“I’m cool with [expletives],” says Alessia Cara, a 19-year-old who has spent the past year or so in fame’s anteroom — not recognisable enough to be mobbed in the supermarket, but famous enough to number arseholes among her following. “I just remember they’re [expletives], and don’t even look at Twitter.” That’s demonstrably untrue — tweeting from noon to midnight is part of the daily grind for 90s-born pop stars, and Cara does her bit, posting and replying a dozen times a day. The notable thing is that she has avoided the personality-erasure that marks the social-media splutterings of many of her pop contemporaries. Scrolling through her Twitter feed, you encounter self-deprecation (“Describe Alessia in a video,” requests a follower; “Mess,” she replies), sarcasm and a ringing endorsement of Kesha’s fight to sever ties with producer Dr Luke.
Cara — born Alessia Caracciolo, in Brampton, Ontario — is signed to a major label, Def Jam, but so far hasn’t been subsumed into the machine; she still projects the believable awkwardness that made last year’s fantastic debut single, Here, a touchstone for adolescents who would rather sit in their rooms than go to a party. The campaign run by the label plays up her self-identification as an “antisocial pessimist” (“Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this/An antisocial pessimist, but usually I don’t mess with this,” she sings on Here.), but there’s antisocial and there’s antisocial. Cara’s version is the kind that resounds with younger girls who slouch around with beanies pulled over their eyebrows, feeling like the only wallflowers at school.
Her logo, which is projected behind her at gigs, is exactly that: a cartoonish picture of a beanie yanked down over an unsmiling face, wild black curls bursting out at the sides. It’s exactly the kind of corny drawing the music business would concoct to announce that this is an artist who is more introverted than the norm — the implication being that she’s in it for more than just the chart positions. Yet the logo does more or less capture her essence. Cara really is the girl in the corner, watching her friends gossiping and smoking, and thinking: “Who are these people?” She’s in a west London hotel, discussing the lifeforms she has encountered on social media since her velvety R ‘n’ B track became a hit in 18 countries, selling 3 million copies and appearing in several end-of-year lists. (Its success was also the driving force in her coming second in the BBC Sound of 2016 poll.)
“In the beginning, I’d look at everything, and there’d be 100 positive comments, but if there was one negative one, I’d think about it all day. The more opinions you have in your life, the harder it is. Social media is like a fake reality, and it’s hard to block things out. It’s just noise, that’s how you have to look at it.” Yet even avowed fans can show their appreciation in perplexing ways. “People say, ‘Adopt me’, and I’m, like, ‘But you’re older than me!’”
Then there are people who — and this is so strange that I ask her to repeat it — send videos of themselves listening to Here, and cracking eggs over their heads when the beat drops. Let me guess — they’re 40-year-old men who think that’s the way to your heart, right? “They’re teenage girls!” Cara, who still lives with her Italian-Canadian parents in Brampton, seems more bemused than flattered. She’s also baffled by the fan trend of addressing female pop stars as “Mum” (male stars have been equally unsettled by being called “Dad”, it should be said). “Whenever I tweet, the first three replies say, ‘mum’. I don’t know what it means.” (She should be pleased, according to Lorde, who wrote on Tumblr: “among the youthz, [mum] is a compliment; it basically jokingly means ‘adopt me/be my second mum/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic’.”)
Cara’s ascent seems sudden, but she’s been performing for a third of her life. She started at 13, posting a stream of cover versions — filmed in her bedroom, obviously — on YouTube. It took three years before she got noticed, but at 16, while studying drama, she was spotted on YouTube by EP Entertainment, who brokered her deal with Def Jam. EP set her up with the songwriter Sebastian Kole, who has been teaching her to write her own songs. Cara has had relatively little experience so far — the only song on her debut album, Know-It-All, that’s entirely her own work is Four Pink Walls — but is adamant that this will change. “I want to become a songwriter. Lately, I’ve been writing for other people — I did a bunch of writers’ camps, so I’m learning. We’d be in the studio, and Sebastian would leave the room and say, ‘Alessia, finish this part,’ or he’d give me homework, or whatever. But my music is always collaborative — ‘antisocial pessimist’ was Sebastian’s phrase. I was talking to him about being pessimistic about this party, and he came up with it.”
The party that inspired Here was actually three years ago. She hated it so much that she called her mother to pick her up, and the next day told Kole about it. “Now people think I’m antisocial, but I’m not — I just wanted to portray that side of teenagers. You never hear about that person in the corner who’s not enjoying herself.” Both Here and the album, paint her as an anxious outsider.
Wild Thing, the follow-up to Here, swats away parental advice to go out and have fun: “Don’t wanna hang around the in crowd/The cool kids aren’t cool to me/They’re not cooler than we are.”
The video, shot in murky light, barely shows Cara’s face — and, as a riposte to popsters who feature their glamorous “squads” in their work, Cara has roped in her own group of ordinary-looking friends to appear in it. Further along on the album, the otherwise conventional, piano-based ballad River of Tears offers Cara’s downbeat perception of relationships: “I realise that sometimes love brings you flowers, then it builds you coffins.” Like Lorde, the last star to depict teen outsiderdom in a believable way, Cara is swimming against the industry tide. Amy Winehouse, rarely cited by younger singers, is her hero; she was captivated by the Amy documentary, seeing some piece of herself in Winehouse’s story. “The things she was afraid of are things I’m afraid of. I have to keep the right people around me, heal when I need to heal — she didn’t have time to heal.”
Alessia doesn’t have a Blake Fielder-Civil in her life, does she? “I have no Blake in my life,” she says. “There’s no anybody in my life, so there won’t be any love songs, I’m afraid.” Really? “Well, for now.”
She also wants to emulate Winehouse’s approach to albums. The advent of streaming has dismantled them into clusters of tracks, which, in her view, impairs the pleasure of listening. “We live in such a singles-based world, and I hate being disappointed by an album. I hate it when a few songs are OK, but the rest is a let down. I want to do a cohesive body of work. Amy’s album, Adele’s album, even Lauryn [Hill]’s album — they all made sense. I want people to hear mine and think it makes perfect sense, even though all my songs aren’t the same — I want people to think that, sonically, they make sense.”
Winehouse was also notable for occupying her own insular space, rarely consorting with anyone outside her inner circle. Despite having recently befriended Taylor Swift and fellow Ontarian Drake, Cara views the idea of fame with trepidation. “If I get crazy-famous I’ll probably get weird,” she predicts. “The thing is, I’m weird anyway. I won’t ever become a diva, because I’m not interested in fame — I won’t ever steer clear of what I’m doing now. People are always preaching that they want music with personality and depth, but when you give it to them, you have them saying, ‘No, we don’t want this.’”
Punch in the face
It’s hard to fathom what she means. Know-It-All’s reviews have been warm and encouraging, while Here has been highly praised not just for its vulnerability, but for Cara’s distinctively smoky voice, which she initially modelled on Winehouse. The only negativity at this point has been trollish mutterings about her appearance, which she has taken to heart. “Sometimes I laugh at it, sometimes it’s like a punch in the face, but you have to keep going,” she recently told The Line of Best Fit. “The comments are so absurd, so mean, so random: ‘She’s so ugly, she’s so unattractive, she’s so average-looking.’”
Clearly, she’s not ugly. Sitting in an empty hotel room — the bed has been removed to create space for an acoustic performance that will be broadcast to fans this week — she’s a still, striking presence. Her hair is tied in a glossy topknot, and her smooth skin is lovely. “It’s not that I don’t care how I look, but I’d rather turn the attention to the music as much as possible. I don’t put the focus on things that don’t matter. People think [music and looks] are inseparable, but I just think that music is music and fashion is fashion. Also, I don’t think I’m good at anything else.”
What particularly riles her is the expectation that she should care. “It bothers me that you have to give a [expletive]. Women have always had to give a [expletive], and work harder for everything. Talent is talent, but fashion is separate and it shouldn’t be used to judge me as a singer.” Having said that, Cara recently had a brush with the heavily stylised world of A-list pop. She had been Twitter acquaintances with Swift since last summer, when the latter followed her after hearing her cover of Swift’s Bad Blood on Radio 1’s Live Lounge.
Taking advantage of their newly forged link, in November, Cara asked Swift to interview her on camera. “I directly asked her. I sent a Twitter DM, and she responded within minutes.” Swift not only agreed, she invited Cara to sing Here at her stadium show in Tampa, Florida. Four months later, she remembers it as if it had happened to someone else. “My adrenalin was so high, I blanked completely as I sang. I thought, ‘Oh, there’s Taylor Swift, wow, she’s tall,’ and then I was crying.”
As soon as she got offstage, she wrote on Instagram : “@taylorswift thank you for showing me what 55,000 people looks like ... I can’t thank you enough for what just happened. Also I can’t feel my body. goodnight everyone I quit life.” Yet that night also marked the crossing of a line that she isn’t sure — as an antisocial pessimist — she wanted to cross. “I just want to keep my normal life for as long as possible,” she says. Something in her tone, though, acknowledges the impossibility of it. Here comes the craziness.