There’s a box of Easter candy waiting for Carly Rae Jepsen when we step onto her tour bus.
It’s a gift from the wife of her stage manager, and it’s piled high with the traditional pastel blues, yellows, and pinks meant to signify the impending holiday. There are Peeps (“those are gross,” she says, picking them up in disgust before throwing them back in the box), Cadbury eggs, Swedish Fish, various chocolates, and a lot of gummy bears.
“Gummys are my favorite,” she explains, disappearing into the back of the bus for a moment and returning with another large, unopened bag of Haribos. There’s a note attached, personally addressed to her in the well-practiced scrawl of the young daughter of someone on her management team. To: Carly, it reads. Good luck!
She rips them open and offers to make us coffee. “Very healthy,” she quips as she takes a few small steps over to the bus’ Keurig machine and slots in a cup with rote familiarity.
It’s a few hours before the second-to-last show on the extensive North American leg of her Gimme Love tour (“the most intense amount of singing I’ve done in one period of time,” she notes), and we’re parked at the back entrance of Terminal 5, the cavernous Manhattan venue where she’ll soon play to a sold-out room. Despite her characteristically chipper, down-to-earth attitude, you can tell she’s a little worn down from such a long time on the road. But she’s also enthusiastically looking towards the future.
We settle in around the dining room table for our pre-show snack, and Jepsen speaks with the reflective excitement of someone who only recently was able to take stock of how far E•MO•TION has brought her. I ask: So, looking back, how do you think it all went?
The familiar talking points charting Jepsen’s path to E•MO•TION play out like a series of dots that never completely connect. Struggling Vancouver singer-songwriter coffee shop type lands on Canadian Idol, where she places in third, and then it’s straight into the bowels of the music industry beast following one primarily self-written album, Tug Of War, that (for both better and worse) mimics the endearing acoustic balladry of her origins. After settling into a groove writing toplines for other artists behind the scenes, Jepsen strikes gold solo with “Call Me Maybe” in 2011 and, with its famous Justin Bieber cosign, takes off on a grueling two-year promotional cycle on the back of the best pop song of the decade. That song is eventually included on Kiss, Jepsen’s sophomore album that makes her a darling among a certain pop stan class but fails to produce another hit that measures up to its lead single. (“Good Time,” her dated collaboration with Owl City, is the only one that would come close.) After that, Jepsen disappears from the public eye for a few years, opting to follow her theatrical aspirations with a stint in Cinderella on Broadway, and is almost immediately relegated to one-hit-wonder status, a footnote in the eventual I Love The ’10s VH1 special.
But, unbeknownst to us all, Jepsen was working on the best music of her career so far during that time away. She returned at the top of 2015 with just enough buzz to get the right people to perk up and take notice — rumored collaborations with Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Rostam Batmanglij for the indie kids, a bevy of top-tier Swedish talent for the popheads — and came back poised for a critical reappraisal. Jepsen also happened to have the best pure pop album of the year in tow, one that would end up scoring a spot on pretty much every major publication’s year-end list. It’s a confounding series of events, but one that feels appropriately discursive for an artist one of our writers once called our most hapless pop star. Jepsen seems to agree about the oft-dissected circumstances behind her rise: “Those are highlight points, but there’s a lot that happened in between the cracks. If anything, I look back on my story and I don’t know how it could’ve happened twice.”
Jepsen does seem to have stumbled into a lightning-in-a-bottle situation, because it’s very easy to pinpoint where this all could have gone terribly wrong. E•MO•TION’s near-universal admiration seems improbable looking at it post-mortem considering the exceptionally bumpy album rollout that preceded it. From the sidelines, it appeared to be the result of a team that wasn’t sure whether to market Jepsen as an underground pop goddess in the vein of Robyn or simply the follow-up from the singer of “Call Me Maybe.” The strategy would eventually and noticeably pivot — when it became clear that not even “Run Away With Me” was going to near the top of the charts — but the mistakes made before that could’ve been fatal.
“There’s nothing I look back on and regret profoundly,” Jepsen says. “It was all a very wonderful experience. But you do a cycle, and you look at how it played out. You look at the questions you had before, and you go back in with some new tools for how you handle it the next time around. I have those now, and I’ll use that as a force of benefit in the future.”
The lead-up to E•MO•TION played out like a lesson in what not to do with a pop singer sitting precariously on the edge between cultural ubiquity and cult following. The first, and probably most damaging misstep as an introduction to this new era of Carly, was the selection of “I Really Like You” as a lead single. It’s a fine enough song when placed among the 17 other tracks of forward-thinking pop on E•MO•TION — and it certainly garnered its fair share of fans — but, in retrospect, it hewed too close to the sexless high school crush narrative of her last hit single to register as anything other than a facsimile from the same girl that made “Call Me Maybe,” and it wouldn’t end up being indicative of the album as a whole. It’s understandable why management would push for it to lead — that indelible hook, the seemingly easy marketability, a Tom Hanks music video cameo — but it probably did more harm than help at the beginning of a record cycle that would come to be defined by Jepsen’s reinvention. (It ended up peaking at No. 39 on the Hot 100, the only single from the record that charted.)
“To be really honest, I was gunning more for ‘Run Away With Me,” Jepsen admits. “But I was unanimously across the board getting told ‘I Really Like You’ was it, and I was like … Alright, as long as we do “Run Away” second. And then as soon we got Tom Hanks on board, I was like, This is fun and tongue-in-cheek, this is a moment in and of itself. The song is something I like for its ’80s punch, but I was obsessed with that saxophone. But you can always look back and say, should I have?, and I don’t know … I had a wonderful day in New York shooting a film with Tom Hanks. It was a cool part of my life, and it was a fun moment in time.”
Another puzzling choice in the E•MO•TION rollout was the record’s extended release schedule. It came out in Japan at the end of June, almost two months before it was officially released worldwide. (It took yet another month after that for it to come to the European market.) On one hand, it’s a move that makes some sense from a business standpoint — Jepsen ranks among Japan’s most popular foreign artists, and sales in that smaller market have far outpaced sales stateside. (It was recently certified Gold there for selling over 100,000 copies.) But the strategy doesn’t add up: The internet being what it is, the album was effectively released everywhere once it was out in Japan, and that two months of limbo — when the record was technically available, but only if one were to illegally download it — hurt both financially and optically.
For an album whose success was predicated on word-of-mouth — Hey friends, did you know the singer of “Call Me Maybe” made the best album of the year? No, seriously! Check it out. — it was frustrating for fans lacking a legal avenue through which to share it. Many turned to piracy, resulting in a groundswell of support, but middling sales. Eventually, Jepsen’s team gave up all pretenses of a traditional album rollout, releasing a song a week with little fanfare in the month run-up to its official August street date.
“They had a whole bunch of reasons for the game plan of it,” says Jepsen. “But I look back, and I think it’s something that I will pay more attention to next time. Not that I wasn’t aware and involved and actively debating all of these things — singles and strategy — but at the time I probably trusted other people before myself, and I think that’s something that I took from this. I will learn to value my own opinion on things just as much as I give that power away. I think I really took my power with the artistic side of the album, and the things that I was more excited about handling, but I think it’s important to look at both.”
Even now, it feels like her team is figuring out exactly how to position Jepsen to the general public. There’s still a push and pull between the Old Carly and the New. Her two most recent endeavors — Grease: Live! and the Fuller House theme song — speak to a more wholesome, family-friendly, industry-embedded Jepsen rather than the sultry, renegade, mature persona that E•MO•TION helped to establish.
But Jepsen is a theater kid at heart. That comes with a predisposition towards inhabiting a bunch of different roles, but not feeling particularly at home in any of them. It’s unclear what moves throughout the E•MO•TION era have been hers and which have been foisted upon her, but I get the sense that she’s eager-to-please, and willing to see the silver lining in anything. She isn’t so much careerist as she is pragmatic and amenable, willing to roll with anything as long as she has her art as an outlet to return to when it all gets to be too overwhelming.
Above all, Jepsen has a writer’s temperament. It’s not something I notice right away, but her overly analytical side reveals itself over time. She’s constantly in her head, but forced to outwardly project. She doubles back on thoughts, talks out second guesses. There’s an anti-star quality about her, one that makes it clear that she’s not concerned with becoming famous. All the things that make Jepsen such an unlikely pop icon are also what make her an overwhelmingly, endearingly normal person. But maybe that’s what makes her such a compelling presence. In a culture that thrives on archetypes, Jepsen doesn’t have one that she easily slots into. Instead, she can inhabit all of them, but just for a little while. Her true introvert always slips through eventually.
That’s part of Carly Rae Jepsen’s appeal, the reason why it’s so easy to get lost in her songs. We can see ourselves reflected in her utterly benign, everyday romantic anxieties, and actually believe the singer on the other end is experiencing them too. When her public persona lets her down and the promotional machine behind her sputters, Jepsen has the music to fall back on. And the tracks on E•MO•TION are undeniable genius, propulsive and sparkling with nuance and vitality, and they build a narrative around Jepsen better than anything that could be constructed.
During soundcheck, Jepsen is alert and in command, flitting around the stage with a boisterous energy. She’s a team player, checking in on each of her bandmates, moving her backup singers closer to the stage to better hear them during the show, making Dev Hynes do the same. “Don’t be shy,” she tells him, and he obliges and scoots forward while noodling away at the riff from their collaboration. She keeps testing out the high vocal run in “All That,” repeating it like a nervous tic, even after they’re done rehearsing the song. She’s visibly annoyed that she’s not hitting the mark during practice, but she’s confident in her follow-through: “I’ll get it. Adrenaline will kick in.”
It does. Later, Jepsen gives a dazzling performance. It’s the third time I’ve seen her on the heels of E•MO•TION — twice in the fall during a string of warm-up dates for the expanded Gimme Love tour, and again that night — and, for each, Jepsen has been at the top of her game. She really shines with feedback from the crowd, especially one that has listened to and lived with her album. During the show, she takes banners from the audience — You’re my favourite colour, one reads; Boy problems, who’s got ‘em? asks another — and holds them out in front of her for everyone to see, relishing in the connection her songs have made.
“It blew all of our minds that the people who have been coming to see us have spent time with the album and were singing the songs with us,” she says, comparing the experience to performances in the shadow of “Call Me Maybe.” “That was really new for me, and such a dream of mine to be able to share with a crowd of people. I’ll be having a bummer day, and we’ll get onstage and it’s just an hour-and-a-half that you want to be able to stop time for because it feels so worth it…
“Sometimes mid-performance, I’ll catch eyes with somebody or see a moment between a couple, and I’ll almost forget the words because I’m so taken out of it in the best way. It feels so wonderful to be a part of that,” she continues. “The room always feels really full of love. I think that’s made me more confident as a performer because I never step up there and feel judged. I step up there and feel like we’re all there to celebrate.”
There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to E•MO•TION. It feels like an autonomous artistic breakthrough for Jepsen, the start of a new chapter of her career. “I remember taking walks around New York City with Tavish [Crowe], my guitarist [and frequent songwriting partner], and talking in mission statements about what I was dreaming about for this album and what I hoped that it could be,” she recalls. “I wanted it to be an album of maturity — a pop album that adults could enjoy, that I could enjoy, that my friends could enjoy. I wanted it not to be something I was creating out of any sort of pressure or desire to follow anything up. I just wanted to make it for the pure joy of why I started this career and lifestyle.”
Pure joy is something that E•MO•TION exudes, even when it’s dealing with messy heartbreaks. These songs are about the promise of a new connection, the hope of forever love. There’s a universal specificity that some have criticized as juvenile, but Jepsen’s stories are just pointed enough to poke at exactly what makes adult relationships tick, what makes us devolve into starry-eyed romanticism every time we’re freshly in love. The impact of these songs can be seen in the exuberant crowd at every show Jepsen performs; it’s publicly displayed across social media and at parties with your best friends.
To get to the heart of what makes E•MO•TION work, I ask about what it’s not: What would a Carly Rae Jepsen song that’s not about love sound like?
She pauses for a moment, turning the question over in her head, popping another gummy bear into her mouth. “I don’t even mean to do it, but it’s an honest life fascination of mine, the topic of love. This morning, I got my hair and makeup done, and the two women who were dolling me up… Now I know everything about their love lives because I’m curious and constantly ask questions.”
Jepsen directs that curiosity towards me: “If we had dinner together afterwards, I’d be like, Tell me about your boyfriend. How did you meet? What was it like the first time that you…? I don’t know where that comes from. I’ve always had that. I really like the intricacies of what’s going on. If there’s an issue, I want to know about it. And so, when I go to write, I almost can’t help it.
“The lifestyle that I have, it’s a little bit surreal to have a relationship in this world. My boyfriend [photographer David Kalani Larkins, who directed the “Run Away With Me” video] flew into New York for a day-and-a-half for this, and I’ll be doing a show both of those days. It’s really intense, and it’s really sporadic. I think a lot of the real-life stuff — six years of being next to each other while you brush your teeth, leaving dirty towels on the floor — I haven’t really experienced. I’m very youthful in the fact that my relationships have always been very from a distance and very glorified, so I think that comes out in my writing. It’s very fantasy-based and fairy tale-ish because that’s the part that I’m lucky enough to play with. Or maybe I’m not lucky… I don’t know. Depends on your opinion.”
I ask about the universality of pop music, whether she agrees that, on some level, it needs to be faceless in order for the public to project themselves on to it.
“I don’t know if there’s that narrow of a rule for it. ‘Warm Blood’ is a very personal song to me, for example. But I want it to be personal to you when you listen to it. ‘Favourite Colour’ — I can tell you the look of the boy and the feeling and exactly where ‘baby blue’ came from in my mind. But then for a song like ‘Boy Problems,’ it begins from a very tongue-in-cheek place of this is fun and silly and I don’t want to be afraid to go there. So I think it depends. I want to feel that, when people are listening to the album, that it can become the soundtrack of their life. When I listen to music that I love — whether it’s pop or alternative-pop or a jazz song — the ones that connect with me are the ones that feel like the writer knew what was going on in my life. If I can ever achieve anything close to that for someone else, then I feel like I’ve won.”
Jepsen writes songs on the road to stay sane: “It’s something that I find a relief from and a joy in. If things are hectic in my life with business or the politics of everything, writing can make me forget it all. It’s always been my pacifier.”
What she’s been writing most recently has been all over the map. She’s been working for other artists, experimenting for herself. She mentions being really into Leon Bridges and old Motown records, a pop-country song that came out of nowhere despite her not liking the genre very much, understated disco in the vein of Feist and the Bee Gees. She’s been listening to new albums from the 1975 and Christine And The Queens, reading Carly Simon’s biography. There was a day-long session in Nashville with PC Music’s Danny L Harle, whose in-studio enthusiasm apparently only rivaled her own. (Jepsen on the burgeoning UK collective: “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and how often can you say that nowadays about music?”) She touts the titles of two specific songs, both written with Crowe: “Tenderly,” a jazz-inspired one, and “Sails,” a decidedly not love-themed song about the journey of being on the road.
She’s enjoying the process of discovery without the pressure of an album looming. It also seems like she’s applying the lessons she learned from E•MO•TION in taking her next steps: “I wish I had gone about it this way with all of my albums. Really taking time and allowing myself to have no boundaries of who I work with or what songs I make until I find what really feels right.” The idea of a boundary-free existence comes up a few different times, the temptation of creativity without restriction. “Having the insanity of ‘Call Me Maybe’ and that lifestyle and what that was for two years of my life versus what this is … I’m much more comfortable in this, and much more joyful, and I feel much more like myself.”
Now, it’s all about figuring out what’s next, and Jepsen is excited by the possibilities. “I called my A&R guy and asked if it it would be cool if I went away for three years and came back with a 45-song deluxe edition. And he was like that’s super weird — you can’t do that. I fought for it for a while before I had enough people tell me, yeah, this won’t ever happen so you need to let it go.”
Even after giving up the dream of disappearing from the spotlight, Jepsen seems eager to get back to work. Following a few dates in Japan, she’s now on a six-week Canadian tour opening for native radio-rockers Hedley, an indicator of the still uneasy position Jepsen occupies within the world of pop. Then, after a quick hop back to Japan, it’s straight to Sweden to begin working on her next album.
“I don’t want to wait three years like I did after Kiss,” she explains. “I feel inspired. I think why I took so long last time was that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’m not sitting here saying this is the plan, but I feel really ready to find it now and I don’t feel like I need a hiatus. I feel fired up. My dream would be to hopefully get something out at the top of 2017 that I felt right about. But if it didn’t feel right, then I would wait. That’s the one thing … I don’t want to rush.”
On some level, it feels like Jepsen’s telling me what she knows I want to hear. She acknowledges where the rollout for E•MO•TION may have gone wrong, but is happy with how it turned out. She wants to go away for three years and return with some ambitious project, but also doesn’t want to disappear altogether. She feels inspired and fired up and ready to go, but also doesn’t want to rush. Jepsen is covering all sides of the equation, playing every angle. Being pragmatic. None of these are properly conflicting ideas, but they do speak to a mind that’s never completely made up, to someone who is still trying to balance her desires with what everyone else is asking from her. The many contradictions of Carly Rae Jepsen.
So, looking back, how do you think it all went? “It went better than I could have imagined.”