When the world was first introduced to Cari Fletcher, she hadn't quite found herself yet. She was 17, trying to live out her dreams on The X Factor US' first series. She probably knew there and then, as Simon Cowell called her boring and forgettable, before funnelling her into a country-pop girl group, that this wasn't the path she was meant to take.
Fast forward to today, she's eclipsed the nervous teenager she once was, and is forging her own path to success, built on good honest songwriting and big pop sensibilities.
We meet Fletcher, virtually, in her childhood bedroom in New Jersey, where she's been quarantined at her parents' house, which she says is a welcome change of pace from the big cities she's gotten used to. She's just put out 'Bitter', a song that was synced on an episode of 'The L Word's reboot, and eventually released by popular demand (and some boredom).
"I was getting flooded every single day with DMs like, where's that song? Where's that song? Where's that song?" she says. "Finally I was like, fuck, I don't have anything else to put out right now, I should just put 'Bitter' out. And then we ended up finishing the production together over Facetime."
She's gearing up to release a new EP, mostly finished off in quarantine, which she promises to be her most personal yet. It won't feature 'Bitter', or big electropop bangers 'Forever' and 'One Too Many', but it will be all the material she's been cooking up at home while in her lockdown feels.
"The last couple months have had me in a really introspective state, and I'm making some really personal stuff, and I feel like I've already been very personal, so it's some new stuff, and it's another very big piece of my heart, so I'm excited to share it. I feel like every song kind of has a different journey. Some have been around longer than others, but the quarantine has really been a time of me tying a little bow on top of everything, which has been really cool."
It'll follow 2019's 'you ruined new york city for me', an EP detailing Cari's time in the Big Apple – an experience that shaped her as both a person and an artist. Though she frequents it for work nowadays, the memories that made up her last EP are still strong.
"New York City, there's just something about it. It has a way of just like, ripping you down to absolutely nothing and building you back up again, just to kick you in the ass again. There's this cycle of life that can happen there, you know?
"I was just in New York yesterday, and I was driving through the East Village and passing my old dorms, and where I went to my first concert in New York, restaurants I used to eat at, and I was just having this flooding flashback of memories – like really good ones, but also really bad ones. There are these places that hold of a piece of you that I feel like I'll never really get back, and not in a way that's sad or anything but I feel like there are all these little pieces of Fletcher that have been put all over that city in a way that's like really nostalgic and sometimes painful but also a reminder of how much growth can happen."
New York's influence on Fletcher goes further than her own time there. Most of the artists she cites as her biggest influences have their own experiences with the city; Patti Smith, Madonna, Lady Gaga, David Bowie (of course that's not the reason she picked them, but it's a fun connection).
"It was always the people about pushing outside of the lines and breaking boundaries," she says. "The people that said, 'fuck the system' in a way, like Joan Jett, you know, people being in a space that has never necessarily been occupied before and being unapologetically themselves. It's always that energy that I've been really drawn to, which feels rebellious in a sense."
Cari admires artists the same way her fans love Fletcher. They appreciate her honesty and transparency with them, in her music and IRL, and that translates in our chat too. It doesn't take much for her to open up (she's a Pisces TBF), noting how important honesty and integrity are in her songwriting.
"I think the most important thing to me when writing a song is for it to be coming from an honest place, and a place where I'm able to talk about an experience that I've had or something that I'm currently going through. Otherwise, it's really hard for me to write anything at all if it's made up. I think the studio has always been a space for me to be really unfiltered, especially being from New Jersey, I feel like I just straight up don't have any filter whatsoever, so it's really hard for me to just have one, to begin with."
She uses songwriting as a form of therapy, processing her emotions in the studio and putting them out into the world for others to relate to. "We all just want to feel connected and understood and heard," she says, "and it's really like the only reason why I make music." From breakup songs and cheating partners to emotional dedications to the Me Too movement, there's no bullshit in Fletcher's discography. Sometimes its stripped back, and sometimes it comes with a SOPHIE remix in tow, but the common thread is always her sincerity.
"I think my humanity is so beyond intertwined with my artistry, and I do what I do because I feel like I needed as a little kid growing up, to see more humanity in artistry, and especially within female artistry and specifically within the female pop space. I grew up with a lot of role models, but I just felt like everything had to look and feel and be a certain way, and I questioned for a long time if I would ever be able to be a pop star, because like I don't feel represented in what I'm seeing."
As an openly queer woman, Fletcher is pushing to create her own space in the pop sphere where she feels comfortable, joining those who laid the groundwork before her, like Halsey, Kehlani and Hayley Kiyoko.
"Trying to navigate my sexuality as a little kid where everything just felt really glossy and clean and perfect. I was like, where do I sit here? I think it's mostly just been more acceptance and understanding that there is a place for me – and because I'm white and I'm privileged so I have to acknowledge that – I just mean in terms of there being more honesty, like there's always room for that at the table, and there's always room for real representation and different perspectives. And that's what the world needs more of right now. So it's important for me to make that contribution about my truth in hopes of inspiring other people to do the same. I think more of that is happening and it's really fucking cool to see."
In the time she's been in the spotlight, she's become much more confident within herself, living her truth and dropping the armour. She says on X Factor she was told she wasn't strong enough to be a solo artist or confident enough to sing lead vocals; it's hard to imagine Fletcher today being bothered by those comments.
"There's always been pressure to be a certain way, because I kind of grew up seeing people a certain way. But now, you know, we're seeing so many more people be themselves and winning, and that's the coolest thing ever. And I've let go of a lot of pressure. Honestly, I think we have to in order to be happier."
Taken from the August issue of Dork, out now.
Featuring Declan McKenna, Fontaines DC, Another Sky, KennyHoopla and more.