'It's A Learning Curve': Alessia Cara On Growing Up, The Grammys And More

Dec 8, 2018

Those awkward, angsty teenaged years have long been fodder for pop music, but Alessia Cara has her own take on them. Her sensible, subdued pop songs like smash hits "Here" and "Scars to Your Beautiful" and laid-back demeanor speaks to millions — wallflowers, misfits and extroverts alike — who are just trying to figure themselves out. Maybe that's because Cara is still figuring herself out, too.

The singer-songwriter's sophomore, The Pains of Growing, out now, is a continuation of her messages of self-love, only this time, with added notes of her own apprehensions about success, adulthood and the world we're living in.

Cara wrote the album's lead single "Growing Pains," two years ago during a time when she felt spread too thin and lost within herself. Cara calls this song the "initial impetus" for the rest of the album.

"I had become, you know, the artist who talks about positivity, and being yourself and loving yourself, yet for a while there, I kind of lost that within me," Cara says. "It's totally fine if you believe those sentiments, but you don't believe them everyday because it's a learning curve, it's a process."

Cara remains down to Earth while she trusts the process. She still lives at home with her family and writes music in her childhood bedroom. And while some of her pop contemporaries present images of high glamour and gloss, the 22-year-old prefers to keep her style, like her music, honest, simple and comfortable.

"It just doesn't feel like me," she says. "I just never understood the reason to have to look like that if you want to be successful in his industry. I never understood why those two things go hand in hand."

Critics have noticed her unique approach to music, too. This past January, the Canadian singer won her first Grammy, beating out SZA, Khalid, Julia Michaels and Lil Uzi Vert in the category of best new artist. "I never thought I'd achieve something like that so early on," she says.

But the moment was bittersweet. There was controversy surrounding Cara's win. Some music fans — or more specifically, social media haters — claimed her debut album, 2016's Know-It-All, had been out too long for her to qualify in the best new artist category. (As of a Grammys rule change in 2016, in order to be eligible in the category, the artist must not have subsequently won a Grammy, have released a minimum of five tracks or one album, and not be entered into the category more than three times.) Cara was also the only woman to win an award during the night's televised broadcast, prompting the social media hashtag #GrammysSoMale and sparking a conversation about the award show's need to evolve. Cara says all this baggage that came with her win slightly spoiled the experience for her.

"It was an innocent dream of mine for my whole life and when politics go into it and the Internet gets involved, unfortunately, it becomes a little tainted. I wish it didn't affect me, but it did," Cara says. "There were people who were claiming to be feminists, saying, 'There's a lack of representation and we're upset about that.' ... But then those same people were saying mean things about me. So how can you say, 'We want female representation, but then saying, 'But not you'? That's not feminism."

But Cara says that she channeled the bittersweetness of her Grammy moment and other realizations about the music industry into The Pains of Growing. Now with two albums under her belt, Cara says she's still trying to figure out what her purpose is through music. "But at the and of the day, I feel like your purpose can come from making one person feel like they're not alone and just know that it's OK if they don't have it figured out."

It's all part of growing up.

Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to the digital version of this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, those awkward angsty teenage years - they've long been fodder for pop music, but Canadian singer Alessia Cara has her own take.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE")

ALESSIA CARA: (Singing) Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this. An anti-social pessimist, but usually I don't mess with this. And I know you mean only the best. And your intentions...

MARTIN: That is Alessia Cara's song "Here," which Rolling Stone magazine put in its list of Top 50 songs of 2018. And at this year's Grammy Awards, Alessia Cara won Best New Artist. Now, at age 22, she recently released her second album, "The Pains Of Growing." When I spoke with Alessia Cara a few days ago, she started by telling me about how she first became a songwriter.

CARA: Growing up, I always thought that everybody wrote their own music. I just thought that that's how it worked. So I thought, OK, if I want to be a musician, I'm going to have to write some songs. And so I would do it, like, for fun. As a kid, I had a band with my cousins that I wouldn't even consider a band, but we called it that. And I would just write all the songs for it. I had this little typewriter. And I would just make up these songs.

And I also really enjoyed writing short stories. And I just - I don't know, you know, I just thought it was like a cool little challenge for me to be able to write about things and make them rhyme. And it was fun for me. And even now that I've gotten the true hang of it, I still feel like it's so fun. And it's a challenge to, like, crack the code on certain songs and stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVENTEEN")

CARA: (Singing) So hear me scream. I was too young to understand what it means. I couldn't wait till I could be 17. I thought he lied when he said take my time to dream. Now I wish I could freeze the time at 17.

MARTIN: One of the things that I've been fascinated by is that you just made a statement by - not just by what you do but by what you don't do. Like, you have kind of have eschewed the - like the crazy super glam look that, even for very young women in this industry, has become almost the norm. And I'm curious about what gave you the courage to stick to your real self. And I'm not judging anybody who chooses a different presentation, right?

CARA: Of course, yeah. That's - definitely, yeah.

MARTIN: But I'm wondering, what has allowed you to just say no thank you?

CARA: Well, I feel like I've always been a very stubborn person. I've always, like, questioned things growing up, even with little decisions in my life before music. And I don't know. I just - it just doesn't feel like me. And I just never understood the reason to have to look like that if you want to be successful in this industry. I never understood why those two things go hand in hand.

I think that's a very brainwashed way to think, and it's a very bad message to send little kids, you know, who want to do this for a living, that you have to look like that to be in a certain field. You know, because you don't see that in other fields. Why is it so prominent in the entertainment industry? Like, why is that the standard of beauty, you know?

MARTIN: Have you ever asked any of the industry folks why and...

CARA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And when you say, well, why, what do they say?

CARA: Well, the common answer is usually like, that's just the way it is. You know, unfortunately, that's the world we live in. And it's like - but it's the world we live in because we've made it that way. And everyone's just following what the people before them are doing. And we've done this, you know. And so, like, why can't we undo it? Why can't we do something else until there is no standard anymore? Like I - maybe that's too hopeful of me and very naive to say. But, you know, we have to have hope that things can be different because we're the ones who've made it that way, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARS TO YOUR BEAUTIFUL")

CARA: (Singing) You should know you're beautiful just the way you are. And you don't have to change a thing, the world could change its heart. No scars to your beautiful. We're stars, and we're beautiful.

MARTIN: So did the Grammy change anything for you? Did it feel like vindication? Did it feel like about time?

CARA: (Laughter) No, definitely not about time. It's actually kind of the opposite. I never thought that I would, you know, achieve something like that so early on.

MARTIN: And there was this little unhappiness around it. You know, some people were mad. They thought the album was out too long. You know, and you're the only woman who won on that broadcast. So there was a lot swirling around it. Did any of that take anything away from it for you?

CARA: Honestly, if I'm being honest, yes, a little bit, which is unfortunate because, you know, it was an innocent dream of mine for my whole life. And I think it affected me for a bunch of different reasons. One of the more important reasons being that there were people claiming to be feminists and saying, you know, there's a lack of representation tonight, and we're upset about that. Like, you know, lack of representation for women. But then those same people were saying mean things about me.

So it's like, how can you say we want female representation but then saying, but not you, you know? That's not feminism. Feminism isn't selective. It's not - you don't get to pick and choose feminism, which was very just unfortunate and frustrating for me because I just felt like I wasn't being talked about fairly. But yeah.

MARTIN: Well, that kind of leads really nicely into your second album, "The Pains Of Growing." It sounds like those were some of the things that you were reflecting on as you were putting it together, right? So let's play something. Let's listen to a song from the new album, "Growing Pains," and then we'll talk a little bit more.

CARA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Here it is. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWING PAINS")

CARA: (Singing) Make my way through the motions. I try to ignore it, but home's looking farther the closer I get. Don't know why I can't see the end. Is it over yet? A short leash and a short fuse don't match. They tell me it ain't that bad. Now don't you overreact. So I just hold my breath, don't know why. I can't see the sun when young should be fun.

MARTIN: Your language is very simple and direct, but it just evokes so much.

CARA: Thanks.

MARTIN: Do you mind, like, what specifically was going on when you wrote these words?

CARA: Yeah, absolutely. I wrote it during a time where I was - just felt so consumed by everything. And I felt like I was giving so much to everybody that I hadn't thought about myself for a very long time. I just found myself being very unhappy for no reason. And I had all these amazing things, and I had achieved all these amazing things, but yet there was something in me like a void that I just could not figure out.

And I felt bad about talking about it for so long because I felt like I'd be ungrateful if I talked about it, until I realized that my career is just a tiny aspect of my life. And there's so many facets of a human being that just have nothing to do with that. And it's OK to feel sad. It's OK to want to figure those facets out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWING PAINS")

CARA: (Singing) And I can't hide because growing pains are keeping me up at night. And I can't hide because growing pains are keeping me up at night.

MARTIN: Let's listen to another song. This is "7 Days." Let's play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 DAYS")

CARA: (Singing) If there's a god, do you think he's looking down, curled up on his couch right now? As we fail to figure it out, does he turn down the sound? Is he proud? Are we proud? Guess we forgot how to live a life with no filter, making boring people famous. Let's pretend they're fascinating. Let's tell little girls that pretty girls are better or that pigment or religion really matters. We're in some trouble. Mr. Maker, don't turn away from your screen. At least the bubble that we've created could make for some good TV.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's wild. But that's food for thought.

CARA: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Where'd the idea come from for this?

CARA: Well, this one I wrote at home during a period of time which I feel like is still kind of happening right now, but during a period of time that you couldn't really turn on the news or social media without seeing something either just tragic or frustrating or upsetting. And it really got me thinking about, you know, thinking about like whoever put us here or whatever put us here, what are they thinking right now? If they're up there, if there is a God up there like we all - like a lot of us believe, what is this God thinking? Like, did he do this on purpose? Is he upset at us?

And I called the song "7 Days" because there's this whole like metaphorical theory in Catholicism that says, you know, God created the earth in 7 days. So I wanted to just basically ask, you know, were we worth those seven days, or, like, did we just ruin everything? And I know that's a very pessimistic view, but there comes a point where so many things happen where you just - you have all these questions. So this was just me being like, hey, if you are up there, what's going on? You know, I have some questions. We all have some questions up here. Like, help us out. Send us a lifeline, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 DAYS")

CARA: (Singing) Does he hang his head at all the greed that we possess as the anti-social media perpetuates the mess? Maybe it's a test. Maybe he's upset by the loose ends...

MARTIN: That's Alessia Cara talking to us about her latest album, "The Pains Of Growing." She was kind enough to join us here in our studios in New York. Alessia Cara, thank you so much for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.

CARA: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.