The first time Josh Ramsay heard the biggest pop song in the world, it was not yet the biggest pop song in the world. The 26-year-old was at his recording studio in Vancouver, cozied among electric guitars, arcade games and what he describes as "a human-sized hamster ball."
On this spring day, Ramsay's client, an unsuccessful Canadian Idol contestant, played him a song she had been working on. "It was a folk song," Ramsay recalls. He didn't love it. But hiding somewhere around the second verse, like a needle in a haystack, one line caught his ear:
"Here's my number," Carly Rae Jepsen sang, "so call me maybe."
Call Me Maybe was released in September. Since then, these three minutes and 14 seconds have been certified platinum in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The song spent four weeks as the No. 1 single in Britain, holding off Nicki Minaj, B.o.B. and Justin Bieber. Online, Katy Perry has recorded herself singing along with the track. So have Bieber, actor James Franco and the Harvard University baseball team. The Village Voice dubbed it the song of the summer, Gawker called it "perfect" and on YouTube, Call Me Maybe has been viewed roughly 280 times more than Arcade Fire's latest video.
If you've not yet heard Call Me Maybe, you may want crawl out from under that rock. Sure, the song is lightweight, tinselly and as lyrically sophisticated as one of Leonard Cohen's sneezes. But it's also breathless, jubilant and beautifully catchy.
Unlike Rihanna's dour bangers or Perry's relentless hard sell, Jepsen's ersatz teen pop (she is also 26) feels airy, thrilling, fun. Even though she is older than edgy ingénues like Lady Gaga and Jessie J, Call Me Maybe has a girl's swoony, fairy-tale romanticism: "I threw a wish in the well," Jepsen begins, "looked to you as it fell." Then the song pivots and Jepsen herself is the prize, "chased" and "stared" at, offering the chorus's coy understatement.
Sure, it's a ridiculous catchphrase: "Call me, maybe." But that chorus, plain and luscious, is miles away from the remixes and ringtones of the rest of the Top 40. With wheeling strings, a simple disco beat, it's "the sonic equivalent," wrote the Voice's Maura Johnston, "of a cartoon character's eyes turning into big pink hearts."
The song was not always thus. After Jepsen brought Ramsay the tune, he says, he threw almost everything away. "If someone has a song that's awesome, I just produce it. If someone has a song that's not awesome, I write on it till I think it is awesome."
In this case, Ramsay "just liked the one line," so he and Jepsen started almost from scratch. They borrowed a melody from the pre-chorus, raised it to a higher key (so Jepsen could "belt it out a bit more"), and "filled in the rest." Tavish Crowe, a guitarist who helped Jepsen write the initial demo, received a songwriting credit for "good karma."
Though this is his first international smash, Ramsay is no amateur. As front man of the emo band Marianas Trench, he has scored two top 10 Canadian albums and four platinum Canadian singles. He has also written and produced hits for Danny Fernandes and Faber Drive, and a slew of singles for other pop and country acts. It runs in the family: Ramsay's father, Miles, was a successful jingle writer, penning the A&W root beer theme – arguably the greatest moment in the history of the tuba.
For Call Me Maybe, Ramsay had the hunch to "ditch the synths" and go for something semi-acoustic, closer to Jepsen's folk roots. "I showed Carly [Annie Lennox's] Walking on Broken Glass as an example of how a string riff could be cool in a dance tune," he says.
The goal is always to find the hooks that won't get unhooked. "Every melody should be one that gets stuck in your head," he explains. "That's how I write: If it gets stuck in my head for a few days, I use it. If I forget it, then I assume it wasn't that good anyway."
Ramsay insists that Call Me Maybe is not the best thing he's ever done, just the luckiest. Luck's the thing that got the song on the radio; luck's what brought it to Bieber's ears – convincing his manager to sign Jepsen to his label; luck's what has now put Ramsay on a short list to produce songs for Lady Gaga and Usher.
And even if that doesn't work out, there's still Marianas Trench. After cancelling their last batch of gigs due to a freak episode of vertigo, Ramsay and the band are booking their first arena tour. "I think I must have a horseshoe," he says, "inserted in a place we shouldn't discuss in print."
Special to The Globe and Mail