NEW YORK – Camila Cabello says she found joy in her roots while working on “Familia,” her new studio album. The pop singer and songwriter, born in Havana to a Cuban mother and a Mexican father, immersed herself in the music she listened to while growing up and even ventured to write for the first time a couple of songs fully in Spanish.
"I was curious what the process would be, because my process in English is very like me on a mic, and I just sing whatever kind of comes to my head, including lyrics. So I was like, ‘I wonder what’s gonna come out in Spanish,’” she said in a recent interview via Zoom from Los Angeles.
The first thing that came out was “Hasta Los Dientes” (Spanish for “to the teeth”), a pop tune featuring Argentine urban singer María Becerra about feeling jealousy for a boyfriend's past. And then “Celia,” a rhythmic song which seems to reference Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, in the chorus: “Ha vivido toa la vida sin azúcar / Conoció a Celia sin ir pa' Cuba” (“He has lived his whole life without sugar / He met Celia without going to Cuba”).
With 12 songs in English, Spanish and Spanglish, including the singles "Don’t Go Yet" and “Bam Bam” with Ed Sheeran as well as collaborations with WILLOW (“psychofreak”) and Cuban singer Yotuel (“Lola”), Cabello released her third solo record under Epic Records on Friday.
“My heritage and roots are such a big part of who I am, and more and more something that makes me feel really connected and joyful and something I wanna get closer with as I get older,” she said referring to her parents and grandparents when asked about the title of the album, which in English means “family.”
But she also mentioned her close friends and collaborators, her “family by choice," as she called them. “It’s like really about community and how important relationships are for me, and I think for all of us,” she said.
Musically, the pop album features classic rhythms like mariachi, mixing the old and the new in songs like “La Buena Vida” ("The Good Life"), which Cabello sings in English accompanied by Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar, with a Spanish chorus sang by the Mexican band and the singer's father, Alejandro Cabello. She debuted it last October on an NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, where she presented it as one of her favorites from her then-upcoming album.
“That was one of the songs I wrote with (producers) Ricky (Reed), Cheche Alara and Edgar Barrera. We were playing songs that I listened to when I was a kid: I played some Alejandro Fernández, we were listening to mariachi songs that my dad would play when I was younger. We were like, ‘What can we do that is like interesting and weird?’"
They tried combining a rhythmic pop song with mariachi and were excited with the result. "Yeah, they killed it on the production,” she said.
There's also “Lola” with Yotuel — which she co-wrote with Mike Sabath and Scott Harris — about a woman that wants “patria y vida” (homeland and life) as opposed to “homeland or death,” Fidel Castro’s motto. The line comes from the Latin Grammy-winning song of 2021 “Patria y Vida,” by Yotuel, Descemer Bueno, El Funky, Gente de Zona, Yadam González, Beatriz Luengo and Maykel Osorbo. It became an anthem of the demonstrations in Cuba that year after some of its authors dared to express their disagreement with the government for the first time.
“I was so excited when Yotuel said yes to writing on that song ('Lola') and collaborating on it with me because, to me, “Patria y Vida” changed history and gave people a lot of bravery and hope that things could change in Cuba,” Cabello said.
To her, “Lola” represents not only the people from her native country but from any other nation with systemic oppression where "talented, smart people don't get the same opportunities because of where they were born and where they live," said the singer, who moved to Miami at the age of 6. “I was just reflecting about what my life would have been like if my family hadn’t come to the United States and all the possible kind of alternatives.”
As for “Bam Bam,” which many fans think is a song about Cabello's break-up with Shawn Mendes, she said that “of course is something personal, every song (on the album) is whatever I was feeling that day (I wrote it).”
But with the catchy chorus “Así es la vida, sí / Yeah, that’s just life, baby,” how did it come to be?"
“Well, I feel like in Latin music there are so many songs that have these kinds of life lessons in them, ... like the impermanence of things and of hard times and good times. I think love and relationships impermanence is a really common thing too; you just never know what's around the corner, you never know what's gonna happen, how things are gonna progress and change and transform,” Cabello said, adding that, when she hits a bad time or a good time, her mom always says “así es la vida (that's life) ... things catch you by surprise.”
After writing the song with her team based on that principle, she said they sent it to Ed Sheeran, who made some “amazing” changes and sent her the chord progression that we now hear.
Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner.