Beyond the Walls

The narrative of Alessia Cara’s rise to musical prominence this summer could easily double as the premise to a bestselling young adult novel. In April, the 19 year-old released her debut song “Here,” which was quickly lauded for its smoky, slo-mo alternative pop sound and cocksure delivery that also served as an anti-hedonism anthem for young introverts everywhere (“But since my friends are here / I just came to kick it / But really I would rather be at home / all by myself …Oh God, why am I here?”). Admirers flocked in by the thousands, and then millions, with one being none other than The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, who brought the Brampton, Ontario-native on the show to perform, despite having only one song to her name. Backed by the Roots, Cara executed a rousingly soulful set despite some self-proclaimed jitters, and the rest, as we know, is history.

The journey to the release of “Here” is about as postmodern as it gets. Cara (born Alessia Caraccoilo) grew up in the outskirts of Toronto and as a teenager began posting covers of songs to her YouTube channel. Her cover of American rock band The Neighbourhood‘s “Sweater Weather” caught the eye of production agency EP Entertainment, which flew her to New York, where she recorded a handful of demos and solidified her sound (which Cara defines as “pop music with an edge”).

“They contacted me through Twitter. I was 16 at the time and I didn’t know if it was legit or not,” Cara recalls. “I was like, ‘Who are you people? What do you want? Is it spam?’ It was not spam.”

For now, Cara has forgone college, instead choosing to work on her debut full-length Know It All with Def Jam. Last week, she surprise released Four Pink Walls, a five-track EP that she will tour this fall. Combining slow-burning, yet catchy melodies with cheeky and often-poignant lyricisms, Cara’s music transcends from what could easily be angsty teenage dossiers to something universally relatable. Interview spoke with Cara over the phone while she was visiting London.

DEVON IVIE: What have you done in London so far?

ALESSIA CARA: I went to the Camden Market, I bought some beanies.

IVIE: Now that you’ve been to both cities, which do you prefer—New York or London?

CARA: Probably London. I feel New York is too crazy for me, especially when you go to Times Square. So I’d say London, it’s very chill. The architecture is really European and old-school.

IVIE: When you were posting covers on YouTube as a teenager, there was a moment when you could’ve chosen to never post them at all. What was the tipping point that made you commit to posting the covers online?

CARA: I think it was because I really wanted to get over my fear; I was extremely shy singing in front of other people. I obviously wanted to do this as a career, and the only way to do that was to start performing in front of people. But I was so shy that I thought, “What’s an easier way for people to hear my voice without having to sing in front of them?” YouTube was a way for people to hear me and for me to say, “Hey, I can sing this song, I’m not in front of you yet because I’m too shy, but here’s how I sound for now.” Then I could ease myself into singing in front of people. So it was really a way to force myself to get used to it, because I really wanted to do it but didn’t know where to start.

IVIE: Who would you absolutely love to see covering your songs one day?

CARA: Oh my goodness. If Ed Sheeran covered my songs, I would die. That would be unbelievable. Someone cool like Frank Ocean too, that would be so awesome. Who else would be cool? Drake or Kendrick Lamar.

IVIE: Tell me about your high school experience. Was it relatively normal?

CARA: My high school experience, I think, was pretty normal. Some schools were founded in, like, 19-whatever, but it was pretty new, it didn’t have a history behind it like a lot of schools do, and there weren’t a lot of people in it. It was very small. I don’t really think I got the full high school experience, only because when I got to high school for the first year it was grades 9-10; we didn’t have older grades. But besides that it was normal. It was a regular public school. We didn’t have much going on, it wasn’t too crazy.

IVIE: Do you have any regrets from that time of your life?

CARA: Yeah, I think I would’ve talked to people more and learned more. Throughout my high school years I was very quiet, I didn’t have many friends. I distanced myself from a lot of people. I don’t know why, I don’t really think there was a particular reason, just my personality—I didn’t really try to make friends or talk to people outside of the two people that I talked to, you know what I mean? I would’ve definitely tried to make more friends and not worry what people would think of me if I talked to them. And learn a lot more, ask more questions, and absorb as much as I could. I definitely tried, but I don’t know if tried hard enough.

IVIE: How many views on average did your covers get before you posted “Sweater Weather”? I’m curious what the count of your initial videos was like.

CARA: The most I would ever get was around 100 to 500 views; I barely ever got to 1,000. A couple did, but it was never close to a million. I didn’t have a great camera or anything. It took the right person to see me and it just happened that they found me for whatever reason.

IVIE: Ever since “Here” was released earlier this year, you’ve been hit with an enormous amount of recognition and praise. Do you recall a defining moment or a string of moments that validated this success for you?

CARA: The fact that I’m getting appreciated and praised alone is a crazy moment because I never thought it would happen. The fact that people are embracing me so well as a new artist and being taken so seriously is something I’m really surprised by. It’s hard to be taken seriously if you’re a young, female artist making pop music; you never know how people are going to react. I feel people are seeing me as a true artist rather than a singer, or an entertainer, or a girl who just makes songs. It’s really great that people are seeing me as a credible person. That alone is great. And the fact that people make fan accounts for me and recognize me now sometimes is really strange and cool.

IVIE: For me personally, and for countless other fans as well, I was exposed to you through The Tonight Show. Jimmy Fallon straight up told his booker, “I don’t care that she only has one song, book her for the show.” You don’t hear of that a lot. What was that experience like for you?

CARA: That was unbelievable. That’s one staple moment, for sure, being there so early on as a performer and so early on in my career. I only had one song that I was there singing. It was so great because I’m such a huge fan [of Fallon]. He was so nice and everything was perfect. Again, the fact that I was embraced like that, it was really nice to see people doing that for me. For someone as big and as great as Jimmy Fallon.

IVIE: Moving to your EP Four Pink Walls, which is the name of one of the songs as well—what’s the concept behind that title?

CARA: It was the last song I wrote for the EP. The song’s about the contrast between my life now and how it was a couple of years ago as a kid. As I kid I would always be in my bedroom constantly staring at the same four pink walls in it, aspiring to do all of these things. I had big dreams, and my dreams were bigger than what my life was at the time. I didn’t understand why my life wasn’t more interesting, but I was so oblivious to life outside of my bedroom because I was always there. I had to go about living my dreams. So the EP really sums up my life right now.

IVIE: How did you feel after you finished recording the EP, when you listened to it for the very first time?

CARA: I had these songs for so long, a lot of these were written two years ago—they’ve definitely evolved from the demo to now—and to see how they’ve grown was cool. It’s like watching kids grow up in a way: “Oh my gosh, you’re so big now!” I bought my own EP like a weirdo; I bought it because I thought it would be cool. It’s funny. I listened to it for the first time, and I was like, “Wow, what a body of work, this is it, this is my EP.” It’s really great and crazy to think about. I’m really proud of it.

IVIE: What’s your writing process like?

CARA: When we were making the album, it was very much set in a studio because we were having sessions and stuff. But since I’ve now learned how to do it, I can write anywhere. I’m the type of person that will get a random idea and then I’ll have to write it down and then continue on it. It can be anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a set place.

With different scenarios and different places, I think it’s easier for me to get inspired; I’m seeing different things. If I’m experiencing a different thing every day and seeing a new environment every day, it can create a different mood or different feeling and it can then create a different

IVIE: I’m going to ask you a few quick, speedy questions—you ready?

CARA: Yes, bring it on. I’m ready.

IVIE: What’s your favorite book?

CARA: My favorite book is Looking for Alaska by John Green.

IVIE: What’s your favorite movie?

CARA: There’s a couple. One is probably The Shawshank Redemption, because it’s really good and I love the ending. The second one is probably Bridesmaids, that’s a funny movie. And Nacho Libre. It’s the stupidest movie you’ll ever watch with Jack Black, but I know every single word. Every time I watch it there’s something different that I notice that I didn’t notice the last time. It’s so funny, but so stupid. It’s awful, but the best movie ever.

IVIE: Last question in the speed round—what are some of your favorite albums?

CARA: Amy Winehouse’s albums were great: Back to Black and Frank. Channel Orange by Frank Ocean is a great album. Pure Heroine by Lorde. Ed Sheeran’s albums are great, + and x are both amazing. Most of them are current albums, so they didn’t really influence me, but are still great and they’re probably inspiring to me for the next album. Drake’s Take Care is a great one, too. I think those are the most solid bodies of work that I’ve heard in a while.

IVIE: What advice would you relay to young—and perhaps introverted—musicians who would like to break into the music industry?

CARA: There are a lot of little things, but if you’re starting out, the best thing is to be patient. Even though it seems like I popped out of nowhere, it’s been a long time that I’ve been aspiring to do this. It’s probably better that these things don’t happen overnight, though, because it gives you time to find your sound and be comfortable. For me, I’m glad that it’s happening slowly because it’s helping me develop and get better as a performer, singer, songwriter, and artist. I think patience is the best thing to try to embrace. And stay true to who you are, even though that sounds cliché. It’s something that’s important—doing what feels right for you.

No matter what I put out, no matter what genre—because I feel like I’m going to experiment with everything—I hope people will see that it’s true to me, that it’s honest, and nobody ever thinks that I’m inauthentic. I want everything, no matter what concept or genre, to feel real, because it is real. I want to keep making real music, I hope people remember me for that, that’s a good thing to be remembered for.