growing pains

Alessia Cara on Her New Album and That Grammys Controversy

Photo: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

It’s rare to see an artist apologize for winning an award, but in recent years, it’s become the new norm for one category in particular. In 2014, Macklemore famously swept the rap field at that year’s Grammys and beat Kendrick Lamar for Best New Artist, which prompted Macklemore to privately apologize over text to Kendrick and then publicly share the receipts of his remorse. BNA remains the category with the murkiest rules for eligibility, as well as one of the awards fans are most invested in. This perfect storm of enthusiasm and confusion nearly ruined the moment for Alessia Cara. At this year’s Grammys, the 22-year-old Canadian singer known for her introvert anthems won BNA. The problem? It was for a nearly three-year-old album: her 2015 debut.

The win sparked outrage on social media from fans who believed that SZA, the most nominated woman of the night and the one with the more current album, was more deserving of the award. The backlash dovetailed with Grammy president Neil Portnow’s post-show comments about women needing to step up to get recognition. Cara was the only female winner of the broadcast. Days after her win, Cara stood her ground, foregoing an apology and instead writing an Instagram post strongly defending her win. Nine months removed from the controversy and back in the spotlight with her sophomore album, The Pains of Growing, Cara is more assured than ever that the award went to its rightful owner. “It’s like a nice pat on the back and a reminder that I belong here,” she told Vulture over the phone.

You took the lead on writing this album, but I was surprised to learn you also self-produced most of it. How’d that end up happening?
That was really exciting for me and a huge step, especially on a second album, to have the freedom to do that. Initially, that wasn’t really the intention. I was just making demos on my laptop with eventual hopes to re-record them someday. But once I was done recording them, I just realized the rawness of them was just the way that it needed to be. That re-recording them or touching it up too much would ruin the natural vibe of the songs so I kept them. It was a big step to get [over] the idea that songs need to be perfect and rawness isn’t good. I think it’s a really good thing for people to have songs that were written and recorded the same day that I was feeling those emotions. It feels a lot better than it would if it were perfected or heavily produced.

Was that a hard sell for the label, given it’s only your second album?
Thankfully, the label and really a lot of my team didn’t even hear the album until it was done and I was ready to play it for them. I didn’t really know what I was gonna come up with, but they were very supportive when I showed it to them. I think because the album has the balance with more uptempo, rounded-out stuff, they were cool with me having those raw moments. Although they’re not perfect, I think they fit in really well.

Your choice of collaborators is interesting. No I.D., for example, and on a Motown, doo-wop record of all things.
I know, right? He was one of the people who actually signed me to Def Jam when I started working there. So we’ve had a relationship for awhile. Well, “relationship” — I don’t wanna be like, “Yeah, he’s my best friend” [laughs]. I mean, that would be amazing. But we’ve known each for a really long time and we’ve had kind of a mentor-y, “I’m proud of you, kid” relationship for awhile and I finally got to get into the studio with him. We made the song “Comfortable” and it kind of just happened. I had a bunch of lyrics and a title and he had what was part of the instrumental at the time and we just meshed those two things together. It worked really wonderfully, actually. That’s one of my favorite songs on the album and it’s kind of a weird one because it was my most different process.

I usually have a song finished when I go into the studio and have a melody and chords. But with this song, I just had lyrics. I didn’t even know what I wanted it to sound like. I remember No I.D. was playing me a folder of a bunch of rough instrumentals and samples. He had this one filed called “doo-wop” and I was like, “What’s this?” He played it for me and I loved it, I thought it was so interesting. It was super rough at the time but it was very reminiscent of the old Motown music that I grew up listening to and I just said, “I gotta take this to the hotel with me and I have to write to this.” Then I pulled up the lyrics to “Comfortable” and just felt like they could go together and I started singing the lyrics over that melody and it worked so perfectly.

Earlier this year, when you wrote your defense of your Best New Artist win, you were honest about being riddled with self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Did some of those feelings dissipate going into this record?
There was a confidence there, but I think it had to be developed over time. It wasn’t there from the beginning. I’m a very stubborn person, so I knew I was gonna do it regardless of if I was confident or not. But I think once I realized I could write songs that were good and do them on my own without a crutch, that was really great for solidifying my confidence as a songwriter. Once I realized I could do that, I just kept doing it without thinking too much. Now, looking back, I feel like I’m gonna make all my albums like this if not be even more involved in the next one. You realize how limitless everything is. Once you get to that creative space, you just wanna keep getting more creative.

I imagine winning that Grammy must’ve still contributed to a sense of validation. Having other people affirm you’re as talented as you thought.
It’s not even being as talented as I think I am. It’s that I’m even more talented than I think I am. Because I’m always doubting myself and wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if people will care about it a few years from now or even now. It’s a risky thing to put yourself out there, the way that I have been. I’m always worrying about if people care or not, so to get that acknowledgement, it’s not so much validation as much as it is just a really high honor to receive. It’s like a nice pat on the back and a reminder that I belong here.

I hope that award isn’t tainted for you by the controversy that surrounded it. Are you able to look at it with a sense of pride?
Definitely more so, now. The more time that goes by, the more you forget about the negative stuff and just focus on the fact that you have a Grammy, you know? I have one and I always will, now.

A big part of that story — that didn’t get as much attention until Neil Portnow said what he said — was that you were the only woman to win anything on that broadcast.
That’s what was frustrating to me too. People were so quick to preach feminism but then they were tearing down the one woman who was onstage. You can’t pick and choose what feminism means to you. That’s not how it works. But, honestly, I’m in a way better space. Skin grows thicker after that. I’m grateful for it.

Where do you keep the Grammy now?
My mom and dad made this little shelf in our basement that has all the awards on it. It’s right smack in the middle. It’s a really nice setup, I don’t think they’re gonna let me take it when I move.

I mean, your first Grammy should go to your parents.
That’s what Lorde said, too. She was sitting in front of me at the awards and told me, “Give it to your parents.” I was like, “Okay!”

That’s sweet. Are you guys friends at all? You’re both at a similar stage in your life; Melodrama and The Pains of Growing are thematic sisters.
We don’t really ever see each other and we’re both very private when it comes to what we do outside of music. We don’t really hang out in those circles, but she’s really awesome. She was really supportive of “Here” when it first came out. But, yeah, I don’t really talk to a lot of other artists. I’m kind of like a weird little crab who goes into her shell.

Did what happened at the Grammys have any affect on the making of this album?
Yes and no. A lot of the album was done before I won, but it’s definitely changed my attitude a bit now that it’s almost out. I mean, I still get comments about that damn Grammy and how I don’t deserve it. All the time. People want to see somebody fail and not like them for no reason. It’s such a classic story of a troll online that just wants to see someone who’s young and successful fail. I haven’t really felt pressure, but it also makes me want to work extra hard just to prove to people that I belong here and that I deserve my success. It’s taken me awhile to believe that I do, but I do and I’m proud of it.

Stan culture is both a beautiful and a horrible thing. Like, I don’t even know the person you’re stanning and we would never say these things to each other, so why are you? And if I were ineligible, I wouldn’t have been there. It’s as simple as that. Those rules are very strict and they wouldn’t have let me on the stage if I were ineligible, but people don’t get that. They just see one thing and decide to hate you. But whatever. I’ll get another one someday and we’ll see what they have to say about that one.

This interview had been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alessia Cara on Her New Album and That Grammys Controversy