Carly Rae Jepsen: She's Really Nice!
Out this Friday, Carly Rae Jepsen's newest album has already earned rave reviews, proving she's capable of moving past "Call Me Maybe" and into the bizarre realm of indie-approved mainstream. We sat down with the Canadian pop star to find out how she...
All photos by Sam Clarke
The mistake I made when meeting Carly Rae Jepsen was listening to nothing but her music for about 72 hours prior to our interview. I could say I did this for research, to really get to the heart of the work, but the truth is that it's not that hard to get to the heart of Carly Rae Jepsen's work and I listened to it repetitively because once I started I could not stop. Although her new album, E•MO•TION, which comes out this Friday, is markedly less comprised of banger-y, paint-by-numbers earworms than 2012's Kiss, both are fast, catchy, chorus-y, and lyrically irrelevant except for moments of occasional brilliance. It's very fun music, but it also makes you feel insane. I arrived at the designated Williamsburg noodle bar jittery, fluctuating between panic and thinking I could accomplish anything as long as I could sort of bop around while doing it. She showed up late, wearing denim cutoffs that disclosed a lot of mosquito bites, and she was immediately effusive and chatty with the waitress, who probably knew who she was but didn't say anything.
That the album is great you probably already know. E•MO•TION came out in Japan, Jepsen's "favorite place in the world," two months ago, and it leaked online before that. Jepsen's team has also been dropping singles throughout the spring and summer, a total of seven. Combined with E•MO•TION's three-year gestation period and its extensive list of producers that can be described with no better adjective than "cool," this sends a clear message: It's not like the last time. Kiss had two singles before its debut, and indeed the entire album was created in two months in order to capitalize on the viral success of one of them, "Call Me Maybe," which is not only one of the best-selling singles of all time but has also been lip-synced by Justin Bieber. "I think I was just so thankful and grateful that anyone was paying attention that I was like, OK, I can do it in two months; I can do one month if you need it," Jepsen told me. The implication, from Jepsen herself and from other interviews with her, is not really that she was manipulated, but that the entire experience was not ideal. When the song took off in early 2012, she was a 26-year-old former folk singer racing to finish an album based on a surprise hit song that--while it did have broad appeal--seemed like it was for teenagers. Before the Bieber-inflected fervor, which got her signed to Scooter Braun's School Boy Records, she hadn't even wanted to make "Call Me Maybe" the first single from its EP; she'd had to be convinced (by her friends and family) that it was better to start with something "hookier" than her pick, "Curiosity."
"This time around I was like, Kiss was a beautiful gift and thank you so much," she said, "but if we're going to keep going in a way that I feel passionate about, I've got to take more time than two months. I've got to maybe take some time off to figure out exactly what I want to do."
That Jepsen, who is now 29, is really nice you also probably already knew, or at least suspected, from the particular character of the aforementioned perhaps perfect pop song that skyrocketed her from Person With Bangs Who Placed Third on Canadian Idol to Person With Bangs Who Did "Call Me Maybe." There is also the fact that, although she is a female pop star who sings exclusively about love, no one seems to hate her. She is smiling, comfortable, occasionally breaking into song, unashamed to apply a philosophically complex lyric like "Before you came into my life / I missed you so bad" to the concept of having a crush on someone. Instead of resenting or feeling embarrassed that "Call Me Maybe" could have pigeonholed her as a teen sensation in her mid-to-late twenties, she sees it as a "gift" and goes ahead and orders the shrimp tempura because you only live once. "Do I sometimes get tired of singing it?" she asked. "Of course. [But] it's kind of hard not to feel that contagious, aw, this is important moment for the night."
Jepsen's life and career were typical until they weren't. Before appearing on Canadian Idol (with an acoustic guitar) at the age of 21, she grew up in the small town of Mission, BC, about an hour outside Vancouver. When she got into the Canadian College of Performing Arts to study musical theater, she had to give her parents a PowerPoint presentation about why they should let her abandon her "plan B"--teaching music--to pursue her "plan A." They agreed.
Canadian Idol would eventually let her focus on music full-time, but before that she worked a series of day jobs she refers to as "beautiful things": barista, bartender, assistant to a pastry chef, hostess, waitress, front woman for a jazz band that played swing dances once a month. Living on a futon she'd "have to remake every morning back into a couch," Jepsen scrounged for money "through the carpets and couches and pillows like you do in the movies" to buy boxed wine; these are "some of the most fun memories" she has. We bonded over the time we spent as babysitters, her for the son of a couple of "funky" hairstylists when she was 17, though she managed a sparkling generosity of spirit about the poop that I still cannot.
"There was a moment when [the kid] was sick, and it was coming out of all ends," she said. "I was trying to get him in the tub, he was screaming, and he fell. Then [there] was a not-thinking moment when we both [ended up] in the tub together surrounded by all this muck, and it wasn't gross because it was his muck. It's weird how love changes gross things."
It's this combination--an innocent belief in love and the healthy perspective about "muck"--that complicates the two-dimensional understanding of her that has prevailed since "Call Me Maybe"; she is not simply a person with bangs who made it. Although she is certainly an international celebrity, it's hard to imagine Jepsen becoming famous in the same way that Taylor Swift is, though they are often compared. Dev Hynes, one of the cool producers who worked with Jepsen on E•MO•TION and who has since become her friend, described her to me as a "sweetheart"--"super chill and so relaxed and so fun." Jepsen maintains the most "ridiculous" thing she's done with her money is pay to rent an apartment in New York's SoHo for three or four months following her stint playing Cinderella on Broadway last year, even though she was flying back to Los Angeles to record sessions for E•MO•TION at least twice a month. "I had to pack it in and go, alright, you're working in LA, just go there and finish the bloody thing." In other words, like all theater kids, she still pines to live in New York. After we ate, she used her manicure--which she said she only gets for photo shoots--to pick food out of her teeth. When her publicist stuck out an open palm to receive Jepsen's gum before she began our photo shoot, Jepsen laughed and flatly refused the offer. She drives a Fiat she got for free after featuring it in a music video.
And unlike how I imagine things would go with Swift, the only time feminism came up during our conversation was when I asked about whether she ever felt guilty for writing songs that are about boys, and she replied, "Feminism doesn't mean you're not allowed to be in love."
About love, though, she can talk a lot. "Being in love is the greatest thing in the world," she said. "However, I think that the driving force in my life has been music. At the same time, it's like, what came first, the chicken or the egg? 'Cause the driving force in my music has been love." With E•MO•TION, she tried to avoid the topic but said couldn't help herself. "I was really stoked about [the song] 'LA Hallucinations' because it almost wasn't about a boy, and then it was like"--here she began to sing--"'Take me into your arms again.' I can't help it!"
Considering Jepsen is a female pop star who sings exclusively about love, it's remarkable that I encountered little mystery--or even strategy--about her boyfriend. "Find out who she's dating!" my coworkers cried as I left, bopping slightly, for the noodle bar. Because no one talks about Jepsen's love life, we had all assumed it was top-secret information, the purposeful tight-lipped famous-person policy to separate professional and personal lives. Jepsen's songs don't have the early Swiftian specificity that makes you feel like you're eavesdropping on your drunk roommate's breakup phone call, but they do have names like "I Really Like You"--surely there's someone.
Jepsen brought her boyfriend up unprompted, very cutely, when we were talking about how she liked meeting Cyndi Lauper but otherwise doesn't "live a celebrity lifestyle."
"I like authentic conversations with people," she said, "and I like hanging out with my man." It seemed to be the kind of thing where a person pretends she doesn't want to talk about something so you'll ask her about it, so I asked who he was.
She looked sheepish and smiled. "We've kind of kicked ourselves in the shins here because I do like privacy about that stuff," Jepsen said, "but he and I did this video together for 'Run Away with Me'." (The best song on E•MO•TION, and maybe ever, it opens the album with an aggressive saxophone solo that announces Jepsen's intention to run away from "Call Me Maybe," though perhaps only to a recording studio run by Pitchfork darlings who've been really getting into old Prince lately.)
"It just happened," Jepsen continued. "We weren't meaning to make a music video. We were together touring and he was on tour with me, just for like a visit. He's a cinematographer, and he has often said to me that he thinks that there's a side to me that nobody really sees. And he was filming...I don't know. He [thought] it was more me than my persona." Some rudimentary Instagram stalking (looking at her Instagram account) easily corroborated: One week ago was "Shoulder kisses for @dklala," on whose account Jepsen appears as "#wcw" and "#mymuse" and indeed "my girlfriend."
Maybe Jepsen is so beguiling to so many because she is actually not beguiling at all; she has a good career and nice life and considers herself lucky for both. After a raging success that many felt would doom her, she realigned herself, likely aided by her sunny optimism and healthy perspective, in a way that has allowed her to pretty much do whatever she wants, since whatever she wants is very reasonable if you've already sold over 18 million copies of a single song. As music reviewers laud E•MO•TION's inventiveness, its departure from the banger-y, paint-by-numbers earworms we have come to associate with Jepsen, Jepsen herself seems to be simply enjoying it, and very likably. "I feel more proud of E•MO•TION than all of [my other work] put together," she said. "Is it awful for me to say that I'm still stoked on it? I put it on the other day to try it [through] my car speakers because I hadn't heard it yet. I was supposed to go home, but I kept driving. I hope I don't get in a crash because it would be really embarrassing to be like, I was driving around listening to my own music."
On our way to the photo shoot, she almost walked into oncoming traffic, twice.