If there was a song that was the insistent sound of 2017, one that pulsed from sizzling vacation resorts, trailed from car windows in city traffic jams and hummed from the lips of the woman sat next to you on the train, it was Havana – a Latin-tinged pop banger that tells of a suave Cuban lover who stole the singer’s heart. Who was behind it? Camila Cabello. After three years as part of The X Factor-produced girl band Fifth Harmony, the singer struck out on her own at the end of 2016 and has been on a path to pop infamy ever since.
Born Karla Camila Cabello Estrabao in Cojímar in Cuba, Cabello spent the first few years of her life bouncing between there and Mexico City, before her family settled in Miami when she was five years old. “I don’t really remember what [that time] was like, but I feel like it has totally shaped the way that I am as a person,” says Cabello of her upbringing. Dressed in a black DKNY hoodie and matching leggings, 20-year-old Cabello is foundation-free, just the remnants of some smoky eyeliner and mascara to hint at her usually glamorous appearance. It’s a frighteningly cold New York day, and she is huddled next to a gas heater in a rustic Staten Island townhouse. “There are characteristics [about me] that are super-Latin,” she continues. “My parents don’t think that anything is that big of a deal because they went through so much struggle to get where they are. So whenever I’m like, ‘Ooh, I’m so nervous, I’m about to perform,’ they’re like, ‘Cut the c**p. You’ll be OK.’”
Cabello describes herself in formative years as “kind of invisible in school, very shy. If ever I sang, it was just to my family; I wasn’t in any of the music classes [at school]. So, when I first auditioned for The X Factor and made it and my audition finally appeared on television, everybody in my school was like, ‘What the hell?!’ because they had no idea that I sang.”
At 15, a determined Cabello and her family traveled to North Carolina to attend The X Factor auditions. She made it through as an alternate, only to be rebuffed by the show’s producers. But a chance encounter backstage with impresario Simon Cowell changed her fate. Cabello was allowed to audition and was put together with fellow solo singers Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane and Lauren Jauregui to form Fifth Harmony.
The band placed third in the reality TV competition, a fact that seemed to have little bearing on their chart success – an American Music Award, White House performances and over 1.6 billion on-demand streams are just a few of the band’s career highlights. Rumors swirled about discord in the group, but Cabello says her exit was about spreading her wings rather than anything malicious. “With the experiences we had being in the studio, I became super-curious about songwriting and it was around the time – I think it was the second year that I was with the group – that I wanted to start songwriting for other people,” she says. “But once I was old enough to experience my first kiss, or the first time that I went out on a date, I began writing songs about it, and I didn’t want to give them away to anybody else because they were about me. I was finding my voice, and with it, I found the passion that gives you a deeper meaning.”
Being in Fifth Harmony, she promises, was an essential, positive experience. “Man, it shaped me entirely. I would not be the person that I am right now; I would not have been ready for this,” she says. “I feel like being part of a group teaches you so many things about yourself, ironically. And it also brings out this healthy competition, you know what I mean? You never want to be the one that sucks.”
After she made her exit in December 2016, Cabello released her first solo single, Crying in the Club, which performed modestly compared to the immediate success of Havana. In fact, reveals Cabello, Havana almost didn’t happen: “I was in the studio last January with my producer Frank [Dukes] and we had all given up hope on the song because we couldn’t finish the verses,” she says. “[But] I knew it was the best thing to come out of that week of sessions.”
Luckily, she didn’t let it go, and thanks to a meeting with hitmaker Pharrell Williams, the song was finally finished, complete with a verse by American rapper Young Thug as the finishing touch. Cabello dedicated Havana’s accompanying video to the Dreamers, the colloquial term for the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who, under America’s current Trump administration, face deportation after his recession of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “I feel like I have to [say something about it] because it feels unfair to me that they have to deal with this. There’s nothing that really separates me from them – it’s the same story,” Cabello reflects. “We came [to] the United States at a really young age, parents moved you here… I can’t imagine someone saying, ‘You can’t live here anymore; you have to move back to Mexico or Cuba.’ I don’t have a home there; I wouldn’t know [what to do]. It is so destabilizing because these are kids that have lived practically their whole lives [in the US]. You know, my music is something that I do for myself, that’s what makes me happy, but I would like to help people, too… Impact lives in a deeper way.”
Talking to Cabello, you can’t help but think of a young woman coming into her own, albeit under the magnifying glass of the entertainment industry. This is made even more evident by her eponymous debut album, Camila, released this month. Previously titled The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving, Cabello made the decision to change it to be more of a reflection of where she is at now; she has put aside the hurt, she says, and is on a path to happiness. “That [title] was about a situation that just left me feeling horrible, and I thought my album would be sad seven months ago, but it’s not. This is my first album; it’s a reflection of me. I would never want to give the power to somebody that hurt me. No way.”
More multifaceted than your average pop outing, the 11-track listen is a mix of mid-tempos and ballads with lyrics that read like pages ripped from Cabello’s diary, backed by heavyweight producers who, through infectious riffs and powerful melodies, never let us forget the singer’s Latin roots. “I didn’t want every song to sound like Havana, I wanted to surprise people,” she smiles. On its release earlier this month, the album went straight to number one on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, and she’s following it up with a tour, she reveals, that will take her through to the end of 2018. But when she does find herself home in Miami, you’ll find Cabello devouring Harry Potter or episodes of her latest discovery, Sex and the City (well, she was born in 1997; it’s not totally unforgivable). “I think I want to move to New York – Sex and the City does that to you,” she exclaims. But unlike Carrie Bradshaw, Cabello is less Manolo Blahnik, more Birkenstocks. “I do love Birkenstocks, that was me over Christmas. I love masculine suits, too,” she says, referencing the style of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. “I like things that make me feel empowered. Although I do take pleasure in just wearing sweats sometimes – no hair, no makeup.”
Given the choice between going to Miami’s hottest nightclubs in her downtime or having a hangout party with her close-knit gang of girlfriends, it’s a no-brainer: Cabello is still that shy young girl with a monster talent, but she’s trying to be braver.
“It’s actually my New Year’s resolution, to have more experiences,” she says. “I work so much that I don’t see people for a long time, and then I forget how to interact with people [socially]. It makes me so nervous. But then I go and push myself and do it, and I remember it’s actually not scary to put yourself out there. Before, I was like, ‘It’s just a part of my personality.’ But I know that I have to constantly fight against [being] introverted. Usually I don’t want to go out and meet a new person – even if it’s a boy I like, I try and make an excuse. It’s constantly something that I have to push myself to do. [But] even though it’s difficult sometimes, it’s always worth it.”