BBC Sound of 2016: Alessia Cara interview

By Mark Savage
Music reporter

media captionAlessia Cara has come second in the BBC Music Sound Of 2016 list

Canadian pop singer Alessia Cara has been named as the runner-up in the BBC's Sound of 2016, which highlights the most exciting new music for the coming year.

The Toronto teenager started off by uploading cover versions to YouTube, where she was spotted by a talent scout and encouraged to write her own material.

The first original song she released was Here - an "introvert's anthem" about feeling alienated at a house party. It racked up 50,000 plays in 24 hours, eventually entering the US top 10.

"Not only did I not expect the reaction, I didn't expect people to even hear it," says Cara who, at the age of 19, is still accompanied everywhere by her parents.

"I still don't believe what's happening to us," her father, originally a welder, tells the BBC. "Our life has turned 360. I think it's a big dream and one day I'm going to wake up from it."

Alessia told the BBC about her "fluke" success, why she kept her music secret from her schoolfriends, and performing with Taylor Swift.

Your full name is Alessia Caracciolo - which I guess is Italian?

Yes! My family is from the south of Italy in this little place called Calabria. It's a big part of my family, the Italian culture. I grew up around it. My parents speak Italian and I speak Italian.

But you were born and raised in Ontario, right? What was that like?

It was pretty quiet. I grew up in this little city called Brampton. It's pretty suburban - there's not a lot going on. In my neighbourhood, specifically, there weren't a lot of other kids so I would just spend a lot of time inside.

What did you do to pass the time?

When I was really young I was convinced I wanted to be a visual artist. I would paint and draw and make crafts.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCara's album, which is already out in the US, is due to be released in the UK in March

What's your first memory of singing?

I was always singing around the house, even when I was two years old. Do you know that song I Love Trash by Grover the Grouch? That was my favourite song ever. I would just replay that over and over and over again.

At what point did you start listening to "adult" music?

When I was maybe four years old I had trouble falling asleep, so someone suggested to my mum she gave me a CD player. And she would play me a whole bunch of random Italian songs that she had, and I'd fall asleep to that. But the first album I bought was the Black Eyed Peas' Monkey Business. That's the one I really, really wanted for Christmas.

So there was music all around. Was your family particularly musical?

Not really. It was more sports and other things. 90% of my family are hairdressers, literally, and the other 10% are construction workers.

How did you end up playing guitar?

I just begged my parents to get me one when I was 10 years old. I took lessons for a few months, then taught myself the rest. Then I learned piano by ear and then ukulele later on in life.

What prompted you to upload covers to YouTube?

I started posting on Facebook first - just for family and friends - because I was too scared to go public with it. That alone was the scariest thing because it was like, "oh my God, everyone from my school is going to know that I sing!" But I did it because I wanted to get my voice out there.

Then I got confident enough to post on YouTube - and that was even scarier because it was public and I was only 13 or 14.... And I wasn't the greatest, I'm not going to lie!

image copyrightAlessia Cara / YouTube
image captionThe star uploaded her first YouTube video - a cover of Jessie J's Price Tag - when she was 13

What was the first song that got attention outside your circle of friends?

It was three years later when I posted a cover of this song called Sweater Weather by The Neighbourhood. It started getting more views than usual, which was strange. And that was how my production company found me and got in contact.

When that message arrived did you think it was for real?

At first I didn't. I didn't really know what a production company even was. So it took a while for me to warm up to the idea. Then I asked my dad if he could speak to them, because I didn't want to get involved with strangers, obviously. But there were no contracts or anything - we just met with them.

I flew out to New York to sing for them in their office. And they said: "We believe in you and we want to work with you. Have you ever written a song before?" And I said: "Not really - but I want to learn."

image copyrightDef Jam
image captionTaylor Swift invited Cara to perform Here in front of 55,000 people at a stop on her 1989 World Tour

Then they put you together with an artist called Sebastian Kole?

Yeah. I actually went to Sebastian's gig that same day in New York. He was amazing but I was like: "How am I going to write with this guy? He's 33 years old from Alabama - there's no way that we're going to connect."

Then I went back to Toronto and I'd sneak off after school with Sebastian and make these songs. And I don't know how or why we connected, but we did.

You sneaked off? You didn't even tell your friends?

I didn't tell anybody. My school was really small and I didn't want to be "that girl".

Here was one of the first songs you wrote. How did it come about?

It's all a true story! I went to a party was in my friend's basement where I just felt very small and uncomfortable. People were smoking and getting drunk and they were passed out on the floor. It was just awful - so I asked my mum to come and get me.

The day after I had a studio session booked and I started ranting about this party and everyone was like, "we're going to write about that!".

Does the host know the song is about his party?

Yes, he does - and we're still cool. He's happy about the success of the song. But he makes fun of me. "The party wasn't that bad - you're just dramatic!"

He'll be too scared to throw a party again.

Or maybe he'll throw more and just not invite me!

image copyrightMeredith Truax
image captionThe singer-songwriter is self-taught on guitar and piano

What's been the best reaction to the song?

I get messages from 14-year-old girls and 40-year-old males, all saying the same thing: "I feel this way, too; I feel uncomfortable, too."

It became an anthem for wallflowers. I never thought it would be that. It was just a song about a party I didn't like.

After it caught fire, you played a session on Radio 1 which took things up another level. Tell me about that.

That was awesome. I love watching the Live Lounge - so getting to be there, and perform my own rendition of a song was so cool. I did Taylor Swift's Bad Blood and turned it into a piano ballad. I don't even know if I got all the words right, but it went pretty viral. Then Taylor Swift saw it and said she liked it.

And that friendship has blossomed...

It has. She invited me to sing Here with her on stage. It was the best thing ever.

image copyrightMeredith Truax
image caption'I listen to music all the time. If I have five minutes to myself I always have my headphones in.'

What's it like standing in the wings as Taylor Swift says your name?

It was terrifying. I was standing on a toaster - which is what they call that little platform that rises from under the stage - which is even more scary and dramatic.

I just remember being at the bottom and thinking: "Is this really happening?" I couldn't wrap my head around it so I completely blanked, while also being very conscious that I was singing to 55,000 people.

Then I got off stage and watched the rest of the concert and everything was fine until I went backstage and the adrenalin faded and I just began crying.

Was there a tiny bit of you that looked out at that audience and thought: "One day, this will all be mine?"

Haha! That's definitely a goal of mine, to perform in a stadium like that. Getting a glimpse of it so early on validates everything that I'm doing.

One of the songs on your album, Four Pink Walls, has a line: "I thought the only place for my dreams was in my dreams". Was that how you felt?

I really didn't realise this [career] was an achievable goal. You're always told at school and at home that it's unrealistic. And when you're told so many times, you get discouraged. And that's definitely what happened with me. But I was too stubborn to not try it, anyway.

Do you believe it now?

Yeah, definitely, of course! Now that I've done this, I think you can do anything in the world. If I'm here in the UK, from Brampton, Ontario, talking about my music, I can do anything.

The Sound of 2016 shortlist so far:

More on the Sound of 2016:

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