Back in 2012, an unknown Canadian singer suddenly became the voice of summer. “Call Me Maybe” was the earworm to end all earworms — pure pop pleasure distilled into a lasting and ubiquitous hit, at a time when such things were meant to be extinct.
Three years later, Carly Rae Jepsen has a new album called Emotion. Like its predecessor, Kiss, it’s filled with pop anthems about love and longing — and then there are songs like the title track, which wind through slinky, moody, unexpected places more akin to 1980s R&B.
Just a few days after Emotion‘s release, Jepsen joined NPR’s Ari Shapiro to talk about why that era’s sounds were the perfect vessel to follow up her debut’s runaway success — and why, where music is concerned, there’s no such thing in her mind as a guilty pleasure. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Ari Shapiro: I think you probably know as well as anyone what makes a pop song work. The first single off this album, “I Really Like You,” is extremely catchy. When you write a song like that, do you think, “Hooray, I might have another ‘Call me Maybe’ on my hands”? Or, “Oh no — I might have another ‘Call Me Maybe’ on my hands.”
Carly Rae Jepsen: I can remember, when everyone was getting excited about that song, feeling a little frightened for sure. I didn’t want to make another “Call Me Maybe” — I was grateful for that experience, but I was really excited to make some new music and show some other colors of what I like to do as a writer. But I was getting a lot of phone calls late at night from my publicist and manager saying, ‘This song, this song!’ And it did give me chills at first, because I wasn’t sure I was ready for that again.
But this album is not all pop — there are some moody slow jams that sound nothing like the Carly Rae Jepsen that we’ve heard before. One track that I keep going back to is “Favourite Colour.” What does a song like that let you express that an upbeat, poppy number might not?
That song, to me, was just my feeling of love, actually. I was very in love when I wrote this song, and I felt myself almost fading into my partner. I felt like we kind of blended into each other — that sounds strange, doesn’t it? — but that’s the best way I can explain it. And I think the production was so key, because it had this sweetness, but it also has, I don’t know, intimacy. I don’t know how they caught that.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Diplo, who said that when vocalists come to him, they want to sound like the future. You worked with a lot of different collaborators and producers on this album — what did you tell them you wanted to sound like?
You know, there wasn’t so much that discussion. I think, in pursuit of figuring out what I wanted this album to be, I really did so many different collaborations. I probably wrote over 200 songs.
You’re kidding. Two hundred?
No, it’s true. It’s a sad tale.
That’s incredible productivity!
Well, I think there’d been a bit of a tug-of-war going on in my own mind of really having that desire to rebel away from what I’d done before, but also not wanting to stray too far. I love pop music! I wanted to make a pop album. But I wanted to kind of blur the lines of what that needed to be.
When I discovered this era of ’80s pop — that was emotional and, at the same time, hooky — it just triggered everything good in me. I knew that this was what I wanted to make, and that excitement kind of propelled the next few months, but it took me a while to land in that direction. There was a bit of pressure after “Call Me Maybe,” after Kiss — and I think that my solution for that, whether right or wrong, was to throw myself into writing and working every single day. And it was a wonderful luxury to have time on my side, because it allowed me that freedom to experiment.
You say you love pop music. I love pop music. But I feel like there are people in the world who think pop music is an art form that needs to be apologized [for]. Do you ever feel like you have to defend your love?
I’ve been asked in interviews, actually, “What is your guilty pleasure?” and “What do you listen to that you wish no one else would know about?” And I always think that’s such a strange thing — because if it gives me pleasure, I’m never going to feel guilty for it.
I can remember, actually, growing up in a household that was very folk-based: It was all James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. And don’t get me wrong, I love those artists to this day. But something happened to me when I heard The Spice Girls, and I just haven’t been the same since. It changed me.
It seems safe to say people know your music more than they know you. A lot of pop stars today define their brands through Instagram, through Facebook, through Twitter. You’re not as active there. Is that a conscious decision?
I don’t know if it’s conscious so much as a comfort thing. Getting to make music for a living is like a dream; I can’t picture anything better. But the other stuff that comes along with the idea of celebrity — there are moments when I can handle it, and other moments when I really desire privacy. I think it’s probably different for every person, what their comfort level is with that. And there is something to see in, as a way of putting music out, wearing the wig full-time. I get it in some way. I’m not there yet, but I understand it, and I sympathize.
You’re about to start touring this album. Is there one song in particular that you’re especially looking forward to doing onstage; that really captures where you are right now?
When you’re in the process of selecting 17 songs from 200, you start to think about the sound of the whole thing, and how it can be one piece of art rather than just one song after the next. I think probably my favorite song from the album is “All That,” which I did with Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid. This was a song that, regardless of if it fit or not, I knew I was going to have to make it work, because it meant too much to me.
I can remember when we performed it for the first time, on Saturday Night Live, I turned to the girls who I travel with and I said, “Listen, this is going to be the first time I’m on television where I’m really baring my soul this way.” That song holds a special place in my heart because it is so revealing: It’s talking about the desire for intimacy with somebody. And I think with songs like “Call Me Maybe,” that can be quite light and a little bit more surfacey, it’s fun to get a little deeper.