Photograph by Neil Van (2015).
Alessia Cara is everything you could want in a young pop-star. She’s talented, relatable, positive, sweet and very much a product of her age. Her path is a modern one that took her from humble YouTube posts at age 13 to headlining Toronto’s Massey Hall at 20. Impressive. The Wednesday night show was sold out; Cara joked most of the people in the room were her family and friends. Cara was born and raised in nearby Brampton and the hometown crowd came out in the rain to celebrate her success. The warm feeling of community enveloped the entire show.
Cara is among a small, but growing group of pop sensations who found a fanbase through social media well before being discovered by the music biz establishment. Her two opening acts were both young Canadian artists, still finding their fans. First to hit the stage was Toronto’s own,Craig Stickland, who had spent time in Cara’s band before striking out on his own. He played a short, engaging, acoustic set, accompanying himself with the help of a loop pedal. He must have gained fans among the many young girls in attendance, because his tender, sweet songs were made to make hearts melt. (And if that didn’t win you over, his clever cover of Drake’s One Dance surely would have!) He was followed by Edmonton’s Ruth B and her band. Ruth B told the crowd that she wrote her first song 18 months ago. That Peter Pan themed song, Lost Boy, took on a life of its own and cracked the Billboard Top 50, surprising everyone. She is shy and finding her footing as a performer, but her rendition of Lost Boy filled the room with Pixie dust, pulling the whole audience into her fairytale.
When the lights dimmed for the third time that evening, Alessia Cara hit the stage launching right into I’m Yours. Using a high-tech triptych of screens mounted on risers and backdrops, the staging felt almost too big for the venue. Cara’s unpretentious style counterbalanced the fancy light show, keeping it real in many ways. One benefit for fans was that, with only one album under her belt, she was able to give them every song they might have wanted to hear. It took a couple of songs for Cara to warm up. Wild Things, a current Top 40 staple, came early in the set, which might have been too soon. A few songs later, before doing Outlaws, she got the crowd up off their feet to hug their friends, loved ones or dates. That simple act sent a heartfelt message, and it also changed the energy in the room. The rest of the show flowed with an ease and spirit that underscored Cara’s appeal.
Midway through the set, Cara offered up two cover songs. Her band left the stage and she performed a captivating version of Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good. Her band then re-joined her for a cover of Troye Sivan’s Wild. She wound up her main set with two hit songs. The first was Scars to Your Beautiful. She prefaced it with a plea for all the girls in the room – or indeed anyone in the room – not to listen to the voices out in the world that seek to make you feel less than beautiful. Cara turned the mic around for the “no better you than the you that you are” refrain. The song’s lyrics, coupled with projected faces depicting every stripe of beautiful, made a powerful statement. She then spoke about the song that changed her life, Here. The audience sang along and Cara threw in a new verse, just to keep things interesting. She left the stage, but her band didn’t and she was soon back for one last tune. My Song, was complemented by a reel of home video clips from Cara’s life, pre and post fame – a storyboard of two decades that started in Brampton and ended, for now anyway, at Massey Hall.