22 March 2022

Sabrina Carpenter on her twenties, growing up and making mistakes

On the back of her newest single, 'Fast Times', Sabrina Carpenter is committed to feeling her feelings.

Sabrina Carpenter is talking to me via Zoom from her bedroom in her parent’s house — but you wouldn’t know it. Sporting an immaculate face of makeup and sitting in front of a padded velvet wall she had specially installed for video calls, Carpenter is a consummate professional who looks every bit the pop star. It’s rare to see a celebrity so fully formed at the age of 22, but the erstwhile Disney star has been prepping for this moment since she was a child. 

Having started her career by posting singing videos to YouTube at the tender age of 10, Carpenter placed third in a contest ran by Miley Cyrus, and promptly followed in Cyrus’ well-trodden footsteps. At 14, she was signed to Disney Music Group’s Hollywood Records, where she produced four studio albums, before bagging a role in Girl Meets World. By this point, Carpenter had a slew of pop hits behind her and millions of Instagram followers, but it was only when she was purportedly involved in a love triangle with two of her contemporaries, Joshua Bassett (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) and Olivia Rodigo, that things really blew up. 

As it’s always been, music was a balm, and Carpenter appeared to address Rodrigo’s apparent grievances on a candid track called ‘Skin’ before putting all the drama behind her to focus on her fifth album. Despite everything, Carpenter isn’t going to stop being open and vulnerable in her songwriting anytime soon. Self-aware and reflective by nature, the Pennsylvania native released her latest single, ‘Fast Times’, last month, which is an ode to friendship, laughter, and the passage of time. “On the surface, it’s a broad reflection of how time slips away from us, and before we know it, we’re all like ‘how did all these years pass me by?!’” she tells me just after its release. “I was really writing from a moment where so many things were being thrown at me in my personal life. Emotionally, at 21, you’re dealing with a lot, you have so many feelings and so many firsts, so I was wanting to take more risks. I guess it was one of those reflective periods where I was thinking about how people and things come and go, and how it’s all part of your story.” 

It’s a track that seems to sum up the motivations behind her upcoming album. Now firmly in her twenties, Sabrina Carpenter is growing up, and while she’s committed to taking her fans along for the ride, she’s not afraid of making mistakes, as she says: “Now’s probably the time to make them!” Here, we caught up with the artist about the upcoming album, heartbreak, and her commitment to staying vulnerable…

Your upcoming album is going to be your first with Island Records — but you’ve already recorded four through Disney. Does it feel like a graduation of sorts? Is Sabrina Carpenter growing up? 

Yeah, and I hope people can see that I’ve grown. Thanks to the internet, no one’s really able to forget anything, and it’s really hard to see people in a new light when they try to experiment and grow — I’ve felt it when some of my favourite artists have gone through different phases and eras. For me, with the record, it just feels so natural examining my twenties as I go through that progression. 

Over the past few years you’ve been known more for your acting work, but you started off in music. Does it feel like coming back home?

Interesting. Honestly, music came before I even know what acting was, because when you’re a child, music is something that you can actively do and see every day of your life, and writing songs was obviously easier than acting. So, I’ve simultaneously been doing both over the years. But I think music is something that’s never truly gone away – you might not see me doing it, but I’m always creating or finishing albums or songs. Music has never left my side. It’s been the one thing that I’ve always been able to understand. I think it’s incredible that I have so many ways to express myself.  

A few years ago, you said you wanted to experience heartbreak. Then, it happened. How did it affect your songwriting? 

Yes. What was it? It was pain [laughs] that’s all you can really chalk it up to. For some reason what happens when you’re in pain is that your emotions just expand, it’s like there’s a whole other universe of ways in which you’re able to describe the way you feel, and the emotions you’re able to distinguish within yourself that you weren’t able to before. That actually helps a lot weirdly when you’re someone who’s obsessed with words and feelings and the way people look at each other. As much as I do not wish it on myself again, or anyone else, I think there’s something really important about it. I mean, you’ve got to love someone enough to experience heartbreak even though that sounds so messed up. 

You have a real narrative streak in your work. Where does that come from?

In the last year, I realised that my favourite songs of mine came from the three hour conversations that I was having with my friends. There are these little things that you say in the middle of a conversation that are so painfully real and honest and you’re like ‘urgh, I would never say that to anyone or put that in a song’, and for me, it was about putting those moments in songs, and writing the things that I normally wouldn’t write because they’re initially more jarring or not as easily digestible. But there’s something really cool about that because it helps me overcome feelings that I’m not so comfortable having and it helps normalise them a bit more. It not only helps me relate to myself but to my friends and other women for sure. It’s funny, I was having a conversation with one of my friends this morning about human behaviour and we were saying all the same things at the same time. I was like oh wow, it’s so beautiful that we’re able to relate to other people when it comes to those situations. 

Then there was all the chatter with ‘Skin’, which is probably one of your most vulnerable songs. It was perceived as a response to the drama with Olivia Rodrigo. Obviously, I can imagine that was quite a tough time for you. Has it all made you want to move away from being so confessional and timely with your songwriting? 

No, if anything it’s made me want to be more honest with myself because life is so short. Truthfully, every time that I’ve ever bottled up my feelings, it hasn’t served me. I think, if anything, suppressing them is the wrong way to grow. In general, I want people to understand me and the only way you can do that is to be fully honest with yourself. And you can’t think too much about what’s at the other end. Once you write something and put it out, it’s there. You can never control the way that people interpret it. 

Totally. And I think there was definitely a pitting women against women narrative there. 

Yeah. Comparison is the thief of joy they say. 

So, how do you strike the balance between being emotionally vulnerable and keeping something for yourself at the end of the day? 

I think there’s just a knowing, there’s something inside you that tells you if something is too far. And I’m still learning it obviously. It’s probably around now when I’m going to mess up and learn from my mistakes, and it’s important to experience that and learn from them. It’s tricky to know what the right thing to do is for sure. We just have to go for it. 

Because you’ve been doing this for so long, you’ve had some fans for such a long time. Do you feel like you’re taking them on this journey with you? I assume they’re all your age or similar too?

Yeah, it’s the most mind-blowing thing to see fans that I met when I was 15 years old. I see them now and they’re going to college or med school or backpacking through Europe. Some of them I’m jealous of because it all sounds so fun. But there’s so much beauty in the fact that we can all have a safe space with each other, and they’ve really given me everything. They’ve given me the ability to take risks and grow and make mistakes, and there’s nothing more incredible than that. I’m so grateful and I  love their personalities, their sense of humour… I do feel like I have a bunch of friends around the world. It’s so surreal and wonderful. 

Collaboratively, what has the songwriting process been like? 

The people I work with are some of the closest people to me in real life, but also, they do let me have full control of what I want to say and the artist I want to be. There’s never been any push or pull in that sense. It’s not like I’m telling someone else’s story, it’s all coming from my life and my experiences — but also musically, the kind of stuff I love to make. I’ve been listening to really heavy instrumentals and that’s why I’ve incorporated so many strings and live guitars. I just wanted to stay away from the synth world and everyone that I’ve worked with has been so understanding of that. 

What have been your biggest influences musically on this album? 

Kind of across the board, there’s been so many. I’m a huge fan of Carly Simon, Carole King… I’ve been listening to so much Marvin Gaye, his music expands my wildest dreams when it comes to instrumentals. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the artists that I grew up loving and listening to. 

Any prevailing themes?

There’s quite a bit of storytelling. There’s something really exciting about being able to pinpoint your feelings at this age, so I’ve tried to do that to the best of my ability while understanding that sometimes I want to have fun, then I want to cry, I want to have fun, and then I want to sob. I want to feel all of that, and make sure my fans feel it too. 

With the new album coming out, how do you wanna be seen as an artist?

[Laughs] A good one? A great one? Once I put too much focus on the way I want other people to see me I stop being myself and being honest. But I do hope they like it, I think anyone would hope that. 

  • Writer Nessa Humayun

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