Alessia Cara on 'Moana,' Meeting Taylor Swift, Recapturing 'Here' Sound

The "alternative pop" singer-songwriter talks imitating Lorde, worshipping Amy Winehouse and the "complete terror" that comes along with stardom

"Here" singer-songwriter Alessia Cara discusses the new wave of alternative pop, why Amy Winehouse is the epitome of cool and more. Credit: David Sandison/eyevine/Redux

Rising pop star Alessia Cara is about to get on a plane for her first trip to Tokyo, and she has big plans for the flight, which will afford her a rare 12-hour chunk of free time. "I'll probably just watch a movie," she says, "and eat some bread. I always eat bread on planes. And go to sleep, or maybe write some songs on my laptop." The 20-year-old Ontario native broke through in 2015 with a distinctive ode to social anxiety, "Here," from her debut, Know-It-All. Now, she's writing for her next LP while reaching new audiences with a guest spot on the soundtrack to Disney's Moana – and a bravura Saturday Night Live performance. "I kind of got too into it," she says, "and I hit my mic pack off. It unplugged my in-ear, so I couldn't hear anything. Which was the scariest thing ever. I was like, 'Of course this would happen to me.'"

You started on YouTube, playing acoustic-guitar covers. What drew you to the instrument?
I loved the sound of it, and to be honest, I just thought it looked cool. I saw young women like Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill playing, and it's weirdly empowering to be able to stand up there and just shred. And I can in no way shred! But I can play, like, a G chord and hopefully make it look cool. Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" was the first song I played, then Pink's "Dear Mr. President."

How did you master the uncanny Lorde impression you did on Fallon?
I've been a Lorde fan since forever, and after I listen to someone's music a million times, I just start to sing it like them. She has such a distinct way of pronouncing words. Lorde said it sounded like her, which was a good stamp of approval.

You operate in a space Lorde helped carve out – sort of alternative pop.
Yeah, alternative pop is a good way to put it. People like her and Halsey and even Troye Sivan have done a really amazing job paving that lane for what "alternative" is now.

When Taylor Swift interviewed you last year, it was clear she knew your album really well. Were you surprised?
I was taken aback, in a good way. It taught me that no matter how big you become, it doesn't mean you have to stop loving music or paying attention.

When you got to perform with her on the 1989 tour, did you daydream about headlining stadiums?
Absolutely. But half of it is daydreaming and the other half is just complete terror. I've never been one to crave attention, which I know means that this is probably the worst career to pick. I get anxious even when people come up to me for pictures, sometimes. That's the one thing that makes me hesitant about my future. But I love music too much to not do it.

"I've never been one to crave attention, which I know means that this is probably the worst career to pick." 

Amy Winehouse was a key influence for you. What was it about her?
She was so different from everyone else I was hearing on radio and stuff. I was only 10 when I saw the video to "Rehab," which is probably not the best video to see when you're 10. But I didn't know what it meant – I just saw this crazy-haired, curly-haired girl like me singing. And she didn't sing like she was trying too hard. I was like, "This girl's cool. I wanna be like her."

On "Four Pink Walls," you come close to rapping. Can you freestyle?
Sometimes, if it hits me, I can do it. Other times, I'm really bad. When I write, I like squeezing as many words as possible into each bar – I've listened to the Fugees and Lauryn Hill for as long as I can remember, so probably a big chunk of it subconsciously comes from that.

You're a writer on all of your songs, but you made an exception with "How Far I'll Go" for Disney's Moana. Why?
The movie's story is a lot like my life, actually. This girl who wants to explore outside her traditional world – that was how I felt, trying to pursue music with my traditional Italian family. I got on Skype with [composer] Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he was like, "Just make it your own."

You did a songwriting camp for a big pop artist's album. What was that like?
It's honestly a bit strange. They had a bunch of rooms with different producers and writers and stuff, and I was in one by myself. A guy comes in and he tells you what they're looking for, in my case a song that wasn't a ballad but is still heartfelt. And then they had a computer with beats on it, and I had to pick one of them and write to it. I don't know if I'd do it again, but if I did, I would want the artist there so I can get a vibe of what they actually want.

What are your goals for your own next album?
The last album was very metaphorical, lots of wordplay. Which I love. But I'm trying to see what will happen if I write a bit more simply. But sonically, I really wanna lean more toward the vibe of "Here," that kind of gritty pop-soul, R&B thing. That's where my heart is, and I think that sound kind of got away from me a little bit just because I was young and so unsure of what I wanted to do.