Photo credit: Meredith Truax
Alessia Cara—her stage name a shortened version of her birth name Alessia Caracciolo—speaks quickly and energetically over the phone. The Brampton, Ontario native is only 18, but the soulful, bluesy-ness of her lead single “Here” from her debut album, which releases this fall via Def Jam and is yet to be named, could lead you to believe that she’s a bit older than a high school graduate.
Plain and simple, “Here” speaks to why Alessia doesn’t like parties. After premiering the single in late April, her song amassed more than 500,000 listens in its first week. A month later, she released the visuals for the song, where the setting is of a party, the one she’s discussing (or dissing) on the track. In it, there are keg stands, puffs of weed smoke, and cups being flung. Everything is on pause, as Alessia takes a moment to recoup and think about why the hell she’s even there. And she does it all with graceful, alt-pop ease.
“At this age, it’s always about parties. I wanted to shed light on the people who don’t really say much and the people who are always in the corners on the wall, watching everything and wishing that they knew how to act,” Alessia says. Though she’s almost Ontario’s legal drinking age of 19, she’s completely sober.
In its essence, “Here” is an anti-party song, and in some ways, a glaring antithesis of youth culture. Alessia sings about an actual party that she attended when she was 16, where she was so uncomfortable that she had her mom pick her up. Now you might be like, oh yeah, she’s that kid. But what she’s doing with her music challenges something that people her age typically love.
By loudly proclaiming her dislike for drinking, smoking, and dancing, Alessia separates herself from the pack. Perhaps on some level that means that she can’t relate to a lot of kids her age, but ultimately, it’s refreshing. She doesn’t like parties—that much we get—but it’s her ingrained shyness and feelings of uncertainty that have gotten her here.
The thread of self-doubt started early for her; from the beginning, she doubted her ability to write music, to sing in front of others. But out of that social hesitation was born a singer who speaks to those who feel alienated at social gatherings, to those who feel like they have to do certain things to feel “cool” or be accepted, to those who aren’t hellbent on going to parties, drinking, and floating in “clouds of marijuana.”
Since “Here,” Alessia’s already being grouped with alt-pop artists like Lorde, whose introduction to the world was also an anthem for those on the outside, looking in. “I think with me and Lorde, the similarity is, even her first song was almost controversial and almost daring. A young girl doing something like that and having that strong of a voice—it was definitely daring but it works… I hope people understand that young people have a voice and they have thoughts and they’re not always thinking about what everyone else is thinking,” Alessia says.
“It was kind of scary putting [“Here”] out. Of course there’s always that worry: are people going to understand what I’m talking about? In that situation, you think you’re the only one. You don’t realize that there’s other people that feel the same way. It was pleasantly surprising to me to see how many people put up their hand and went I feel this way too.”
Alessia grew up in the suburbs of Brampton. She was artistically inclined from a young age, and wrote short stories and poems when she was little. She attempted to write songs, but discouraged herself because she didn’t think she was capable. Her parents gave her a guitar for her 13th birthday, which encouraged her to start her own YouTube channel. She covered Taylor Swift, Amy Winehouse (a huge influence for her), Justin Timberlake, Gnarls Barkley, and Jhene Aiko, among others. She videotaped her collection of covers by herself, in her closet—she wouldn’t let anybody watch.
Because she was too frightened to sing in front of people, she made the brave decision to participate in her high school drama club open mic nights. “Only a few people would go [to the open mics], so I felt more comfortable because it wasn’t that many people. But then they started becoming more popular every year, and every couple months we would have them. The more often they’d get, the more people would come, but I’d still go,” she says.
“It was good because it really eased me into it. It was like a natural growing audience and a natural way to just get more used to it… I also took drama class and I was like in theater and performance art and all that stuff, so I was never shy to act or do anything like that in front of people. But I was so nervous to sing, so I think it was really just getting the singing down. And then once I found the reaction that I was getting from people—they were really supportive of what I did—it was a lot easier to get into it.”
Like a lot of musicians in the digital age, YouTube played a hand in her getting “discovered”: a music executive’s daughter was helping her father find talent for his production company, and the daughter stumbled upon Alessia’s videos. The music exec flew Alessia out to New York and she was almost immediately thrown into the studio, where famed producer and singer/songwriter Sebastian Kole taught her how to structure her songs. The support from Kole reassured her faith in her own songwriting abilities; under his tutelage, she penned five songs, which she began showcasing to labels. At some point, she met A&R Tab Nkhereanye who helped sign her to Def Jam last July, a few days after her 18th birthday. All of this started when she was around 15—she’s been working on her album for almost two years.
Photo credit: Meredith Truax
When you watch the video for “Here,” or even listen to the lyrics, it might remind you of the book Perks of Being a Wallflower (basically angsty teenager fodder for a lot of us). Like the book’s main character Charlie, Alessia is also posed as a wallflower, an outsider, an introvert. In “Here,” she croons, “Truly I ain't got no business here / But since my friends are here, I just came to kick it / But really I would rather be at home all by myself / Not in this room with people who don't even care about my well-being.”
A younger ear might pick up on the lyrics, which are geared towards a youthful audience. An older ear, however, might pick up on the fact that the production for “Here” samples Isaac Hayes’ song “Ike’s Rap 2,” a sample that’s also featured on Portishead’s song “Glory Box,” and a detail that might distract you from what’s actually going on: This girl feels like there’s something wrong with her. “It was just honestly how I was feeling. It was more like I’m the problem almost—like all these things are happening and I just don’t want to be here,” Alessia admits.
Like Charlie, who brazenly attempts to open up and reveal himself to others, Alessia does the same. At a young age, she made the bold move to unveil her music to others. Though she was, at first, scared to share such an intensely private part of herself, she pulled herself out of her secluded mentality. It was a bold step forward, and a bold mindset that she’s now determined to always show.
“Right now I really want to speak from what I can see and what I’m feeling. I am a young girl and these are my thoughts. I think people can understand it, whether they want to admit it or not. A lot of the things that I’m thinking—I’m not crazy and I’m not a rebel. I know other people feel this too.”
Tara Mahadevan is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.