Pop debuts, like phone calls, can lodge themselves in your brain – but they’re both fleeting. In dating and the music business, the follow-through is what counts. Carly Rae Jepsen knows this better than anyone. Her breakthrough single, 2011’s Call Me Maybe, was an anthem for lovesick introductions that went nine times platinum in the United States alone. And before the dust even cleared, everyone had the same question: What’s next?
Convention dictated an album. The one that ensued – Kiss – was a fine piece of pop, but the Juno-winning record underwhelmed when compared with Call Me Maybe’s global dominance, both in sales and infectiousness. It rode the single’s coattails rather than building on its legacy, and was, Jepsen admits, a rushed affair – a race against a weeks-away deadline that conformed to the industry’s established rules. The dreaded one-hit wonder label was already on the tip of listeners’ tongues.
Kiss was followed, however, by an unstoppable burst of creativity. From the moment she handed in the follow-up, Jepsen was “writing constantly, all the time.” Her productive streak stretched for more than two years; 200 songs emerged. She worked with conventional pop songwriters and indie sound sculptors; spent three months on Broadway; took off to Sweden; and tried to write the opposite of Call Me Maybe. “I made an entire indie record no one will probably ever hear,” she says in an interview. Piece by piece, though, with assists from more than two dozen co-writers and producers, hits emerged. An album came together. On Aug. 21, it will finally see its release.
The new 12-song collection, Emotion, may be garbed in mainstream style and marketing, but its execution is much broader, the product of the unlikely – but perhaps inevitable – convergence of indie sonics and pop’s pomp. All of this is filtered through singularly eighties textures, equal parts Prince, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, lending the songs an edge not before seen in Jepsen’s catalogue.
Jepsen knows how easy it is to be filed away as a flavour of the week – and it’s a label doubly hard to escape when surrounded by the Internet’s eager chorus of naysayers and ugly industry precedents. “It’s one thing to have a really hooky song that’s popular for a quick amount of time, and it’s another thing to have a song that’s hooky, but also evokes something in you, and sticks with you,” the Mission, B.C.-born singer-songwriter says. “That was my mission statement with this whole album.”
Four years ago, pop called Jepsen. On Emotion, she has finally picked up. But in an industry always busy with the next big thing, she better hope that there’s someone waiting on the other end of the line.
Flirtation to infatuation
It wouldn’t be fair to call I Really Like You a fake-out, but it is an anomaly. Emotion’s first single, released this past March with a YouTube-slaying video starring Tom Hanks, is more of a callback to Jepsen’s earlier, lighthearted sugar-pop. She considers it a transitional song. If Call Me Maybe is about first flirtations, I Really Like You segues to infatuation: a gateway drug to an album that examines relationships from a perspective far more adult than adolescent.
“I felt fine to lead with that single, but I think there’s a lightness to that song,” says Jepsen, who is 29, infectiously bubbly, and a smidge over five feet tall. “The rest of the album has darker qualities – sometimes a bit more of a sexual thread to it. It’s definitely a more mature sound than I’ve ever done before. That was very on purpose.”
The themes on Emotion mark a conscious evolution for the songwriter, who came to light in 2007, when she placed third on Canadian Idol. She released Tug of War, the public’s first full-length introduction to her own songs, a year later on MapleMusic, earning her a pair of Juno nominations. “I listen to that with such nostalgia, because it’s almost like my journal entries put to melody,” she says. “There’s not really any consciousness of how to form a song.”
She later signed to 604 Records, a label co-founded by Chad Kroeger where, working with Marianas Trench’s Josh Ramsay, she honed a once-folky song called Call Me Maybe into a bombastic pop tune. She released it in September, 2011, in advance of a new EP; that December, Justin Bieber unleashed a tweet calling it “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard.” The rest is history: Within weeks, Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun signed Jepsen to his imprint, and Call Me Maybe soared to the top of the world’s charts.
Sucked into the pop-music bubble, Jepsen was tasked with recording a full-length album to ride Call Me Maybe’s high. In between all the concerts and special appearances that a smash hit dictates, she moved to Los Angeles and began working in short-burst sessions with songwriters to distill her ideas into radio-ready anthems – with a two-month deadline. Engineering a hit can be a frustratingly impersonal process and on several occasions she felt left out. “There’d be a feeling in the room, like, ‘You’re here for decoration, girl,’” she recalls.
Her team put an end to such sessions, but Jepsen considers the ups and downs of writing Kiss to be an educational experience. “I learned a lot about the rules of pop writing,” she says. “I think with Emotion, I’m aware of the rules and sometimes just purposely decided to break them.”
Braun – her manager, Emotion’s co-executive producer and an industry kingmaker – admits that Call Me Maybe’s success “perhaps overshadowed” the release of Kiss. Naturally, he is deeply invested in Jepsen – and believes Emotion will ensure that she won’t be defined as a one-hit wonder.
“Carly has always been a great songwriter and this time she had the opportunity to make it about an album and not just a single,” he told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail. “She was able to take her time and hone in on the style of music that has been inspiring her. The body of work is what shines through and she is getting to show her full talent in the process. This is one hell of an album.”
High praise belies the equally high stakes riding on Emotion; the longevity of Jepsen’s career depends on the world siding with Braun. To keep her name in pop’s pantheon, she studied up on its history.
Back to the eighties
Last June, Jepsen appeared at the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York to cover Lauper’s Time After Time and personally induct the legend into the hall. Lauper has had an indelible influence on Jepsen’s own songwriting; she regularly recalls a 2013 Lauper concert in Osaka, Japan, that shifted the way she hears pop.
“She sang Girls Just Want to Have Fun, and I just remember thinking, ‘God, I’d put that song out right now without changing the production or anything,’” Jepsen says. “I started digging into all of her stuff, and very much seeing something in her music that sometimes the radio music I listen to do today wasn’t hitting me the same way. There was more emotion to it … a bit more yearning and pining.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that her new record is flooded with the same longing sentiment, bursting synths and throbbing grooves that launched Lauper to fame in the 1980s. This direction didn’t happen overnight, though. As Jepsen was furiously composing after Kiss’s release, she did the L.A. rounds again, but decided to take more time with her next project.
Instead of rushing into the industry machine, she experimented with styles and song structures as she seized other opportunities, including a run as Cinderella on Broadway, where she squeezed in writing sessions between performances. “Some of the songs I needed to get out of my system before I got to the songs that you hear,” she says.
Lauper’s sound and emotional honesty eventually found a home in the song Emotion, which became a jumping-off point for what would become the rest of the album. “Oh, okay, this is what I want to do,” Jepsen recalls. “I want to do eighties pop and make it super-emotional, and longing and yearning.”
She and her guitarist, Tavish Crowe, made a long list of records they loved, and with the help of her A&R rep, John Ehmann, began to reach out to the masterminds behind them. Many of these names were in the indie world: Records by Solange Knowles and Sky Ferreira led her to British producer Devonté Hynes, also known as Blood Orange, who brought his signature woozy synths and popping bass to the Emotion song All That. Also on the track is Ariel Rechtshaid, who had also worked with Ferreira and helped to give Haim’s album Days Are Gone the eighties sheen of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night.
Jepsen also recruited Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij to work on a song initially called Warm Love. When she first sang him the hook, he stopped her: “Did you say ‘warm blood?” he asked. No, she said. “But imagine – that feels so good.” The song took on a whole new direction. Released as a single in July, Warm Blood became a dancy, sugary, mid-tempo track with the chopped-and-screwed vocals Vampire Weekend used to great effect on Modern Vampires of the City.
But much of the album’s sound was sculpted outside the confines of the traditional American borders. After finishing Cinderella, Jepsen took some demos to her publishing team, who, after hearing the eighties influence, sent her to Britain and Sweden to work with the producers who first honed those sounds. Multiple trips to Europe ensued, particularly to the pop hub of Stockholm, as she began working with up-and-coming producers (Mattman & Robin), world-class pop craftsmen (Shellback, whose fingerprints are all over Taylor Swift’s 1989) and veteran Swedish musicians (the Cardigans’ Peter Svensson).
The experience was a far cry from the early sessions when Jepsen felt like mere studio decoration. “It’s a rare thing to be a writer of your own music in the lane of pop,” she says. “There’s more and more women doing it than people are aware of, and it’s nice to feel respect from your fellow writers.”
In all, it took three years, 200 song ideas, nearly 30 co-writers and producers, and recording sessions in Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm and Vancouver to make Emotion happen.
Girl next door
One of Emotion’s only songs where Jepsen isn’t the lead writer is L.A. Hallucinations. It was first conceived by Zachary Gray, a Vancouver label mate who plays in the band the Zolas. Having watched Jepsen propel to fame over their five years of friendship, he offered to write her a song, from her perspective, about the perils of sudden celebrity. “It’s a song that says, ‘Yeah, it’s really great to be successful and famous, but at the same time I miss knowing who my real friends are,’” he says.
But Jepsen has stayed remarkably true to herself, Gray says. “She’s been marketed as a pretty accessible, girl-next-door personality, and I think that’s the only thing she can possibly be, because that’s who she is,” he says. “I’d get super-jaded if I had the same amount of eyes on me as she does.”
Where other nascent stars have fallen victim to cynicism or scandal – Emotion’s co-executive producer Bieber comes to mind, though he has recently promised self-reform – Jepsen has owned her celebrity narrative by letting her work speak for itself.
And yes, much of today’s pop embraces the eighties with zeal, but Jepsen has carefully tried to craft her own sound within that paradigm. Emotion’s loosely R&B-laced tone fits somewhere between the lightness of Swift’s 1989 and the Weeknd’s second act as a modern Michael Jackson. But Jepsen doesn’t see the point in arbitrary competition; she loves both their music.
“As women, we can just support one another and appreciate what each other does as different and unique,” Jepsen says of Swift, whose 1989 she holds up as flawless. And while she has cultivated a heart-on-sleeve personal brand nearly opposite to the hard-partying enigma of the Weeknd, she is thrilled about the Toronto artist’s music. She has been listening to his Can’t Feel My Face, which features contributions from I Really Like You co-writer Svensson, for months. “I know it’s about drugs,” Jepsen says, “but it was actually my anthem to myself when I got my wisdom teeth out.”
Will she be able to join Swift and the Weeknd at the top of the zeitgeist? Even before Emotion’s North American release, fans the world over are going rabid for it: The record has hovered near the top of the iTunes charts in Japan since it saw early release there two months ago. I Really Like You, meanwhile, has spent seven weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has been certified gold in Canada.
Ehmann, the A&R man who helped to broker Jepsen’s connections with Emotion’s cast of co-conspirators, calls her determination in making the new record “unparalleled.”
“She has crafted a cohesive body of work that is uncommon in pop music today,” he says in an e-mail. “Emotion will stand as a testament to her artistry.”
It might also be just a taste of what’s to come.
“With the next record … I can see myself just getting weirder and bigger with it,” Jepsen says. “It’s a lot of fun to colour outside the lines.”