Carly Rae Jepsen Colors Outside The Lines
Meredith Rizzo and Ryan Kellman
Carly Rae Jepsen has evolved into one of pop's most endearing and indelible voices; her relatable lyrics hit home but her dance-pop arrangements soar above the everyday. She's a long way off from the bubblegum pop days of "Call Me Maybe." Over the course of her first three records, Jepsen went from a relatively unknown Canadian Idol contestant to a viral phenomenon to a lowkey critical darling. Still, Jepsen had yet to really let fans in until now.
Jepsen's latest album, Dedicated, due out May 17, finds the 33-year-old navigating those strange, reaffirming moments in between love and loss. Across 13 tracks, Jepsen takes fans through every phase of a relationship.
"I went through a breakup with a longtime, like, best friend, and also a creative collaborator," Jepsen says. "Then I was in singlehood for a while, and for the first time in my adult years, in a place where I was traveling and didn't have anyone to text after the show, to be like 'It went great!' or 'I tripped!' It was a strange sort of loneliness, and I wanted the songs to show that, because I felt like I was going to feel less lonely by sharing, in a way."
Jepsen spoke with NPR's David Greene about creating Dedicated, spontaneous solo travel, the one that might have gotten away and more. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more that didn't make the broadcast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Greene: I really feel like on this album, you take us through every phase of a relationship — including a breakup, which you were really going through as you were writing. You've told a story about getting ready to go to Italy on vacation, and you realized at that moment where you were in the relationship.
Carly Rae Jepsen: [Laughs] I feel guilty about telling this story. He's still is my good friend. But yes, it's a true fact. I was looking at a gap in my calendar that was so unusual and so exciting to me — just this liberating time to be like, "I'm going to do something for me, not to do with music. I'm going to purposefully not write." I love Italian food and I had never been, and my sister had been gushing about it.
So I went and booked a trip with my assistant, and she was like, "Two tickets? For you and your boyfriend?" And I was like, "I think one. I think I need some alone time." And it became clear to me that it was really important to try some travel alone, too. I think even as a young girl, I remember thinking traveling with a group would be one thing, but it would be an entirely different experience to go solo-style and just brave it, see if I could do it. And I'm glad I did.
Was it lonely?
There were moments of loneliness. But it was also kind of wrapped in these other moments where it felt really empowering. I was lent someone's boat at one point: The driver had, like, sliced peaches and champagne, I wore one of my stepmother's — my stepmother's mother, so my step-nonna's — old Italian vintage dresses that she had lent me for the trip. I remember looking out at the Amalfi Coast, and just thinking if anyone else was here, it wouldn't make it better. It's actually lovely to not have to talk or to perform in any way, and just get to just take this in. At one point my driver was like, "Do you want to get in and swim?" I was like, "I don't have a suit." He's like, " That's OK."I'm like, "Yeah, that's a little too Italian for me right now, but thank you very much." [Laughs]
I ask about loneliness because "Party for One" is an ultimate breakup song, but it's very empowering. What did you learn about how to confront loneliness?
I mean, I'm not the tell-all of that. I think it's something that you learn and you keep re-learning. But it was a new lesson for me. I didn't want to grieve it because it had been such a beautiful relationship, and a friendship that I think we both hope to continue. I wanted to be able to take what was known as a sad moment, and sort of look at it as a brave new patch of my life, getting good at singlehood. The first night, it was just like an actual party: I ordered all the food I wanted and some wine, and I was just like dancing to the songs we were working on — which is why we chose to have the video represent that hotel chaos.
If you're writing a lot of songs and not all of them make an album, which songs generally make the final cut? Is it the ones that are more personal? When you whittle it down, what does it tell us if a song's on there?
I think I am picking the ones that that just win for me. That sometimes can be because it's light and happy, and that feeling like there's wind blowing through your hair as you drive down the highway. And then there's other ones, I think on this album particularly, that were more intimate and a little bit more personally revealing of what was going on for me.
Our first single, "Now That I Found You," was very much that euphoric, kind of top-of-the-mountain feeling. "Feels Right," as well, has a very summery vibe to it. Maybe "Automatically in Love," as well, which has a very '90s feel to it; I was driving with Mariah Carey in my head around the time that we worked on that song. And then on the other side of the spectrum, I think the more intimate ones would be "The Sound" and "Right Words Wrong Time."
That gets personal.
Yeah, I think so. It's more the sad place where you're overthinking if you're with the right person or not, which is never a fun place to be and visit for long.
What fascinates you about relationships? I mean, the ups and the downs and the feelings of bliss and the heartbreak: You seem to really want to study it, as a person and as as an artist.
I think people fascinate me. I think leading with "Party for One," even, was on purpose, because all relationships start with the relationship with yourself, obviously. And then to work together as a unit to figure out what's good and bad or right or wrong about that, when emotions are involved and your head couldn't be so clear — it's just so complicated. I don't know why, but I find it to be an endless pool of inspiration for me. I think even when I meet strangers and we're past the point of polite conversation, my immediate fascination goes to, "What's your love life like?" I'm always amazed by how much everyone feels like they're experiencing something completely unique. And they are, it's true — but how much of a pattern there is to it, as well. I think that's where we all connect.
You and I share something in common: We both were children of divorced parents who lived really close to each other. I'd spend, like, one or two nights a week with my dad, and every other weekend. And my parents would talk about how to parent in that way.
Which I think is unique. I think we're lucky ducks for that — having people close who are actually talking to each other. When I was little I thought they were very best friends: I was like, "Oh, they just get along."
But you realize they're doing this, in part, for me.
Yeah. You realize how much their love goes past all that.
What did growing up that way, with four parental figures in two houses, do in terms of informing you and your curiosity about relationships?
Probably more than I even realize. One of the really uniting qualities of the four of them — especially my mom and my dad, actually — was a real passion for music, and for that being sort of how you emote and how you feel. When my mom was really sad or happy, whatever, she was the type to sit me down and play a song — a Leonard Cohen song, "Famous Blue Raincoat" — and be like, "What do you think that was about?" I mean, what a gift. I'd never gone through heartbreak, let alone cheating, but I felt what Leonard Cohen was saying.
And my dad, that was our connection early on, especially when I was away from my mom: He would play guitar songs for me before bed, usually three that I could pick. And I can remember being so emotional that I would almost cry ... taking on these Willie Nelson, James Taylor stories that just hit me hard. he'd always be like, "Do you want me to stop?" And I'd be like [tearful voice] "No, it's good, keep going!" So I think maybe the combination of the situation I was in, but also their passion for allowing yourself to feel, especially through music — I really took that on.
I think I recognized from an early age that they all had really different philosophies on relationships, and it was very confusing: When I was very young I would just sort of take on [the stance of] whoever's house I was in, and be like, "All right, that sounds like that make sense." And then the person the next week would say something different, and I'd be like, "You, too, have a really good point." And so it was more of a struggle for me to get to a point of, well, what do I believe, and what do I want my relationship to look like, considering these two very different ideas of what love or a partnership could look like. And I'm still figuring that out.
I've interviewed a lot of musicians who get uncomfortable when you ask "What is this song about?" You seem to be like, "Yeah, let's talk about it."
I mean, in an indulgent way. With my girlfriends, when I'm playing them songs for the album, I always start with, "Do you want me to tell you the backstory of where this song came from first?" And that's always my favorite, the storytelling part. I don't know if I would be willing to share all of those details with the whole wide world.
But with your close friends, you do.
With my close friends, I'm like, "So this one time ... " [Laughs]
Is there one you're willing to talk about with me, even though I'm not one of your close girlfriends?
I guess I could start with the opening track, "Julien." I did have a boyfriend named Julien back in the day. The best thing about him was — so many things. But the thing that stuck out to me was his name being so musical.
We had this romantic weekend in Quebec City together, and I think there was an actual dove in the friend's apartment we were staying at: We were walking in the snow, and when we walked in, there was a dove? And this was our first weekend away together. It was very strange, one of those nights that feels kind of dreamlike.
We went our separate ways, and I've been trying to write his name into a song since; I think I have four songs with the name Julien since that time. And this was the first one that finally scratched the itch of getting to describe what that feeling is like — when you're young and you've just met someone, but you feel like it's gonna be eternity. He's more of a metaphor now, of what it is to have that person that is maybe the one that got away. Even if you find something else that works, you're always gonna be like, "That guy."
Did you stay in touch with him?
I kind of wanted to reach out to him when this song came out to be like, "It's not about you. I'm really over it." But I didn't, so, he's just gonna have to hear it in this interview. [Laughs] Julien, I think you're a great guy. I've moved on.
I struggled with how to bring up "Call Me Maybe" today, because I wonder if you crave interviews where it never comes up.
No — I don't feel this big shadow, in the way that I think I did at one point, when I was just trying to write beyond it. It feels more like a part of the story, and a really high point in some ways, in the adventure my life took on.
I guess the question I'd like to ask is, especially for people who are just coming to your music now, how have you grown, evolved, changed since people knew you through that song?
I think I've been challenging myself musically in a lot of ways. But in a personal way, I also feel less confined to just call pop one thing anymore, and myself one thing anymore. I've enjoyed coloring outside the lines a little bit — it's just made me so much happier, and I feel like my music is so much more purposeful and authentic. It doesn't mean "Call Me Maybe" wasn't a big part of a time of my life, and a huge slice of my theatrical, kitschy side. But it wasn't all I had to offer. So it's nice to get to share more.