Carly Rae Jepsen has been many things: TV talent show runner up. One-hit wonder. Voice of a certain subsect of a generation. Queen of whatever she’s photographed doing. Sword owner. Seal spectator. But what Carly Rae Jepsen currently is, is the answer in a board game. “We were playing this game – what’s it called – like, you get a word or a person or something, you have to explain what it is?” We’re sitting in a swanky London hotel room where Carly is sipping a Coke and jangling her white Chanel boots and trying to remember the name of Articulate!. “We played it the other day and it was on pop stuff, so we went around and my friend just looked at me and was like... ‘You!’!” She rocks forward laughing, claps her hands and adds, “It was a very big moment for me.”
Today, cracking jokes and eyeing up croissants while sitting in a white, neon-splashed dress, she does not seem at all nervous about her imminent fourth album, Dedicated. It’s a swirling blush of a record that skips between stages of relationships like a serial Tinder dater searching endlessly for The One – E•MO•TION, but make it thirtysomething. Both dating and songwriting involve a fair amount of trial-and-error: you’re extremely lucky if you hit gold on the first attempt of either. “I’m a very hopeful romantic,” Jepsen says, adding, almost needlessly, that “the subject of relationships have always been an endless pool of inspiration for me.”
More than 200 songs came out of that pool for Dedicated. The album builds on the dazzling sound of 80s excess that coloured E•MO•TION, but also dips into minimalist disco, with Moroder-flecked robot voices and grooving basslines underpinning her soaring choruses and grin-inducing toplines. Sonically wild, it mixes musical theatre vocals with PC Music-esque electronica – a product of writing sessions with Danny L Harle and Charli XCX, two artists that Jepsen also collaborated with in the years between albums (their songs together didn’t make the final Dedicated tracklist, but there’s definitely a sense that they informed the ones that did). The album feels confident and knowing, like a deep’n’meaningful with a close friend.
She could so easily have never gotten to this point. People who come third in Canadian Idol don’t tend to end up with the level of fame that gets them answer-in-a-board-game status, unless the question is “Who came third in Canadian Idol?” But people who come third in Canadian Idol don’t tend to write folk songs about hitting on boys that morph into inescapable megahits, either. “Call Me Maybe” caught at exactly the right time. The song is a collection of standard pop elements that might, on their own, be unremarkable (drama queen strings, questionable grammar, verses that crest flawlessly and crash into choruses, the catchiest hook imaginable), but which alchemically crystallise into something so perfectly of its time that you can practically chuck on a peter-pan collar and some wedge sneakers and find yourself back in the summer of 2012.
In the wake of the song’s worldwide success (“Call Me Maybe” was the best-selling single of 2012, with 18 million-plus sales taking it to number one in 15 countries and earning it two Grammy nominations), Jepsen released Kiss, an album of perky, radio-friendly songs about love and heartache that skirted EDM and bubblegum pop. Even before its popularity had waned, Jepsen was being written off as a one-hit-wonder, a short footnote in the history of pop (although she did have a minor reprise in the form of a guest spot on Owl City’s Kesha-rip-off, “Good Time”). And that could have been that.
“I feel less of a desire to walk into a room and prove everything I can do versus just humbly be like, ‘Let’s make this album together’” – Carly Rae Jepsen
But rather than doubling down and releasing album after album (aka ‘the Rihanna approach’), Jepsen went off-piste and on-Broadway. A stint as Cinderella in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical helped her to figure out what was next, and it was three years before she released E•MO•TION, a glistening, 80s-inspired album that opens with a celtic off-key sax line and gets weirder from there. Having enlisted a coterie of of-the-moment producers and collaborators (Dev Hynes, Rostam Batmanglij, Ariel Rechtshaid, Greg Kurstin), yearning-in-synth epitomised the go-to sound of the mid-2010s, and E•MO•TION found its people online: critics loved it, and Jepsen side-stepped from one hit wonder to the face of ‘cool pop’, the kind of pop music that hypebeasts and Pitchfork readers alike could happily admit to liking.
With both the megahit and the critical acclaim that most pop stars could only dream of under her belt, after E•MO•TION, Carly Rae Jepsen found herself asking, again: ‘Where do I go from here?’ This time, instead of retreating to the theatre, she picked up the phone. To create something that picked up where E•MO•TION left off, she turned to frequent trusted collaborators like Jack Antonoff and Tavish Crowe, but also brought in new faces. It’s no surprise that a singer with a penchant for a melancholic dancefloor filler would seek out Patrik Berger, the co-writer and co-producer behind Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”, bringing a similar energy to stalker-anthem “I’ll Be Your Girl”, a song that will have you sending a stream of texts to someone you shouldn’t.
She also bought a house. “I have a house now?!” she says, wide-eyed and bursting into song at the absurdity of it, like she’s play-acting at adulthood. “Every time I come home from tour and I see my house, I want to sing a song, like,” – and she sings – “‘Ahhhhh, I own this house, this is my house... Who lives here? I do.’” A house, a new boyfriend, and possibly a cat. “I think I have a cat... It’s actually my boyfriend’s cat that I think I adopted some point along the way?”
Dedicated may not be about the vagaries of real estate investment, but it definitely is a bit about the boy. Whittled down to 15 songs, it explores the beginnings and ends of romantic relationships from all angles, the ups and downs of dating rendered in fizzing hooks and kaleidoscopic pop. It comes with a sense of security in herself. “I feel less of a desire to walk into a room and prove everything I can do versus just humbly be like, ‘Let’s make this album together’,” she says, noting a marked difference to the E•MO•TION days. “Too much ego and or insecurity gets in the way of what you’re there to do.” Although she’s always drawn on her life while writing, Dedicated is possibly her most autobiographical album. “I was at a place when making that album of kind of going through a break-up, living in singlehood for all of it, and then kind of kindling a romance with a friend that's now my boyfriend. I think the album sort of explores all of that process.” If the album was a romantic comedy, the ending would be a happy one and she laughs, feeling a bit silly, as she sums it up: “Heartbreak, lonesomeness, new love.”
It does feel kind of silly to talk about huge rushes of emotion caused by people who turn out to be a tiny blip on the radar of your life, but Jepsen has made a career of wearing her heart on her musical sleeve, and when you’re in your headphones it feels very real. On “Everything He Needs”, “I’ll Be Your Girl”, and “Too Much”, she’s falling too hard, too fast. On “Happy Not Knowing”, she literally cannot be bothered: “If there’s something between you and me baby / I have no time for it / I’m happy not knowing.” There’s the point at which you’re ready to move from dating to relationship in “The Sound”, the exasperated “God you make me so tired,” a feeling that, if you’ve spent any time dating in the last five years, you will be very familiar with.
The musical theatre influence is at its most obvious when Jepsen interpolates “He Needs Me”, a Harry Nilsson joint that she came across when watching the questionable 80s film Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall as Olive. When she heard the “creepy, beautiful hook”, as Duvall sang it, Jepsen jumped on it. It’s now the irresistible “Everything He Needs”, complete with sad-happy chorus underpinned by pitch-warped strings and bubble sounds. Getting clearance from Disney was a bit of a mission, and she went to extremely goofy lengths to persuade them: “I went to Disneyland and I made a fake contract that says ‘He Needs Me’ on it, and I got Mickey Mouse to sign it... The big boss says it’s okay, guys, come on!” Jepsen has always had a tendency to lean in to the absurd, and it’s partly this side of her that has made her perfect meme material – a status she loves, but is baffled by. “Where,” she asks emphatically, “did the sword thing come from?” (A campaign to get Carly Rae Jepsen a sword started somewhere and, well, spiralled. She has a lot of swords now.)
Some years ago, Jepsen was asked to induct Cyndi Lauper into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The two didn’t have long to talk, but managed a quick chat, where Jepsen told her hero: “This is my dream one day, you’re living it right now, this must feel like such an honor.” When I ask her what her vision of success is now, Jepsen thinks for a minute. “I really hope... I want to leave a legacy of music after I’m gone that I can be proud of, from wherever I am.” She’s more serious now than at any point during our interview, really pressing the point. It’s almost strange to see her so serious. “I think success for me will be less about immediate reactions versus growing and staying power, and (my music’s) ability to connect to people’s lives and, like, become a part of people’s lives.” She’s working towards taking the pure feeling of the guitar bands she loves and injecting it into the disco-ball dancefloor fillers she creates; pop with an indie rock ethos. There’s something quite perfect about the voice behind “Call Me Maybe”, a song seen by so many as disposable, striving for longevity. Being the answer in a board game is cool now, but still being the answer in a board game in 50 years time? That’s when she’ll know she made it.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album Dedicated is out May 17