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Alessia Cara on ‘Tonight Show’ Breakthrough, Being ‘Terrified of Fame’

“I don’t want to have one song of the summer and then disappear forever,” says singer behind viral hit “Here”

alessia cara

Fresh off a striking 'Tonight Show' performance, Alessia Cara preps her debut EP.

Meredith Truax

A publicist, a label rep and Alessia Cara are huddled around a smartphone in the Victorian lobby of Cara’s midtown hotel, watching a video on Twitter. It’s a short clip of Jimmy Fallon introducing the 19-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter’s performance on The Tonight Show the previous night, her TV debut. Fallon is poking fun at the oft-mocked streaming-music service Tidal, and says he discovered Cara (whose name is pronounced “Ales-sia Cahr-a”) on the site as part of their $20,000-per-two-hours subscription plan. Tidal has responded to Fallon via a tweet.

“Jimmy, we’ve refunded $20,000 on your account,” Cara reads aloud. “Here are free codes on us.”

“That’s so cool! I’m going to tweet that.” Cara exclaims, before thinking a moment longer. “Wait, where’d my thing go?” she asks, referring to Tidal’s omission of her own Twitter handle in the post. “They should give me something too. I’m out on Tidal!” she laughs, before deciding to use the codes to watch a legit stream of the “Feelin’ Myself” video. “That’s the only reason I want this!”

While Cara think of herself as debilitatingly shy, today she’s in an engaging mood, perhaps aided by the mochas that line the table. Still running on adrenaline from the Fallon taping — attended by her parents, her brother, her aunt and her friends, as well as everyone from her label, Def Jam — she’s in New York for another day promoting the forthcoming Four Pink Walls EP, out August 28th, which includes her breakout leave-me-alone-at-the-party anthem “Here.” She heads back to Toronto tomorrow, but today we’re talking about Amy, being discovered online and Frank Sinatra.

What was your first TV performance like?
It was very, very, very, very surreal. Even now that I’ve done it — you can see it and watch it back, and I know that I was there — but I just feel like I wasn’t there. Even during my performance I was like, “What’s going on?” I just blanked.

I like how you shouted out Jimmy at the beginning. After that, it was all you.
That was really fan-girly. I really tried. I knew I had to give my everything, even for him, because he was so nice, I wanted it to be great. I love Jimmy.

Four Pink Walls is your first release. How did you decide what you wanted it to sound like?
When making the album, I didn’t really want to listen to a lot of music or compare it to other music, because as a new artist, I really wanted to be different. Something is always going to sound like something else, but I really wanted to make my own kind of style.

It was difficult for me at first because I had never made a song, so I didn’t know what my style was. But I think it just came naturally. I just started working in the studio, getting to know what the studio was like, what production was like. It just kind of developed naturally.

I knew I didn’t want it to be crazy pop; I still wanted to have this edge to it. I do love pop music, but I do love music that’s edgy and cool, so I tried to incorporate that. 

When did you write these songs?
Every song on the EP was written really early on. They were originally demos that we weren’t really sure we were going to release. This was before I was signed, so this was really, really early on. I was lucky enough to have my album pretty much done before I got a deal.

Some of your earliest online videos that got attention were Amy Winehouse covers. Did you see the new doc, Amy? What did you think of it?
I really loved it. I think it was so haunting and some parts were gut-wrenching. It just showed a lot of the dark side of, not only her, or the dark side of love, but the dark side of the industry, as well. It’s kind of like a cautionary tale, I guess. I took it as that.

I relate to her, though. I feel like my personality, if you look at me, you don’t think “star.” I’ve always been terrified of fame. When she said that, it really hit me, because that’s a fear I’ve always had. It just pushed me more to stay focused.

You were essentially discovered online. Does it feel like it’s a race to capitalize on that circumstance?
With me, it was kind of a strange situation. People think that I really came out of nowhere, but I didn’t. I’ve been doing this for two, almost three years now. “Here” definitely popped out of nowhere, but it was years of working behind the scenes. I have a whole album. I guess it didn’t actually happen as quickly for me. I didn’t get as lucky as, like, getting a deal right away.

Taylor’s Swift’s shout-out of your “Bad Blood” cover on Twitter was a big moment for you. Do you get a lot out of social media? Which platform is your favorite?
I love Instagram just because I love pictures of things; I love artsy pictures. That’s why I love Tumblr as well. But I think Twitter is really cool for interacting with people. I’m getting more into Twitter now. I wasn’t before, but now I realize I can talk to people. I love being able to send a tweet. And people get happy when I tweet them. That would never happen before.

When did you start singing?
I always did it at home. I don’t remember not doing it at home. I was too shy to do any vocal lessons or go to choirs; I just didn’t want to be seen doing it. It’s something that I kept to myself. I started easing into it and I started doing talent shows, and YouTube really helped with that too. We started doing it in front of people, but it was always something that I really always did myself.

You’ve often covered songs by your heroes, but if you had a chance to actually work with anyone, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Dead: Obviously Amy Winehouse. Michael Jackson would be amazing. Frank Sinatra would be awesome — he’s dead right?

Yes.
For a second I was like, “Wait a minute. . .” Yes, he’s 100 percent dead [laughs]. I knew he was dead, but I wanted to make sure!

Alive: Ed Sheeran, for sure. Kanye West would be sick. Drake, obviously. Big Sean would be awesome. 

What’s your dream scenario for the next stage of your career, after Four Pink Walls?
I just want people to like it, to be honest. I don’t want to have one hit, one song of the summer and then have me disappear forever. I really want my things to last and I want my songs and my bodies of work to resonate with people. I want to hit people, at least make a dent in them. I want to make a mark somehow.

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