If you’re one of the 320,000 or so going to see Coldplay at Wembley Stadium next month, get there early and you might see a young girl, probably in scruffy jeans, stepping onto the stage. Don’t worry, she isn’t lost. She’s Alessia Cara, a 19-year-old Canadian-Italian who’s still getting used to performing for thousands. Having started out, not very long ago, as another singer of bedroom cover versions on YouTube, she’s now the voice of a gold-selling debut album and supporting one of the world’s biggest bands. “I think I went into shock,” she says of the moment she received the invitation. “I’m still in shock.”
Cara, born Alessia Caracciolo in Ontario, has already had a brief taste of stadium life thanks to one of her biggest fans: Taylor Swift. Last autumn in Tampa, she was invited on stage to sing her hit single, Here, with the superstar. “I honestly couldn’t be more impressed by Alessia Cara. 55,000 people and she was absolutely fearless,” wrote Swift later. She had previously included Cara’s song I’m Yours on her tweeted list of “New Songs That Will Make Your Life More Awesome”.
“We spent quite a bit of time together. She’s very approachable, very welcoming. After a few minutes of talking she didn’t feel like ‘Taylor Swift’ any more,” Cara tells me. “It’s her personality. She just makes you feel comfortable and like we’re all the same. I get asked, ‘Are you part of the squad now?’ I say I’d be the awkward one because everyone else is so gorgeous.”
So she’s mingling with the A-list, but this smiling girl from the suburbs of Toronto still seems a long way from superstardom. Curled up in a fancy west London hotel suite in a baggy sweater and ripped jeans, she expresses surprise that Here became so popular. In a pop world of pneumatic party-starters and rappers spraying Cristal around the club, her song is about going to a teenage house party and hating every minute. “I don’t dance, don’t ask, I don’t need a boyfriend,” she sings in a beautiful, fluttery voice over a sad string sample that will be familiar to Nineties kids as the backing for both Portishead’s Glory Box and Tricky’s Hell is Round the Corner, and perhaps to Seventies kids as the hook from Ike’s Rap II by Isaac Hayes.
It’s far from an obvious pop hit, which is what her record label said too. “They told me they didn’t think it was a radio track. I kept hearing that it wasn’t ‘safe enough’ for radio. I have no idea what that means,” she says. “They wanted to put it out virally, as a little feeler. Every day the views got higher and higher.” The video, in which Cara mooches sulkily around a house in which every other kid is frozen mid-beer chug, is now approaching 100 million views on YouTube. “Way more people than I ever expected have connected with it. I get 15-year-old girls and 40-year-old men saying the same thing: ‘I’ve been there.’ I didn’t realise how many people think these things and never say them.”
Because of that song, naturally you might expect Cara to be shy in conversation, or at best a moody brat, but you don’t get to share a stage with Taylor Swift and Chris Martin by being a full-time wallflower. She admits that she just isn’t the party type: “I’ve never hosted a party in my life, not even my own birthday party. I’d feel really uncomfortable saying, ‘Hey everybody, let’s celebrate me!’ But I’m not antisocial. I don’t hate people.” She’s bubbly and chatty and seems confident enough to cope with being an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances.
Olive skinned, wild haired and extremely pretty by anyone’s standards, he has endured more criticism than most teenage girls about the way she looks, notably for dressing down when performing on one of America’s key festive TV broadcasts, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. I twist myself into knots trying to tell her that it feels like she’s one of us, rather than a glittering idol, without it sounding like a massive insult.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been told everything possible! I’m unpolished, I guess. I’m definitely not a supermodel, a thousand per cent. I sang Here on New Year’s Eve, it was a really big thing, I was rehearsing forever and worrying about my performance. And all people could talk about was what pants I was wearing. I gave my all and you just talk about my grey jeans? Really? The frustration came from the criticism coming from other women, saying, ‘How dare you not wear a dress!’ How can older women criticise a teenage girl for being herself, instead of empowering her?”
if not a supermodel, she does want to be a role model. Her song Scars to Your Beautiful (like Labrinth’s Beneath Your Beautiful, it thinks the word “Beautiful” is a noun) is about self-harm and anorexia and is her most uplifting moment. “To all the girls that’s hurting, let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer, the light that shines within,” she sings.
“When I’m on stage I look out and there’s always one girl crying to that song, which makes me feel so amazing and sad at the same time,” she says. “I always try and pinpoint those people and sing for them, but I need the song just as much as anybody else.”
if you had actually lived next door to this girl-next-door in the suburb of Brampton during her earlier teens, you probably wouldn’t have noticed. “I lived in my room and did nothing outside. I spent most of my time on my own.” Beneath posters from the TV show Friends and a framed photograph of Amy Winehouse – a deep love of whom she shares with her mother – she practised the guitar, tried to write songs and began filming her cover versions at 13. At first she just put them on Facebook for the kindly ears of friends and family, but soon she was putting music on YouTube under an anonymous username. Her first YouTube cover, Price Tag by Jessie J, is still online from February 2011.
A bedroom version of Sweater Weather by The Neighbourhood (now on 1.6 million views) was what pricked the ears of record companies in 2013. She started travelling to New York for gigs while staying sensible about school work. “It was like I was living this double life, secretly writing my own songs and trying to get signed. I really really tried to stay on track with school but it was a bit distracting.”
Now her dad, a former welder with his roots in Calabria (Italy’s toe) has quit his job to travel with his daughter and keep her feet on the ground. He shakes my hand but stays quiet in the next room. “It’s so good to have someone around who’s not after anything but your best interest. He’s here strictly to be my dad.”
But it doesn’t seem like she needs much help remaining down to earth. When she steps out on the Wembley stage, she’ll get the strongest sense of the scale of the numbers who have already fallen for her online. I think she can handle it.
Alessia Cara supports Coldplay on June 15-16 at Wembley Stadium, HA9 (0844 980 8001, wembleystadium.com). Know-It-All is out now on Virgin EMI.