An interview with Alessia Cara

The Canadian pop star behind the R&B-inflected hits “Here” and “Wild Things” discusses her influences and rise to fame.

Alessia Cara. Photo by Meredith Truax

Alessia Cara is a pop star who stands out from the pack.

When I spoke to the Brampton, ON-born singer/songwriter in August, she was in the midst of a tour with Coldplay, performing in front of 50,000 people per night. At 20, Cara had already been signed to Def Jam and hit the charts in Canada and the U.S. with her 2015 album Know-It-All and a pair of massive singles, “Here” and “Wild Things,” recently followed by the stellar “Scars to Your Beautiful.”

With a rich voice evoking the great soul and R&B canon, a sound echoing styles as diverse as pop, trip hop and contemporary country and lyrics tackling the complexities of alienation, young love and societal beauty standards, Cara is poised to become a rare pop idol that places brains and bold artistic choices ahead of bullshit.

Cara’s career started to take shape when she posted a series of acoustic covers on YouTube in her mid-teens. Industry attention followed, then the Four Pink Walls EP and the recording of her album. She did not write or produce most of these songs on her own, having collaborated with songwriting/production duo Pop & Oak and producers Malay and Sebastian Kole, but her voice, narratives and personality lie at the heart of every song — it’s a musical language she started speaking a long time ago.

“My parents were music consumers and music lovers, but they weren’t musicians,” Cara says. “I have a couple of family members who play music — my cousins and aunts and uncles here and there — but I discovered music on my own. I’ve been singing forever, and I started playing guitar when I was 10.”

Some of her earliest musical memories are car rides with her parents, with a soundtrack of her father’s classic rock (the Beatles and Queen in particular) and her mother’s contemporary Italian music. But her first musical idol was an artist she discovered on her own.

“I discovered Amy Winehouse when I was around 9 or 10,” she recalls. “Of course the first song of hers that I heard was ‘Rehab’ and as a nine-year-old that was probably not the best song I should’ve been listening to, but I didn’t care — I loved her music. I researched her and got both her albums and fell in love with her pretty quickly. She resonated with me — she was really raw and didn’t care what people thought of her. She never really fit in in the world of pop music at that time, she was very stand-alone. I kind of felt out of place in my life, too, and I wanted to make music that was raw and real, so I really related to her.”

Without any singing lessons, and having only learned the basics of guitar playing, Cara built her sound and her style over the next six, seven, eight years, overcoming shyness and stage fright to the point where she could go out every night to perform in front of crowds.

Since graduating high school and beginning her career as a professional musician — she’s putting off post-secondary education for a few years — Cara has been touring the world, primarily as a headliner. Face-time staves off homesickness, and helps to keep her grounded as she prepares for the next phase of her career: a second album, and the growth that comes with it.

“I’ve always known what I wanted to be and what I didn’t want to be. I’ve always been true to my sound, and the [first] album is very versatile — there isn’t one set style. There are a lot of influences that make up who I am as an artist now, and in the future.” ■

Alessia Cara will perform with opener Ruth B at Metropolis (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m., $38/$43