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Camila Cabello Is In Control: 'I Express Myself However I Want'

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on March 30, 2018 9:46 am

Camila Cabello got her start as one-fifth of Fifth Harmony, a group formed by music impresario Simon Cowell from girls who had auditioned for the music competition show The X Factor. The experience forced a teenage Cabello out of her shell and propelled her and her bandmates to pop stardom.

"I was super shy, very introverted, kind of a wimp, didn't really go out much," Cabello remembers of that time. "I was always in my own little bubble and then suddenly I was, like, singing on national television every week. It was like a boot camp for all of us. It's very intense."

Fifth Harmony went on to create platinum-selling songs like "Worth It" and "Work From Home" and tour the world, banding together a fleet of fans that they affectionately referred to as Harmonizers.

Still, Cabello wanted more. To the dismay of many Harmonizers, she left the group in December 2016 and has been working toward her solo debut ever since. Last August, she dropped "Havana," a single featuring Young Thug that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and proved she could hold her own as a pop star.

"I have been a really big fan of Young Thug," Cabello says. "And I think because 'Havana' is an unconventional song ... I didn't want just a go-to, mainstream rapper that has done a bunch of pop features. I felt like he would bring just the right flavor to it."

Now, more than a year removed from her former group, the 20-year-old artist has released her first solo album, titled simply Camila.

"It's basically about the past year of my life," she explains. "There's a lot of stuff that I didn't get time to really reflect on. I really got to reflect on this album."

Click on the audio link to hear the full interview with NPR's Michel Martin.


Interview Highlights

On her family migrating to America from Cuba

[My parents] never said anything when I was little, 'cause I feel like parents have a way of hiding all the stressful or bad stuff going on. They did that for me. I'm sure there were so many struggles and so many things that were going on that they didn't tell me about because they wanted me to just be a kid, you know? To have that innocence and that pure vision of the world. My mom just told me we were going to Disney World, and that's why we were leaving.

On auditioning for The X Factor

I saw this video of One Direction, and I was a huge One Direction fan. They were giving tips on how to audition for X Factor USA. But there was an audition in North Carolina, and that was super close to Miami, and ... I just wanted to give it a shot. It was just these five seconds of bravery that changed my life, you know?

In Latin culture, we have this thing called a quinceañera. But instead of a quinceañera, I wanted my 15th birthday present to be for my parents to drive me to North Carolina so that I could audition. I think that my parents would be supportive of anything that I did. If I was like, "Oh, I really want to be a dentist today, and not pursue this as a career," they would be totally fine with it. I think they just saw how much I wanted it.

On making the decision to leave Fifth Harmony and go solo

I had been writing songs since I was 16, and at first I wanted to write for other people. [But] I had these songs that were so personal ... and I couldn't imagine me giving it to somebody and somebody else singing them because it was too close to me. I went a long time writing songs thinking that, "Nobody will ever hear this for another 10 years because I'll still be in the group." ... I made the decision to go out on my own and start expressing myself and my vision, because that's what made me come alive.

On defining her own image as a solo artist

I'm all for girls wearing what they want to wear. I think it's great for girls [who] want to express their sexuality and if they want to wear booty shorts or eyelashes or whatever to feel great, then that's amazing. The only thing wrong is when somebody is pushing you to do it before it's your time and before you're comfortable — or if that's not really you. I think both of those are OK; whether you want to go for that or you're not comfortable with that.

I'm just really being myself. I am in a great place where I have all of the control and I don't do anything that I'm not super stoked about doing, you know? There's nothing wrong with that, it's just me. If some day, that is me and I want to do that, then that'll be great too, but I just dress how I want. I express myself however I want.

On the meaning behind her favorite track, "She Loves Control"

I mean, I do love control. Basically, I thought of the title and I thought this would be really great for a song. I think that in that point of my life I just felt really free and independent and I was having a blast making this album and thinking about all of the stuff I wanted to do for it and coming up with all of the world around it. It was very refreshing for me to have that control.

Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, it was the song of the summer - and the fall, for that matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVANA")

CAMILA CABELLO: (Singing) Havana, oh-nah-nah (ph). My heart is in Havana, oh-nah-nah. He took me back to East Atlanta, nah-nah-nah (ph).

MARTIN: That is "Havana" by singer-songwriter Camila Cabello.

CABELLO: Hey, that's me.

MARTIN: After...

CABELLO: Sorry.

MARTIN: That's you. That is you. After its August debut, according to Billboard, it topped the charts for radio airplay longer than any other pop song by a solo female artist in the past five years. And that voice which you just heard probably sounds familiar. Camila Cabello had her start as one of the popular Fifth Harmony group formed by music impresario Simon Cowell from girls who had auditioned for the show "The X Factor." Cabello left the group just over a year ago. And now, she's just out with her first solo album titled simply "Camila." And she's with us now from our studios in New York. Camila Cabello, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CABELLO: Thank you. Sorry for interrupting your intro.

MARTIN: But you're excited because your album just came out, so we appreciate that.

CABELLO: Yes, I'm excited, yeah.

MARTIN: So congratulations.

CABELLO: Thank you.

MARTIN: So let's go back to the beginning for people who don't know your story yet. Your heart really was in Havana because you were originally born in Havana, right?

CABELLO: Yep. Yes.

MARTIN: Your mom is Cuban. And your dad's Mexican. Do I have that right?

CABELLO: Yes, that's right.

MARTIN: And you came to the U.S. when you were 6. Did your parents talk to you about why you left Cuba and what they were looking for? Now, I do remember that your parents - that your mom came first. You and your mom came first, and your dad, it took a while for him to be able to follow. Do you remember what they told you about that?

CABELLO: They never said anything when I was little because I feel like, you know, parents have a way of hiding all the stressful or bad stuff going on. I'm sure there were so many struggles and so many things that were going on they didn't tell me about because they wanted me to just be a kid, you know, and to have that, like, innocence and that, like, pure vision of the world that I was lucky to be able to have as a kid.

And so yeah, no, they never told me why. My mom just told me we were going to Disney World, and that's why we were leaving. And I was like, OK. And then I was like - it took a year for us to go to Disney World, and I was just like, something smells fishy because we're not at Disney World. And I also remember I had this, like, Disney calendar, and I would mark the Xs up until the day that my dad was supposed to come.

MARTIN: So you did eventually get to Disney?

CABELLO: I did a year after. It was great.

MARTIN: OK. I'm glad to hear that. So what made you audition for "X Factor"?

CABELLO: Well, I just - I saw this video of One Direction. And I was like a huge One Direction fan. And they were giving tips on how to audition for "X Factor (USA)." And it was - there was an audition in North Carolina, and that was super close to Miami. And so I was just kind of like - I just wanted to give it a shot. It was just these five seconds of bravery that changed my life, you know.

MARTIN: Can I just take you back to like - so what was the conversation? Was it, Mom, can you drive me to North Carolina?

CABELLO: Well, instead of my 15th birthday - in the Latin culture we have this thing called a quinceanera. And I wanted to have - instead of a quinceanera, I wanted my 15th birthday present to be for them to drive me to North Carolina so that I could audition. And I think that my parents are very - they're supportive of - they would be supportive of anything that I did. Like, if I was like, well, I really want to be a dentist today and, you know, not pursue this as a career, they would be totally fine with it. You know, they just want me to be happy. And I think that they just saw how much I wanted it. They were like, OK.

MARTIN: And then, of course, you know, the rest is history, as they say. And, of course, you made the decision to go out on your own. Now, you know, I do want to mention, it's not unusual for people who start in a group to go out on their own.

CABELLO: (Singing) Can't use - sorry.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, like, I mean, you know, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce - the queen, of course - Zayne, Harry Styles - your favorite - they've all gone out on their own. Could you just talk a little bit about how you went about making the decision that it was time for you to go solo?

CABELLO: I had been writing songs since I was 16. And at first, I wanted to write for other people. And then I, you know, I had these songs that I was like - they were so personal. And I was just kind of telling my story. And I couldn't imagine me giving it to somebody and somebody else singing them and performing them and making a video for them because it was too close to me, you know.

And so I was like, I don't want to write for other people. I want this to just be my song. This is my expression of who I am as an artist. And I went a long time writing songs thinking that nobody will ever hear this for another like 10 years because I'll still be in the group. And I've made the decision to just kind of go out on my own and start just expressing myself and my vision.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE DARK")

CABELLO: (Singing) You're running, running, running, running, making the rounds with all your fake friends. Running, running away from it. You can strip down without showing skin, yeah. I can see you're scared of your emotions. I can see you hoping you're not hopeless. So why can't you show me?

MARTIN: You know, one of the ironies of being - of a girl group is that they are often, you know, marketed as kind of a girl power experience, and yet, men are deciding what you wear and what you're saying. And, you know, Fifth Harmony, there were a lot of big eyelashes, a lot of booty shorts, a lot of provocative choreography. In your pieces that have - since you left the group, it seems like your look is a lot more natural, a lot more pared down. You look like somebody I'd recognize - right? - from my neighborhood, not like a stylized version of a girl. I wondered whether that was a conscious thing on your part to Camila getting back to this is the real Camila?

CABELLO: Well, I think that - I think it's great for girls to, if they want to express their sexuality and if they want to wear booty shorts or eyelashes or whatever to feel great, then that's great. That's amazing. I think the only thing wrong is when somebody is pushing you to do it before it's your time and before you're comfortable or if that's not really you. And for me, I was just not - that was just never me. It's not really a conscious choice because I just feel like I'm just really being myself. And so I am in a great place where I have all of the control. And I don't do anything that I'm not super stoked about doing, you know. I express myself however I want.

MARTIN: Speaking of control...

CABELLO: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES CONTROL")

CABELLO: (Singing) She loves control.

Yes, I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES CONTROL")

CABELLO: (Singing) She wants it her way. And there's no way she'll ever stay unless you give it up.

You got to give it up (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES CONTROL")

CABELLO: (Singing) She loves control. She wants it her way. And all it takes is just one taste, you want to give it up.

MARTIN: And that is "She Loves Control." This is the third track on the album. So inspiration for this song? I was thinking it could be a couple of things. It could be...

CABELLO: It's - it could be a couple of things. I mean, I do love control. Basically, I thought of the title and I was like, this would be really, really great for a song. Because I think that, in that point of my life, I thought really just, like, free and independent. And that I was having a blast just making this album. And it was very refreshing for me to have that control - I think that all girls do, you know. I really wanted to have a song that's like empowering like that. And I like the idea of girls singing it - you know what I mean? - and it being like, yeah, it's good to love having control. It's good to make your own decisions and call the shots in your life.

MARTIN: Well, I'm thinking you skipped your own quince but maybe this is going to be one of those staples of other girls' quince going on - going forward, right? This could be like the anthem.

CABELLO: Oh, my God - that's such a - that would be so cool. I hadn't thought about that. And that just made me so happy, like, the image of them singing it, especially because it's, you know, it has that reggaeton beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES CONTROL")

CABELLO: (Singing) She loves control.

MARTIN: That is Camila Cabello. She's been talking with us about her debut solo album. It's titled simply "Camila." And she was kind of to join us from our studios in New York. Camila Cabello, thank you so much for speaking with us. And we wish you continued success.

CABELLO: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.