Music

‘I’m feeling the most liberated I have ever felt’: Alessia Cara calls new album ‘In the Meantime’ the ‘best work’ of her career

Fish in a bowl, seclusion, introspection. These cryptic words tweeted by Alessia Cara in September had fans intrigued about her new album, “In the Meantime.”

It was the singer-songwriter’s way of explaining the concept behind the album’s striking cover art. In an apparent nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” Cara is photographed as a modern-day Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Posing in a transparent bubble, yet appearing oddly at peace, Cara is captured wearing a yellow gown reminiscent of a ’70s prom dress: long, layered, ruffled.

Anyone who has listened closely to Cara’s recent 18-song track list knows her choice of attire is more than apropos. In many ways, the album represents a graduation ceremony for the 25-year-old Italian-Canadian talent. Over a Zoom chat from her home in Toronto, Mississauga-born, Brampton-raised Cara is adamant that she’s recorded “the best work” of her career.

As for that transparent force field encasing Cara on her album cover? Perhaps it’s extra protection from outside negative forces or the occasional music industry flying monkey. Whatever the interpretation, Cara admits that a full-on transformation is happening to her as we speak.

“Everything I do is intentional. I feel like I’ve lived a whole other lifetime since my last album,” she says, referring to her 2018 disc “The Pains of Growing.” “These new songs represent freedom for me. It’s a focus I don’t think I had before … I have a new outlook; I’ve shed an old skin, and I’m lucky that I was able to document the pain I went through in these songs.”

The disc’s overall sound is difficult to pinpoint. Tracks move from R & B and soul to pop that draws primarily from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and the early 2000s. However, the album has two transcendent moments that stand out from the pack. The first is a subtle-yet-stirring track titled “Bluebird,” in which Cara samples “I Wish You Love,” performed by China’s eight-year-old social media star, Miumiu Guitargirl. Cara’s voice on the song is sublime, echoing a delicate tip of the hat to Brazilian samba and bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto, Norah Jones and Lani Hall (of Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 fame).

“I’m so inspired by bossa nova music, and that sound made me want to immediately go to this aspirational place and take risks,” she says of the experiment. Flying through verses with the ease of a jazz pro, Cara’s phrasing in lyrics such as “I loved you, but I couldn’t keep you/I was broken/Till I learned I didn’t need you” sounds buoyant and effortless.

“Even though my outlook on romance was not positive while I was writing the song, I ended up writing about an unrequited, awesome love story,” Cara says.

By contrast, the most commanding and emotional notes on “In the Meantime” belong to “Best Days.” Cara begins the song with lyrics emitting the kind of raw, vulnerable uncertainty she has yet to traverse in previous recordings, singing, “So much harder to be honest/With yourself at 20-something/Wish I knew what I’m becoming.” Her voice on the track sounds so intimate that you feel as though you’re reading a diary entry.

“That song was my rock bottom: emotionally and mentally,” she says of “Best Days,” which ends with Cara belting out two burning questions: “What if the best days are the days I’ve left behind?” and “What if the rest stays the same for all my life?”

The song was one of the most difficult to finish in its entirety because of its personal nature. “It’s very hard to speak to yourself in an honest way because you still kind of hold on to the hope of your childhood,” she says, explaining the song looks at how she felt she was “being hit with a lot of the ugly truths of adulthood and responsibility,” and having “more chinks in the armour.”

Until now, the general assumption was that Cara has had it easier than most pop stars. Yet “In the Meantime” clearly tells another tale. At the age of 21, she made history when she became the only Canadian artist to win a Grammy in the Best New Artist category. But fans of Cara’s competition — front-runners such as SZA, Khalid and Julia Michaels — were so incensed some threatened her life via social media.

Publicly, Cara kept her cool and responded on Instagram, posting nothing but the facts (“I was nominated and won, and I am not going to be upset about something I’ve wanted since I was a kid, not to mention have worked really hard for”).

It’s no surprise that many viewed her as the epitome of the girl-boss trope, connecting that Joan of Arc-ian, no BS-strength to body-positive hits such as “Scars to Your Beautiful” (in which she belts lines such as “No better you than the you that you are”) and bops like “Here” (which praises the perks of being a wallflower at a party filled with cool kids). No matter how she has been perceived, the crown titles of pop queen, warrior, princess or warrior-princess never felt like the right fit.

Yet, the pressures of duplicating the critical and commercial success of her 2015 debut, “Know-It-All,” and followup “The Pains of Growing” conjured what Cara calls “anxiety issues and so many episodes of depression and doubt, which then led to insomnia and too many sleepless nights to count.” Therapy and medication helped her get through some of the hurdles, but music proved to be a form of self-care with the most continuity.

Still, Cara continues to struggle with issues surrounding gender inequality. “Women artists and women entertainers are seen as a lot more disposable than male entertainers,” she says. “Unfortunately, aging as a woman is a lot more difficult and looked down on. Women still have to be 10 times more extraordinary than men do as entertainers to make or solidify our place in the industry. Mediocrity for males is a lot more accepted because women are expected to do so much with so little.”

New songs such as “Voice in My Head” are anthems of self-worth that Cara wrote in an effort to work through unhelpful issues of self-doubt. “It’s such a cyclical thing. It’s not like you just wake up one day and you’re like, ‘I’ve healed completely,’” she says.

“It’s a lot of unlearning and relearning and tons of lapses along the way. Rest, for me, has been the most challenging thing I’ve dealt with, not only in the last seven years since my career has taken off. It also helped me be careful of the way that I talked to myself and the things that I ingested, whether it’s physically ingested or emotionally: the things that I’m watching on Netflix, the things that I listen to and the people I surround myself with.”

Cara counts herself lucky that her mother has a deep love of Italian pop music icon Mina, an artist who to date has released more than 100 albums and sold more than 100 million records globally. As with so many Italian-Canadian families of her mother’s generation, Mina’s music was regularly on rotation and a solid reminder of the artistry coming out of the motherland.

“My mom is like a music historian when it comes to Mina,” Cara says. “She was played constantly, and I grew up not only listening to Mina but also loving her story and her music. I also got to know all the problems she had in the music industry and how she did not record for a long time. It’s fascinating.”

Her early reverence for some of Italy’s greatest pop vocalists — women such as Mina, Patty Pravo, Laura Pausini, as well as recently departed disco queen of Italy, Raffaella Carrà — makes a lot of sense on Cara’s new album. Like these artists, Cara has become a hunter-gatherer of dissimilar music styles, finally having the coraggio (courage) to apply her pipes to uncomfortable genres and ranges she never before faced.

“I’m tapping into that freedom and feeling the most liberated I have ever felt,” she says. “But I am not at the place where I feel like I’m able to do 100 per cent of what I want yet. I’m still proving myself artistically. There are so many leaps and bounds to go.”

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