WRITING: VICTORIA MARTINS
2020 has given us plenty of unique opportunities for self-reflection—going into quarantine, living with your parents again, endlessly sitting in the park, they all bring back all of the nostalgia of pre-adult life. And, if there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about diving back into the depths of their childhood, it’s Brampton-born singer-songwriter, Alessia Cara.
Through her music, Cara recounts the very real and raw experiences of growing up. “I was extremely shy, in high school I was extremely insecure about what I looked like and who I was, what exactly my place was in the world, so revisiting that definitely brought that back” she tells us over Zoom, reflecting on the work that went into creating hit singles like “Scars to Your Beautiful.”
It’s been five years since Cara released her single “Here”, an anti-high school anthem (one that I personally relate to far too well), and since, she’s seen a magnitude of success. Not only is she featured on tracks with names such as Zedd, Logic, and Bastille, but she has appeared on Disney’s Moana soundtrack, released two studio albums, one EP, and won the 2018 Grammy for Best New Artist. Most recently, Cara released a live studio album which includes stripped back, live versions of her existing music. The best part of it all? For the next 21 years, all proceeds from the album will go to Save the Children. “Children are the future, they’re the ones that are going to hold the torch and if the children all over the world aren’t fully equipped to do so, then we’re not going to see a better world and these poor kids aren’t going to have the good life that they deserve,” she says. “People are struggling everywhere, and Save the Children really focuses on the most vulnerable areas all over the world, not only in North America, which I thought was super important, in light of everything going on.”
Here, Cara shares with us everything from her biggest musical influences, what it’s like having synesthesia, and even gave us an inside look at her very own time capsule consisting of Gimp, Picnik-edited photos, and pages from her early days as an author.
"My cousin had an extra ticket to a Justin Bieber show and so I went, and it was the craziest experience of my life. I had never heard noises that loud and like screams that loud."
How has lockdown been for your creativity?
In the beginning I was productive, but now I feel drained. I just am ready to not do anything. I got a dog now, so I’ve been taking care of her, I’m doing very human, regular everyday stuff, which is kind of nice.
I love the title of your new EP, which really summarizes 2020. Live Off the Floor… we’re not really doing much.
Exactly! It was recorded last October, but [this year] took a turn, that’s for sure.
Can you tell me a little bit more about it and why you were inspired to do a live album?
My manager wanted me to do an original acoustic version of the EP, because he’s always a big advocate for me and guitar only, very stripped back production. So, we were going to do that and then my producer Jon Levine was like, why don’t we take it a step further and do totally live instrumentation with live vocals, so it turned into a live album.
When I write songs, they’re originally very stripped back and emotional and then when we add production to it, they sort of take a new life. So, it was nice to go backwards a bit and revisit the songs in a way that’s more emotional and nostalgic.
What were you like when you were a kid?
I was a really quiet kid, very, very quiet kid, very shy. I remember being in school and my teacher pulling me aside, asking me if everything was okay at home because I was so quiet. I would never smile, I was just very in my head and so I got a bunch of calls from teachers home making sure that everything was fine because I just looked like I was not fine, even though I was I just was very shy and quiet. I didn’t like speaking up or talking was just the biggest task. As I got older, I got a little bit more social and started doing theatre in high school and stuff and just being a little bit better in the social aspect. I feel like that’s always going to be there a bit, just being a bit shy.
I read that you taught yourself to play guitar after you got a guitar for your birthday.
I did, yeah. It was my 10th birthday I think, and I taught myself a bit, and then I took lessons for a couple months, couldn’t afford them so then stopped, and then taught myself the rest. I still wouldn’t consider myself an amazing guitar player, but I’ve always loved it. The second I got one I was like, I need to learn.
Was that your intro to music?
I feel like once I started learning songs to play on the guitar that’s when I started developing my own taste in music and finding sounds that I liked versus what was playing in my house. They kind of coexist, but around then probably I started developing a taste for song writing.
And what was the first song that you taught yourself?
The first song was a pretty deep one, it was “Dear Mr. President” by P!nk. I just loved it, I thought it was gorgeous and I played it all the time.
Who were your biggest musical influences once you started to discover your own style?
I had a bunch. When I was young, I really loved the Black-Eyed Peas and The Gorillas and bands like that. And then as I got older, I discovered Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill and older singers like Etta James. I gravitated towards a lot of young women who just played guitar and had great voices and wanted to emulate them in whatever I did, so they really inspired me.
What was your first CD?
The first CD my mom got me was Hilary Duff Metamorphosis. The first one I got for myself was the Black Eyed Peas Monkey Business album.
Do you remember your first concert?
I had a very strict dad. I wasn’t allowed to go to any of the concerts of the people that I listened to until I was, I think, 14 years old. My cousin had an extra ticket to a Justin Bieber show and so I went, and it was the craziest experience of my life. I had never heard noises that loud and like screams that loud in my life, so I just remember watching and was like, I want to do whatever he’s doing. That was the first time I was exposed to a show and what that looked like.
That’s amazing. I read that you have synesthesia which is really interesting. How does that play into your creativity? A lot of creative people are also synesthetic.
I have multiple forms of it. But the one that really helps with music is the colour to sound one. Every song of mine has colours and shapes in my head which is really helpful when it comes to the visual aspects, like videos, because songs just have colours and that’s the colour it is and it just really helps to picture what the visuals should look like in my head. Even on stage and on tour, the colours of the lights always match with the song.
What colour is 2020?
Well 2 is like greyish, so that kind of applies. Like 2, 0, they’re both kind of grey and blue which is what it feels like.
Your last album was inspired by your upbringing. How would you encapsulate the influences that went into it?
I grew up listening to a lot of soul music and a lot of jazz. I love vinyl records like even now I have a bunch of vinyls of live albums, so I think Live Off the Floor is so reminiscent of all of those influences even down to the cover art. I really wanted it to look and feel like the records that I love, and my parents loved, you know. It’s just kind of a little tribute to soul music. But then also there’s strings in there that are very orchestral, it just feels very big and cinematic too, which I really love as well.
And in terms of experiences, like “Here” being about hating high school parties?
The songs that I wrote when I was 16, like “Here” and “Scars to your Beautiful,” are very reminiscent of my life as a kid. Like I said, I was extremely shy, in high school I was extremely insecure about what I looked like and who I was, and what exactly my place was in the world. So revisiting that definitely brought that back. And then even songs that are more current like “October,” are about releasing inhibitions and feeling like a kid again.
Being a kid, you don’t really have many worries, but inevitably that goes away. And so it’s important to have memories that encapsulate those innocent times and I feel like “October,” even though I wasn’t a kid, had that essence of just childhood. It just felt very free and I knew that feeling was going to go away. So, I wanted to write about it.
Because you started so young, you have so much of your history and your growth out there on the web, whether it’s on YouTube or on social media. How do you feel about that?
A lot of it is great, it’s nice to have memories forever. But some stuff, you probably wish that a lot of the stuff you didn’t have forever like some of your outfits choices or videos that were terrible or stuff like that. It’s nice to know that’s where you were even though you don’t necessarily love where you were then, it’s just nice to see your growth I guess.
Capsule 98 got started because of a time capsule from 1998.
When I was 12, I did a time capsule too! It was just [my friends and I] talking about our future selves and what we thought we were like. It’s like, don’t ever dye your hair. I don’t know why I perceived dying your hair to be a bad thing, but I just so did. It was funny.
What else was on there?
We talked about our friendship, like, we hope that we’re best friends and if you guys aren’t friends you’ve got to be friends again. Or asking myself questions like, how tall are you? Where do you live? Do you still live in the same house? How’s Grade 6? (Because I hated the idea of going into Grade 6. I thought it was way too old.) So dumb, but you know what, it’s good to look back on now.
What physical objects would you have put in there if it was something that you buried?
I have diaries from that time and a project I made around 2008-2009 when I was maybe 12. It’s a little school project called ‘All About Me,” where I had to talk about myself and about my brother for like six pages;
“My mom signed me up at preschool called Peekaboo which was a nightmare and the teachers were there, I would scream and cry all the time.”
There was this little diary that my aunt got me from Italy and it’s just me talking about stuff and I wrote fake little stories inside;
“Once upon a time there lived a girl named Ella. She lived with her parents and stepsister Melanie. Melanie always seemed to get what she wanted. Ella was jealous and she wanted to know why and one night she followed Melanie to her room and Melanie stepped into the restroom. Ella refused to follow, instead she looked through Melanie’s drawers and found a jewel that was in a shiny gold box.”
Wow, pretty good.
Yeah and what happens, we don’t know. I think the jewel brainwashed people or something.
“Why did you do that? Because since you are a real child, I thought you would get whatever you want so I wanted to get what I want. I was jealous.” She was jealous of Ella so then she got a jewel to get what she wanted to brainwash her family.
You were obviously super creative.
I also have, and I don’t even know if this exists to anyone else, but this thing called Gimp. Have you ever heard of it? I only have the string left, none of the thousands of bracelets I made.
"The feeling of coming home from school and getting a snack in the pantry and just sitting and watching. I just miss the innocence of that."
What are you nostalgic for?
I was huge on TV shows like Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven, Animaniacs and Boy Meets World – all the stuff I would come home from school and watch. I don’t even know if it’s so much the show specifically or just the feeling of coming home from school and getting a snack in the pantry and just sitting and watching. I just miss the innocence of that.
Life was just a lot simpler. Now it’s kind of sad when I see kids with electronics and social media and stuff (I feel like such an old lady when I talk about this stuff). Like that’s great that that’s there, that’s what one day will be there nostalgia, but I wish that kids had the childhood that we had because I feel like they’re missing out on a lot.
It’s definitely interesting to have a childhood where you are totally self-aware, because NOT being aware is what innocence is.
I’m kind of curious to see how that’s going to affect people though when they’re older, because we haven’t seen that yet. I feel like it can’t be good for you, to be that self-conscious or I don’t know, living for other people already, like that’s something, if anything, you should figure out about the world about how other people see us, even though it shouldn’t be that way. But you know, thinking that as a kid already I just feel like that seems very messy.
You talked about a lot of the things that you watched as a kid and now you’re involved in animated films yourself, with The Willoughbys and Moana a couple years ago. What does it feel like to know that you’re going to have an impact on other people’s childhoods?
I loved all the Disney movies. Alice in Wonderland was my favourite. But the thing is, my parents had the VHS tapes in Italian so I only watched them in Italian, I didn’t know what they sounded like in English until I got older and I just recently started re-watching them and realizing it’s a totally different vibe. It’s cool. It’s cool to see the different versions. I loved Spirited Away too. That was such a great film and I think it’s still really relevant now.
When it comes to me now doing it, it’s awesome because I know how much cartoons meant to me as a kid and how it takes you back to that specific time in your life and knowing that I can be a part of some kid who’s going to grow up and be a part of their nostalgia in a way is really, really cool. Yea it’s just really awesome, especially with The Willoughbys, I’m seeing people get Willoughbys cakes for their birthday and cute things like that and it’s the sweetest thing so I can’t wait for them to get older, just to be part of those people’s lives, even if they don’t even know it’s me, it’s cool.
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