Depending on who you talk to, Carly Rae Jepsen is either a one hit wonder or the artist behind one of 2015’s best albums. She’s ‘oh isn’t she the one who did that song Call Me Maybe?’ or she’s ‘OMG JEPPO <3’. Either you’re into the singles or the deep cuts. Either you’d recognise her if you passed her in the street or you really, really wouldn’t.
After 'Call Me Maybe' became the official song of 2012 (soz Gotye), Jepsen’s pure pop album Kiss was overshadowed and overlooked. Bangers like 'Tonight I’m Getting Over You' and 'This Kiss' with their eurodance beats were ignored by a public who were more interested in familiar ‘90s reunions and the transformation of One Direction from X Factor runners up into The Beatles 2.0.
Jepsen faded from view, remembered only by wedding DJs and YouTube cover artists, or used as ironic floor filler at indie discos. It seemed like she’d clawed her way to the top only to topple back down to obscurity almost immediately. Disillusioned, she revolted against the pop music that had treated her so well and then so disappointingly by heading off in a completely different direction. “I did have a little rebellion after 'Call Me Maybe' where I just wanted to make absolutely nothing like that. I tried to make sort of an indie-folk rock-y sound sort of thing,” she says, smiling at the memory of songs that “I listened to and almost, like, laughed because [they] didn't feel right.”
Because who was she kidding? Carly Rae Jepsen is pop through and through.
The weather was terrible when I went to meet Carly Rae Jepsen at a fancy hotel in central London. I turned up in my stupid rain jacket that makes me look about 12 years old and a selection of clothes that, when I look at the photo of the two of us together, I simply cannot explain. Sartorially, we did not jive but in most other ways we were weirdly similar - our ages, our heights, our haircuts, our sense of humour, even our poses in the awkward photo we took. To be clear, I am at best a factory defect version of Carly Rae Jepsen - one that you might take a photo of to make fun of on the internet but wouldn’t realistically buy. We’re most similar in that we both like to prod the bits of love that hurt the most - she turns them into glittering pop songs that make the pain feel amazing and I just turn them into angsty text messages that make my friends roll their eyes.
For all that Emotion is meant to be about the full spectrum of feelings, it’s really about just that one: love. Love in all its component forms - the heady highs of a new crush you can’t shut up about, the crushing lows of an unexpected break up. “Even the songs I try to have not be about love end up [being about love]” she concedes. “Like, let’s do a song about LA ('LA Hallucinations') - but no, it ended up being about love! Oh god. We tried.”
“But I think what I like about it too is that if you and I had dinner and I'd be like 'Tell me all about your love life' - even though it's such a singular thing for you, so many people can relate. And I wanted to find that universal feeling and put it to music.”
Sure, I can tell Carly Rae Jepsen about my love life - it’ll take three seconds and evoke the image of tumbleweed floating across a barren wasteland. But the thing is I want to tell her about it. Just from listening to her music I feel like she’ll understand and have a corresponding story that will leave me with hope for the next first date. She’s nailed this one very specific perspective: the perspective of People Who Are Almost Exactly Like Carly Rae Jepsen (Except They Aren’t Popstars).
The main complaint levelled against Jepsen by reviewers and an often indifferent public is that she’s kind of bland. Despite 'Call Me Maybe’s endless parodies, you don’t see many gifs of actual Carly Rae Jepsen doing the rounds and you don’t tend to see armies of ‘Jepsies’ retweeting each other into infinity - that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but they’ve never quite broken out of their own bubble. So while your Katy Perrys and your Taylor Swifts have Brands with a capital B, Carly Rae Jepsen seems only to have the songs. Hooking people on tentpole singles like 'Call Me Maybe' and 'I Really Really Like You', which use the one-two punches of repetitive hooks and celebrity co-signs, her better songs are hidden away in album tracks that maybe only a certain kind of person is going to explore, identify with and rhapsodise about to their like-minded friends.
But what songs they are when you find them. Emotion is so full of brilliant tracks, you can only stand by one as your favourite until the next starts playing. Jepsen has the same problem. “I think it probably depends,” she says when I ask her if she has a favourite. “Right now I really like 'Warm Blood'.” Which, I concur, is a great song, all pulsing hormones and breathy vocals, always on the verge of losing control with a new lover and saying more than you maybe should. It’s more mature than a lot of the other tracks that made the cut and that may be in part down to the collaboration it came from.”
“About halfway into this project, I think, Rostram [Batmanglij] from Vampire Weekend reached out and it was cool to write with someone from a different world of music than I come from,” she remembers. “I think when that happens it either is a complete disaster or it really turns out that you make something that neither one of you could do on your own because you kind of come from different ways of going at it.”
“Those sort of experiments were the most exciting part of this album to me. And that turns out to be one of my favourite songs. So I can see myself wanting to experiment more in that world later on, and try really unique collaborations and just see.”
It’s in these collaborations that Jepsen really shines - the LA songwriting circuit she was part of sounds exhausting and creatively draining, but when she headed to Sweden to work with shit hot production duo Mattman and Robin they spent time “mining away at” some of the best tracks on the album (Gimmie Love and Run Away With Me). Sia’s the exasperated friend and co-writer on I-Can’t-Shut-Up-About-This-Guy friendship anthem 'Boy Problems', while Dev Hynes and Ariel Reichstag contributed to soulful 'All That', among others.
It’s quite a change from Kiss, which featured collaborations with by-numbers acts like Owl City and Justin Bieber, and these new influences threw up some different sounds. Opening the album with an extremely bold, noirish sax riff really sets out her store and sends the the whole thing off in a totally different direction from Kiss. “They played that little sax riff and I, like, stood up, I was so excited! We hadn't even written the song yet and I knew it needed to open the album. I was really stoked on that Celtic sax solo,” she says excitedly. “I was toying for a really long time between that and 'Black Heart' being the openers because 'Black Heart' kind of eases you in - then I just decided to, like, hit 'em in the face with it. Start with a sax solo.”
She doesn’t seem to have worried that it was going to be a bit cheesy even if, in some places, it kind of is. But embracing the melodrama of the big ‘80s sound was all part of the plan after she finished the title song - it gave the album its name and its direction, allowing her to whittle the 200 songs on the table down to a top forty then, after feedback from her friends and family, the fifteen that appear on the album. “It was just the most exciting song to me. Part of the reason why I titled the album that was that I felt like I had landed on that mix of what I wanted to do, with pop and ‘80s and something a little bit, maybe, more emotional and darker than I had gone before. So I was like, ok, this is it, this is it!”
Pop music seems to have split down the middle over the past couple of years. Jepsen and contemporaries like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift have been mixing genres and styles and being taken more seriously by the muso internet as a result, while the regular charts tend to be ruled by middle-of-the-road Mothers-Day-Compilation-friendly fare. But pop is pop, if you ask her. “Every indie producer that I talk to has a secret burning desire to write pop hooks. And I have, like, a shameless love of pop music,” she says. “I've never really got that, when people ask 'What's your guilty pleasure?' Well, it's like, if I take pleasure from it I feel zero guilt. I love what I love and I've always loved pop music. And if that's becoming more popular, then great.”
Whether or not this weird new ‘pop is alternative’ attitude that mostly pervades online will help Emotion make Carly Rae Jepsen a recognisable face walking down the street or render her a niche alterna-pop hero is hard to predict. She’s about to turn 30 - a time in anyone’s life when everything shifts focus and your priorities fall more firmly into place and I wonder if she’ll have another stab at pop stardom if Emotion underperforms. There’s a hint in where she might go next when I ask if there’s anyone she hoped to collaborate with but didn’t have the chance this album. “I've always had my eye on Cyndi Lauper,” she says before immediately clarifying that “it might have been too much for this album” given that it’s already taken so much of that ‘80s pop sound. “I think it would just be really cool to get in a room with her. I idolise her, and I just think she's so capable in so many different realms of writing, not just pop - she's done musical theatre and all of it. But who knows.” If Emotion doesn’t work out, maybe she’ll turn back to Broadway as she did between albums last time. Maybe she’ll score a film or write a stage show. Or perhaps we’ll get a glimpse of the angsty rock she toyed with after 'Call Me Maybe'. I think it’s unlikely though; whatever comes next, it’ll come with a generous serving of killer pop hooks and feelings to be felt.
Emotion is out now.
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