In 2015, the dance challenge of the moment was the “whip/nae nae,” inspired by Silento’s ubiquitous hit “Watch Me;” Fifth Harmony was clawing their way up the charts with the bouncy “Worth It;” and a Toronto-born singer named Alessia Cara just dropped her breakout song “Here.” Floating over a sample of Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap II,” then-19-year-old Cara established her discomfort with social settings, singing, “But really I would rather be at home all by myself/Not in this room with people who don’t even care about my well-being” and spawning an unofficial anthem for “anti-social pessimists” like herself. Fast forward to 2020: Dance challenges are generated at light speed thanks to Tik Tok, Fifth Harmony is on an indefinite hiatus, and stay-at-home mandates due to the novel coronavirus are forcing everyone to channel their inner recluse. But Alessia Cara is still here.
Like many of us, Cara, now 23, is self-isolating. But as she told us on her first single, home—that is, her parents’ house in Toronto—is where she wants to be. It’s where her younger self practiced acceptance speeches for songs she hadn’t produced yet. It’s where she performed covers of Jessie J’s “Price Tag” and Adele’s “One and Only” in front of the camera for the first time, and where she filmed her most-viewed video, a cover of The Neighborhood’s “Sweater Weather” that caught the attention of a music exec and lead to a record deal in 2014. But today, she no longer has to pretend she’s a famous singer. She is one, and the Grammy she won in 2018 is proof.
“I’ve grown from that song [‘Here’] in so many ways,” Cara says with a warm chuckle. “It’s much easier for me to talk to people now than it used to be, and I learned that there was more to me than I thought. I enjoy going out more.” You still won’t find her at parties, though. “I’m very skeptical of social gatherings,” she says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. But I’m learning to get out there more and not be so scared of everything.”
Back in 2017, Cara had another dream she wanted to fulfill. A firm believer in manifestation, Cara had already prophesied appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon when she appeared on the latter for the third time, in 2017. When the late-night host asked Cara what she wanted to do next, she held his hand and the two gripped his desk. “I would want to voice a character in an animation movie one day,” she said. This brings us to her latest feat, Netflix’s new animated dark comedy The Willoughbys.
Bron Studios mentioned that Fallon appearance in their initial email to Cara, along with a description of the character they wanted her to play: Jane, the fiery red-haired sister of Tim Willoughby (played by Will Forte) and the Barnaby Twins (both voiced by Sean Cullen). Neglected by their parents, the Willoughby siblings plot to “discard” their parents by sending them on a fake vacation in the hopes that they’ll, well, die. It’s a dark plot for an animated film, but Cara insists Jane brings some light to the story.
“She’s very passionate, a little bit naive, but she’s very hopeful,” Cara explains. “I’m glad to be the vessel because I needed that.” Jane’s drive and ambition resonated with Cara when she read the script, and she took note of the same qualities she saw in herself, including their shared stubbornness and sensitivity. It’s a fitting role for the former theater kid, who finds it “scary” to act in front of large crowds. Voicing an animated character was a relief: “I’m acting, but I’m not in front of the camera and I’m just using my voice, which is my perfect world,” she says.
But the quality Cara loves most in Jane is her love of music, which resulted in the film’s original song “I Choose.” Writing a song based on a character marked a first for Cara, who’s used to detailing her own lived experiences in her anthemic pop ballads. “When I write for myself, it’s cathartic, so I’m word-vomiting everywhere and it’s very specific to myself,” she says. But with a film as twisted as The Willoughbys, Cara had a number of bullet points to consider.
“You have to keep in mind the theme of the movie, the audience, the scale, the emotions, even down to the production—every sound in the production has to feel right,” she says. And she’s no amateur when it comes to movie music—Cara sang the Lin Manuel Miranda-written “How Far I’ll Go” for the soundtrack of the film Moana.
“I Choose,” like The Willoughbys, reinforces the idea that family doesn’t always mean blood relations, but the people who “stay by your side” and choose you in the end. “While I have great blood relatives, I also have a family that I’ve built over the years through my career,” Cara explains. “I see family in my team; I see it with my best friend. It’s not always about the family you were born into, but rather people you choose to love unconditionally. That’s what family really means.”
The film’s juxtaposition of heavy themes with cheeky wit is similar to the contrast in Cara’s music. Her breezy, soft melodies set an unexpected backdrop for bittersweet reflections on love in “Like You” from 2019’s This Summer EP and musings on childhood memories on “My Kind,” from her second album The Pains of Growing. She’s not ready to part with this formula just yet.
“I like when a song sounds fun but causes you to think deeper than the surface,” she says. “I can be talking about something that’s sad but the sound of it doesn’t feel that way—it allows people to escape from their bad feelings.”
These days she’s spending her time in isolation slowly putting together her next album—”it’s still in the very early stages, but I’ve been more detailed in the experiences I’m writing about, hopefully for the better”—and watching Netflix’s Money Heist. (“It really helps take your mind off all the bad things going on.”)
Self-isolation also returned Cara to her roots as a cover artist, and she’s joined fellow powerhouse vocalists H.E.R. and Tori Kelly for “quarantine concerts” on Instagram Live. It’s a long way from the private performances of years earlier, but more proof that Alessia Cara is here to stay.