carly rae jepsen is pop’s underdog come to save us all
With her new album, ‘Dedicated’, out this Friday, Carly Rae Jepsen cements her status as a pop music polymath.
Photography Ivan Ruberto
Carly Rae Jepsen is climbing on the rim of a bathtub. Thankfully, she’s taken off her white Chanel boots, purchased the last time she was in Paris, but it does all seem a bit precarious. “Don’t worry,” she shouts, clearly sensing my rising concern, “I’ve actually recently taken up rock climbing.”
While I’m not sure this new hobby necessarily makes anyone more equipped for this sort of thing, Carly is on the bathtub because she’s having her picture taken and, according to the photographer, the lighting in the bathroom was better than that in the hotel room that we’ve been sat in. And actually, wearing a white dress with coloured stripes, her hair recently dyed blonde, she does look resplendent balancing on that tub, like an angel or nymph ready to jump in and save us all.
Indeed, if you were to take a closer into the faction of Twitter that obsesses over pop music, dubbing Carly Rae Jepsen a saviour is not uncommon. For the past four years, she has taken on an almost mythical stature among pop music lovers, a beacon of hope – nay, of taste! – as trop-pop monstrosities, anonymous dance collabs, algorithmic streaming chasers, and Drake began to infect the upper echelons of the charts. Pop music in its purest form was pushed underground as even its leaders defected for jazz albums. Like a secret religion, pop fans congregated on Twitter to discuss their faves, and listened to sermons from their holy book: Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album E•MO•TION. Like a messiah, she was here to save pop.
Jokes aside, E•MO•TION was a rare beast: a pop record that your mum would love that also appeals to “real music” aficionados, hipster music blogs, indie experts and guitar-loving gloomies. From the very first toot of the saxophones on opener Run Away With Me, the record spoke to all facets of the human experience – be it heartbreak, disappointment, the flush of new love and the devastation of loss – and it did so with such genuine appreciation and celebration for every aspect of life.
For the woman that released the near novelty Call Me Maybe, a song so huge and inescapable that it’s popularity inevitably spawned backlash, all the positive critical attention was a surprise. “It was a welcome one,” Carly adds. “I remember before going on stage [at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2016] turning to my bandmates and saying, 'What if this isn't well received? I don't know if they know what they're getting with this. We're pure pop and this is more indie. Do we just go out there and do it exactly as normal?' They were like, 'YES! That's exactly what we do.' Right before we went out, people had started chanting. It was a nice welcome, like dipping your toe in the water and the water being warm, because I was nervous about that.”
In the resulting three years any nerves regarding Carly's place as a critical darling and pop fan favourite have melted. When I meet her in the aforementioned hotel room in central London prior to the bathtub antics, she’s self-assured and excitable, despite suffering with jetlag and already having done early morning radio promo. I apologise for the last time I met her (drunk backstage at Brighton Pride – she didn’t remember it) and we settle down on cushiony white living room furniture to talk about her new album, Dedicated. It’s a record that for the last two years she has been consistently teasing via interviews and posts on social media. And while she hasn’t been completely inactive – she’s been touring incessantly, released the majestic loosey Cut to the Feeling and shared some offcuts from the E•MO•TION sessions – the world is has been more than ready for a new Jeppo album for quite some time.
Carly Rae Jepsen, however, is not a woman you can rush. While in a 2016 interview she said that she was basically making a full on disco album, Dedicated is perhaps closer to the glittery 80s and 90s synth pop that peppered E•MO•TION.
“You know, I had every intention when I set out on making Dedicated – before I even knew it was called Dedicated – that it was going to be this understated 'music to clean your house to' ABBA-inspired disco,” Carly recalls with a laugh. “I don't know where that idea got lost. There are elements of that: Julien is an example of where we started with that. But other songs from different genres, sometimes a little 90s or 80s, kept winning for me. So I just decided to let go of any mission statement and let the album be what it wanted to be.”
In order to do that, Carly says she wrote and recorded over 200 songs. “My process is a very strange one where I do write and write until I feel like I've landed on something that I feel confident about,” she continues. “For me that takes experimenting and getting to play in different directions until I find what feels good. I'm like the Goldilocks of pop.”
And so, like that blonde heroine’s commitment to porridge, chairs and beds, Carly beavered away until she got to a point where the songs were just right. The process was done, she says, after she invited her friends and bandmates over to her house to have some wine and to essentially lobby for what songs they felt like should be included on the final tracklist. “We had a little fly-on-the-wall videographer come in,” she says, “and I was watching the clips after the session and it's just madness. It's just people passionately shouting at each other. I realised that no one should ever see that footage.”
The record’s title was actually taken from a song called Dedicated that didn’t make the album but which has “threads that are chopped up throughout the entire record”. But the title also feeds into what Carly Rae Jepsen’s music meditates on most: issues of the heart. “You know the term hopeless romantic?” she asks. “Well, I'm a very hopeful romantic. And whether I'm in a relationship that's working or not, the concept and idea of love is something I believe in and that I'm fascinated by. I'm constantly looking at it from all angles when I'm writing. And I I feel like at the age I am now, while I’m also in the relationship I’m in now, I’m thinking about what it means to be dedicated to somebody in a different way.”
This meditation on the concept of dedication weaves its way through the albums 15 tracks. It’s apparent on album opener, the slinky Julien, which isn’t about some boy (although Carly says she did date a guy called Julien in her early 20s, recalling one “wild weekend” they spent together in Quebec City), but rather “represents that one person that I always pine for, which is something I think a lot of people have”. While recording the album, Carly also ended one relationship and began another with her current partner, British songwriter James Flannigan, and so the record jumps chaotically between bombastic declarations of love and lamentations about when that love just isn’t enough. A song like Automatically, which is all about love at first sight, sits closely to the Knife-esque Too Much, which focuses on the insecurities and the danger of excesses.
Meanwhile, retaining some of that 70s influence is Everything He Needs, an old school devotional that, in 2019, should be unfashionable, but is in fact pure brilliance. “It's an interpolation of a Shelley Duvall song He Needs Me from the 1980 Popeye movie,” Carly explains. “The boys who I was writing it with, CJ Baran and Ben Romans, even though we're all writers and musicians in our own right, we all share a common theme: we're all total musical theatre nerds. So we got into this conversation about how cool it would be if we could reinvent some of these songs from musicals into a way that people could digest it in pop culture. We fell upon the creepy beauty and simplicity of the hook from He Needs Me and tried to funk it up.”
The problem came when trying to clear the sample with Disney, although Carly did call in the big guns to help. “I went to Disneyland and I made a fake contract that said, 'He Needs Me'. Then I went in line with Mickey Mouse, made the guy sign it and then I sent it to all the Disney publishing people and was like, 'The big boss said it was okay!'” she laughs. “Somehow, a week before the album was meant to be turned in, we got approval.”
While Carly Rae Jepsen is one of the few popstars who can get away with this sort cutesiness, the major appeal of her music is her ability to balance those syrupy highs with swooping lows. And thankfully, Dedicated isn’t afraid to get in its feelings. The bouncy Happy Not Knowing, with its bass like popping candy, fizzes with trepidation about beginning a new relationship, while Right Words, Wrong Time sees Carly give the most emotional vocal performance of her career, her usually soft and peppy voice aching with weary resignation at the collapse of a relationship.
But the true melancholic banger – that cry at the disco moment – comes with For Sure, a track that matches crazy percussion and warm synths with devastating lyrics. “I was in Sweden and my breakup was happening. On the day we were recording For Sure, my then boyfriend had come to the session. All we had at the time was this beat and I’d been saying the same words over and over – ‘I’ve been thinking, we were over. I’ve been thinking, got to know for sure’,”Carly recalls now. “I loved the repetitiveness of it, because that's where your head goes when you're not sure about somebody; you're just in a loop. So my ex comes into the studio to bring me coffee before he flies to LA, and he's dancing along to the track and then I could see him listening to the words and his face dropped.” She starts to giggle: “It was like, 'Yup, I'll see you at home.'”
Overall, though, Dedicated feels more optimistic than E•MO•TION, even if it lacks the bombast of songs like I Really Like You and Run Away With Me (although, the Sublime-esque I’ll Be Your Girl and Feels Right try their damndest). It might be the twist that upsets some fans, not that Carly is that bothered by comparisons. “I think this idea that there will ever be a project where there isn't some outside and self-induced pressure that's put on for what you think people want and what they actually do want is an impossibility,” she says. “I think I felt that from Call Me Maybe into E•MO•TION, and now into Dedicated. But I've realised with art, and with this project especially, that comparing E•MO•TION to Dedicated was no longer a helpful thing to do. I see them as two completely different eras and timelines of my life that I was interested in writing about.”
Where Dedicated may perhaps mirror E•MO•TION is commercially. While critically adored, E•MO•TION wasn’t a huge sales beast like, say, Taylor Swift’s 1989. And with the old Taylor now resurrected from the dead thanks to her overwhelmingly sweet single Me!, Carly’s brand of upbeat pop will struggle against all that noise. But after Call Me Maybe, that’s kind of been Jeppo’s brand.
“I always thought that when you were in those long distance races in high school, you wanted to be in second place breathing down the neck of the frontrunner before crossing the finish line first at the very last minute,” she says with sly smile as she gets ready to have her picture taken, that bathtub clearly calling out to be clambered on. “I'm much more comfortable in that position. But I don't think I'd consider myself as someone to feel sorry for. I think I have an incredible life and incredible gifts that I've been given in my career. Also, there's always a feeling like there's further to go. Without that, there's no point in still doing this. I will always have the hunger of an underdog.”
Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated is released on May 17. She plays a sold out show at London’s XOYO on May 29 and will tour the US this summer.