Alessia Cara — “I always want to be an artist that is 100% honest.”
When technology allows even your next door neighbour’s dog to sound passable enough to release a hit single, we often look to songwriting, melody and production as the main driving forces behind pop music. We can catch ourselves presuming that if an artist is writing their own songs, playing guitar and has the driving force of a major label behind them then maybe their singing ability isn’t all that. Yet tonight at Camden’s Barfly venue the clarity in 19-year-old Alessia Cara’s voice has the packed out room enthralled. Her nerves show in between songs, explaining the reasoning behind her teenage themed songs in chirpy rapid-fire bursts as she heads into another incredible display of her vocals.
The Canadian songstress from Brampton, a suburb just outside of Six God territory, at times feels hard to place; clearly a positive role model for the kids of today wearing little make-up and opting for a flannel shirt rather than a mini-skirt, and her songs are positive although there are mild drug references that wouldn’t have been acceptable in pre-Miley Cyrus teenage pop music. She’s a product of a generation that have grown up with the Internet, unsheltered and with access to a broader range of influence, faced with more choices and encouraged to be individual. You can hear it in her music, which is hard to tie down to any genre. Her breakthrough single ‘Here’ soars above anything else she plays tonight, reimagining Isaac Hayes’ ‘Ike’s Rap II’ as she sings about being the one who’s been dragged, out of her comfort zone, to a house party.
The following day when we meet up with Alessia at the West London hotel she crashed at for the night before heading on a string of globe-trotting in support of her newly released Four Pink Walls EP, she’s decidedly more calm and collected. Sat, coincidentally, below a portrait of her idol Amy Winehouse, she admits that the transition from performing in her bedroom to the stage has been difficult. “I was a very shy person especially when it came to singing. If you asked me to sing for you last year I’d be like ‘I can’t do it’ face to face. Now it’s just such a different game, everything shifted so quickly. I had to force myself because I was getting all this attention all at once from this one song, and I found myself having to perform everywhere.” It’s the curse of the Internet generation, delving into other worlds through a laptop screen can only get you so far, eventually you have to graduate the bedroom and start playing live. Being thrown in at the deep end has done Alessia well.
Her live performance is actually what lead her to a deal. Rather than blindly firing out SoundCloud links, Alessia travelled between Los Angeles and New York with her guitar in tow, hitting up as many record labels as she could on the way and actually performing demos to record execs face to face. It might seem like an old-school, almost idealistic approach, but it paid off. In the end, she went with Def Jam. “Other labels, of course, they try to change things about you, they already had their plans for me,” she says. “But as soon as I went to Def Jam they were like ‘We get it, it’s fine. You’re perfect the way you are.’ They didn’t even ask me to change my clothes, I wear the same thing that I wore like two years ago.”
Given that Alessia brings the importance of honesty several times throughout our conversation, it’s understandable that she wouldn’t want to be forced into some image for marketing purposes. “I think labels need to start realising that it doesn’t matter what you wear because people will still accept the music clearly if it’s good,” she explains. “There’s definitely a change and a lot of executives or labels are late to that. I think they need to start seeing that, and I think people need to start seeing that because it really shouldn’t matter and I hope I can be an example of that. I’ve had all this success because of my music and my voice, and I’ve had people come after the shows they tell me like, ‘I just like your music, I didn’t even know what you looked like. So it’s crazy that I’m seeing you because I didn’t even know how old you were I just liked the music.’ That’s the best compliment as an artist, that you came for the music, so I think it’s very important.”
As a singer first and foremost, Alessia believes that the best representation of herself is through her voice, whereas everything else is collaboration: “I think singing is the only thing that’s 100% me. Nobody else can help you with your voice, that’s you. And I think if you have to showcase your talent I think the best thing is just to sing and show what you can do on stage.” While nowadays she ensures that she is involved in every part of the process, songwriting was a skill that she’s been developing over the last couple of years since signing with production company EP Entertainment — until then she’d been focussed exclusively on her voice, posting covers on YouTube. “I think for me it was very much practice,” she considers. “Being able to have people hear me sing without having to be in front of them really helped me, it was like cheating my way through it almost.” Once she’d been noticed — by the founder’s daughter — and signing with the company she was faced with a decision, have songwriters send over some demo songs, or learn to write her own? “I always wanted to do original music, but I didn’t know if I could,” Alessia admits. “I always want to be an artist that is 100% honest and real with my music, and I feel like it can’t be real if a song is just sold to you, like you hear a demo and you buy it. For some people, it might be, but I’d never feel attached to my music if it was like that and I just love the craft and I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter. So I just wanted to learn, I was eager to learn and I did.” She was paired up with songwriter Sebastian Kole and the pair have collaborated ever since (“it’s just really cool how much I’ve absorbed from him”) writing the demo songs that she’d shop to Def Jam and now her debut album Know It All which is expected to drop later this year.
“As a young person I always think I know everything,” she says of the album’s title. “I’m like ‘Oh I have everything figured out, I’m fine.’ But I really don’t at all, I’m just trying to figure it out as I go. So these songs are really like ‘Here’s what I think I know, you can listen to it and see, but I don’t know if I know this, this is just what I think.’ So it’s a very sarcastic title.” The album, she says, will be more of the genre-bending blends of inspiration that we’ve heard displayed in her songs so far: “I think overall my sound is alternative pop if you have to label it. It’s very much pop music, but it has this edge.” Still though, she’d rather you didn’t try to box her sound away into a genre, she’s more focussed on consistency across a body of work than a preconceived style. “I think that to me music or a body of work should be consistent. But at the same time it doesn’t have to be a certain genre, I think genre is so wide in general now anyway. Anything can be pop, anything can be R&B if you fit it in a certain way. So I think genre has definitely changed and it’s just so wide and music is so free.”
With the success of ‘Here’ her main focus now is not to become a one hit wonder — although she believes it’s still premature to call the track a hit. She’s been pleasantly surprised by the response to her five-track Four Pink Walls EP, admitting that she’d been initially nervous to follow up her breakout track: “Is that going to benefit me? Is that going to make it worse? What are people going to think about it?” the thoughts ran through her head. “I was just really scared that people weren’t going to accept the idea that I like pop music and alternative and all this other stuff too.”
Her end goal though is not about instant gratitude, she’s playing the long game. “Success to me is lasting,” she says. “If your music stays that’s what success is. I don’t think it’s measured in numbers or charts or anything like that, and I feel like every artist says that, it’s such a cliche thing to say, ‘It doesn’t matter to me’. But it really doesn’t. I think making music that lasts among the pool of so many other artists, and so much music — if your song or album can last in the world, that’s what success is. It’s making timeless music that’s there forever.” It’s certainly way too early to be judging her journey so far against her eventual goal, but it certainly seems as though she’s on the right path.
Towards the end of our conversation, she considers what attracted her early supporters to her in the first place. “I’m not really sure what it was, I really don’t know, maybe because it was live…” she says of her early YouTube uploads. “I’m really not sure, I can’t really answer that. I was just being me and maybe that’s what they saw. I think when you’re you it’s the best thing that you can do.” With Alessia‘s balance of level-headedness and beyond-her-years approach with the enthusiasm and wonder of the inexperienced — let’s hope that she manages to remain herself as she dives into the jaws of the industry. If being yourself is the best thing you can do, then Alessia Cara is primed to take the pop music world head on.
Originally published at RWDmag.com.