Singing about the pains of growing and knowing it all, Alessia Cara is the voice keeping you up at night.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

I magine living the dream: being discovered on YouTube, shooting to stardom, then becoming a worldwide sensation with millions of streams on Spotify. We may see the end result, but the journey and that human experience towards that dream is rarely visible: the hard work, dedication and talent that was tapped into at a tender age, and just knowing that it was always meant to be that path. At just 23, Alessia Cara has already been on the airwaves, performed around the globe (we caught her in between a showcase in the region), and is constantly on the up-rise — all because she began experimenting with music when she was 10 and started her own YouTube channel at 13 singing covers with her mum’s encouragement. Having grown up singing, Alessia’s writing has been evolving through it all, loving and owning loneliness, all while staying completely grounded and the girl next door (aptly, a song title that appears on her new album!). She has just released a brand new track ‘Ready’, the first single from her EP This Summer which will be out 6 September. She spoke to #TeamCLEO about her journey of growing from YouTube to performing on stage, from doing covers to winning a Grammy Award, how the know-it-all may just still be naïve, and taking it “one day at a time”. Her fans and the world are totally ready for more!

Who or what gave you the courage to create your YouTube channel when you were 13 and started making covers?

Actually, it was my mum. My mum is the one who pushed me to do that because she knew that I wanted to be a singer. And she also knew that I was very shy so she was like, “Oh you know, instead of you performing in front of people, since you’re scared of doing that, why don’t you just post videos on YouTube, you know? Since you’ve thought about doing it, just do it.” And she really really pushed me, like you know you’re good and even if you’re not or even if nothing happens, who cares? Just put yourself out there. So yeah, it was her who gave me the courage.

What was the turning point that made you realise that you wanted to be a professional singer?

I think once I realised that I wasn’t really good at much else, and that I really didn’t want to do anything else. I was trying to find things to do in university and college cause it was time to sign up. I was looking at all the options and I was just thinking that there was nothing in here that I like more than music so I just realised that I really want to try and pursue this first.

At such a young age, you’re producing songs that are quite meaningful to your listeners. What is your creative thought process like?

I think it comes from different places. A lot of my songs, like 90% of them come from an experience of mine or something that I feel I need to talk about. But they also come from observation and things I see in the world and around me. I just always like to take in different experiences and try to use them in a positive way.

Tell us about your new album. Which song means the most to you and why?

It’s hard to pick a favourite one cause they’re all very different. I like “A Little More” a lot, it’s a meaningful one to me. But yeah, I don’t know, it’s tough. But it’s a really honest album and I’m really proud of it. I never thought I would be able to write a whole album by myself. It’s cool to be able to say that I have.

“A Little More” was written in your basement, what/who are you referring to with the single?

Yeah, it was released on my birthday. Yes, I am referring to a person. A person that the song is about and a person that I felt a lot of feelings for. And it’s about wanting a little more of them in different ways. I think you know sometimes when you meet someone and you know you’re like, “Ah, I wish I knew you sooner. I wish I knew those parts of you sooner, before you were this person.”

How would you describe your genre?

My genre? That’s tough! 'Cause I feel that genres are so intertwined. Everything is so in one. I think it’s Pop, there’s a bit of Soul in there, sometimes. It’s like a little bit RnB, Soul, Conscious, Pop. I don’t know, it’s like a melting pot of different things.

“Growing Pains” mentions Ms Know-It-All, are you referring to how things have grown from your debut album or are you referring to someone in particular?

I was referring to myself, and my first album. Cause I think the first album was called Know It All; I was a young teen who tried to have everything figured out right away. But on this album, in that particular song, I am saying like you know, Ms Know-It-All over here (points to herself) can’t even take her own advice. So that means, I am just as clueless as everyone else (laughs).

Was there a particular reason why you chose “Growing Pains” as a subject to sing about?

Yeah, I think it encapsulates the whole album and the premise of what this album is going to be about. Because I think “Growing Pains” are things we never really stop going through. We’re always going through different kinds of growing pains. It’s the human experience, it’s like the human way of life. You have to go through constant growing pains in order to get stronger, go through life by learning.

Congratulations on winning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2018! What was your first thought when your name was called?

Thank you, thank you! I was like, “Oh!” 'Cause I didn’t think they were gonna call my name. I think my jaw actually dropped and then like next thing I know, my mum was just like hugging me and I’m like, “What’s going on?” It was one of those moments where you kind of just feel frozen and then you go up there and I just saw all these artistes that I love. Like Jay-Z was over there and Bruno Mars was over there and I was like, “Whoah” and I forgot everything. It’s such a different thing like you think like as you’re walking, “Okay, I want to thank this, this and this” and you get up there and you like forget everything you wanna say. But it was crazy.

Do you have a special ritual in your green room? What is your pre-performance routine like?

Yeah! My team, well everyone that’s in the room, like my band and crew and everyone else, we’ll just put our hands in the middle and say words of wisdom. And we’ll do this little cheer where we say, “Pre-show ritual!” and then we put our hands in the air.

From recording YouTube covers to performing on  stage — how does it feel performing in front of such large crowds?

I still get really nervous. I think I’m a lot better at it now than I was, even a few years ago or maybe even last year. I’m a little bit more, well I don’t want to say composed ’cause I am not composed (laughs) but I think I am a little less afraid. I am more nervous now and not so much afraid like I used to be, which is good. But nerves will always be there.

“Scars To Your Beautiful” is still playing on airways all over the world, even after all this time it’s such an earworm. What inspired it and did you think it would become such a hit?

I didn’t think obviously that it would be a big hit. I think like when you make any song, you never know if it’s gonna... or what it's gonna do. I just hoped that it would affect people in the right way. I hope that people would take it in the right way and that anybody would listen to it. But I think the legs that it has taken and the wings that it has taken on its own is just something that nobody really expected, in a good way. It’s one of my most meaningful songs, I think it changed my life in many ways.

It can be someone from any era, but who inspires you the most?

That’s tough! So many people... Amy Winehouse is probably one of my biggest inspirations. I just think she was such an honest artist and she was never afraid to talk about things that were so personal. Like there’s so many songs of hers that I would listen to that I feel like I shouldn’t be listening to. It feels like a conversation that I shouldn’t be eavesdropping on, you know, cause it’s that personal. She wasn’t perfect and she said it all the time, she showed it all the time and it was just inspiring for a young girl like that who didn’t look like the pop-stars on TV and didn’t sound like them either. I just connected with her a lot because she was real and didn’t care about being different.

If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?

Well I would have loved to collaborate with her (Amy Winehouse) but unfortunately I can’t. I would love to collaborate with Coldplay one day or Anderson Paak. I love Coldplay, they’ve just always been one of my favourite bands ever. I think their music is beautiful, so beautiful. Chris Martin is like one of the best writers ever so I would love to work with them. And Anderson Paak, I just think he’s so talented and all of his music is so good — his writing, his voice, just his taste and style are just amazing with his songs. I would just love to see what would happen if we did something together.

What/who helps you stay grounded with your rising fame?

I think just everyone around me. I have a really good team, and great friends and family. I have very strict Italian parents so I don’t think they would let me go very far with the you know, the cockiness (laughs). But yeah, I don’t know, I just, I think I have different values and a lot of the values that are in the industry anyways so I don’t really pay attention to a lot of the other things so it’s easy for me to stay away from it.

What’s the best advice your parents have given you?

Probably to take things one day at a time. That’s always been helpful ’cause I don’t listen a lot of the time (laughs at manager). Even though I don’t listen a lot of the time, I’m such a person that thinks so far ahead, that I’m like worried about 10 weeks from now instead of worrying about today. They (parents) always try to tell me like, “Just focus on now. Worry about what you have to do right now instead of worrying about things that don’t matter.”

How would you describe your style?

It’s very, umm... simple? (laughs). It’s very simple, I think, I don’t really know how to describe it. Just like comfortable, simple, and yeah, simple chic (laughs). I made it up, simplicity chic, that is me.

Any advice for budding artistes?

I would say, “Continue working hard and make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons.” Because being an artiste is a lot, it’s 24/7 and it’s something you can’t really expect when it happens to you so make sure that you have, that you’re really doing it ’cause you believe it’s your purpose and know that you have a purpose and that your gift is way more important than fame and all that stuff. And also, if you’re told ‘no’ as you’re building your career, it’s okay. ’Cause I think you have to go through many ‘no’s to get to the one ‘yes’. That’s the important ‘yes’ that matters, and it doesn’t mean that failure is like the end. You have to think you fail to win.

My Reading Room
The Pains Of Growing  album artwork
My Reading Room
Chilling down and jamming with the team
My Reading Room
Alessia thought she had it all figured out — but she’s still growing through it all!

“[If] you’re told ‘no’ as you’re building your career, it’s okay ... You have to go through many ‘no’s to get to that one ‘yes’. ”