If ever there were doubts about Camila Cabello’s solo potential, they were promptly wiped out when she released her debut solo album, Camila, in January. Over the course of 36 minutes and 55 seconds, Cabello cranked up the island heat (“Inside Out”), surrendered herself to love (“Never Be the Same”), and stripped down to her most vulnerable self (“Real Friends”), giving us 10 new songs that confidently proclaim her a capital-S Star.
To find out more about how Camila came together, MTV News spoke to two of its writers/producers: Electric Feel's Louis Bell — a frequent Post Malone collaborator who’s also worked with Lorde and Selena Gomez — and Brian Lee, who first worked with Cabello on Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” and has also written for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Bell and Lee discussed how “Havana” changed the tone of the album, what they think her next single will be, and what they predict we’ll see on album No. 2. Here are 10 things we learned from them.
“Havana” completely changed the tone of the album
Before there was “Havana,” “Never Be the Same,” or any other official taste of Camila, the singer kicked off her newly minted solo career in May 2017 with “ Crying in the Club” and the brooding “ I Have Questions.” Both tracks signaled an emotionally heavy project ahead, but they were ultimately dumped — as was the album’s melodramatic original title: The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving.
“The album started off more serious — dealing with relationship stuff, dealing with a lot of heartbreak, dealing with a lot of life things, with the Fifth Harmony thing,” Bell explained. “It started off darker, but then towards the end, it lightened up because of where she was in her life. She felt more liberated.”
Part of what helped Cabello “lighten up” was the success of “Havana.” After the song was released in August, it quickly became a fan favorite, and the warm reception gave Cabello the confidence she needed to loosen up in the studio. “It put her in a better mood overall, and I think that helped give the album a great contrast, so it didn’t move too far in one direction,” Bell said.
“Havana” is Camila’s song, and Camila’s song only
Part of what made “Havana” such a game-changer is that it was wholly unique to Cabello. “It goes back to Camila. It’s a song that if she doesn’t do it, you can’t just give it away,” Lee said. “For example, with some songs, if they’re written for Rihanna, and she doesn’t take it, then it goes down to some other artist and then another artist. But this was a song that if [Cabello] didn’t take it, there was no one else who could do it.”
Bell agreed, adding, “That’s always a great mode of attack, if you find a way of, ‘How can we make a song that no one else could cut?’ Especially when it’s your first big, big song as a solo artist. When you heard it, it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. That’s what gave it its mark, so that instantly, when you hear that first piano hit, you know [what it is] right away.”
“Havana” was a puzzle that had to be “perfect”
“Havana” as we know and love it today is a massive hit, but the song was a pain to nail down. Before Bell and Lee were asked to help on it, Cabello and executive producer Frank Dukes had been sitting on a few rough versions of it for months. Those versions had different pre-choruses, a different second verse, and even a Spanish verse that was recorded before Young Thug jumped on it.
“It changed a million times, so no one knew which version was going to come out,” Lee explained. “But what was always set in stone was the hook — the ‘Havana na na na’ part.”
In the end, Cabello went through all the different versions and picked the bits and pieces she liked the best, essentially Frankensteining the eventual smash hit. As a result, there are a whopping 10 songwriters credited to “Havana” — including Cabello, Lee, and Bell — but all the months of work were entirely worth it. “It was a song that was so special to her that it had to be perfect,” Lee said.
“Real Friends,” on the other hand, was a breeze
While recording her album, Cabello was bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles and Miami, which took a toll on her social life, Bell explained. That made a song like “ Real Friends” resonate deeply with her and make it “one of the easiest sessions ever.”
“‘Real Friends’ is something that I think she connected to maybe the most out of everything," he said. "Obviously going through the whole Fifth Harmony situation, dealing with the people who you go, ‘All right, are these my real friends? Do these people care about me?’ It’s something that publicly had played out prior, and this song was her way of being able to say, ‘I have a song about that concept that I can connect [to] on a super deep level.’”
When it came time to actually making the song, Cabello nailed the vocals in just one or two takes, and was even freestyling parts of the song in the recording booth. The production was kept purposely minimal because, as Bell explained, “That song being so stripped down, it’s kind of reflective of saying, ‘Real friends, we don’t need to dress all this up. ... This is who I am and I want to be around people who are going to show me who they are.’”
“Inside Out” got some valuable input from her mom
“Havana” isn’t the only Camila song with a distinct Latin flavor — “Inside Out” also finds Cabello effortlessly swerving between English and Spanish.
“On songs like that, she’s talking about growing up in South Miami, and when you get into that Cuban world and how she grew up, I think it just comes out naturally,” Bell said about Cabello’s Spanish lyrics. “That’s just who she is.”
As for the actual lyrics, Cabello consulted her mother, Sinuhe, for input. Bell said, “She would talk to her mother about lyrics because her mother speaks the language obviously very well, so she would ask, ‘Mom, how does this sound? Is this a great way of saying that?’”
“Into It” showed off Camila’s playful side
If ever there’s a Camila song to prove that the album’s original darker tone was totally scrapped, it’s the final track: the fun, flirty “Into It.” Co-written by Ryan Tedder and Justin Tranter, it finds Cabello brazenly suggesting that she and her crush start some trouble and get “into it.”
“Camila, she’s so ahead of her time and she has a lot of deep things she wants to say and emotional things she wants to say, but at the same time, she wants to touch on the fun stuff,” Bell said. “[“Into It”] was a chance for her to be playful and flirty and show that side of her and not feel like there’s any limitations of how her album could sound. We didn’t have anything else that sounded like that.”
“She Loves Control” could be a summertime single
Right now, “Never Be the Same” is slowly but surely inching up the charts, and after that, Bell has a solid pick for what the next Camila single ought to be. “I hope [“She Loves Control”] will be a summertime single,” he said. “I think, timing-wise, the way ‘Never Be the Same’ is going now, and leading into the summer, that would be an ideal single to come up next.”
Bossy and brassy, “She Loves Control” is an anthem about being confident and commanding, and it’s impossible to ignore the significance of Cabello’s fans — many of whom are young girls — singing along to a song with that kind of empowering message. “That’s something she thinks about all the time,” Bell said. “She goes, ‘I know what I want to say but I also know how my fans will take it.’ Obviously female empowerment is one of the most key elements and has obviously been a very hot topic over the past year, so it’s something that is just naturally going to connect.”
Camila loves control in the studio
Turns out, “She Loves Control” is actually a perfect way to describe Cabello’s demeanor in the studio. “She is not an easy person to please — which is good, because she really cares,” Lee said. “She was really caring about her album so much, and really anal about it.”
Her attention to detail affected every song on the album and every choice she made. As Bell described, “She’s one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with melodically, in knowing what she wants. Concept-wise, she’s years ahead of her time. She won’t let anything go out until she knows it’s exactly the way she wants it.”
She could be a future Grammy nominee
In January, Cabello appeared at the 2018 Grammys, joining Kesha onstage to perform “Praying” and introducing U2 with a moving speech about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. Cabello’s album wasn’t Grammy-eligible this year, but come 2019, Bell and Lee are both predicting we’ll see her back on that hallowed stage as a first-time nominee.
“I think a lot of times, when you look at the Grammys, they look at, ‘OK, this artist, what does she do? Is she just singing a song someone gives her, or is she writing the song? How much is she putting into the song?’ I think anyone who knows anything internally about the music industry, hopefully knows at this point that Camila’s the real deal and she really writes her stuff, she really sings her stuff, and she’s a real talent,” Bell said. “I think a Grammy should definitely be in the future.”
Lee agreed, adding, “She has something to say, and she’s not just a pop star. She’s a mogul, she’s an icon. I think she deserves to be nominated.”
Camila can do “whatever she wants” for album No. 2
We’re only a few weeks removed from Camila’s release, but both Lee and Bell are already looking ahead to Cabello’s next project. Bell said he imagines Cabello will work on album No. 2 during her upcoming spring tour, saying they’ll send ideas back and forth from April until June, when they’ll finally be able to get into the studio together. He wants to give the second album a “more mature progression,” but ultimately, the new songs will depend on Cabello.
“It’s all about what’s going on in her life, relationship-wise, everything. All of that stuff is going to factor into the whole theme of the album,” Bell said.
Lee, meanwhile, thinks she could go any direction imaginable. “She knows all these indie bands; she could do an indie record,” he said. “Her depth of what she knows musically is bigger than mine. She could do whatever she wants.”