Alessia Cara is all too familiar with what it means to grow up in the spotlight. Since debuting with the left-field antisocial hit “Here” in 2015, which positioned her as a voice for outsiders among her generation, the Ontario native has hit consistent new peaks, releasing her debut album Know-It-All that year and scoring radio hits with “Wild Things,” “Scars to Your Beautiful” and a feature on Zedd’s “Stay,” which peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But earlier this year -- and even before then -- she felt overwhelmed by what she feels was unwarranted backlash, after she beat out acts like SZA and Khalid for best new artist at the Grammy Awards. “A lot of people will try to diminish a woman's hard work -- especially a woman's work -- and a woman's ambition,” she tells Billboard. “As a young woman, it's so important to not be affected by that and to be an example to other women who may aspire to do the same thing.”
The Pains of Growing, her upcoming sophomore album, explores the nuance and mentality of what it’s like to age out of your teen years. Now 21, Cara played the majority of songs from the album last week for a handful of media at a studio in Los Angeles, revealing a more mature, radio-ready body of work led by single “Growing Pains,” out Friday (June 15). It’s the first taste of a singer more confident and assured than before, bolstered by a team of producers including Pop & Oak (“Here,” “Scars”), No I.D., Ricky Reed, Rick Nowels, Click'N'Press and Jon Levine. In honor of the release of “Growing Pains,” Cara spoke with Billboard about what her new project means to her and what listeners can anticipate from her second album.
What was going through your head while recording “Growing Pains” and what did you want to accomplish with it?
In terms of lyrics, this is a lot more introspective for me, conceptually. I think all my songs in the past were very message-based and more directed towards the listener. But this song, for the first time I'm opening up about something that I've never really talked about before, that's a lot more personal than anything I've put out before. What I was trying to accomplish is getting more insight into what I'm going through and being a bit more honest about myself, but also hopefully in turn helping someone else through maybe what they're going through.
What sort of things did you go through, making this record and this song in particular?
I think being 21 years old in general is a very confusing time and a difficult time because it's almost -- or at least for me anyways and I think for a lot of people -- in-between phase in your life where you're not quite an adult and not quite settled in who you are and what you want to be, but you're also not a kid anymore. There are a lot of responsibilities that come with that age. I think trying to juggle the two and trying to find a happy medium between holding onto your youth and also figuring yourself out, that is just difficult in itself. That’s what a lot of people deal with around this time because we're never really quite done growing. Being 21 and in your early 20s, that's just a time where all of the changes are even more prominent than they would be if you were really little or if you were a lot older.
The single is “Growing Pains” and the album is The Pains of Growing. Why go with that title and do that flip of the song title?
I think because this album, once you listen to it all the way through, it's really just a -- I know it might sound a bit cheesy -- but it's a story. And I wanted to make the album title feel like it's a story. Like a storybook. And I thought calling it The Pains of Growing sounds like you're about to read a book about someone or about something. It's just a full cohesive thing. And I've always really been drawn to albums that just feel like one big body of work and one big story. It would just be more impactful and sound more like a story, honestly. And if I'm being really honest, “Growing Pains” is a really common album title it turns out, so I wanted it to be a little different.
No I.D. produced a song on The Pains of Growing that you cut to tape with a throwback, Motown vibe to it.
I wrote the lyrics to that song on the plane, but I didn't have any instrumentation behind it or any chords, just a rough melody -- which is something that I never really do. I never write a song a cappella. But I knew that I wanted to eventually record it somewhere and do something with it. I was in the studio with No I.D. with the intention of just writing or working on something, and he played me this rough instrumental that sounded very doo-wop, very straight, just old-school Motown. I just thought of that song to go with it. And so, I just wrote a melody to it and we put it to that instrumental, and it just worked so perfectly. It was like they were meant to be together. We thought, "Well, if this is going to sound very old-school, we might as well record it the old-school way." So we finished up the instrumental and then recorded it right through tape. It just sounds very cool. It definitely sticks out on the album, but in a good way.
Another song on the album appears to nod to the blowback you got after winning your Grammy earlier this year. Was that directly inspired by that?
Well, that song in particular, I did write it before that experience. But I think that happening to me was definitely just another reason why I feel I needed to put that song out or wanted to put it on the album. I don't know, I think since I've been out into the industry and in the world and the more recognition I get, just the more opinions about the same repetitive things keep coming up. And it's really frustrating, like none of it has to do with my talent and my capabilities; they're always just about the way I look, just really dumb things, and they have no basis. I felt like I wanted to say something without addressing anything directly, obviously, it's just like a general "Yeah, this is me.” But yeah, that was an unfortunate experience for sure, 'cause I see the kind of tainted innocent dream that I've had for a very long time. But I tried not to let it get to me.
What did you learn from that experience, having had a little bit of time to process it since the Grammys?
Looking back now, I wish that I didn't let it affect me that much, because I think when you work so hard for something and when you've wanted something for a very long time, there are always gonna be people that disagree with that or how deserving you are of certain things, and I think it's so important to not let that get to you and just recognize the fact that, if I'm somewhere, it's because I'm there for a reason.
With The Pains of Growing, what’s it like knowing that there will be a lot more expectation, perhaps, than with Know-It-All? Anticipating growth, perhaps. What was that experience like?
This time around, now that I'm aware that I have listeners and people paying attention and depending on me for a shoulder to lean on, it's really important that I make my songs of course therapeutic for myself, but also be mindful that they should be beneficial to others as well. So that was definitely a chance this time around because I was a lot more aware that people were definitely going to hear it and were waiting to hear it, but in terms of just like comparing the two or any of that stuff, I try not to write that way, because if I was writing as if I were writing the scary "second album," I don't think it would have come out that great. So I just tried to write songs because I wanted to and because I needed to, or, you know, things like that rather than focusing so hard on where to go with it or anything like that.
Since growth is such a reoccurring theme for this record, how do you think the finalized product reflects the growth that you've experienced since you've been writing and recording it?
I think just the whole album feels like an up and down, like you can really hear the low points, you can hear the higher points, and it just feels like the last three years of my life, it feels like three years of a 21-year-old's life -- not three years of a 21-year-old's life, three years of a like 18, 19, 20, 21, whatever girl's life ... so, yeah I don't know, I think if you listen to the whole thing, it just really feels like change and you can see what those changes are and where they were, and where I was at. And I tried to balance it out as much as possible, I didn't want it to be all sad. But obviously, I want it to be honest enough where it wasn't all happy either. And then hope I found some sort of, like, balance.
What else can listeners expect musically from you on this album?
Sonically, it's a little bit more mature, and a little bit more cohesive. It just feels more like a full album. And then conceptually, I know I already touched on it before, but just life experiences and just a lot more transparency, but I think if you're a fan of music, what I had to say the last time, then, I hope that you'll be happy with this too and you'll get Alessia on this as well.