Camila Cabello is lounging backstage in Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., eating spicy Takis corn snacks and trying to figure out what to do with a rare bit of free time. In three hours, 2017's fastest-rising pop star will be gyrating onstage in knee-high boots and a corset, but at the moment, she's dressed like a college kid, in an oversize gray sweater and leggings, her glossy brown hair in a bun. It's a Monday in mid-December, the kind of frigid day in a boring city that makes Cabello, 20, wish she was back home in Miami. But there's always Netflix. "Do you wanna watch reruns of Friends?" she asks, sounding genuinely excited about the idea.
Right about now, Cabello is excited about pretty much everything, and who could blame her? It's been almost a year since she parted ways with the hitmaking girl group Fifth Harmony, who were assembled back in 2012 by judges including Simon Cowell on the now-defunct U.S. version of The X Factor. And launching her solo career now looks to have been a great idea – even if it angered some fans at the time (and left the now-four-member group with a name that makes no sense). Cabello has a smash single that happens to be close to her heart: the irresistible, clave-tinged, Young Thug-assisted "Havana" – "an ode to my heritage, my culture" that began as just a title in notes on her iPhone. The track – which finally finds a distinctive use for her big, sultry voice – pays homage to the Cuban capital, where she was born to a Mexican dad and a Cuban mom, who is hanging out in the dressing room right now. The song's success also helped Cabello figure out a direction for her upcoming album: Her next single, the rock-tinged "Never Be the Same," is almost as singular, with a breathy chorus that pushes near the top of her range. (In the live version, she even plays electric guitar.)
Cabello's family immigrated to the U.S. when she was six, which lends a poetic appropriateness to her ascent in our Trumpian era. "I didn't even realize," she said recently, "how much racism was still prominent in our country." When she first arrived in Miami, she couldn't speak English – and was shy on top of that – so she'd do her best to lure new friends by blasting pop tunes on a boombox. "That was my way of communicating," she recalls. "My grandma always said that I had this really strong inner world."
She's been touring and recording nearly nonstop since age 15, when she went on X Factor – against her parents' wishes, though they ended up driving her to the audition – inspired by a YouTube clip of One Direction giving performance tips (Cowell assembled that group, too, on the show's U.K. version). Success followed, but along the way, something definitely went wrong within Fifth Harmony. That became clear to the outside world when Cabello breached pop protocol and started putting out solo tracks, including her hit duet with Machine Gun Kelly, "Bad Things," before officially leaving the group. But Cabello, who started writing her own songs by age 16, isn't ready to tell all, blaming an aversion to drama and an unwillingness to bum out fans – she won't even say whether she actually quit or was thrown out. "A lot of my fans were, or are, fans of the group," she says, losing her usual enthusiasm as the conversation turns to her least-favorite topic. "I don't like to ruin the dream. They believed in something that's beautiful. I'm sure with One Direction, too, nobody really saw behind the scenes. You just see the dream."
She's growing and changing so fast that she's switched the title and vibe of her first album, due January 12th, in midstream. She had originally given it the rather melodramatic title The Hurting, the Healing, the Loving, with a downer teaser track, "I Have Questions," to match. Its lyrics could be about the nasty breakup of a relationship or, um, the messy demise of, say, a five-member singing group: "I gave you all of me," she sang. "My blood, my sweat, my heart and my tears."
But that was way back in May. The album is now just called Camila, and it's way more upbeat than she initially planned. "At first I thought it was gonna be, like, a sad-song album," she says. "Then the more I got into the year, it just was better. I felt way happier. I feel that it has a good balance of the emo and the happy."
The coming year will once more be filled with promos and touring. But Cabello wants to make sure she doesn't miss out on real life along the way. "The way that I have worked," she says, "makes it hard on relationships, on friendships, even health."
Lack of time may be one reason why she's never had a serious relationship. That said, "I always have a crush on somebody," she says. "It's just how I am! It's boring without that. A girl's gotta daydream!"
When she recorded tracks for her album in L.A. this year, she felt adrift, isolated. "I do like to forget that I'm a singer or somebody that's famous," she says – she couldn't pull that off out there. "In L.A., it was hard to have people just look at me as a 20-year-old kid. It was like I didn't really have a life outside of the studio."
She always imagines being "super-old" and
looking back at her life, which is why many of her dreams have nothing to do
with music. "I want to be able to go to Italy, to live in Spain for a few
years," she says. "I want to go to New York and get my apartment, and
I want to fall in love." Today is all about meet-and-greets (with red Taki
dust still on her fingers), radio interviews and performing for an arena full
of screaming fans. But she can picture another existence. "I really do
want to live," she says. "I just want to be a kid sometimes."