Camila Cabello: ‘I’m at a place where if this doesn’t work, I’m not out on the street’

Former girl group star and ‘X Factor’ contestant Camila Cabello released her fourth  album in June (Rahul Bhatt)
Former girl group star and ‘X Factor’ contestant Camila Cabello released her fourth album in June (Rahul Bhatt)

A corporate office in London, amid a mess of Nando’s debris, is not where you might expect to meet Camila Cabello. The once family-friendly popstar and one-time Fifth Harmony member is in the middle of her U-turn to nihilistic sex goddess, and this snatched time for a chat is the way it goes when your album has just come out, you’ve spent all afternoon “doing radio” – and you have to shoot off to the airport in 45 minutes.

It’s little surprise Cabello herself is not feeling too well. “Today, I needed chips,” announces the 27-year-old, clutching a bottle of water while we talk, her bare feet tucked under her. She is in casual mode, wearing jeans, T-shirt, and more eye makeup than I think I have worn cumulatively over the course of my life. She’s lower-key than I was expecting, having caught her at Glastonbury five days earlier. But it’s been a very full-on week since the album was released, and she’s wiped out.

Her fourth album, C,XOXO, was released just over a week ago, the culmination of a rebrand that has delighted some fans and baffled many more. Forgoing the slick understated pop of 2018’s chart-topping, Grammy-nominated Camila and the overt Latin influences of her 2022 album Familia (Cabello was born in Cuba and lived in Mexico until she relocated to the US at the age of five), here she wanted to capture the feel of Miami and the eclectic sounds that make it up.

A new team, attitude and look came with it, including a striking dye job that took her natural dark hair to platinum blonde. “I was only nervous that it looked bad. You know?” she says, holding handfuls of it up like spaghetti. “I kept asking people, ‘Do I look bad? Do I look bad?’ And now I’m like, no. I love it.”

The first single of the cycle was the Playboi Carti-featuring “I Luv It”, which descended on the internet in March and immediately drew comparisons to the 2017 track “I Got It” by the rebellious pop star Charli XCX. Both songs share a repetitious chorus and an aggy yet languid tempo, but what irked Cabello was how everyone seemed to think she’d gone hyperpop. “There’s only one song that really references that genre a little bit for 15 seconds,” she says, brushing past the other similarities between her album and Charli’s Brat record released weeks earlier. The copycat allegations didn’t bother her, she says – “What I was worried about was the relationship between me and [Charli].” Their friendship had been forged in writers’ rooms and cemented on Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour, for which they both opened in 2018.

Apparently aware of the comparisons, Charli XCX posted a TikTok aping Cabello’s “I Luv It” music video set to the strains of “I Got It”, and tweeted: “Comee onnn mess is fun! nothing matters!” Privately, though, the pop stars had their own tete-a-tete. “But [Charli] called me and was like, ‘Hey, I hope you don’t think that I’m actually mad. This is me playing into the Brat era,’” recalls Cabello. “And I totally respect that, you know?”

Later, after our interview, I hear a rumour that an “I Luv It” remix featuring Charli was in the works but it didn’t pan out: I can see this meta-narrative being true, an impeccable way for both women to boost their virality, and another way to stick it to traditional gender nonsense and take the heat out of the drama.

Cabello is no stranger to public beefs. Her career began as a member of super-successful girl group Fifth Harmony, which was formed on the second US season of The X Factor in 2012. In 2016, Cabello left (or was kicked out, depending on who you talk to) in a cloud of bad feeling. Eight years after her exit, Fifth Harmony is still a conversational no-go. Branching out on her own proved to be a good move: megahits “Havana” (2017) and “Señorita” (2019, with ex-boyfriend Shawn Mendes, a subject also off limits today) cemented her status as a main pop girl. When you reach such levels of success, where do you go?

Figuring that out has been a process, and on C,XOXO you can hear the sound of an artist who’s done with being hamstrung by other people’s expectations and opinions. “When I have trusted myself, it’s gone really well for me,” she says. “And when I haven’t, a lot of the times I don’t like how it feels, I don’t like the results. I’m learning through the process of making mistakes.” For all its strange, pared-back instrumentals, odd stylistic choices (there are two tracks on which Cabello barely features) and messy, imperfect gang vocals, C,XOXO has undeniable charm.

Camila Cabello performs on The Other Stage at Glastonbury 2024 (Getty)
Camila Cabello performs on The Other Stage at Glastonbury 2024 (Getty)

Because the sound is so different from her previous work, some fans have found the change in direction jarring or somehow inauthentic. To me, it sounds like the first steps on a journey to somewhere new, rather than the destination. Though she doesn’t say it outright, I think Cabello feels that way, too. The mantra for the album is borrowed from a letter written by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a younger protégé in 1903: “Live the questions now.” It goes some way to explaining the myriad influences you can hear in her work. Cabello’s curiosity is the thread that ties them together. “There’s a lot to be confused about when you’re becoming an adult or just living life,” she says – here she leans in like she’s sharing a secret that everyone knows but me. “Just... live your questions.”

Quoting others is a favourite habit of Cabello’s. She is warm and open in person, giving every question her full attention. That said, her preference for generalities over specifics makes it hard to get a proper read on her. She recently revealed that she has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), manifesting as obsessive thoughts that loop over and over in her mind. With the diagnosis came relief – just putting a name to it helped, she explains – but also therapy and medication. Speaking about her OCD, Cabello recites another quote: “If you love who you are, you can’t hate the experiences that shaped you.” She smiles. “I feel like that about a lot of things.”

Coping with her mental – and physical – health is a never-ending chore. Sleep, drink water, meditate (“I’m bad at it”), talk to friends, therapy when she can, bringing her mum when she travels (she’s outside the room while we talk); it becomes a sisyphean task just to stay on an even keel. “It takes a lot of work not to feel s***ty,” she says, widening her eyes and smiling. Sometimes you just gotta have Nando’s, too.

Camila Cabello rose to fame as part of mega girl group Fifth Harmony, founded on the second US season of ‘The X Factor’ in 2012 (Reuters)
Camila Cabello rose to fame as part of mega girl group Fifth Harmony, founded on the second US season of ‘The X Factor’ in 2012 (Reuters)

The need to face up to this adult burden of looking after herself is perhaps why Cabello has found herself drawn to youthful things. Last week she played her first Glastonbury show. A dreamy mid-afternoon slot on The Other Stage, it featured a half-pipe, BMXers, and a roundabout on which Cabello was spun as she sang maudlin album-closer “June Gloom”. “It’s this juxtaposition of being an adult and being with your friends, but also the youthfulness and the play of being in a playground.” It’s apt for Glastonbury, which is essentially just a big playground for grown-ups. When I ask what else she got up to at the festival, she’s most hyped to reveal that she slept for seven hours before going on stage – self-care! – and had to leave straight after her set.

An unlikely friendship has developed between Cabello and Lana Del Rey, who headlined The Other Stage last year. “June Gloom” wears its Del Rey influence proudly (and references lyrics from Lana’s 2020 track Let Me Love You Like a Woman), while Del Rey, enamoured with “I Luv It”, invited Cabello to join her on stage at Coachella earlier this year. “She’s what my soul sounds like, a lot of times,” Cabello explains.

It’s a handbrake turn away from the other inspirations she cites: one is Harmony Korine’s brash dubstep-loving 2012 film Spring Breakers, the aesthetic of which Cabello was drawn to way before she even saw the movie. “It was just the gang-of-girls energy that I really liked. There’s a sisterhood and an ‘I don’t give a f***’ energy that is important for me.” She also found that same energy in her enthusiastic embrace of rap. “It makes me feel so powerful and confident.” There are several rappers featured on C,XOXO, the most prominent of whom is Drake.

Everything makes a difference [in scoring a hit]– the weather makes a difference! That stuff is just not in my control, and it also has nothing to do with how good my work is

“I was really intentional about making more friends this time around,” Cabello says of her many collaborators. She messaged Drake, having met him just once before, and they met up. “He played me some songs; I played him some songs...” Though there are rumours of romance between them, Cabello is studiously keeping it all business today. She does, though, give him an entire track almost to himself, the interstitial “Uuugly”, which is a strange thing to do, I suggest. “I love other people’s voices,” she shrugs. “I love that I get to listen to Drake’s music on my album.”

Back in 2016, Fifth Harmony performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and as they left the stage, Cabello shouted: “Don’t vote for Trump!” Throughout his presidency, she was very publicly anti-Trump and critical of his immigration policies and racist comments. How is she feeling on the cusp of this year’s presidential election? “It’s just a sad, sad time for America,” she sighs. “We need compassionate, strong, wise leaders in the world, and especially the United States.” The unrestful political atmosphere feeds into the slightly manic energy of C,XOXO and a lot of pop music that is bubbling up in 2024, albeit this is likely subconscious.

Earlier this year, Camila Cabello revealed she had been diagnosed with OCD (Dimitrios Giannoudis)
Earlier this year, Camila Cabello revealed she had been diagnosed with OCD (Dimitrios Giannoudis)

“I definitely think music has been influenced by the political temperature of the world and the cultural symmetry,” she says. “For such a long time. We all live our own experiences, but there is definite collective consciousness. I find it really interesting that so many people are releasing [similar] albums at the exact same time: it’s a pendulum swing from the sadness and low energy of quarantine. It’s cool that we’re connected like that.”

Cabello doesn’t read reviews (or at least claims not to). From her perspective, the experimentation of C,XOXO has paid off by its sheer existence. “I Luv It” peaked at No 61 in the UK, a far cry from the heady heights reached by her earlier tracks, but she’s philosophical about what it takes to score a hit these days. “A lot of that stuff is so zeitgeist... A lot of it is where it aligns in the political climate and what people need,” she says. “Everything makes a difference – the weather makes a difference! That stuff is just not in my control, and it also has nothing to do with how good my work is. It’s gonna get to the right people.”

And if it doesn’t? She’s philosophical about that, too: “I’m at a place where, if this doesn’t work, I’m not out on the street, so I can experiment.” She grins, happy to be flying comfortably above a safety net. It’s freeing, to be able to do whatever feels good in the moment. She leaps up as we say goodbye, and pads out to her crew – on to the next job before I’ve even put on my jacket.

‘C,XOXO’ is out now via Interscope Records/Polydor