Credit: Matt Salacuse

The Big Interview: Camila Cabello on total control, chasing a buzz and why she won’t be doing Fifth Harmony tunes live

In late 2016, Camila Cabello left the girl group Fifth Harmony to seek solo success. Just over a year later, the 20-year-old is a superstar

Camila Cabello is the woman of the moment. At the tail end of last year, she spent five weeks at Number One with ‘Havana’, a sultry Latin-influenced pop tune celebrating the Cuban city where she was born. Her debut album, ‘Camila’, dropped earlier this month to glowing reviews she never got as a member of Fifth Harmony, a girl-group formed on The X Factor US in 2012. In LA, where she’s being shot for NME today, there seem to be Camila Cabello billboards on every boulevard. But just over a year ago, the future for Cabello didn’t look quite so rosy. After she’d announced her departure from Fifth Harmony in December 2016, her former bandmates claimed they were “hurt and confused”, forcing her to launch her solo career surrounded by the tang of bad blood. Cabello has since hinted she quit partly because the manufactured band dynamic thwarted her growth as a songwriter. When NME brings up Cabello’s former group today, it’s the only time she comes anywhere close to clamming up. Aside from this brief flash of reticence, Cabello is as bright and breezy as her signature hit.

So, how much has the success of ‘Havana’ changed things for you?

“I think it really gave me a certain buzz of confidence. When you’re a new solo artist, people are kind of scared to do stuff that’s different or new because they just want to go with what’s already being played on the radio. They want to stick to the formula that’s already been tested. We didn’t even release ‘Havana’ as a single because no one believed in it enough. They were like, ‘Oh that’s a cool song, but it’s definitely not what you want as a single from your album.’ And so when it worked, I was like, ‘Nobody really knows anything, so you might as well go with what you love.'”

Was that a validating moment for you?

“Super-validating. It taught me this huge lesson of going with what you feel and you like. Because that way, at least you know you’re always going to be excited performing the song. And if people connect with it, that’s honestly one of the most incredible things ever. It’s just taught me to always go with my gut.” 

You left some pretty big songs off the album: ‘Crying In The Club’, which made the UK Top 15, and ‘OMG’, which you co-wrote with Charli XCX. Was that a difficult decision?

“No, because I knew they wouldn’t fit on the album. Obviously I got push-back from it, but it was one of those things that came from my gut. I always have to go to sleep at night knowing I made the decision that I thought was the right one. If I do something that I don’t want to do, just because everyone else wants me to do it, it’s going to bother me. For-ev-er.” 

The album was originally going to be called ‘The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving.’, but then you renamed it ‘Camila’. At what point did you decide the title needed to change?

“I think it was, like, two weeks into doing interviews.”

Wow. 

“Seriously. I was like, ‘This is making me sad. The album was about getting over this situation, but I’m never going to get over this situation if I’m constantly being asked about it.’ And also, I’m a super-private person so I couldn’t even give an interesting answer to who it was about. I just kept being super-vague, and that’s not fun for anybody. And then I was like, ‘Wow, imagine doing an album based on that. And a tour. And more interviews.’ By the time I was talking about it in interviews, what had caused me pain wasn’t even relevant any more. I had moved on with my life, so I needed my music to move on too.”

As you become a bigger and bigger artist, does staying private get harder?

“It can be a little hard in the age of social media where it feels like you just have to constantly be ‘on’. And sometimes, I don’t really like being ‘on’. Like, if I go home to my family in Miami for a break, I don’t like to be constantly Snapchatting everything. Sometimes I feel like I could probably do more of that kind of thing, but I don’t want to constantly be on my phone, saying what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with. And when it comes to interviews, I think sometimes I just have to know when to shut up!”

Coming here today, I saw billboards of you on Sunset Boulevard with the words ‘pop’s newest superstar’ underneath. How does that feel? Does it freak you out?

“It feels amazing. But it also feels like it’s not me, if that makes sense? I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my twin’. It’s almost like Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. But… I don’t know. I feel like so much stuff is happening to me all the time, and that’s kind of a good thing because I don’t really have time to process it and let stuff sink in. But really it just feels amazing that people are actually listening to my songs. I think back to when I was 15 and didn’t even think this [career] was a real thing that could happen. You know, earlier today I performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and she told me she’s wanted me to come on and sing for ages. I mean, that’s crazy.”

So, why do you think this has happened for you? The vast majority of people who dream of being a pop star never even come close.

“Um… I think that the beginning moment was this kind of happy accident where I suddenly got the courage to audition for [American] X Factor. After that, I just kept jumping into stuff. And I get so excited about doing stuff that I don’t acknowledge fear or limitations in any way. I’m always curious about stuff so it just leads me onto the next thing. I’m always trying to learn, or get better at something, or grow in some way.” 

Well, it’s definitely working so far.

“Thanks! But you know, I definitely had a period as a kid where I was super-shy and I wasn’t really brave. And I think that when I did my first brave thing, it made me want to always push myself to do stuff that I’m afraid of or makes me nervous. Now, I always want to be the kind of person who’s brave. It’s been this kind of 180 for me and I think it probably has to do with the thrill and excitement I get when I’m on stage. I try to look for that same feeling in other areas of my life. You know what I mean? That kind of…”

Buzz? 

“Yeah, but not like drugs or anything. That sounded weird when I said it! I was like, I hope he doesn’t think I’m alluding to… I mean, just in life! An adrenaline rush or something.” 

For lots of your fans, ‘She Loves Control’ is probably the album’s standout song. Where did the idea come from? I think ‘She Loves Control’ is such a genius title for a pop song.

“Me too! Me. Too. I really, really wanted to make a song called ‘She Loves Control’. It’s about a moment of my life when I was feeling free and excited and enjoying this new independence where I had all this creative control I’d never had before. I had control of my music and my schedule and my time and my decisions and it just felt really amazing. But I wrote the song with the intention of it being about whatever you want it to be. It could be about, you know, sexual control. Or any kind of control. But I really like the idea of girls singing the chorus, ‘She loves control, she wants it her way…'”

It feels subtly feminist, really.

“Yeah, for sure. Because there’s something really powerful in being able to say, ‘I like taking control of my life. I like living how I want to live.'” 

Do you think control feels sweeter for you because you started out in a group? 

“For sure. I definitely appreciate it more coming from that background.”

Do you think you’ll perform Fifth Harmony songs when you go on tour?

“No… no, definitely not.”

Sometimes artists try to reinvent their old group hits when they go on tour, to make them feel more relevant again. 

“I honestly have never even thought about that. I don’t know, I feel like this is such a new… chapter of me.” 

Now you’re a solo artist, do you feel more of a responsibility to be a role model? 

“I do. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact I have a sister who’s 10. Even if I swear in real life, I don’t like swearing in songs. Because she listens to my songs with all her friends and I don’t want them to not be able to sing along. I definitely always keep that audience in my mind. Growing up, I looked up to all the Disney girls like Selena, Demi, Miley, Taylor. Well, Taylor wasn’t a Disney girl, but you know what I mean. I feel like the people you look up to as a kid definitely influence you in some way. And because of that I wanna be a good influence on younger kids.”

This last question’s a bit cheesy, but what do you want people to think when they hear the name Camila Cabello? 

“It’s not cheesy. Oooh… maybe honest? No, maybe exciting. I feel like sometimes who I am in the studio and who I am as a performer is totally different. When I’m in the studio, I’m just a 20-year-old girl writing songs, trying to be honest. But as a performer, I want people to be excited and for it to feel unexpected and unpredictable. So maybe a mix of honest and exciting. And also nice! I definitely want people to think I’m nice.”