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Camila Cabello's debut could have been full of 'candy songs.' But she had something deeper to say

Camila Cabello's debut could have been full of 'candy songs.' But she had something deeper to say
"It was really important to me to express myself," Camila Cabello says of her music after Fifth Harmony. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Camila Cabello didn't have the highest of hopes for last month's Grammy Awards.

"No one really talks to each other at those things," the pop singer said a few days before the ceremony. "Everybody's there with their entourage, and even if you run into somebody you know, it's just like" — here her throaty voice shot up an octave in mock excitement — "'Hi! How are you?' Then you both run off in opposite directions.

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"It's hard to have a good time."

Cabello, best known until recently as a member of the girl group Fifth Harmony, was right not to expect much: With lackluster performances and mystifying awards choices, this year's Grammys were indeed a trial to endure.

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But one of the show's few highlights actually turned out to be Cabello, who took part in an emotional performance of Kesha's song "Praying" and delivered a powerful speech in support of children of undocumented immigrants.

"I'm here on this stage tonight because, just like the 'Dreamers,' my parents brought me to this country with nothing in their pockets but hope," said Cabello, the 20-year-old daughter of a Cuban mother and a Mexican father.

That she'd put on a stylish pair of reading glasses to make her remarks only deepened the impression that here was an artist with something to say and an inventive way of saying it.

Camila Cabello spoke out for the children of undocumented immigrants last month at the Grammy Awards.
Camila Cabello spoke out for the children of undocumented immigrants last month at the Grammy Awards. (Matt Sayles / Invision/Associated Press)

You get the same sense from "Camila," Cabello's strong solo debut, which came out in January. Full of cleverly phrased love songs that proudly emphasize her Latin roots, it presents an uncommonly vivid portrait of an individual whose early professional experiences were all about streamlining — first as a competitor on "The X Factor," then as part of the five-woman machine that was Fifth Harmony.

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The more personal approach is paying off: "Camila" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 the same week her single "Havana" — about her longing for the city where she was born — topped the Hot 100 chart.

Still, as her skepticism about the Grammys makes clear, Cabello has seen enough of the record industry to know that hits don't always sell themselves.

So on a recent afternoon, the singer was holed up in a West Hollywood hotel suite as international TV crews came through and tossed her softball questions about how it feels to have a successful album.

"I try to find a unique way of answering, but it's basically just a bunch of adjectives with 'super' attached to them," she said at the end of the junket. Cabello was curled on a sofa, each of her feet encased in a giant brown slipper designed to look like a lion's paw.

"But that's better than, 'How did you start singing?'" she continued. "I don't know — I can't pinpoint it! When did you start talking?

"Sorry," she added with a laugh. "Just being honest."

Cabello has a lot riding on "Camila," which comes after a rocky departure from Fifth Harmony. The way she tells it, she wanted to take on a greater creative role in the group while also dabbling outside of it (as she did in duets with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly).

But the group wasn't having it, she says, and so her former bandmates released a tersely worded statement in late 2016 announcing that Cabello had quit. Later, at August's MTV Video Music Awards, the remaining members of Fifth Harmony opened a performance with a brutal sight gag in which a woman, styled to resemble Cabello, was yanked from an elevated platform.

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Once she was on her own, Cabello said, "people wanted me — even people I was writing with — to be the group, just by myself. It was candy songs with candy videos."

Yet she wanted to explore different sounds and different ideas; "Camila" is surprisingly quiet, with her voice often simply layered over sparse piano or electric guitar and intimate words about control and loneliness.

In one track, "In the Dark," Cabello, who lives in Miami, describes the feeling she had during early sessions for the album in Los Angeles (where she stayed in an Airbnb rather than a hotel, since her "greatest fear" is not having easy access to food at all hours).

"Who are you when it's 3 a.m. and you're all alone?" she sings, "And L.A. doesn't feel like home?"

"It would be so easy for me to make an album of full-on bangers," she said. "But that's not realistic to who I am. It was really important to me to express myself, even if it wasn't the candy that everybody wants."

Cabello said she thought about artists whose music makes her feel like she knows them: Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, Taylor Swift.

"That's the music that inspired me, at least on the American side."

And on the Latin side? Cabello named Alejandro Sanz, Calle 13, Maná and J Balvin, whose smash "Mi Gente" — like "Havana" — made former President Barack Obama's widely publicized list of his favorite songs of 2017.

"We texted each other and were like, 'Oh, my God, we did it!'" she recalled of her exchange with J Balvin. "It was like our little rebellion-slash-protest against the anti-immigrant sentiment that's going on. And it was such a win for Latin music. All of a sudden, it's not this outlier — it's just normal."

Asked if she relished the opportunity for her music to take on a political edge that perhaps seemed impossible in Fifth Harmony, she nodded.

"I feel like that's part of the reason Michael Jackson is one of my favorite artists," she said. "Whenever he took a political stance, it was always through his music."

Like "Man in the Mirror"?

"'Man in the Mirror,' 'Black or White,' 'They Don't Care About Us,' 'Earth Song,'" she replied. "When I look at artists like that, it definitely makes me want to do more. So with 'Havana,' for example, when kids come up to me in a meet-and-greet and say, 'Thank you for representing us' — that really means a lot.

"It's so much deeper than, 'Oh my gosh, you're so pretty!'"

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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