Curled up in a chair in the corner of a café in Toronto's Kensington Market, Alessia Cara is barely finished introducing herself before she apologizes for wearing elaborate makeup. She's just come back from a photo shoot, she explains; it's something she's not exactly used to, let alone comfortable with. For the past six months, the 19-year-old Brampton, Ont., native has been inundated with new experiences – some elating, others tedious – as she's ridden, and attempted to build upon, a sudden burst of pop-music fame.
Cara's debut single, Here, an R&B-flavoured ode to introversion and introspection, came out on Def Jam in April to immediate fanfare. In less than half a year, the single has racked up close to 30 million Spotify streams and 10 million YouTube views, while selling more than 240,000 copies in the United States alone. When she followed it up last month with an EP, Four Pink Walls, it debuted at No. 4 on iTunes.
As she prepares to release her first full-length later this fall, Cara, who is most comfortable in jeans and Chucks, is busily crafting a pop-star narrative that focuses on being herself. Like she sings on Here, she has little interest in subscribing to the ideals of others. "Creation," she says in her first Canadian print interview, "is all I know how to do. I just don't see the point in focusing on what I'm wearing – I'm not a fashion icon – or how I do my hair or what I look like or if I'm fat or skinny. I'm not a fitness model; I'm just a singer. If people focus on that, that's what I care about."
Growing up in Brampton with Italian parents, Cara (born Alessia Caracciolo) was exposed to a mix of music. From her father, she heard classic radio staples such as Queen, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Her mother, on the other hand, exposed her to contemporary Italian music from the likes of Laura Pausini, Tiziano Ferro and Eros Ramazzotti.
She fell in love with singing, but usually kept it to herself, in her room – she was terribly shy. She's never taken vocal lessons; at 12, she took lessons for guitar, but dropped out after a couple months to teach herself instead. To perform without the anxiety that comes with an audience, she started recording covers at home and uploading them to YouTube. Many are still online. One of the earliest is of Jessie J's Price Tag, uploaded in 2011 when Cara was 14; in it, the power of her voice belies her age.
Vocal power and range is something Cara was once preoccupied with; when she first started singing, Mariah Carey was her pop-diva guide, and she found her own range, which skews deeper, "different and strange." But then she stumbled upon Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, "it just made me more comfortable – like, okay, this is my lane."
A talent scout from EP Entertainment, a Universal Music Group-affiliated production company, came across Cara's covers several years ago, and the company invited her to perform for them in New York. She flew down with her father, auditioned and got an offer to record with them. Paired with EP artist Sebastian Kole, she put together a half-dozen demos over the course of a year, including the song that became Here.
Cara and her team shopped the demos around to different labels, getting minor traction but nothing serious. Meanwhile, she went about high school as if nothing was happening. Even during her occasional performances, like a 2013 medley of Drake songs at her school, she kept her professional aspirations hidden. She applied to universities as a backup plan.
As she approached graduation, the head of EP Entertainment bumped into Def Jam A&R rep Tab Nkhereanye, who'd expressed interest in Cara with a previous label but changed jobs before sealing the deal. Nkhereanye was surprised Cara hadn't signed with anyone and brought her demos to Def Jam. She signed to the label in 2014, on her 18th birthday, just a month after graduating.
She soon rerecorded Here, releasing it this April to much fanfare. Fans evidently related to her true-life story about a party she hated: "Since my friends are here I just came to kick it," she sings, "but really I would rather be at home all by myself." On top of millions of streams, the song has been certified Gold in Canada and landed her a spot on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show. The outfit of choice for her Roots-assisted TV debut? Sneakers and a T-shirt that read, with more than a splash of irony, "Life of the Party."
It's also earned her co-signs from both Taylor Swift and Drake, the latter of whom went out of his way to meet her this summer at the Squamish Valley Music Festival in British Columbia. "He said all these amazing things," Cara says. "It was very nice of him, 'cause I feel like I'd be too afraid to go up to him."
The Four Pink Walls EP, which she dropped at the end of August, includes Here and deliberately expands upon that song's attitude, both lyrically and sonically. The songs explore more of pop's nuances, and the lyrics, while still carefully reflective, bend a little more toward nostalgia. It's a calculated move as she prepares her first full-length, tentatively titled Know-It-All.
With Here, "you assume that I'm just R&B," she says. "But I knew that I was more than that, and I wanted people to know early that I do a whole bunch of different sounds." And lyrically, on tracks like Seventeen and Four Pink Walls, she mulls how far she's come from her bedroom recordings: "Who knew there was a life behind those four pink walls?"
These days, she's barely home. Between recordings and special appearances, she spends most of her time on a plane; less than four hours after our Toronto interview, she was on the ground in New York. The year's biggest anti-party crusader has been forced to face more of the world every day. "Once you put songs out, they're not yours any more," she says. "They're everyone else's."
The world around her has changed, but Cara's still operating on her own terms. "I was kind of shy before," she says, but "I never really necessarily liked being quiet. I feel like this is me – this is who I've always wanted to be."