Five years after ‘Emotion,’ Carly Rae Jepsen has learned to love pop music... and L.A.
Even Carly Rae Jepsen was tired of hearing herself on the radio in 2012.
Oh, but she wasn’t just on the radio. Her runaway hit “Call Me Maybe” blasted in supermarkets, cafes, the neighborhood barbecue, the LGBTQ pride parade, your cousin’s wedding reception and all over talk shows and YouTube, where its video is now creeping up on 1.3 billion views. This writer once even used the song’s chorus as a pick-up line on a prospective boyfriend. (It worked.)
A fizzy ode to love at first sight, “Call Me Maybe” was the kind of juggernaut earworm that could have doomed some new artists to one-hit-wonder status. Except Jepsen wasn’t quite an ingénue. She was 26 at the time, a Canadian singer-songwriter who had been a finalist on “Canadian Idol” and had been toiling in local clubs and coffee shops before that.
After her viral 2012, however, she bucked expectations and took a three-year break from recording. She moved to New York and performed the titular role in a Broadway production of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” And late at night, she tinkered with melodies and moods she wanted to hear in mainstream pop but didn’t.
When she finally returned, her new album proved her success hadn’t been a fluke; it was simply a preview of the lovesick dance music that would soon make her the “cult queen of the forlorn” among her pop peers.
Released in 2015, “Emotion” turned casual fans into devoted believers with its steady stream of confessional bops and sharp hooks. Its choruses were crafted to tangle up in your brain like taffy.
“‘Emotion’ was like an introduction to my authentic version of what pop music was,” Jepsen says. “I was itching to share something different, because I knew that ‘Call Me Maybe’ wasn’t the only color of what I had to offer.”
Since then, the pop star has rarely strayed from her formula. Last year’s “Dedicated” was another batch of sleek dance-pop that tickled the sweet spot between heartbreak and salvation, and she bookended it with “Dedicated Side B” this past May.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of the release of “Emotion,” and Jepsen’s ready to celebrate. She’ll livestream a virtual karaoke party on YouTube on Thursday starting at 3 p.m. Pacific. She asked fans to submit videos of themselves performing a song from the album, and Jepsen will then “duet” with them. (Jepsen also released a deluxe expanded version of the album with bonus tracks, and limited-edition vinyl is coming in October.)
Over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, a city she admits took a while to warm up to, the singer recently spoke to The Times.
Your fans are a particularly excited bunch. Are you getting good stuff in their videos?
Yes. I mean, it started off as a karaoke-themed party because I thought people could just kind of sing their own versions, but it turns out a lot of people are nervous about singing. So it’s turned into more of just lip-syncing and dancing to songs. Lots of costumes.
Carly Rae Jepsen has found success by never quite going all the way.
My bandmates even surprised me because they’re all in Canada still. They got all dressed in matching white outfits and stood in front of [guitarist Tavish Crowe’s] white BMW with a white background, wearing masks, and then did their own Backstreet Boys interpretation of a couple songs as a surprise for me. And it brought tears of joy. First of all, you have to know that none of us are dancers, and if I’m a bad dancer, they’re the worst dancers in the world. But seeing people who enthusiastically try anyway — nothing gives me greater joy.
I don’t want to downplay “Call Me Maybe,” but I think the songs on “Emotion” revealed more about you as an artist and had more heft. Do you feel that way?
I do. Essentially, “Call Me Maybe” was the first pop song I’d ever released. I was kind of a singer-songwriter. You’d find me performing in clubs in Vancouver, and I was using every opportunity I could get to voice these stories and song ideas that I had. But because I think my family had never really indulged in pop, I had never really thought to go there. And then I discovered the Spice Girls — they kind of ruined everything and fixed everything. There was something so joyful about this music that I was really attracted to. And then I explored Sinéad O’Connor and other pop artists who showed me that you could also dip a little melancholy into songs.
Even though you had a massive hit, you’ve talked about how radio sometimes tricks us into thinking a pop song is great just because we hear it over and over again.
My boyfriend teases me because he’s like, “It’s so strange. I didn’t know this when I was starting to date you, but I thought we’d be listening to pop music all the time, but you never listen to pop music. In fact, you seem to not really like pop music.” I’m like, “No, I do love pop music, but it’s a certain vein of pop music.” I’m picky about it. I think that, when you have a really good pop song, you can bring people together. Everyone can sing it. You recognize that it’s familiar. But I wouldn’t say that I love all pop music and I realized that I was picky about it, and that was exciting to me.
You’ve kept busy in quarantine, putting out “Dedicated Side B” plus a new song and video just last week. Was this always the plan or did this crisis turn everything upside down for you?
No, this was not the plan, but we’ve adjusted. It’s been just move as you go, see how you feel. There’s no wrong answer. If we want to take breaks, we take breaks. [New song] “Me and the Boys in the Band” came from really missing the band boys. It was a jam that we started and came into fruition, and then the boys were sending in their videos and then me and Nick [Theodorakis], my boyfriend, spent a day filming stuff. And it was like gifts to each other to keep each other motivated.
What are you listening to during the pandemic?
I’m listening to a lot of jazz right now. My grandmother passed at the beginning of the pandemic, which was a really big blow for me. And she loved jazz, so I’ve just been on this complete fix of jazz music. I’m learning a lot just by getting into the classics, from Billie Holiday to Blossom Dearie to Chet Baker.
You’ve written a handful of songs that chronicle your love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. How do you describe it now?
I think you fall in love with cities differently. New York was definitely love at first sight, and L.A. has been the slow burn. I think it’s the deeper love now, after eight years here. When I first came, I was thrown into the chaos side of L.A., and I didn’t see the other things it had to offer. But I’ve met my people now, which is huge. I have a great friend base here. The eternal sunshine situation is starting to really grow on me. I haven’t yet gained a tan, and I probably never will [she lifts a pale arm]. But I do like wearing little shorts and tank tops all day. There’s a real beauty to L.A., and there’s such art and culture to it. I would say to anyone who’s considering it, to not give up because it really does win in the end.
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