ALESSIA CARA IN NEW YORK, JULY 2015. JACKET: SUPREME/THRASHER. OVERALLS: VINTAGE. T-SHIRT: T BY ALEXANDER WANG. NECKLACE: LYNN BAN. BOOTS: VISVIM. STYLING: ANDREW MUKAMAL. COSMETICS: NARS, INCLUDING MATTE MULTIPLE IN PORTOFINO; DIOR, INCLUDING DIOR VERNIS IN NUIT 1947. HAIR PRODUCTS: ORIBE HAIR CARE, INCLUDING DRY TEXTURIZING SPRAY. HAIR: BOK-HEE FOR ORIBE HAIR CARE/STREETERS. MAKEUP: DOTTI FOR NARS COSMETICS/STREETERS. MANICURE: ERI HANDA FOR DIOR VERNIS/MAM-NYC. SPECIAL THANKS: CINEMA WORLD.
Ever since Alessia Cara (née Caracciolo) was a kid, she has loved making up stories. “I had a giant imagination,” the 19-year-old singer-songwriter tells me over lunch in Greenpoint. “In second grade I told a bunch of kids there was a homeless person living between the portable classrooms outside our school. It caused panic, and the principal had to announce on the PA system that no one was living there. I pretended I didn’t know who started the rumor.” Cara laughs and shakes her head. “I was a very strange child.”
These days, that fertile imagination is serving her well. The five songs on her debut EP, Four Pink Walls (Def Jam), demonstrate her knack for telling vivid stories with an assertive, feisty voice. But that confidence didn’t come naturally. Growing up in a suburb of Toronto, Cara acted in plays, taught herself guitar, and—behind closed doors—sang. “It was the one thing I always enjoyed,” she says, “but I wasn’t sure if I was good, so I was scared to perform. I had to ease myself into it.” To that end, she created a YouTube channel for her covers when she was 13, and at 16, her version of the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” caught the attention of EP Entertainment. The production company flew her to New York, where she was introduced to songwriter Sebastian Kole and began writing demos with him.
Among those songs was a version of Cara’s smash debut single, “Here,” an outsider anthem for anyone who ever dreaded high school house parties. Above the down-tempo pop-R&B groove, her defiant vocals unfold into what she calls a “soulful rant”: “Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this / An anti-social pessimist, but I usually don’t mess with this.”
Last April, after performing “Here” for several labels, Cara signed with Def Jam, and she’s still in awe of her breakout success. “I’ve never really aspired to the spotlight; I just wanted to do music, which is kind of weird because music comes with that spotlight. But I’m growing into myself and feeling more confident,” she says. “As long as each song makes somebody feel something, I think that’s the point of it all. I don’t want it to just be background music, you know?”