Camila Cabello: ‘An absolute force of nature’


Mark Savage (BBC) writes about Camila Cabello’s artistic trajectory. Here are excerpts.

[. . .] Fast forward to 2019, and Cabello is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s sold five million copies of her debut album, Camila; opened this year’s Grammy Awards with a Technicolor performance of her breakout hit Havana; and, alongside her boyfriend Shawn Mendes, released 2019’s most-streamed single, Señorita. Not bad for someone who, just seven years ago, was beset by crippling shyness. [. . .]

Across the border

Karla Camila Cabello comes from a family of strivers.

Born in Havana to a Cuban mother and Mexican father, she moved between the two countries until she was six, when her mother announced they were going on a trip to Disney World. Instead, they travelled from Cojímar to Mexico, where they caught a bus to an immigration centre on the US border. After crossing into Texas, they made a 36-hour journey to Miami, arriving with just $300 and a backpack of possessions, including Cabello’s Winnie the Pooh journal and her favourite doll. For 18 months, they scraped by on the modest salary her mother, who’d been an architect in Cuba, made in the footwear concession of a department store. Eventually, her father swam the Rio Grande to join his family, earning money by washing cars “in the blistering Miami heat”, and saving up until the family had enough money to start a construction company.

Looking back, Cabello says she was blissfully unaware of her parents’ struggle. “I don’t think you realise that stuff as a kid,” she says. “You’re either happy or you’re not. [. . .]

Her own singing career got off to a rocky start, however. Auditioning for her fourth grade choir, the 10-year-old grew so nervous she forgot all the words to My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. At home, it was the same story. She’d belt out Beyonce’s Listen in the basement but couldn’t sing in front of her parents. When they asked, she’d burst into tears. So it came as a surprise when, for her Quinceañera (15th birthday), she begged Sinuhe and Alejandro to drive her 12 hours from Miami to North Carolina to audition for the X Factor.

At the try-outs, Cabello was classed as “spare” – who’d only get to sing for Simon Cowell if someone else dropped out or filming ran ahead of schedule. Several times, she saw the opportunity being snatched away from her. “I would be about to go on stage, with my mic in my hand, and they’d be like, ‘No, sorry,” she recalls. Eventually, a producer took pity on her, “because they were tired of seeing me disappointed”.

On stage, in front of 8,000 people, she began the process of re-invention. She introduced herself as Camila, not Karla. And Camila wasn’t shy or nervous. She was sweet, charming, a little bit goofy and an exceptionally gifted singer. “I really didn’t know if I could do it,” she says of the audition. “I remember being the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. And then I remember being on stage and being, ‘Oh my God, I love this. There’s such a thrill from this.'”

Cowell drafted Cabello into a girl group, Fifth Harmony, cast from the same mould as One Direction. They scored some major hits – the spin-class anthem Work From Home has 2.2bn views on YouTube alone – before the dream came crashing down. In December 2016, a day after playing New York’s Jingle Bell Ball, the band released a statement saying, “we have been informed via her representatives that Camila has decided to leave Fifth Harmony”.

Cabello hit back with a statement of her own saying, “I did not intend to end things with Fifth Harmony this way”. [. . .]

[. . .] One of the people who heard the demos was Fifth Harmony’s lawyer, Roger Gold. who was instantly impressed. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Is she really as good as I think she is?'” he says. “I couldn’t believe how fresh it sounded.” Seizing the opportunity, Gold offered to be Cabello’s manager, and started hooking her up with professional songwriters.

But while her collaborators were pop A-listers like Sia and Charli XCX, the singer’s first few solo singles – Crying In The Club and OMG – were neither distinctive nor exciting. Luckily, Cabello had a song in her back pocket that would change all that.

Called Havana, it drew on the singer’s Cuban roots, fusing a rumba piano motif to the heavy 808 beats of Atlanta hip-hop, carving out a unique sound that defined her debut album. The song had a long and public gestation; revised and re-recorded several times while Cabello toured the US in support of Bruno Mars. [. . .]

Her instincts paid off. In its final incarnation, Havana became the most-streamed song by a female artist of all time; racking up 1.3bn plays on Spotify alone. It marked a turning point in Cabello’s career. “In the beginning I felt like a deer being born,” she says. “You know, like when they can’t walk? I was just stumbling, trying to find my way. I didn’t have the confidence to say no. After Havana, I never did anything again that I didn’t feel 100% passionate about.”

She grasped the opportunity with both hands. Havana was rewarded with a big-budget video, riffing hilariously on Spanish soap operas; and Cabello, who severely doubted her abilities as a dancer, threw herself into rehearsals for the song’s steamy dance breakdown. [. . .]

So it’s fitting that her new album is themed around the least cool, but most important, emotion of them all: Falling stupidly, helplessly, head over heels in love. [. . .] Titled Romance – what else? – the album explores love from all sides. Over the island vibes of Liar, Cabello succumbs to temptation (“boy, what if you kiss me? / And what if I like it?”); while the experimental vocal harmonies of Bad Kind Of Butterflies have her confessing to an affair of the heart. [. . .]

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