Sabrina Carpenter’s becoming the popstar of her dreams
Written by ABR on 17/03/2023
Sabrina Carpenter signed her first record contract at 14. “I was a child,” she admits now. “I didn’t even know what I was doing.” The musician and actor, 23, is sitting in a studio on London’s Columbia Road, in a light blue Patou top and skirt, her hands laden with jewellery. A black van and a bodyguard wait downstairs.
Her face has been seen by millions: she is one of the premiere talents to have successfully navigated the often tricky Disney-kid-to-international-superstar pipeline, so much so that that label’s interaction with her artistry is now becoming a thing of the past. Since her big break in the Disney Channel show Girl Meets World, the high school sitcom in which she played the rebellious best friend to Rowan Blanchard’s lead character, she’s become a mainstay presence in YA cinema, appearing in movies like The Hate U Give and Netflix’s Tall Girl series. In 2020, just before the pandemic, she combined her talents and played Cady Heron in the Broadway musical adaptation of Mean Girls, a concept now being turned into a film.
But 13 years ago, Sabrina was a home-schooled kid growing up in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, a quiet borough home to fewer than 10,000 people. Posting covers on YouTube prophesied her calling: in 2011, she signed up to an online contest called The Next Miley Cyrus Project, one run by Miley (or her team, at least) to find a young woman capable of replicating the star’s juggernaut success. Sabrina came in third (an artist called Amy Maggio won), but did enough to impress them, signing to Miley’s Disney-owned then-label, Hollywood Records. Girl Meets World, and further success on Disney screens, followed.
Music has always played the central part in Sabrina’s life. Through Hollywood Records, she released four albums between 2015 and 2019. Last year though, she released her first album, titled emails i can’t send, on a new contract signed with the legendary Island Records, a formal break from her Disney past.
The transition wasn’t easy, though, especially as it all happened in the middle of the pandemic. “I couldn’t really meet any of the people I was working with and I didn’t know if they could immediately get to know me in a way that an artist needs to be known,” she says. Thankfully, though, she’s had more autonomy over the important aspects of her music. This time, her songs don’t have a team of producers and lyricists behind them. Her debut album Eyes Wide Open boasted 30 writers on its credits; Emails…, in comparison, has just a third of that, the majority of the songs the work of just two or three people, Sabrina included. “I just have a bit more understanding of [the industry],” she says now. “There was no part in the process where my vision was questioned and I’m really grateful for that.”
Now, owing to new successes, Sabrina’s following it up with a deluxe edition, emails i can’t send fwd:, out on 17 March. The release of it is partly catalysed by the TikTok success of her song “Nonsense”, a track that came to her “effortlessly” and has since inspired hundreds of thousands of videos on the platform. It contains four brand new songs. “[Emails…] was such a huge chapter in my life that it was hard to not just keep writing,” Sabrina says of its creation. “It was hard to put out, too, because I didn’t feel like it would ever really be done.”
So, she’s rectifying that in her own way. The four new tracks don’t feel like songs released almost a year after their siblings. The sound of Emails… is still there, Sabrina’s breathy vocals shifting effortlessly between the ballads of “Opposite” and “Lonesome” and the upbeat pop of “Feather”. “Things I Wish You Said”, the album’s new final track, could have easily been penned by Lorde during the Solar Power sessions. The complete album is her most accomplished to date and with it, Sabrina can rightfully claim the title of fully fledged popstar.
But such success isn’t always in the cards for former child stars. Her old life — teen years spent being a huge Disney Channel star, attending movie premieres and going to awards shows — was the kind most kids her age dreamed of, but such a lifestyle can be a double-edged sword. In recent years, many former Disney and Nickelodeon child stars have discussed the toxic and abusive environments harboured by both companies. One of Sabrina’s Disney Channel predecessors, Demi Lovato, spoke about the culture of abuse and silence that haunted her years there. The former Nickelodeon star, Jennette McCurdy, wrote fearlessly in her bestselling memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died about the years of abuse she suffered as a child actor within the system.
I ask whether Sabrina has read it. She has, and loves Jennette and the book. I wonder if she relates to any of the situations that Jennette details from her teen years. “I never, thankfully, felt like I was a child being forced to work,” she tells me. “It definitely wasn’t a situation where my mom was like ‘my kid’s going to be a star!’ and forced me in front of a camera.” Sabrina goes on to mention her stubbornness as a child. There was only one person pushing her to become a star and that was herself. As she tells me, only half-jokingly, “I’m a Taurus so if I didn’t want to do it… I wouldn’t have done it.”
And that fire within her has never quenched. Her current visit to London is only brief, but she is excited to come back again this summer to perform her first ever headline show in the city. Naturally, it’s a huge deal because of how much she loves the city, but that’s a given, she tells me, for someone who’s grown accustomed to the highway megalopolis of Los Angeles. “Everything is a lot more picturesque [here compared to] to where I live,” she says. “And that’s why I love Europe. I feel I’m constantly inspired by things that look old.” Sabrina laughs suddenly. “My mom’s going to love that quote.”
From here, Sabrina’s heading out on a major headline tour of the US, but she’s quietly confident about the whole thing. “I mean, I’m gonna have fun,” she says, “so, I hope everybody else does too.” And why wouldn’t she? At once a veteran and a rising star, she may be entering the second decade of her career, but finally, it’s now Sabrina’s turn to be in charge.
‘emails i can’t send fwd:’ is out now.
Photography Sophie Davidson