It's been three years since Alessia Cara's wallflower anthem "Here" first took over the airwaves, and in that time the 21-year-old has released a debut album, Know-It-All, featured on two Top 10 hits (Logic's mental health song "1-800-273-8255" and Zedd's "Stay"), lent her voice to a single for Disney's Moana and won the Best New Artist award at the 2018 Grammys, making her the first Canadian artist to do so.
If the early twenties are a difficult time for most people, add fame and a high pressure career into the mix and you've got a windy path to navigate. Yet Cara is as grounded in person as she seems in her lyrics, arriving to lunch in a hoodie with her curly hair spilling out of a low bun and speaking with articulate candor about how the past few years have both changed her and left her the same as when she started. Gearing up for the release of her second studio album, aptly titled Growing Pains, Cara discussed dealing with anxiety, self-care and why she decided to write the whole album herself:
A lot has changed for you since Know-It-All came out in 2015. Was it different writing this time around?
The biggest difference is that I wrote this whole album by myself. The last one I had a writing partner that I worked with, Sebastian Cole. I wanted to take a stab at it and see if I could do it on my own. I felt like it needed to be a lot more personal, and I don't know if anyone could write my experiences like I could.
That's so rare, especially with pop music.
I grew up thinking everyone wrote their own music! I've always dreamt to do that totally on my own. I was really young the first [album]. I was still figuring out my identity as a writer, and Sebastian was really great at helping me tell my story the way I wanted it to be told. But at the same time, I thought it would be a liberating process for me to do it by myself and it has been. It's been really good.
How long does it usually take to finish a song?
Sometimes I'll have an idea for a song months before I start writing it, and then it'll take lan hour and I'm just sitting there and it comes out. I used watch Coldplay interviews and I would hear Chris Martin say, "Songs are already in the air, you just have to take them. Artists are just vessels for them." I never really understood it until I started writing and it just came so naturally.
Do you feel pressure to have a club song or a slow song and that kind of thing or did it just come all come together during the process of creating the album?
I never really think like that, to be honest. I kind of do what I want to do, while keeping listeners in mind. This job is already a demanding and difficult job, and if I weren't doing what I wanted on top of it, it would be very unfulfilling. I am very lyric-driven and don't really feel like I have to have a dance song, with the exception of "Stay" obviously, but that wasn't even my song, that was Zedd's. I would never do something I didn't like or didn't want to do. I wouldn't want my name attached to something I didn't believe in or didn't feel good about; that doesn't make sense to me.
Do you feel like you've always had the confidence in yourself to not give in to external pressure?
I feel like saying no to things that I don't believe in or agree with has been an odd form of self-care and self-protection, because I know I would probably go insane if I were living a 24/7 lifestyle and doing it in a way that's not me. I don't think my brain could handle that. I couldn't imagine doing that. It's not even to be rebellious. It's just to take care of myself.
Young women are so often taught to be nice and to act how people want, and sometimes I've found the best way to fight that is to have good people around you, who support you. Do you feel you have a team like that?
Yes, definitely. I've been very fortunate to have that. I've seen the opposite—you see people sort of go left because they feel so alone as they surround themselves with people who don't have their best interest at heart. It's hard not to feel like that sometimes, even for me, because no one is in my position unless they are doing the exact same thing as me. No one truly knows what it's like to be you. Are they in your life for the right reasons? Because I am a paranoid person it's hard for me, but I am really lucky that the people around me in my life are so nice and genuine and never really try to change me in any way.
Where do you think the paranoia comes from?
As I'm getting older it's just getting worse. I always have had a lot of anxiety; growing up I didn't really understand what it was, I didn't have a name for it. But I'm so thankful that I've learned about it and learned that it's normal. I've always associated being anxious or paranoid with just being dramatic, and I try not to think about it that way anymore because it's not that. It's so important to allow yourself to feel everything, even if it's not always positive, to not get down about.
For awhile I beat myself up for feeling negatively about certain things, because it was drilled into my head to be grateful. I've realized over time feeling a certain way doesn't mean you're not grateful for the things that are positive, it just means that you're still figuring out the things that are negative. It means you're human. I do get anxious a lot and have trouble trusting people, because it's always a question in the back of my mind, "What are you here for?" It's good to be cautious rather than naive, because I have been and it's bitten me in the ass a couple times. Be cautious and protect yourself and your heart.
"Meghan Trainor was really supportive. She won Best New Artist the year before and faced a similar experience. She told me not to let it ruin that moment."
What kind of things do you think you have felt negatively about that you wish you didn't?
I think for a long time for the last three years there was a period of going through the motions every day. So many things were happening and so many bucket list moments I was able to check off, but I wasn't processing it or feeling it. Because I was feeling so negatively about myself and was so consumed in that, I wasn't able to really focus on the positive stuff. I felt really mad at myself for it because the 10-year-old me would have been so excited and been so mad at me for not enjoying it.
I couldn't help it; I was dealing with things internally that had nothing to do with anything else, and I couldn't fully enjoy it. So that was something that I didn't want to feel. I wanted to allow myself to feel and grow but I didn't want to be feeling those things at that time because I wanted to enjoy it all and I felt like I wasn't grateful, even though I was and I still am. You just have to separate the two and know that they don't have anything to do with each other.
When a lot of good things happen at once, there's this feeling of like, when is it going to end?
Sometimes you feel like, is this luck, or is this all my hard work? And you have so many people online telling you that it's just luck and that your hard work has nothing to do with it and you're undeserving of so many things, but you just can't let that get to you. Especially as young women, that would be so disheartening. No matter who you are or what you are, someone is always going to have something to say and tell you that you don't deserve to be there. But I think that would be a disservice to other young girls if I were letting that get to me.
"I've had a lot more low points than I'd like to admit."
Winning Best New Artist at the Grammys is a big deal, but you were caught in a strange moment of being the only female artist to be presented with an award that night. You received backlash from people who were angry other women didn't win. What was that like for you?
That was a tough thing for me. It was such an innocent dream for me as a child, and when you finally get that unexpectedly you want to be happy. But people are telling you that you should feel differently and it really taints the innocence of it. It really sucked for a while, not gonna lie. The most disappointing thing about that were the people that claim to be feminists were so outraged that there weren't enough female artists represented, but those same people were the ones telling me that I wasn't the right woman being represented.
I don't think feminism means that you can pick and choose at your convenience. I think if you want support women, you should support women. It's not like I knew I was going to win or I chose that, it just happened to me and I think I have to remember that I deserve to be there as much as everyone else. If I wasn't eligible i wouldn't be up there. For awhile I was like, "Man, do I not really deserve this?" I felt like I was taking it away from somebody.
Was it people in the industry or fans?
It was definitely the general public. it was a little disheartening to hear other women saying that, because they were saying that there needs to be a woman represented, but then they were like, "But not you." I feel like that's a little hypocritical. In my speech I tried to be inclusive, I tried to be not so much about me and include everyone, but it was just not received well. There were also a lot of people that were supportive and in my corner.
Did anyone reach out to you?
A lot of people did, and a lot of artists did. Meghan Trainor was really supportive. She won "Best New Artist" the year before and faced a similar experience. She told me not to let it ruin that moment, which I thought was really sweet of her. She did not have to go out of her way to say that, and it made me feel better. And of course my family and friends reached out which was really nice and comforting to me at that moment.
You've said this album is a lot more personal, addressing the things you've been going through. What kinds of topics do you touch on?
It goes down two different ways. One way, with the changes in my job. The other, in a more general 21-year-old type of way. I've been going through a lot of emotional changes with relationships, whether it be romantic ones or family oriented ones, the dynamic is always changing. Falling in love, heartbreak, dramatic emotional stuff for no reason, feeling confident, not feeling confident, just the average 21-year-old life changes.
It seems like people really connect with that.
A lot of my listeners are around my age. Before anything, I'm a human, so If there's anything that they can relate to, it's my personal life.
I think people are really hungry for that kind of honesty because you can be connected on social media but you don't know what's real.
People only see what the other side chooses to show you. Especially with social media, where you only show people the "cool" side of you and not always the other stuff.
"If you're a young woman, people will try to mold you and take advantage of you."
The public expects artists now to be so available and show off their lives, but "Here," which introduced you to the world, really made being an introvert cool and relatable. How does you balance those things?
I think I'm a lot less shy now, and I don't know if that's because I'm getting used to it or if I'm just becoming an adult. I also still feel many elements that I did on my last project. I still don't go to parties because I still feel weird and out of place. I don't have many friends in the industry. Everyone knows everyone and I just don't.
Would you want to?
Well, I don't know. On one end, I wonder what it would be like to have more friends that I could relate to on that level but then also on the other end, I have all that I need. As long as you have people that love you and support you and you're finding ways to make yourself happy, you have all you need and don't need to be in the mix that way. It just feels weird. I have people that I'm friends with and that I'm cool with, but I don't really hang out with other artists like that and I don't know if that's because I'm always working or I'm just not putting myself out there.
Has it been challenging to maintain friendships?
A little bit. Thankfully my best friend since I was 10 is still my best friend. If it's the right relationships, they will always last, but there are strains that happen because you're never around.
Has there been anything that really surprised you about this life that you wouldn't have expected?
I've noticed how competitive and high school it is. In a very weird way, it's such a small bubble. There's drama, everyone knows everyone, there are cliques, it's very weird. Going into the industry as a kid, I thought people are people and of course they are going to be nice, but turns out that people will take advantage of you. I thought that dog eat dog mindset, just existed in the movies, but it actually really does exist. Especially if you're a young woman, people will try to mold you in any way that they want and take advantage of you and that part sucks.
But on the other end, I didn't know there would be people so invested in you as a person. I've been so grateful to have amazing managers around me, my band is awesome, even the team at Def Jam have been so amazing and genuinely great people. It's all about finding those people.
Do you feel pressure to be a role model?
In a way, just because over these past couple years I had a chance to talk directly with my listeners and I see how affected they are by what I say. Something changes when you meet people face to face. There is a pressure there and I never want to disappoint them. I feel like a lot of people don't just listen to me for fun, but listen to me because they need to and I would never want to put out something that makes them think, "wow this isn't her," or "this isn't helpful for me."
But at the same time, I also have to be mindful of me and myself and making music that is still therapeutic for me. But I think that it's about doing it in a way that it's specific enough to my life and enough that it's cathartic for me and helpful to me, but also be universal enough where it's not just Alessia Cara complaining about Alessia Cara.
Is making music still therapeutic for you?
More so now, because I'm talking more about myself with the music that I've been making. I don't really like to talk about myself and what's going on in my life. I'm not good with explaining my feelings verbally—the closest thing to explaining them is lyrical. When I'm writing it's just easier to explain, I don't know why. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm feeling until I write it down sometimes.
How do you take care of yourself?
This last year I've been really focused on self care because when you're making music to help people, you become focused on that. I wasn't taking my own advice and helping myself at all. I wasn't taking care of myself, I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't eating right. Even things as simple as washing my face. I would wash my face with hand soap and not moisturize! Not taking care of my body and not saying no enough. This time I'm focused on changing those things. There are still some things that I am still healing from, but I'm working on it. Writing helps, I went to therapy, which was great. Never thought it would actually be helpful, but it was.
I've had more low points than I'd like to admit. I think I'm very up and down with my emotions, whether that be me being a Cancer, or a woman, or a person, or an artist, or even all of those things. It's very low points and very high points. Some days I'm not feeling anything at all, which can be even scarier because you become numb. It's a lot of everything and I try to iron it out as much as possible with each song. It's hard to put into words when you don't even know what the root of all of it is.
"We're all a lot more similar than we think we are."
Did you experience a lot of those feelings as a teen or has it been more after your career took off?
I think it's been a lot more prominent; there's a lot more pressure now. It's always been there though. I've always been the up and down person. Whether it was because of school or not feeling confident in myself, my mind always seemed to find a reason to focus on things and get into moods and not be able to get out of them. I know my responsibility as an artist and as someone in the public eye, but my personal place outside of that is something that I am still trying to figure out.
A lot of close people in my life have dealt with serious mental illnesses, and I want to be sensitive towards them because I feel like it can be exploited. People throw words around. But it's so nice to see the stigma fade little by little and to have people be comfortable to talk about what they're going through. When you deal with emotional instability, it's so hard to believe people feel the way that you do. You think that you're so alone, and it's so nice to have people not feel afraid or ashamed.
It's so nice to be able to say that sometimes I have a cloud over my head and I don't know why, and that's okay. It's nice to be able to open up a conversation. I see fans talking to other fans about it, which comforts me. I think we're all a lot more similar than we think we are. We go through similar feelings all the time, and if we talked about it more we would be able to see that.
Stream "Growing Pains," below:
Photography: Brick Howze