Interview

Week In Pop Q&A: Alessia Cara Is Here, There, And Everywhere

Alessia Cara calls me back just as soon as she wraps up with Michelle Obama. The 19-year-old Def Jam singer — born Alessia Caracciolo to Italian parents in the Ontario suburb of Brampton — is in New York to perform at the First Lady’s College Signing Day event at Harlem Armory alongside a slew of other celebrities including Melissa McCarthy, ex-NFL star Calvin Johnson, and a smattering of SNL cast members. By the time we connect, she’s finished with FLOTUS and on her way to a photo op elsewhere in New York.

It’s crazy to think about Cara in this situation, and not just because she’s a Canadian citizen who doesn’t go to college. Her breakout single, the addictive Isaac Hayes-via-Portishead flip “Here,” was all about being an “antisocial pessimist” who can’t wait to leave the party. Rising all the way to #5 and earning cosigns from pop royalty including Drake and Taylor Swift, it made Cara the poster girl for a new wave of post-Lorde pop rebels. Although, as New York Times writer Jon Caramanica observed, Cara is “a little too cherubic to be a true rebel. Her version of outsiderness is that of a naïf, new to the world and still capable of being shocked by it.”

That’s the Cara who showed up on debut album Know-It-All. Not that the LP doesn’t further her jaded introvert persona to a point: The buoyantly soulful electronic pop jam “Seventeen” finds a wistful Cara worrying her life had already slipped away before she reached voting age; the modernized Motown record “Outlaws” is a PG-rated Bonnie and Clyde story about two bored outcasts in love; the former EP title track “Four Pink Walls” envisions young Cara alone in her room, losing herself in the music and dreaming of bigger things; and “Here” follow-up “Wild Things” is her submission to the canon of pop songs about living to your own drumbeat — or, in this case, your own 808 programming.

These may be outsider anthems at heart, but they’re also bright, winsome, approachable pop songs built to appeal to the widest possible audience. And while the personality behind them may be shy and even rebellious, she’s no misanthrope. By Cara’s own admission, she just needed to be nudged to step out of her shell. And fame has provided plenty of nudges; these days she seems to be endlessly circling the globe, constantly roving from one spotlight to the next. Already this year Cara has completed a headline tour behind Know-It-All and two Coachella performances, and starting next month she’ll play arenas as main support for Coldplay’s world tour. Living this life doesn’t allow her to remain “somewhere in the corner under clouds of marijuana.”

For what it’s worth, Cara was far from standoffish on the phone this week. Maybe, as she suggests, confidence is helping her become a truer version of herself. Or maybe she’s a secret sociopath, and her increasingly cheery public face is all a long con, part of the “big dreams to take over the planet” she sang about on “Here.” (Probably not. I think she’s just nice?) Read our conversation below.

STEREOGUM: So what were you doing with the First Lady?

ALESSIA CARA: We did an event, it’s basically for all people who are going to post-secondary school. It’s kind of just a campaign to encourage people to go to post-secondary school — National College Signing Day. And I got to perform.

STEREOGUM: Your big breakout single was about being introverted, and now you’re out touring and I assume attending big public events like this all the time. Has it been a difficult transition?

CARA: At first, definitely, and sometimes now I even find myself in situations that are just uncomfortable or strange, like a red-carpet kind of thing or a really crowded place. But doing it every day has taught me to get better at it, to be more extroverted. And I’m starting to become more myself, I think, because I’m learning to be more confident. It’s been an adjustment, but I think I’m adjusting pretty well because I’m doing it like every day.

STEREOGUM: Part of your busyness recently was doing Coachella. Since they extended it to two weekends I’ve been wondering if the vibe is any different on the second week.

CARA: Oh yeah, definitely. First week was crazy, I think because everybody was there first week. It was just packed and crowded and insane. And then I felt like the second week was a lot more calm. People during the second week were just like, “Hey, what’s good?” You know, we already did it once, we know what’s happening now. It’s like, a lot calmer. People are just a lot more chill the second week. I guess if you’re one of the types that likes more craziness, then go the first week, but if you like more mellow stuff, then probably go the second week.

STEREOGUM: You’re about to tour with Coldplay. That was a surprising match. How did it come about?

CARA: Yeah, it’s still hard to believe it’s even happening. I was on my own headlining tour, the Know-It-All tour, and I got to the bus, and my manager [told me that] we got a call from our agent [saying] that Coldplay wanted me to open for them after my tour was done. It was just insane. It’s really cool because it wasn’t one of those things that was put together by labels or anything. It was them asking. And that made it even cooler, I think, because it was more of a direct conversation, which was really nice.

STEREOGUM: You’re at this point where your album has been out for a few months and you’re deep into promoting it. Have you had time to work on new material?

CARA: It’s hard to get in the studio and actually physically work on music, but I guess when you’re a songwriter and artist you always have ideas and are always sort of just putting things down — or I do, anyway. I have a bunch of random ideas and concepts, but I just haven’t had time to actually get in and flesh them out. But hopefully when things calm down after tour I can get back in and do some creative stuff.

STEREOGUM: It seems like there’s a demand now to be constantly producing something. Do you feel pressure to get new music out, or do you feel like you can afford to sit on what you have for a while?

CARA: I do feel pressure from the outside world a little bit just because everybody wants new music, which is really nice. It just proves that everybody likes what I’m doing. But at the same time I feel like it’s important to just chill and experience things and really make the songs true to me. Because I like to write from personal experience and actually get a chance to work on stuff rather than just making a bunch of stuff up just to rush it.

STEREOGUM: You started out by posting music on YouTube. Do you ever miss the instant gratification of just making something and putting it out immediately?

CARA: A little, but I mean I still kind of do that — or I try to do it whenever possible, like tour vlogs or little covers here and there. I try to keep doing that because it’s the one thing that’s just direct. I can do it whenever, and I can get out content just from me right away, which is always really nice. So I try to do that as much as possible, but again, I’m just so busy. I don’t have the time.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned that Coldplay specifically asked for you, and I hear a lot about people like Drake and Taylor Swift being fans and endorsing you. It seems like a lot of big stars are big fans of yours. Are you going to try to get some collaborations going on the next album, or are you planning to keep it mostly you like the last one?

CARA: It depends on how things work out, but I would love to collaborate with a bunch of those people. Like, I love Drake, of course. I mention that all the time. I think he’s amazing. I would love to do something with him. Or Ed Sheeran even, or just a bunch of producers that I’m into like Diplo. But I guess we’ll have to see how it will turn out.

STEREOGUM: Out of all the different events and experiences these last couple years, is there anything that stands out as the most surprising or unbelievable experience you’ve gotten to have?

CARA: There’s been so many of those, honestly, but I think the most recent one, and one of the biggest for me is winning a Juno. That’s huge for Canada, and I didn’t expect it. And I performed there also. Just the whole experience at the Junos was really, really insane. I didn’t think I’d even be there at 17, but winning was even more over-the-top for me. It was incredible.

CREDIT: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

After nine weeks of “Work,” America has a new #1 single — and for the first time since last July, it’s by an American native. Desiigner’s Future-inspired, Kanye-distributed “Panda” ascends to the top of the Hot 100, and Billboard brings us all the relevant stats:

“Panda” breaks a record 41 weeks of foreign performers atop the American singles chart. The last US-born performers to hit #1 were Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth with “See You Again” on the chart dated 7/25/15. Desiigner is also the first rapper to top the chart since Khalifa. He’s also the first rapper to go #1 with his first Hot 100 single since Iggy Azalea did it with “Fancy” in 2014 and the first New York rapper to go #1 since Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot” in 2007. Lastly, at 18 years and 11 months, Desiigner is the youngest artist to hit #1 since Chris Brown’s did it at 18 years and six months with 2007 T-Pain collab “Kiss Kiss.”

Other big chart moves on the Hot 100: Drake’s WizKid and Kyla collab “One Dance” vaults 10 spots to #3, becoming his 17th top-10 hit and his third-highest single as a lead artist after dual #2 hits “Hotline Bling” and “Best I Ever Had.” That’s crazy because “Hotline Bling” and “Best I Ever Had” were ubiquitous cultural phenomena whereas I have yet to experience “One Dance” away from Music Twitter. I guess it’s more popular than I thought! Meanwhile, Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” continues to rise; it’s up to #5 this week, surpassing 2010’s “Cooler Than Me” to become his highest-charting hit. And Fifth Harmony/Ty Dolla $ign’s “Work From Home” climbs to a new peak of #6.

As for the albums chart, we tackled that in depth earlier this week:

On first glance, it’s not that surprising that Prince holds the #1 and #2 spots on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week in the wake of his unexpected death. After all, when David Bowie died earlier this year, people bought his albums like crazy, and unlike Prince, Bowie’s music was readily available all over the internet. But it’s still remarkable just how many albums Prince sold upon news of his passing, and how quickly it happened. News of his death broke just after noon on Thursday, less than 12 hours before the end of this week’s chart period. So the Purple One shot to #1 and #2 (plus #6, #31, #61, #95, #147, and #160) on less than half a day’s worth of sales.

Prince Albums Ranked
Revisit the Purple One's incredible discography.

The Very Best Of Prince tops the chart with 179,000 equivalent units; only 100,000 of those were traditional album sales, which means a lot of people were buying individual tracks and streaming that comp on Tidal. Following at #2 is the Purple Rain soundtrack with 69,000 units/63,000 in sales. And The Hits/The B-Sides clocks in at #6 with 41,000 units/24,000 sales. Also charting were 1999 (#31), Ultimate (#61), Sign ‘O’ The Times (#95), HITnRun: Phase One (#147) and Prince (#160). Billboard broke down some statistics of note:

The Very Best Of Prince becomes Prince’s fifth #1 album following Purple Rain (1984 and 1985), Around The World In A Day (1985), the Batman soundtrack (1989), and 3121 (2006).

•It’s also the first greatest hits album to go #1 since the Notorious B.I.G.’s Greatest Hits in 2007.

•Prince becomes the first artist to chart at #1 and #2 since Nelly’s simultaneous 2004 albums Suit and Sweat.

Purple Rain’s return to the Billboard 200 marks its 100th week on the chart.

Also worth noting: Sturgill Simpson’s fantastic A Sailor’s Guide To Earth enters at #3 with 55,000 units/52,000 sales and would have debuted at #1 if not for Prince. Bummer for Simpson, but I’m sure he understands.

I should also mention that without the surge of Prince purchases, this would have been another dreadful week for album sales. No disrespect to Simpson, but 55,000 units is an extremely low figure for a #1 album. That won’t be a problem next week, as Beyoncé’s Lemonade is expected to sell 450,000 copies and add another 100,000 units via streaming. Plus, Prince’s catalog will likely have another huge week. And with Drake’s VIEWS debuting on the following week’s chart, sales should continue to be strong.

POP FIVE

Blink-182 – “Bored To Death”
Actual lyric: “Life is too short to last long.” Wanted to get behind this quasi-reunion, but nah.

Elle King – “America’s Sweetheart”
I big-upped this song when I wrote about Elle King last year, and I continue to believe it’s one of the finest monogenre specimens to crack radio rotation in recent years.

Meghan Trainor – “Better” (Feat. Yo Gotti)
I forget who said this on Twitter, but how many rappers do you think turned this down before they got to Yo Gotti?

Alesso – “I Wanna Know” (Feat. Nico & Vinz)
African-Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz have released a lot of singles since the once-ubiquitous “Am I Wrong,” but none of them have caught on, not even the extremely catchy and humorously self-aware “FourFiveSeconds” rip “That’s How You Know” (chorus: “That’s how you know you fucked up!”). This Alesso collab probably isn’t going to be a hit for them if that one wasn’t, but you never know what breathy, emotive EDM ballad will make a run up the charts.

Imagine Dragons – “Not Today”
Not today, not ever.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Nicki Minaj is on the cover of TIME’s Influencer issue. [Time]
  • Kesha’s new song with Zedd, “True Colors,” is out tomorrow. [Twitter]
  • Rihanna’s new song with Calvin Harris is out tomorrow too. [Twitter]
  • Here’s a fan-made interactive version of Drake’s VIEWS album cover. Fun for minutes! [Drop Drake]
  • Or make your own VIEWS cover with a little Drake on it. [Drake’s Views]
  • Jennifer Hudson will star with Harvey Fierstein in NBC’s Hairspray Live! in December. [Variety]
  • Shawn Mendes’ new album should be out in September. [Direct Lyrics]
  • New legal docs relating to former manager Sam Lufti’s case against Britney Spears have dredged up the pop star’s history of drug abuse and unstable behavior. [TMZ]
  • After Lemonade dropped, Rita Ora wore a “J” necklace and Beyoncé’s “Formation” outfit, but she denies she’s “Becky with the good hair.” [Just Jared]
  • Somehow Iggy Azalea managed to insert herself in the #Lemonade content pool, propogating a controversy about “Becky” being a stereotype against white girls. [Hot New Hip Hop]
  • Diplo shared a snippet of Ezra Koenig’s demo for Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” via Snapchat. [Idolator]
  • Alicia Keys, Alessia Cara, Queen Latifah, and Jaden and Willow Smith will honor their mothers in a VH1 Mother’s Day special Dear Mama. [VH1]
  • Lyrics by Taylor Swift, Charlie Puth, Kacey Musgraves, and dozens more popular artists will appear on Coca-Cola labels as part of a new campaign. [Billboard]
  • Lady Gaga and Elton John have teamed up for a Macy’s clothing and accessories (and speakers and skateboards) line called Love Bravery. [THR]
  • Gaga also wrote a moving tribute to Prince on Instagram. [Instagram]
  • Ariana Grande had a sorta funny “Lip Sync Conversation” with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME