anti-party anthem,” Here set her apart from any other emerging artists and welcomed a lot of big opportunities early on. To date, Here has remained one of Cara’s most successful songs and has aged like wine. On Spotify, the track has been streamed over 480 million times while its Aaron A-directed music video has been watched by more than 215 million. On the US Billboard Hot 100, Here also became Cara’s first top-three single and achieved multi-platinum status in Australia, Canada, and the US. “I definitely didn't expect it to be [anything global]. But I really believed in it,” Cara admits.
The artist recalls that the choice of her debut single did not come without her standing her ground. She relates, “I remember the label wanted this other song on the album as the lead but something about Here always felt like the way that I wanted to be introduced to the world. I didn't know what success it would have. I didn't even really know what success was. But I just knew that I wanted that to be first.” What most don’t know is that Def Jam hesitated to release Here because they didn’t ever expect it to take off in any way. Being the firm believer that she was, Cara put her foot down and insisted it was the perfect song to launch her with as she felt there was something special about the mid-tempo bop.
“I knew that it was going to help me in some way, or at least change. I just knew that my life was going to be different for some reason. It was like an extreme battle getting that song out there. I remember the label finally compromised with me and just kind of threw it out on SoundCloud. They were like, ‘We're not going to push this, we're just going to put it out to shut you up.’ I'm glad that they did because it really did change my life. I think that was sort of like an instinctual gut feeling for me, it was the first time I really led with my intuition and it ended up working out. I didn't know what was going to happen. I definitely didn't expect it to be as big as it was or to give me the career that it did, but I knew that it was the right thing for me,” she explains. Cara’s gut instinct was right all along as she quickly appeared on a lot of people’s radars from this one release.
Shortly after Here started to dominate the airwaves, Cara’s very first sold-out London show at a tiny venue in Camden, called The Barfly – 200 capacity – foreshadowed an exciting future for her. She may have only had a handful of songs to perform but the material showed a lot of promise for the then-19-year-old. While appearing to be sure of what she was doing, Cara reflects on those early days and admits she was actually pretty clueless as the concept of being a pop star was like nothing she had ever experienced before. “I come from a blue-collar Italian family and Brampton, Ontario, I had no idea how the industry worked. I didn't even know what a show was as I had never performed live before it was all completely new to me,” Cara reveals. “I didn't even know or understand the gravity of what was happening to me, I think I look back at that time for the better because if I had probably been aware, I don't know if I would have been able to get through it. But I just remember the excitement and the fear a little bit, and how fast it all went. It was definitely a blur. I haven't really had the chance to process it until this past year, [reflecting on] all the stuff we did in such a short period of time. It's just such a blessing to be able to do that. You know, it's just crazy.”
Alessia wears Valentino
Alessia wears Etro
Alessia wears Sandro Paris
Those songs performed early on would end up on Cara’s hugely-successful debut album, Know-It-All, which cemented the hype around her. Along with its critical acclaim and being awarded Pop Album of the Year at the 2017 Juno Awards, the LP gave Cara a platinum plaque in the US and went double platinum in her home country. As well as her own headlining tour, she was also given the chance to open up for Coldplay during their stadium shows. At the time of our chat, Know-It-All’s third and final single, Scars To Your Beautiful, was very close to hitting 1 billion streams on Spotify and has become a signature song from her back catalogue. “Wow, that is crazy that people are still into that song,” Cara says after being told about its new milestone. “It weirdly has a new life now on TikTok. I've been getting sent TikToks with people using Scars as a sound, it's crazy that song has transcended. It’s nuts,” she adds. The relatable pop ballad was inspired by how women suffer from body image every day and are made to feel that there is one kind of beauty. Cara hoped the song would become the beacon for listeners to embrace who they are but never anticipated it would be the ongoing mini phenomenon it is now.
“I made that song with Sebastian Kole- it was in producer All Stars’ basement in his house, in New Jersey. I had no album out, I was not signed, I didn't have management. I was just coming out of school and had no idea that anyone was even going to hear this [material],” she shares. “I didn't even know I was making an album. So, for it to not only have come out and perform as well as it has done, it’s such a trip to me because I knew the place that I was in when I made it. I never even thought that people would hear it, let alone people would still love it after all this time. So yeah, it was kind of made by accident and it's the craziest thing. It's just one of those things that shocked me and continues to shock me.”
Cara’s breakthrough helped her become the first Canadian artist to win Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards in 2018. “I found that out after, I had no idea. I was sure that some other Canadian artist would have won. There have been so many talented people. I was super shocked,” she says. During her sincere speech on the night, she explained winning a gold trophy had been something she had been dreaming of since she was a kid. While many were happy for Cara’s well-deserved win, she faced backlash for not being considered a “new artist.” After the live ceremony aired, she responded to the negativity with a lengthy statement on social media that noted her win was out of her control.
Looking back, Cara insists she would react differently if she faced something similar today. “I think, first of all, I wouldn't log on to Twitter at all, and just enjoy it and figure out how I feel about it because I was so influenced by what everyone else thought that I just didn't even know how I felt. And so, I am just 100,000% sure I wouldn’t even say a word about it, I would just enjoy it and not give a shit, excuse my language, about what anybody says because I know how hard I work,” she says, adding, “I wish that I didn't let myself feel undeserving of that. You know, that's the funniest thing about the internet and about being young and influenced by the world. We just equate online opinion to reality. And I wish I didn't do that. Yeah, so I wouldn't care. I feel like nowadays, I wouldn't even log on. I wouldn't give anybody an explanation or an apology.”
Cara’s Grammy doesn’t live with her, however. After getting her own place, she decided to leave it at her parents’ home where it sits on a mantel by their fireplace. She revealed that while making her speech on stage that night, fellow singer Lorde turned around to her mom and told her that she should get to keep the first one. “It’s very kind of her to assume that I would win anymore,” Cara shares. “They show it off to every single person that's ever been over to our house. It's really sweet.”
Cara’s sophomore album, The Pains of Growing, was considered a “coming of age” record and took inspiration from the previous three years of her life. Just like her debut, it was praised by critics and even won Album of the Year at the 2020 Juno Awards. The LP received its fair share of success, but it wasn’t immediate. Cara perfectly describes her first two albums as “late bloomers” and opens up about the pressure artists are faced to have instant success straight off the bat. “The idea of a rollout nowadays is a little obsolete. Back in the day, you would have a ton of build-up before your project, and after there was a whole run and then you do a promo run and a tour. The time that you were given used to be way longer,” she says. “Now it's like, build up, build up, build up. And then as soon as the song is released, that's it, you're on to the next thing. So why are we just writing it off immediately if it’s unsuccessful? Music is continuously discoverable.”
Cara’s third and most recent album, In The Meantime, is her most acclaimed project to date and showcases her evolution as a songwriter. Released in September 2021, it is her highest rated LP on Metacritic with a score of 80 out of 100. “I try to not let it have so much value in my life and not let it dictate so much of how I feel about the project and its success in my mind,” Cara tells MOOD when asked if she focuses on the reception her music receives. “But I will say this, the response of this album has been surprisingly very kind and generous. I was scared, as I always am. But the stuff that I have read has been very positive, which is very sweet, and to know that people understand where I was coming from and get what I was trying to do with this project.”
While the finished product hears Cara at her best, making the record was not smooth-sailing. With the pandemic impacting the world and there being so much uncertainty, Cara dealt with writer’s block during the creative process. “I went through a blank period because I was so scared about what was happening in the world, I felt like everyone had collective feelings, it was really hard for me to tap into what I was feeling in my personal life. I felt like personal things didn't even matter because we were all going through this insane crisis,” Cara says.
She continues: “For a while, I was unable to write or be creative at all, I was really worried and fearful. And then I think throughout the year, as things started to get a bit more normal, I mean, I guess not normal, because we were definitely still going through it. But when I was finding some normalcy in the abnormal, I was able to finally look more inward. I think that long period of time being home became beneficial for me because I became reflective. I think spending a lot of time with yourself really makes you see a lot of things that you didn't notice were there necessarily. So, a lot of the songs came from that second half of 2020 from sitting with myself, healing and unhealing, opening old wounds, and tying up some frayed ends a little bit.”
In The Meantime consists of 18 songs and only one collaboration, with rising rapper Chika, who she thought would be the quintessential addition for the song Middle Ground. “I had come up with the tracklist and narrowed down the songs and the bridge for that song was empty because I hadn't even written a bridge for that song. It was initially a little bit of an instrumental and I thought, how can I take Middle Ground and take it to a higher place. When I was thinking of that in particular, I just thought a collab would be perfect for it in that space,” she says. “When looking at different artists that would make sense, she was the first person that came to mind because I think she's so talented. We're in similar worlds with the things that we talk about and in our sound. I really admire her and I love her work. I’m so glad she said yes because it was perfect. It was the perfect collaboration with the perfect spot for it, and I really think it brought the album to a nicer place.”
Cara has done her fair share of collaborations throughout her career. The most notable ones include the monster hit Stay with producer Zedd, as well as 1-800-273-8255 with Logic and Khalid. She has also featured on hits with Troye Sivan, Alec Benjamin, and Major Lazor. With that being said, she’s not willing to expand her list of collaborations unless she’s 100 percent into it. “I don't like to do collaborations just for the sake of doing them,” Cara insists. “I know we’re living in a very collaboration-based era right now which is great and I think it's wonderful what artists can get together, but I'm very meticulous, especially when it comes to my projects because I always wanted to just be right. I really want to make sure that it's the right thing, and that it feels authentic because my projects are so personal and based on my experience in my reality that I only feel right to do things with people that I really admire and respect and that is a part of my everyday experience because I listened to them.” Most recently, Cara teamed up with CLAY for WTSGD.
18 tracks could be considered a lot for an album being released during what we now call the digital era. Songs are commonly becoming shorter and it almost seems albums are over before they’ve even begun. However, Cara appears to be unphased by all of that as she would have made her record even longer if she was able to. “Initially, it was going to be like 23 songs,” she reveals. “I believe I have written like 40-something songs for this album and narrowed it down to 23. It was like pulling teeth trying to get it down to 18. So, this was like a compressed version of what I wanted it to be.”
“I don't necessarily agree with the fast-paced era that we're in. I mean, I love streaming. I think streaming platforms are wonderful, of course, but I don’t necessarily agree with this fleeting attention span. I like to push the barrier a little bit and push people to listen. I do things to go against the grain and try to bring back a little piece of albums with integrity and projects that are complete that make you listen from beginning to end. I grew up in an era where you listen to the full CD, you read the booklet, you read the liner notes. That's my favorite part of an album.”
With streaming fully taking over the music industry in the past few years, physical record sales are lower than ever. Has this resulted in albums losing their value? Cara certainly thinks so. “I don't think we live in an album-based world anymore. I think the industry is way more about fleeting attention and releasing singles,” she says. “When I started, radio was such a huge thing. And I think now in the last two years or so, radio has taken a backseat to things going viral. To me, it’s way more fulfilling when I have a fan base that can grow with me. I haven't been on the top of the charts in a very long time but I still feel like I'm successful. I made a project that I love, and I made a project that my fans can see themselves in. So, to me, that genuinely feels like the better path.”
In The Meantime is Cara’s most diverse album, sonically. The opener, Box In The Ocean, taps into a playful reggae vibe while Bluebird has hints of bossa nova music. A personal favorite of Cara’s is the album’s second to the last song, You Let Me Down. “It's kind of like a sleeper. I just really love it. And it means a lot to me, lyrically, emotionally, but even sonically, it's like tapped into a genre that I personally love and listened to all the time, but I've never actually done before,” she says. “So, it's like a secret favorite of mine. I hope that I can perform it for people because it's one of my favorites to do live, even in rehearsals we've been playing and it’s super fun.” One of the most popular tracks, Best Days, is a stripped-back piano ballad that many would consider a “classic Alessia Cara song.” In The Meantime has a lot to offer and proves that Cara is on a creative high right now.
Cara hopes listeners will be able to learn a little bit more about herself through the new material. Most importantly, she wants more fans to identify and see parts of themselves as well. “I think that's the most fulfilling thing- when someone can see parts of themselves or learn a part of themselves through something that I've said or through an experience of mine,” Cara expresses. “I hope listeners take something away about their own life and maybe make them want to look into parts of their own brain that they hadn't looked into before. I hope that my music is like a mirror for people that shows them themselves along with showing them a new part of me as well.”
At 25 years old, Cara has done a lot in a short span of time. She’s released three studio albums, two EPs, won countless awards, embarked on world tours, and written songs for big movies such as Disney’s Moana, PAW Patrol, and The Willoughbys, where she also voiced the role for one of the characters. Aside from voiceovers, Cara has yet to delve further into acting. However, it is one of her goals to appear in a certain filmmaker's movie. “I went to go watch On the French Dispatch by Wes Anderson, I'm the biggest Wes Anderson fan in the world. I remember yesterday I said to my friend, ‘I want to be in a Wes Anderson movie.’ That's my life's dream. I love music. I love my job, but I want to be a small character in a Wes Anderson film because I think he's a genius. So that would be my biggest goal in life,” she reveals. Touring is another thing Cara hopes will be on the horizon in 2022 if the state of the world allows her to.
Judging by the new acclaimed album and the current creative state of mind she’s in, it’s safe to say Alessia Cara’s best days still lie ahead.