Alessia Cara
Pop

Alessia Cara Contemplates the Big Questions

"Last year was like a very strange awakening for me," says the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter of the creative process that led to her powerful third album, 'In The Meantime.'

“Eye-opening” is a phrase Alessia Cara repeats while describing the process of creating In the Meantime, her third studio album. The former best new artist Grammy winner has always valued self-reflection in her songwriting, but In the Meantime, out Friday (Sept. 24) on Def Jam Recordings, finds the 25-year-old prodding at the fabric of her identity, including her artistic goals, personal frustrations and transition from teen phenom to adult storyteller.

“In terms of my fears and struggles, I was able to put names to them, and understand what was going on in my mind… the reasons why I handle things the way I do,” Cara explains to Billboard during a Zoom chat a few days before the album release.

The self-examination comes after Cara scored a breakthrough in 2015 with rhythmic pop hits like “Here” and “Scars to Your Beautiful,” both from debut LP Know-It-All, as well as a 2018 sophomore album, The Pains of Growing, that found the singer-songwriter challenging her sound and image. In the Meantime expands upon its predecessor’s themes of heartbreak, self-doubt and anxiety with greater sonic cohesion and a philosophical tone -- which Cara says resulted from both the isolation caused by the pandemic, as well as her recent experiences with therapy and self-help exploration.

Ahead of the release of In the Meantime, Cara talks with Billboard below about the expectations placed upon modern pop stars, making PowerPoint presentations for her label, and thinking about death in order to appreciate her life as an artist. (Ed. note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

When did these songs come together? I was wondering how much of the album was created during lockdown and how much pre-lockdown, based on its thematic focus.

The only song that I wrote pre-lockdown was “Shapeshifter.” I started that in 2019 and then finished it in 2020 right before the pandemic happened. Then the rest was written in quarantine or remotely or mid-craziness.

In terms of your creative process, what was that like compared to the first two albums, putting these songs together while you're stuck at home?

There were a lot of Zoom meetings and a lot of email writing sessions -- they would send me an instrumental, I would write to it, I’d send it back, then there’s, “Do you like this?” There was a lot of waiting and back-and-forth, but it was kind of fun and sort of beneficial for me to write that way. I feel like I had to rely on myself, on my own skills, a little bit more. I wouldn't have done that had I not been home, having to just be with myself. I got to amplify my vocal production skills and my independence, and as a writer, it was super helpful to just be on my own.

There's always a sense of self-examination in your projects, but especially on this album, so many of these songs are searching for resolution -- there are a ton of rhetorical questions in the lyrics. I'm curious what you were thinking about and focused on when you were putting these songs together. 

I was thinking of a lot of different things, and I feel like those rhetorical questions came from my very specific anxieties about life and its meaning. Not to get too philosophical, but I mean, last year was like a very strange awakening for me, where I felt like I opened a portal that I could never close again. I just became so aware of life and death and the impermanence of life, and it just led me down the rabbit hole, of pain and confusion and stress and fear.

The whole idea of the meaning of life is kind of a question that will remain unanswered until it's over, and it was a very prominent part of this writing process, and a very prominent part of the last year for me. Just trying to unfold exactly what it means to be human, and what the whole point of it is, and what the point of me is -- it could get kind of dark sometimes. But also it led me to a lot of nice sentiments, and a good perspective as well.

What did that “rabbit hole” look like? Were you doing a lot of reading on philosophy, or was it other types of media -- visual media, podcasts, music?

Yeah, tons of [all of] it, because I had so much time to kill and so much time to myself. I bought every book imaginable on self-help and life and death -- I have a million books that I was reading through. I was watching a ton of documentaries on life and death and purpose, listening to music, and just doing a lot of therapy as well. A lot of my consumption was basically just consuming teachings on mental health and dialectical behavior therapy, which was a huge eye-opener for me, both good and bad. I think at first bad, and then it became a good thing after.

You hear that reflection on the idea of purpose on the album, on songs like “Best Days” and “Box in the Ocean.” A few minutes into the album, on “Box in the Ocean,” you sing the line, “What if they forget about all I've done/ If I built it up just to be no one.” 

That song -- basically, I just kind of threw everything in there. I wanted to have one song that tackles all of the mess of thoughts that I was feeling, and then as the album progresses, I pick each apart individually. But that was a huge thing for me, because I was like, “Well, I've done so many amazing things in my life and it's been wonderful -- but at the end of it all, I'm going to be gone, and then what was it all for?”

And then you're stuck in this halt [during the pandemic], and everything is forced to stop, and you're not doing so much of what you place your importance on, for a whole year. We place so much of our identity or where we go and what we do for a living, and when that was gone, I was like, “What am I left with? Who am I without this? What's the point of anything?” It was a weird, dark, strange time, as I imagine it was for all of us, but personally for me as well.

Did you feel like you discovered new things about yourself?

Totally. I feel like I came to a lot of realizations about myself -- and that's thanks to therapy, but also thanks to the the time I had to stop and sit around and figure out what it is that I like, and who I am when I'm not doing music. As much identity as I place on being a songwriter and doing this for a living, there's so much more to me.

I learned that I love to cook, which is really nice. I spend time at home being, like, super domestic -- just doing laundry, taking care of my own space, which is quite nice, because I didn't know what I would be like as a homeowner. Getting my new apartment was a nice thing, in terms of having time to spend and seeing who I am in my own space. Through doing therapy, I just learned a lot about my fear of death and what that actually means, which I think is actually a grappling with living.

With a song like “Fishbowl,” which is a distillation of being stuck at home and having your perspective shift, sometimes in difficult ways -- how helpful is writing a song like that, and getting those ideas and feelings out? 

It's cool to be able to do that, because I feel like on this album, I definitely zoomed in a little bit and I was able to write songs about more mundane things, more nuanced things, and just expand on them as much as possible. While on a more literal sense, that song is about being stuck at home and feeling like you're trapped in a fishbowl, in a more personal sense, it's also about my struggles with anxiety and panic disorder and how those feelings can manifest physically for me, too. I was not only stuck in one place, but I also felt very stuck in my own body as well. And that's what anxiety can do to you — it can make you almost feel like your body's turning against you, in a sense.

How much were you thinking about your professional legacy, and all that you’ve accomplished in the music industry already, when writing about who you are and analyzing your purpose?

A little bit in the beginning. On a professional level, just that fear of being seen as disposable -- I think we live in an industry and a day and age that makes a lot of artists just feel like that, if they're not churning out content all the time, or if they're not saying something extraordinary at all times, that people will just move on. So there was this thought of, do I need to hurry this up? Do I need to change something about myself? Do I need to do things differently in order to be heard, and are people still going to care? It had been three years since I released a full project, so there was that sense of, what if they forget?

But then also, on that more personal and human level, there was that feeling of, one day I'm going to be gone, and there's going to be a moment where everybody stops talking about you, and your family might not remember you anymore. It's a really weird thing to be a person, to know that you're at the end of your life is a thing, to be the only species that is aware of our death. It makes us live life a little differently.

You mentioned “churning out content” -- since you made your debut in the industry, expectations have changed so much as to what a popular artist needs to do on social media in order to be connected to fans. What’s it like, just in terms of finding a balance that works for you? 

It's a tough thing for me. I always say this -- that I feel like I’m five or 10 years too late, that I would have been perfectly happy five or 10 years ago. Even five years ago when I started, the industry was a world different than it is now. I feel like I just kind of got over the line, where I didn't have to have a crazy amount of followers to be successful. My label signed me with no music out, which is very rare nowadays. I feel like now you have to establish yourself before a label or the industry even looks twice at you, which is kind of an unfair ask. But I'm lucky in that end.

It is strange, to have started then and see how it's changed. I try to find the balance, because I am aware of the value of social media, and the way that it's dictating essentially the world and what's good and what's not — like the Internet dictates what radio stations and labels should be paying attention to. And I do agree with it in a lot of ways, because I do think the consumers are the ones who should decide.

But at the same time, going back to feeling disposable, it's like -- if you're not constantly present and not constantly like displaying parts of your life all the time, that you're no longer interesting. Which can be tough for a shy, private person like me to find that balance. I think I've found a pretty good balance, where I'm able to find ways to connect with my listeners and talk to them on Twitter and be very open, but then always try to keep one aspect of who I am to myself.

A few years ago, you had listening sessions for your second album, The Pains of Growing, and I remember you saying something along the lines of “This is the album I needed to make." How do you look back on that album now, and the way it relates to the new one? 

Just before my second album, I saw myself on the trajectory that was moving very quickly and was kind of launching me into the level of stardom that I had not expected, or really wanted, particularly. While dealing with that, I was dealing with a lot of personal stuff, and my first real heartbreak -- and I was just devastated and I felt like I was withering away as a person. I felt like I wanted to take a step back, and not necessarily do what was expected of me.

I decided to write the whole thing by myself, and do something super weird with the whole suit thing. I was fearful of going in a direction that I didn't believe I should be going, pop-wise. I just wanted to do my own thing, and I felt like I needed to prove myself -- to show myself that my success was my own, you know? That it belonged to me. While it does take a village, I didn't want to feel like someone else was responsible for my success.

So I made that album, and it was a big risk to do that on a second album -- to be a pop star seemingly overnight, and then decide to write everything yourself, and then wear a men's giant suit. It was a weird artistic choice, and I’m so glad I did it now. Looking back, I felt like I took control of my career and the direction I was going in. It forced people to listen, whether they liked it or not. Some people didn’t, some people did, and some people will discover it later. But I’m glad. I would much rather have a solid foundation and a slow build than no foundation and a quick satisfaction that's never actually satisfying. I’m not disappointed with my choices at all.

What have the conversations been like with your team and Def Jam leading up to this new album? Since you signed there, obviously there's been a couple of CEO changes, and Tunji Balogun was announced as the new leader last month.

I feel like Def Jam has been one of those labels that’s been changing constantly. But I feel like now, not only do I get to still work with so many great people that I’ve worked with from the beginning, which is amazing to me, but I also feel like the new people that have come in are just super on-board with what I'm doing and saying and who I am as an artist. There’s so many great new young people, which I felt like was really needed, who just understand my generation and the stories being told.

So I think my team is awesome, and I don't know if it's going to change by tomorrow, but I hope not, because I love everybody. They've been super on board and kind about everything. And I mean, I’ve done PowerPoints and Zoom meetings and have gone so excessive with my explanations, just to make sure that they understand where I’m coming from.

So you’re personally making PowerPoints for them?

Yes, I am. I go, like, really overboard, with mood boards and PowerPoints for the label with every album cycle. At this point it's become a tradition, where each [time] my PowerPoint will explain and present what this album is about. And like, I hold these board meetings, which is funny, and I'm sure that they hate them. [laughs] They say that they don’t! But I just make them sit there and listen to me ramble about the album that I'm making. But yeah, I just feel like it's nice to get everybody on the same page, and just to get a little bit of a look inside of my head.