Alessia Cara Takes Control of Life's Up and Downs: "I Had No Idea What Rock Bottom Really Was"

The singer-songwriter grapples with sleep disorders, self-assurance and Amy Winehouse's legacy on third album 'In the Meantime'

Photo: Shervin Lainez

BY Heather Taylor-SinghPublished Sep 23, 2021

Alessia Cara is finally feeling in tune with herself. The Canadian pop singer-songwriter spent the early days of her career singing about feeling shy, misunderstood and out of place. Now at 25, Cara has found a new streak of self-assurance as she's become more engaged with her mental health and her place in the music industry. The singer who inspired young people to give their problems an appropriate amount of dramatic weight is now learning to lighten up, which comes through on Cara's third album, In the Meantime, due tomorrow (September 24) via Def Jam Recordings.

"[While] writing this album, I figured out a lot about myself — I've changed a lot for sure," she tells Exclaim! over a video call from her apartment in downtown Toronto. "The change comes with being older and growing into more of a woman [and] developing more confidence. But also, everything that happens to us shows us something about ourselves. Everything I went through has given me a newfound outlook [on life]." 

In 2011, when Cara was still a teenager living in Brampton, ON, she started posting covers on YouTube. While it seemed out of character for Cara, who was shy growing up, she found comfort in putting herself out there —  it slowly eased her into sharing her voice with the world. Three years later, her cover of the Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather" was just shy of one million views when a record label reached out to sign her. From there, Cara released her first single "Here" in 2015, the track that put her on everyone's radars as she sang the miserable musings of an awkward, anti-social partygoer. 

Cara wrote about the relatable struggle of fitting in on 2015's Know-It-All and channelled growing up on 2018's aptly titled The Pains of Growing. On In the Meantime, Cara has fully come into her own as she embraces her hard-to-describe feelings and explicitly lays them out on the table for all to hear. The album diverts from Cara's shy persona as she unapologetically expresses herself and battles with internal demons. What remains the same is Cara's soulful voice and distinct charm that she established at a young age.

Cara has started learning to be transparent about her emotions and to enjoy the grey areas of life, which inspired the album's title. In the Meantime was mainly created during the pandemic, when the world was at a complete halt — especially for musicians. "This is my encapsulation of what I've been doing, what I've been thinking about and what I've been going through in the meantime," she says.

But it also has a deeper meaning: "I was thinking a lot about life and death, and I've come to the conclusion that life is sort of like a meantime between birth and death, and its meanings are just as strong as what we apply to them — we apply our own meaning to life. I can see the woman that I want to become through doing all of this healing and deep thought, and these are the things that I've had to go through in the meantime. We're always in a transitional period."

This existential dynamic that Cara discovered throughout the pandemic heavily influenced the album's visuals, which Cara describes as "very dreamy." Case in point: In the Meantime's album cover features Cara sitting in a giant bubble, seemingly trapped — but this imagery expands further in Cara's mind. "Last year, we were stuck in the same place and had to rely a lot on ourselves for creativity," she says. "But we also relied very heavily on escapism, whether it was watching movies or TV or being inspired by the outdoors, to mentally and emotionally escape from our reality." When crafting the album's aesthetics, Cara wanted to establish a dynamic between escapism and surrealism to illustrate how she was feeling.

Cara's transitional period has encouraged a wealth of growth within her. On The Pains of Growing, Cara found herself writing from a heartbroken and fragile state. "I'm always going to be — to some degree — writing from a fragile place," she reflects. "But [now] I write about pain in a different way, where I have more perspective on it. I can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when it's really heavy, whereas [on] The Pains of Growing, I was a heartbroken teenager who was trying to navigate life, and I felt like I was way out of my depth in the world. This time around, I was more liberated. Still in pain [and] sort of wounded, but in a different sense." Cara attributes this shift to realizing vulnerability isn't something to be ashamed of.

Was she scared? "In a rational way, it's scary, but I actually don't feel scared," Cara says. "​​I don't really care about being so open, because what can really come of it? Maybe people will know a little bit deeper into what I'm thinking, but if anything, it's a positive thing, because then maybe they'll see something about themselves that they weren't looking at.

"My music is the only thing that's going to be left of me when I'm gone. Life is so impermanent — the only thing permanent is what you leave behind. So, I might as well just be totally honest and pour everything into it. Why would you go back at this point?"  

While Cara has always been writing about her personal experiences, In the Meantime is her most self-reflective record yet. "My songwriting has become a little bit more free than it was in the past," she explains. "The way that I used to write was like, 'How can I say this thing in a creative way?' and then through doing that, I would never actually just say the thing because I was so focused on making it sound cool, or trying to prove myself."

On "Sweet Dream," Cara opens up about her experience with insomnia. Because of her sleep disorder, which can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep, Cara tends to be most creative at night. "All logic goes away, which helps me write a lot easier because I kind of lose all structure, and I'm just able to be totally creative. In those times of insomnia is where I get a lot of my good ideas," she explains.

Creativity, she says, is the only good thing that comes from insomnia: "It's unhelpful for every other reason other than writing. It causes such a cycle where you don't sleep, which causes your anxiety to get worse, and your anxiety causes you to sleep less. It just dims your quality of life." While working on the album, Cara realized how her lack of sleep was negatively affecting her and spent the past year working on her sleep routine.

Piano pop ballad "Best Days" finds Cara at her rawest, as she asks if her best days are behind her. "You live and you die / But the hardest pill to swallow is the meantime," she sings. Cara says writing this track was when she started coming to terms with her declining mental health. "That was one of the emotional rock bottoms, which interestingly enough, I wrote pre-pandemic, so I had no idea what rock bottom really was," she says. "It was the catalyst for me understanding that I was dealing with something really serious [and] I needed to get help and readjust the way that I was living [and] treating myself."

In the Meantime is also more sonically diverse than Cara's previous work, as she adds more upbeat pop moments to her quintessential moody ones. "[The album has] a lot of uptempo stuff. Probably more uptempo than I've ever done, which is exciting and different," Cara explains. "But there's also my usual emotional, heavy-sounding stuff. So it's kind of all over the place, in true 'me' fashion. I never tend to stick to one sonic scape."

Throughout In the Meantime, Cara pairs sombre lyrics with bubblegum pop sounds to highlight her tenacity, as exemplified on "Fishbowl," a musically cheery song that belies lyrics about feeling out of control in her life. Of writing more lively music, she says, "It's a lot of fun. I feel like this album kind of called for some more fun stuff because I love listening to music like that. And the place that I'm at in my life — emotionally, mentally — I wanted to do something a little bit more lighthearted."

While Cara worked on lightening up her songwriting, she turned to a new collaborator to help her hone in on this newfound honesty. The majority of In the Meantime was made in collaboration with producer Salaam Remi, best known for his work with the late Amy Winehouse. Cara met Remi during a trip to Miami in 2019. "He was always sort of like a Wizard of Oz-type character in my head," she remembers. "He was nice enough to take me through a tour of his home and show me all the rooms in which they wrote some of the most amazing songs that I have admired and looked to for guidance in my own songwriting, so it was a very full-circle moment for me."
With Remi's guidance, In the Meantime has plenty of Winehouse influence — tracks like "Bluebird" and "Shapeshifter" feature a plucked bass, light drums and effortlessly sultry vocals. What Cara admired most about Winehouse was the amount of honesty she weaved into her music. "Every time I listened to [Winehouse's] music, it felt like I was listening to something I shouldn't have been hearing — that's how personal it felt. That's where you tap into the good stuff, and that's where [artists] show people themselves," Cara notes. "I always try to keep that in mind when making my own music — not thinking too hard about saying the right thing or being too exposed, because that's where all of the real creativity comes in." 

From bottling up intense emotions on "Box in the Ocean," to the soft-spoken brokenheartedness of "I Miss You, Don't Call Me," to learning to accept her life on album closer "Apartment Song," In the Meantime comes from the intricate parts of Cara's brain, revealing pieces of herself that she didn't have access to until making the album. Cara isn't asking for pity or sympathy; instead, she's presenting a level of honesty that doesn't leave any emotion left open to interpretation. 

Approaching songwriting with this mindset, Cara delivers some of her most forthright tracks yet, and she's no longer fixated on how she's going to be perceived. "This time around, I was gonna say the thing however it came out," she offers. "I'm having a lot of fun, just saying what I feel and not worrying too much about the repercussions or how it's going to come out, and just allowing myself to be free."

In the Meantime is Cara's way of taking a step back and learning to understand her flaws and take care of herself accordingly. "The way that I treat myself [and] the way that I look at life is a little bit different," she muses. "Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. On some days, I feel like I've opened a lot of doors mentally that I wish I could close, but I feel like I appreciate things a lot more, and I'm able to have way more perspective than I used to, and I talk to myself a little bit more kindly than I used to."

This album serves as a radical act of self-care for Cara, who says she "found herself" in the last few years — but she admits she's still growing: "I feel like the next album will be another change. I'll definitely be another person again and again." But in the meantime, quite literally, Cara is beaming with the new perspective she's gained from creating In the Meantime.

"I'm very excited. It's the most excited I've been for a project, and it's only my third album. It's the most proud I've been of something. The process has been so fun, and I feel more liberated," she explains. "I tend to feel kind of unsupported or misunderstood, but I feel very supported this time around by my team and creatively free, which is a nice feeling."

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