Onstage recently before a couple of hundred fans in a small studio in Silver Lake, Camila Cabello spoke in gushing, nothing-to-hide detail about how a very special relationship — the singer’s first taste of true love — had indelibly shaped the songs on her new album, “Romance.”
She and this guy had started off as friends, Cabello told the crowd gathered for an invite-only performance sponsored by Apple Music; for a long time, she didn’t admit to herself how much she liked him. But then there was that undeniable kiss in July in San Francisco, the one that led her to realize that with him — only with him — she could drop “the mask of perfection,” as she put it.
You can imagine the wave of awwws that went rippling through the audience.
As intimately as she was describing this relationship, Cabello, 22, seemed to go out of her way to avoid identifying the dude by name — even though everyone in the room knew she was talking about Shawn Mendes, the exquisitely coiffed 21-year-old pop heartthrob with whom she’s been linked publicly since the summer.
“I guess I was avoiding it, yeah,” Cabello said a few weeks after the show as she snuggled under a blanket on a sofa at her home in West Hollywood. “I mean, I don’t call him Shawn Mendes, you know? I call him pet names that I’m not gonna say in this interview.” She laughed. “But I feel like when I say his name, it’s just contributing to the pop-culture circus.
“As soon as I do it, I can hear the screams” — here she expertly imitated an excited girl’s squeal — “and I’m like, ‘No, no, no, you’re not hearing what I’m trying to say.’ I’m not talking about it as some Twitter thing.
“That’s my boyfriend. This is real.”
For Cabello, “Romance” offers an opportunity to express her feelings about Mendes with the depth and consideration she thinks they deserve. Due Dec. 6, the album — Cabello’s second solo LP since she left the girl group Fifth Harmony three years ago — carefully traces the evolution of the singers’ relationship, from teenage pals to savvy collaborators (on the 2015 duet “I Know What You Did Last Summer”) to grown-up lovers with a sexual chemistry to match their emotional connection.
The songs — which Cabello co-wrote with a host of industry pros including Frank Dukes, Louis Bell, Benny Blanco, Amy Wadge and Finneas O’Connell — are determined in their efforts to dig beneath the tabloid-style depiction of a picturesque Hollywood couple. In the sensual “Easy,” Cabello describes her boyfriend’s attraction to “the stretch marks all around my thighs,” while the disarmingly frank “First Man” has the singer promising her dad that Mendes won’t drink and drive with her in the car.
“I just met his family,” she sings over a ringing piano lick, “They’re just like you and mom.”
Still, there’s no doubt that Cabello’s alliance with Mendes — the version of their relationship that plays out in pictures and headlines on social media — has been a boon to her solo career, which began auspiciously when Cabello topped both the Billboard 200 and the Hot 100 in the same week last year with her self-titled debut and its lead single, “Havana.”
In August, she hit No. 1 again with her and Mendes’ slinky duet “Señorita,” which like “Havana” nods to her background as the daughter of a Cuban mother and a Mexican father; this month the song — streamed more than 1.7 billion times on Spotify and YouTube — was nominated for a Grammy Award for best pop duo/group performance.
John Ivey of iHeartMedia, who oversees the radio conglomerate’s Top 40 stations and programs KIIS-FM (102.7) in Los Angeles, said Cabello is “skyrocketing” toward pop’s upper ranks — a few rungs below her friend Taylor Swift, for whom she served as an opening act on Swift’s 2018 stadium tour, but getting closer all the time. (On Dec. 6, Cabello will perform alongside Billie Eilish, Lizzo and BTS at KIIS-FM’s annual Jingle Ball concert at the Forum.)
Clearly, the singer had a head start with Fifth Harmony, which emerged from the “X Factor” show and went on to score mid-level hits such as “Worth It” and “Work From Home.” Cabello said her decision to audition for the televised competition in 2012 surprised her parents, who viewed her as a supremely shy kid. But once unbottled, her ambition surged. “Everyone in the business knew that Camila was the most outgoing member,” Ivey said, comparing her to Harry Styles from One Direction.
Cabello looks back at the experience in “the group,” as she refers to it — Fifth Harmony is another name she never says outright — as an era of artistic limitation; she quit, in her telling, because her band mates objected to her wanting a more significant creative role. For her debut she broke free of what she called the girl-group “formula,” dabbling in hip-hop and Latin pop. But lyrically she was still operating in something of a closed system.
“On my first album, my music-making was where I got my adrenaline and the stories and the feeling,” said Cabello, wearing a jewel-toned blouse with billowing sleeves, her hair in a long side ponytail. As the singer’s mom futzed in the kitchen, gentle New Age music drifted from unseen speakers — part of Cabello’s preparation for an angel-themed rendition of her song “Living Proof” on that weekend’s American Music Awards.
“I literally just typed in ‘angel music,’” she said with a laugh.
Her point about her last record was that, having worked nonstop since she was 15, she didn’t have much else to write about. “I didn’t go on dates or hang out with friends because I was on tour for five years,” she said.
That changed with “Romance,” for which she stayed put in L.A., writing songs as she and Mendes grew closer. “This time life was the roller coaster, and the studio was where I went to document it.”
O’Connell, best known for his work with Eilish, his younger sister, recalled getting together with Cabello in March and going over a few ideas, none of which went very far. “Then she texts me out of the blue a few months later: ‘I have this song I need to write,’” he said. In the studio the next day, “Used to This” — a dreamy ballad about that fated evening in San Francisco — promptly tumbled out.
“The best songs on the album came when I was like, ‘I just had the best night of my life,’” said Cabello, whose breathy moan on the song puts across a kind of painfully ecstatic sensation. “It wasn’t about wanting to impress anybody or make a good song for radio. All that stuff is a bucket of cold water — kills your inspiration boner.”
Which isn’t to say that Cabello is ignoring thoughts of how she’s perceived now that the album is finished. Introducing the throbbing “Liar” at the Apple event, she said she’d “wanted to make a sex song,” then giggled self-consciously. Asked later why she’d seemed embarrassed, she said, “I’d never said ‘sex’ in front of my fans before. It’s a different side of me.” She added that she’s also “super-conscious” of the little girls in her audience, because she has a sister who’s 10 years younger than she is.
“I don’t want to hurt their innocence,” she said. “I know a lot of people would say that’s not my responsibility, and I get that. But to me it is.” Indeed, Cabello avoided swearing on Instagram until two months ago, and she only began then “because some stuff just isn’t funny without a swear word,” she said. Plus, “I swear in real life like a sailor, and I was starting to feel like I was censoring myself.
“Sometimes you need a ‘f—,’” she said, then cringed dramatically. “Oops.”
Cabello, who was born in Cuba and moved to Miami when she was 6, acknowledges that “Romance” backs away from the Latin vibe that permeated her debut — a curious choice, perhaps, at a moment when Spanish-speaking artists like Bad Bunny and Ozuna are breaking through to American listeners.
“Whenever a producer would play me a beat that sounded like ‘Havana 2,’ I was just like, ‘I’ve done that, and this won’t be better,’” she said. She’s also heard the criticism that “Señorita,” with its mention of a “tequila sunrise,” isn’t aiming especially high.
“Shawn texted me the idea for the song, and for a while I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it,” she said. She hadn’t begun working on “Romance” yet, “and so I had no context for where the song fit for me artistically.” But as her and Mendes’ relationship developed — “We’re just two kids in love,” she said — “I thought, You know what? He and I singing together sound great. I’m not gonna overthink this.” Still, she said, she’d love to do a Spanish album in the future.
Before that, Cabello will play Cinderella in a new movie musical based on the classic fairy tale set to begin shooting in February. “Anthony, my acting coach, talks about how acting is really just listening,” she said as earnestly as any young starlet. Then she’ll tour Europe and North America behind “Romance” next summer. The far-flung gigs in Copenhagen and San Antonio will take her away from Mendes, of course. But she’ll find comfort in her songs.
“I’m so proud of the way they capture this experience,” she said. “They’ll always remind me of what’s happening between us that nobody else can see.”