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Alessia Cara: The Ultimate YouTube Cover Star Success Story

The Toronto singer got picked up by Def Jam just a year ago

Who: This past August, Toronto teenager Alessia Cara’s unapologetic introvert anthem “Here” upturned #turntup party playlists with her airy, tenacious vocals and natural lyric flow. Though she seemingly came out of nowhere to many of her suddenly adulatory fans, Cara was actually discovered two years ago at age 16 via her YouTube channel, which she started in 2010 and has a not-too-shabby 31,000-plus subscribers. Referring to “Here,” one of the first demos she recorded, Cara tells SPIN over the phone, “The song is one of the oldest that we made. It sounds completely different than the demo. It’s just revamped and sounds so cool and different. It’s just always been special.” Eventually, she caught the eye of an A&R at Republic Records, who was impressed by her talent, but also moving to Def Jam. Getting signed only a year ago to the label that also boasts some of her idols (Kanye West and Frank Ocean, namely) has got Cara feeling a bit starry-eyed. “It doesn’t feel like it’s real at all,” she says. “I feel like sometimes I’m just watching myself outside of my body.”

Cover Me: Cara — who grew up with first-generation Italian parents spinning records by Queen, Elvis Presley, and contemporary Italian pop — began her YouTube career at 13. Though the fan of New Zealand sibling duo Broods and belters like Amy Winehouse and Michael Bublé has sung tunes by Édith Piaf and Drake, her most-watched video is a cover of the Neighborhood’s “Sweater Weather,” which amassed more than 700,000 views. Cara can’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing — or, conversely, a time when she decided she wanted to sing. “I think singing was always the first thing that I learned,” she says. “It would always be my number-one thing. I am a singer first.” Her page still hosts every cover she’s ever done, even though she wouldn’t be caught watching them for fear that self-criticism that would lead to her pressing the delete key. Still, she says, “I want to continue doing covers because I don’t want to all of a sudden have just one song and forget about all these things that got you there. It’s always good to be conscious of that stuff.” Besides, covers allow listeners to really “hear your voice and like you just for your voice,” not just the AudioShopped polish of fancy production studios.

Stranger Than Fiction: Cara co-wrote her debut album, Know It All (due this fall), with Sebastion Kole, who also happens to be friends with Ruben Studdard and is a onetime producer for Jennifer Lopez, as well as Flo Rida. He taught her how to perfect the songwriting craft since “I didn’t really write songs before my album,” Cara says. “I was always doing covers and writing stories and stuff. I wrote a couple songs when I was a kid, but I didn’t think I was that good at it.” Cara’s focus on the old writing adage — show, don’t tell — comes out on the heavily image- and wordplay-based “Here,” in lines like “Right next to the boy who’s throwin’ up / Cause he can’t take what’s in his cup no more,” and “Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this / An antisocial pessimist / But usually I don’t mess with this.” Referring to an interview with Lorde, she agrees that writing fiction and poetry helped her write more condensed, meaningful lyrics. “In a song you have to make a sentence or a small little phrase feel ten times stronger because you only have three minutes,” she adds.

Wild Thing: Cara’s forthcoming second single, “Wild Things” (she’s also debuted another new minimalist acoustic ballad, “Scars,” during a TEDxTeen Talk in May), takes a more optimistic approach, embracing the perks of being a wallflower. It’s about “accepting yourself and kind of saying that at times, even though you don’t feel like you fit in anywhere, that’s okay, and who cares,” she says. Following “Here,” the lionhearted “Wild Things” empowers the individual; at the same time, “it is kind of upbeat and it’s a more positive approach than ‘Here.’” Cara admits that, somewhat cheeky title aside, Know It All is flooded with emotional honesty. It’s “very… opinionated,” she says slowly, searching for the right word. “In every song there is a very strong feeling that is trying to be portrayed. It seems like I know everything, but I really don’t at all. It’s somewhat of a sarcastic title.”

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