There are some elements of fame that every young popstar-in-waiting aspires to – magazine covers, stadium shows and verified ticks on Twitter – but when you’ve been welcomed to the stage by Taylor Swift and hung out with Drake, I guess you might start to get a bit blasé about things like top five Billboard hits.
“I didn’t expect much of anything to really come of it,” Alessia Cara shrugs when we meet for a coffee in London’s trendy east London. The nineteen-year-old Canadian’s debut single ‘Here’ was a viral hit, a song that crept up the charts as tastemakers added it to playlists and ended up shifting more than 2 million copies in the US. “I was constantly told by so many people that it wasn’t going to do anything, that it wasn’t safe enough. So I was like, okay – I believed in it personally but I didn’t expect it to become this hit song. Nobody did.”
With its lazy beat and super-cool Isaac Hayes sample the song has become an anthem for outsiders, those of us who went to the party only to realise that everyone is the worst and we’d rather be eating Supernoodles in bed. It’s a musical lean, a quietly judgy sigh, a roll of the eyes. But Cara’s label expected so little from Here that they wanted to go with another song as lead single.
“There’s a difference between being a singer and being an artist,” Alessia adds, explaining why she fought for it to be her debut. “I knew that song would make me an artist.”
Although ‘Here’ didn’t chart amazingly well in the UK (it peaked at 28), the BBC shortlisted Cara for its Sound Of poll this year. She came in second to Jack Garratt, who everyone is so keen to become A Thing, that he might just become A Thing. Alessia Cara hasn’t been foisted on the world in quite the same way as the ginger-coiffed multi-instrumentalist but from the brand-tie ins, relentless vlogs and carefully selected partnerships she’s undertaken, it’s clear that there are a lot of people quietly banking on her doing well.
Despite the vaguely corporate air that surrounds a lot of her promo, one quick look at her Twitter, all punctuation-free, emoji-heavy proclamations of love for this or that, is enough to tell you that she’s managed to maintain her own voice. But given that Cara was so sure of ‘Here’ and not shy about it, it’s a little confusing that the second half of her debut album, Know-It-All, gets quite samey. An RnB groove underpins the best tracks (all of which were previously released on a six-track EP last year, including ‘I’m Yours’ and ‘Outlaws’ which is a kind of proto-Desperado, written well before Rihanna even started work on Anti), but it all gets pretty lovelorn and saccharine towards the end.
I think for a period of time everyone was ashamed of pop music.
Reassuringly, these are the songs Cara feels most like she’s outgrown in the three years since she started work on the record. “Some of the love songs I feel like, yeah, well, you know, it’s not like that any more. So it’s kind of weird to sing them,” she says, before adding that she’s “in a ballad phase right now, like, romantic sad ballads” then, because my inward groan turned out to be less inward than I thought, reassuring me that she’ll “soon want to write a cool upbeat song, a banger” because these things are cyclical.
Perhaps her penchant for straight-laced love songs comes from a desire to be taken seriously, a subject that she talks quite a bit about both in relation to her young age, being a woman and the fact that she was discovered thanks to pop covers she’d post on YouTube. She’s not quite comfortable with being considered a pop artist, either, clearly wary of her songs being pigeonholed as something insubstantial.
“I think for a period of time everyone was ashamed of pop music,” she says. “I guess to a certain extent they felt like – and I guess I kind of felt like, too – that pop music at a certain time lacked depth. Maybe people saw it as robotic or filtered and nobody wanted to be perceived as a pop artist because of that.
“But it’s become this really broad genre that almost anything can fit into. I feel like the genre is now tailored to the artist – for example, Troye Sivan’s music is Troye Sivan Pop. Lorde is like Lorde Pop. Alessia is Alessia Pop. We’re getting back to a place where people can take something from a song and still sing along to it at the same time.”
“Authenticity” is what Cara seems to be striving for. It seems funny that an artist whose roots are so firmly in singing covers would be so aghast at the idea of buying in songs but when I suggest it, she balks. “I would never buy a song ever in my life,” she says, the whole issue seeming pretty black and white to her, and I wonder if she’s been burned by the “robotic” pop era she grew up in. But fair play to her, she’s taking more control as she learns more about music making – while most of the songs on Know-It-All were co-writes, she’s hoping (“no, not hoping,” she clarifies. “I’m saying that I will”) write future songs on her own and she’s using downtime to teach herself how to create her own beats, hoping to produce her own records when she’s good enough.
Know-It-All feels very much like a practice run; a journal-like album on which a trainee popstar learned the ropes and clung to her collaborators. But Alessia Cara is on the verge of turning 20, bursting with ideas and more confident and in control than ever, it feels like she is about to get amazing. Alessia Pop: it’s going to be the sound of 2017.