By Mark Savage BBC Music reporter
“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.”
Called Growing Pains, the song’s lyrics reflect Cara’s turmoil as she assumes the mantle of adulthood.
“Don’t know why I can’t see the sun, when young should be fun,” she sings over a distant, pulsing bass. “The growing pains, they’re keeping me up at night.”
She was initially unsure about releasing the track, whose sadness and vulnerability mark a big departure from the positive, empowering messages of her debut album. But she came to realise that her feelings are universal.
“Everybody goes through periods of being unhappy, or confused about where you want to go next. We never stop growing, really, and that’s why I decided to release Growing Pains and release it first – because that’s pretty much the premise of this whole album.”
Many of the other songs on the new album were written back in her childhood home – frequently in the bedroom cupboard where, as a child, she would practise the ukulele.
“I always write in places that are way too small for me,” she laughs. “I think I do it because the smaller the place, the less I have to be distracted by.
“So writing in my closet or in a bathtub provides a little quiet space where I can really focus on my guitar and what I want to say.
“Because if I’m in a place like this,” she adds, gesturing to the ornate furnishings of her hotel, “I would just be distracted by the peacock cushions.”
After finishing the album earlier this year, Cara celebrated by getting a new tattoo just above the elbow on her right arm.
“It’s of a band aid,” she says, rolling up her sleeve to show it off. “Just because the album’s the first thing I made on my own and it’s a symbol of healing.”
Cara has also acquired a new stage outfit – a baggy grey business suit she’s been wearing in photo shoots and TV appearances.
“It’s a symbol of responsibility and growth but it’s too big for me, because often when we grow up it’s very quick and we don’t feel ready for it,” she says.
“That’s what growth felt like to me. It wasn’t something I was excited for. It felt like a burden.”
Cara’s ability to capture the peculiar challenges her generation faces has endeared her to three million followers on social media.
The point was driven home by the reaction to last year’s 1-800-273-8255, whose very title is the number for a suicide prevention hotline in the US.
“It’s not until you have individual people coming up to you, face-to-face, and saying, ‘That song saved my life’, that you realise how helpful music can be.
“People really do listen and they look to music for comfort and for help. And that’s why it’s so important not just to talk about crap. Say something to people.
“That’s not my song, I can’t take credit for it – but just having a tiny part in it made me really happy because I’ve seen the effect it has on people.”
Alessia Cara’s new single, Trust My Lonely, is out now. Her album, The Pains Of Growing, follows soon.