“Holy cow,” said Alessia Cara said as she accepted the Grammy Award for best new artist in January.
“I’ve been pretend winning Grammys since I was a kid in the shower so you’d think I’d have the speech thing down but I don’t… My mind is blown.”
Her elation, however, was quickly curtailed.
Fans of the other nominees – SZA, Khalid, Julia Michaels and Lil Uzi Vert – complained that Cara had been around too long, and had had too much success, to qualify as “new”.
True enough, she came second on the BBC’s Sound of 2016 list, and released her platinum-selling debut album later that year. But it was 2017, with the hits Scars To Your Beautiful, Stay (with Zedd) and 1-800-273-8255 (with Logic) that established her as one of pop’s most authentic new voices.
Responding to the backlash, Cara put out a lengthy, defiant Instagram statement.
“I will not let everything I’ve worked for be diminished by people feeling the need to tell me how much I suck,” she wrote.
“I’ve been thinking I suck since I was old enough to know what sucking meant. I beat you to it.”
Six months later, in the tea room of a London hotel, she reflects on that moment.
“I wanted to let people know there is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t thought by myself,” she says.
“And I’m still pushing through that, you know? I’m trying to get over that and I’m still living my dream, so it doesn’t matter what people think.”
‘Cloud of sadness’
Cara first got noticed at the age of 13 with her YouTube cover versions. One of them was spotted by a talent scout, who encouraged her to write her own material.
The first original song she released was 2015’s 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.
That path led her to the Grammys – but despite the success, the 22-year-old found herself under “a cloud” of sadness she couldn’t shake.
As well as adjusting to fame, the singer was falling in and out of a relationship as well as becoming independent from her parents and struggling with her own self-worth.
“There was a dissonance happening in my head because I had my career figured out but I had so many personal things that I hadn’t figured out and that was scary,” she says.
“You almost feel ungrateful for feeling those things. One end of your life is going so well and you feel like, ‘Am I wrong for feeling sad?'”
Eventually, Cara confronted her anxiety head-on, letting her emotions boil over into a song one night in the back of her tour bus.
“I needed to tell someone I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t really taking care of myself,” she says. “I just wanted to just get it out.”