Like many record label employees, the Def Jam executive who introduced the 19-year-old Canadian singer Alessia Cara at the start of her sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom was at the ready with superlatives. “She is an incredible new star on the scene,” he said. “You guys are the early adopters. You’re about to witness magic in the making.” To anyone familiar with Cara from her dusky breakout single “Here,” the language may have seemed a little out of proportion. In the song — a noir-ish R&B number which lifts its mournful instrumentation from Isaac Hayes by way of Portishead — Cara is anything but the center of attention. She spends the bulk of its three minutes in the corner, weathering a miserable party by stringing together artful barbs aimed at her fellow partygoers. “Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this,” she sings, “an anti-social pessimist / usually I don’t mess with this.” The song is a masterpiece of apathy writ small, a deftly-observed teenage narrative penned by someone who suddenly realizes she’s smarter than everyone else in the room. It radiates a lot of things — searing intelligence, carefully-sharpened disdain — but thousand-watt look-at-me! grandstanding isn’t exactly one of them.
But there’s another Alessia Cara, one that makes videos of herself goofily rampaging through her neighborhood, pursued by her younger brother who’s wearing a false mustache, or trying out a series of celebrity impersonations — some of them hilariously dead-on — while mugging giddily for the camera. It was this Alessia Cara who turned up in New York on Wednesday, and her joyous half-hour set almost felt like a corrective to the Cara who winds her way through the single-shot Steadicam video for “Here.” She bounded onstage to “I’m Yours,” her chalky voice filling up the blank space between the booming percussion. Like many of her songs, it’s about the agony of adolescence, but Cara’s chief gift as a songwriter is the way she manages to sidestep lyrical clichés to make her songs feel distinctly lived in. The song is positioned not as a valentine, but almost like a betrayal. “How dare you march into my heart, oh how rude of you / to ruin my miserable and tell me I’m beautiful,” she sings at its outset. It’s a canny lyrical trick that keeps the whole song terrifically off-balance, and at the Bowery Cara sang it with gusto and conviction.
Cara is a natural, confident performer, striding purposefully across the stage, punctuating verses with a casual sweep of her arms, holding out the microphone for the audience to sing back choruses they heard for the first time just a few minutes earlier. She transformed “Sweater Weather” from the starchy alt-rock band the Neighbourhood into a slice of lithe R&B, skipping across its syllables and shifting the cadence of its verses until it was difficult to imagine anyone singing it but her. In the smoky doo-wop throwback “Outlaws,” her voice dipped and swooped, finding odd crannies within the off-kilter percussion to wriggle through. And though she introduced it as a song about standing by the ones you love, it too was tinged with an air of defiance: “You’ll never face the judge without me / You’ll never battle the gavel alone / and if they lock us away, then I’ll be still here proudly / waiting to kill more time with you.”
Her voice is suited to this kind of material. Moving effortlessly from classic-soul rasp to commanding, full-throated roar, it conveyed resilience and determination. There’s a touch of torch singer in her lower register, which makes it all the more striking in the rare moments when Cara turns loose its full power. Nowhere was this more evident than in “Seventeen,” a powerhouse pop song with an irresistible whoa-oh-oh hook and lyrics that face head-on the panic of growing up. Cara nimbly hopscotched her way through the verses, but when it hit the chorus, the music dropped out and Cara summoned her strength and soared all the way up to the top of her register, filling the room without breaking a sweat. It was a stunning moment, and before she could make it to the second verse, the room erupted in applause. Magic in the making, indeed.