We live in the age of the viral pop star. A decade ago, Justin Bieber’s YouTube-driven rise to fame was an anomaly; now, apps like TikTok all but advertise their ability to turn people from normal teenagers to viral sensations overnight. Even still, true global virality is a rare and inexplicable phenomenon – but Toronto-born pop artist CARYS experienced it in full when an old track of hers, ‘Princesses Don’t Cry’, took the app by storm years after its initial release. Now, after working through the slings and arrows of sudden fame, her new music is rife with the assuredness and wit of a seasoned pop star.
‘Psychic’ is a power-pop anthem about unrequited love that sticks in your head like sour bubblegum. The infectious, alt-inflected track is a perfect representation of CARYS’ songwriting ethos: “I would describe the new music as all about making dark things fun,” she laughs, a wry smile palpable in her voice. “That's kind of been my motive going forward.” With a teen-movie vibe and a euphoric chorus bursting over glittering guitar lines, ‘Psychic’ hides serious emotional weight in a tongue-in-cheek package. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I must be psychic. I'm just seeing it first. You just don't see it yet.’ That fun jokiness of it is really representative of me as a person. But then, if you think about what's really going on, you can feel the sadness of wanting somebody that doesn't see in you what you see in them.”
The emotion inspiring her tracks might be tucked inside layers of headbanging pop perfection, but that doesn’t stop it from emanating through every line she sings. The confessional aura of ‘Late Night Ice Cream’ sounds like hearing your most interesting friend tell you a sleepover secret; ‘Recovering People Pleaser’ is half dance-pop banger, half cathartic therapy session for everyone struggling to define themselves against other people’s expectations. Of ‘Garden’ CARYS says “Garden happened so naturally. I was falling in love when I wrote it so it feels like a photograph of a really beautiful time in my life. “Falling in love is not all butterflies and rainbows, it forces you to face yourself. I feel like when you choose to be in a relationship with someone, you’re also committing to loving and taking care of yourself. That’s something you have to be ready for, and I tried to capture that with this song.”
Before she was CARYS, the rising pop star was Aviva Mongillo – an actress with roles on Working Moms and Backstage who wrote music under the mononym Aviva. It was with that name that she originally released “Princesses Don’t Cry”. The track racked up hundreds of thousands of user-generated videos and, in turn, tens of millions of streams, and cemented CARYS’ trajectory as a pop star on the rise; but, even as she continued on with her fast-paced career, releasing a slew of singles and a major label debut EP, To Anyone Like Me, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Despite her meteoric success, she was still a normal young woman, and she was struggling to define herself in a sea of other people’s opinions.
“I had just released tracks that were really dark and cool and edgy, which was much more the way I wanted to be seen,” she says, recalling her response to the TikTok attention. “And then the song with the word ‘princesses’ in the title blows up… At first, I was just kind of like – why this song? I was frustrated with not being perceived how I wanted to be perceived.”
This internal conflict persisted until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, instigating a period of forced reflection that gave CARYS the space she needed to start putting the pieces together. When asked how she spent the past two years, her answer is immediate – “Healing. Reconsidering everything.”
“I've been a singer since I was four,” she continues, the pride in her voice mingling with something more bittersweet. “That’s just who I am. But then the pandemic made me pause, and I got to think about why I was doing it now, and if I was just doing it because I've always done it. It made me wonder… am I really doing this the way I want to?”
Her newest singles reflect the internal changes she’s gone through. The tracks retain her classic empowering pop sensibilities, but with a maturity and sophistication that’s far beyond her years – with themes of growth, change, and moving past the need for validation, her gift for speaking to the collective anxieties of a generation of young people is as sharp as ever.
While her earlier music was raw, impulsive, and almost stream-of-consciousness in nature, she’s started bringing intention into her work in a whole new way. “It used to just be, like, whatever I was feeling that day – whatever words would come, that was the song. Now, it’s much more that I know what I want to say and I know how I want to say it.”
In retrospect, when she looks at her past work, that impulse-driven approach reveals vulnerabilities she hadn’t even realized were there.
“It's different listening to [older music] in hindsight… We're always growing and evolving. I actually feel like I know who I am now. And what I want to do just for me, rather than just as a rebellion against what I thought I was supposed to do.” Her track ‘Recovering People Pleaser’ is a definitive act of rebellion to a life spent chasing external validation – she says being bullied as a young teenager buried the confident, self-possessed nature she’d been born with and left her at the whims of other people’s opinions.
“It used to be that, like, if you say I'm not talented, I'll do everything to prove to you that I'm talented. And if you say that I'm not cool, then I'll show you how cool I can be,” CARYS says, explaining that much of her career has felt like showing different parts of herself to different people in an attempt to please them all. “I was just all about proving everybody wrong. I think I realized that proving everybody wrong wasn't doing anything for me – it wasn't making me happy. I was just kinda like living for other people. And then when people did love the person that I was, it wasn't really me. So I didn't even get to receive that love… because it didn't feel like I was really being seen.”
Of course, not every teenager can relate to being a viral pop star, but the neuroses that have accompanied CARYS’ rise to fame are sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s experienced adolescence in the digital age. It takes great pop music to speak to something truly universal while being intimately personal as well, and only the best can write a blueprint for healing and evolution along the way.
As any twenty-something will tell you, the final stage of growth is learning to love the person you used to be – idiosyncrasies and all. CARYS once feared the vulnerability that came with ‘Princesses Don’t Cry’, a track she wrote at age 17, going viral, but her perspective has changed as she’s grown more comfortable in her own skin. “I can hear my younger self in it. I think I'm more able to appreciate that and really understand what that means now, whereas before I was more concerned about like my image.”
In To Anyone Like Me, CARYS asked the question “what do I gotta do to get some love?” Now, with a series of singles that are embodied, empowered, and entirely honest in their vulnerability, she has found her answer – she’s realized that the only love she ever really needed was her own.
We had the pleasure of interviewing CARYS over Zoom video! Following her anthemic single...