Destination Disney World
Camila Cabello, 20, spent the first years of her life going back and forth between Cuba and Mexico. When she was 6, she headed to Disney World for a vacation — at least that’s what her mom told her. Instead, she and her Cuban-born mother emigrated to Miami, where her father, a Mexico native, joined them 18 months later. Although she was too young to really understand what was happening, Cabello (born Karla Camila Cabello Estrabao) recalls counting down to her dad’s arrival with a calendar and learning English with the help of American cartoons. “That was cool,” she laughs. And don’t worry: She eventually ended up visiting the Most Magical Place on Earth.
Finding Her X Factor
Cabello, who became a U.S. citizen in 2008, wasn’t always a confident performer. During her childhood years in Havana, Cabello remembers watching her parents cut a rug at family gatherings and staying far away from the dance floor. “I was super shy. I would cry whenever they went off to dance for some reason,” she says with a chuckle. Years later, she started exploring her musical side in secret, belting songs alone in her room when her parents would run to the grocery store. Then she discovered The X Factor success story One Direction and thought, “I could do that.” So she did: In 2012, Cabello competed on the show, where she and four other girls were placed in the group that would become Fifth Harmony. “That kind of broke my shell,” she says of the experience.
Out on Her Own
After making two top 10 albums with 5H, 2015’s Reflection and 2016’s 7/27, Cabello left the group last December in an awkward split. (At last month’s MTV Video Music Awards, the remaining members opened their performance by having a stand-in fifth member fall off the stage; Cabello declined to comment.) Though she hasn’t lost the collaboration bug — her debut solo single “Crying in the Club” was co-written with Sia, and the club-banger “OMG” features Migos rapper Quavo — she’s now doing much of the heavy lifting on her own. “What I’ve realized is she’s a true artist,” says Joey Arbagey, the executive vice president of A&R at Epic Records. “You’re definitely going to realize that she’s an incredible songwriter.”
Taking an active role in the creative process gives Cabello a chance to show off what she calls “the essence of me.” Explains the singer: “There’s no side I didn’t show on here. It’s impossible to be vulnerable and talk about how you’re really feeling that day in front of a camera, and that’s something I can only do through my music.” Fans may be surprised at some of the dark places the album visits. “You can’t really have a nervous breakdown in an interview,” she says, “but you can have a nervous breakdown in a song.”
One of those songs closest to Cabello’s heart is “Havana” (out now), a slinky, piano-driven ode to the Cuban capital, which she last visited four years ago on a trip she calls humbling. “I wanted it to be a song that tied what was playing around my house as a kid to the kind of music I listen to now,” Cabello says. The track, which features rapper Young Thug and was produced by Pharrell Williams, “went through at least nine different versions” before it was released. “I wanted it to be something nobody else could do,” she explains.
Telling Her Story
Cabello estimates that about half of her upcoming album has the same Latin flavor as “Havana.” Honoring her heritage is a major priority with this record. “I just try to share my story with the platform I have, whether it’s in interviews or through my art, and let people know I’m proud to be who I am,” says Cabello, who in the past has spoken out about the need for immigration reform. “The more people share their truth, the better. The more representation, the better.”