Mary Ellen Matthews
December 14, 2017 at 12:00 PM EST

A version of this story appears in the First Look issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Alessia Cara’s first album, the spunky Know-It-All, dropped in 2015, but her hit singles this year — including the self-esteem pep talk “Scars to Your Beautiful” and Logic’s suicide-prevention anthem “1-800-273-8255” with her and Khalid — just earned her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. Those message-oriented tracks are also influencing the 21-year-old’s approach on her second LP, the singer tells EW.

“I don’t know if every song is going to be like that, just because that would be very heavy,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve been writing new music, and it’s almost done, and I have a bunch of songs that keep those topics in mind. When you make your first album, you’re not sure who is going to listen, but now I’m aware that I have a platform. I’m always going to offer an escape or some sort of light for people. I’m trying to do all of that on this album.”

Cara says her success this year is a sign that listeners are hungering for meaningful music more than ever: “For a while, pop music was really stagnant. There was a moment where it felt like everyone wanted fluff and they didn’t want a message. And I know there are people who still don’t, but there has been a new wave of music that has meaning. It’s a good time to be positive and help each other.”

For her upcoming second album, she’s working with hitmaker Ricky Reed (Halsey, Kesha) and returning collaborators Pop & Oak, who produced the majority of her first album. The singer says she purposefully avoided any radical changes to her creative process. “As much as working with new people is amazing, it’s easy to get lost in everything,” she explains. “You have this platform; everyone wants to work with you, and you want to work with everyone, but you can lose yourself. It’s good to stick to what you know.”

And being herself was a key to Cara’s success — her debut single, “Here,” sounded like nothing else in pop when it came out. “[My confidence] came from growing up and not relating to a lot of the other artists that were in the pop scene,” she says. “‘Why do they all feel like they need to look the same? Why are people making them look the same? Why can’t someone who looks like me and dresses like me and talks like me be successful?’ I was always questioning why it has to be that way, and then I realized, it really doesn’t. I wanted to see if I could get away with being myself.”

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