Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
It took four years and 200 songs for the Canadian pop artist to settle on the tracklist for her latest album, Dedicated. Don’t expect her process to change soon.
Photographer Mary Kang
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen

Earlier this year, Carly Rae Jepsen took time off from doing press in Amsterdam to go shopping with her hair and makeup artist, Aga Dondzik. In one store, Jepsen saw an abstract print of a woman on a pinkish background next to text that read: “I think I’m thinking too much.” She decided immediately that she had to own it, but as she was going up to pay the store attendant, she saw another, almost identical print — this one on a blueish background. She was suddenly gripped by panic; she couldn’t decide which to buy. So she ended up buying them both, hauling them across the Atlantic, and realizing that she had overthought buying a print that said she thought she was thinking too much.

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“Like, yah, y'think?” Jepsen says now, beaming, sitting in an alcove inside a white-walled office space in midtown Manhattan. “You couldn't even pick one print! One's pink, one's blue! It was so stupid, but it's a fault of mine.”

That indecision won’t come as a shock to Jepsen’s army of fans. This is the Carly Rae Jepsen who wrote 250 songs for her dazzling 2015 album E•MO•TION, waited a year to release eight (almost equally brilliant) outtakes on a separate LP called E•MO•TION: Side B, then spent two years writing, recording, tweaking, axing, and overthinking before releasing its deft full-length follow up, Dedicated. She says she’s written three songs for her next album already, but admits she’ll probably have to write another couple of hundred before anyone hears new music.

That’s partly Jepsen being a perfectionist, making sure that every synth, hook, and bridge hits at just the right moment for her euphoric, neon-lit pop to take hold. But it’s also a matter of life experience. In the three years since the E•MO•TION tour wound down, Jepsen has been in love and felt the sting of a breakup; she’s traveled to Nicaragua to write, New York to record, and rural Italy to escape a stifling Los Angeles. Her ability to articulate emotional extremes remains intact: ”I want you in my room / On the bed! On the floor! / I don’t care anymore!” she sings on one of Dedicated’s high points. But she reveals little scars of loneliness and introspection just as often, whether she’s trying to ignore potential romance on “Happy Not Knowing” or fighting against insecurity on “Too Much.” Both on record and in person, Jepsen can dissect complex feelings with sharp one-liners.

The last time I saw you perform live was at Irving Plaza on the E•MO•TION tour. I remember thinking that half the crowd there would have happily died on the spot after seeing that set. Was the response you got on that tour surprising or even overwhelming?

It was very surprising and it's still surprising. I think that's the main feeling that I have every night that I go out: OK, I guess this is going to be a party tonight. I feel very lucky, and I don't know how we landed in that world, where everyone comes ready to be in a room of love and enjoy the night. I feed off of that energy and it just ends up making me stoked to do the show every time.

You got off that tour in mid-2016 and spent a lot of time in L.A. before deciding to go to Italy. When did you decide you needed to have that break? Was there an emotional breaking point?

I had gone through a breakup, and it was a little after that that I was like, OK, I've gotta go and get out of L.A. You have to pop the L.A. bubble every once in a while. I found that I was secluding myself anyway, and I thought it would be fun to take that energy of wanting to be alone and just go have an adventure — try and make it more of a pilgrimage of sorts. My sister had been to Italy not too long before and was just gushing about her trip, so I was like this is the spot, let's go. I hadn't done a solo travel before and I was always just, as a teen, thought that was something I would like to do as an adult at some point. It was only three weeks that we had. I was writing a lot up until leaving and as soon as I got back. So I just made a rule: no writing, [only] listen to other peoples' music, go walk and explore and try to do some fun things on my own.

Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
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It seems like your process is sort of continuous. You've said you hear melodies when you're dreaming.

I've written three songs since we started this tour — I don't know what they're for.

So how did you turn off during that time in Italy?

I did, and I didn't. I was still humming things, but I was more trying to get out of the blues, as simple as that sounds, and I wanted to reconnect to that feeling you have when you're a confident child. When you don't really think about how you're perceived, you're just reconnecting and getting to know yourself a bit. I feel like the first week I was very lonely and very confused as to why I had made this decision, and by week two I was just starting to enjoy the silence of it. By week three, I was starting to want to be social. I made some friends!

Were you writing in a journal?

I kept a journal, yeah.

Do you feel like you're organizing your feelings as you're writing?

It's very much how I process what I'm going through. It's very therapeutic, in a way. And I try things on with it. It's the way that journals are, when you write about a feeling — that day you felt it so much, and then the next day you're like, Ah, I was being dramatic. When I say that I wrote three songs since starting this tour, they're all about the same subject from different perspectives of how I could go at it — what I wanted to feel, what I was really feeling. The sadness and the happiness of it.

Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen

Is it difficult doing that on tour? Does tour become too much of a bubble to really feel those things?

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No, tour is a very natural state for me. I really find my joy in tour. I love the socialness and the network of family that we've created. We've got an exceptional touring group, we love each other. It's almost like if you decided to take a group of people and have them live in a big house together. Every night you can pick who you want to go to dinner with or do big, group, family ones. Because of my upbringing — I have divorced parents — I would switch houses every two days. So the feeling of not knowing where I am and waking up somewhere new is really natural to me. I always joke with my parents that they prepared me for this lifestyle.

Was that part of the Dedicated process then? You were bouncing back and forth, you recorded with Jack Antonoff in New York —

He was bouncing back from New York to L.A., so we met up whenever it made sense. But we started writing in New York at his place, then we moved to a studio in L.A. for a bunch. Then I went to Nicaragua for a couple of writers camps, which I would never have done had I not been painfully single, but I was like, Let's try a new thing, we'll see what happens.

What sort of a writers camp was it?

Neon Gold Records. I wasn't part of the label or anything, but Derek [Davies, the label’s co-founder] reached out and just said, We've got a bunch of producers there, we want to get a couple of artists. I always thought that it was such a corporate way of going at something that was supposed to be safe and protective, and then I saw the pictures of the beach and I was like, This could be an extended Italy! I had been asked to try a couple of these by my publishers in the past, and I'd always shot them down, and I just thought I shouldn't knock it until I try it. I'm so glad that I did. A lot of the people who were invited were L.A.-based, so it also spread out my friend menu as well. Most people were complete strangers; that's how I met the Captain Cuts boys and wrote "Now That I Found You" on the first day. We were in a mood that was the opposite of what I expected. Rather than being shoved in the corner of a room in these dark studios, we were in these casitas with not enough functioning work gear to do what we needed to do. So we came back to L.A. and did it properly. It was good enough to work on the idea, you could just hear monkeys screaming in the background.

Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen
Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen

It was four years between the records. You posted to social media saying, "She writes something like 50 tunes for her next album, takes a break in Italy and — plot twist.... never comes back!" I think it's quite rare for a pop singer now to get off that hamster wheel so successfully. Do you find yourself having to constantly resist outside pressure to be allowed your time to work?

More than anything, I forget that it's a job. I know it is, but I have a passionate mission statement that I wanted to create something that I was really proud of, and I think around the time that I went to Italy, I had done a lot of stuff, but I knew I wasn't quite satisfied yet. And my process has always been to overwrite from the get-go, but I don't knock it as much as I used to anymore. I'd love if it wasn't; I'd love if it was like, Here's the 15 songs, done! I'm picky, and I'm hard on my own work so I'm trying to work out what feels right. I had a couple of things that I was excited by, but they weren't doing it, and I knew that I was starting to create that hamster wheel. It's not getting better, so I need to switch it up, and some headspace out of this will freshen me up to come back and have the energy — and some life experiences — to be inspired to write about something differently or come at it from a different angle.

On E•MO•TION it seemed like you were coming at one thing from a bunch of different angles. I wonder what you think the biggest difference is — lyrically, in particular — between the two records.

I think this one's a little more journal-entry style. I got very fantastical with E•MO•TION, which was very fun. I wanted to honor my adult years — some of the feelings that were a little more melancholy — and do it in a way that felt like it was my taste on pop. Sometimes I can hear a song back and be like, Oooh, that's very personal! And I usually am a little afraid... my main goal is still always wanting to connect, rather than [saying], Here's the story of my life. I want to share that, but equally as vital is finding something that's universally felt, because I want it to be the soundtrack to other peoples' lives in a way where they can make it their own and it's their journal.

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Is it difficult to share some of those emotions with other people, when you're writing with them and producing with them? Have you ever found that hard?

There's definitely people that you feel safer with. Tavish Crowe [a longtime Jepsen collaborator who co-wrote “Call Me Maybe”] has always been the guy that I can say the stupidest idea in the room to, and it's fine because he knows it's just a step for us. But that's the vital step in between — the silly step, the step where you just say the outrageous thing that might just be brilliant if you sculpt it a little bit. Jack I feel very safe — we're both so silly [Jepsen starts singing "I want you in my room," then shouts "On the bed! On the floor!"]. It's like [rolls eyes] OK, but maybe that could work! Let's try it! I think that's why the friendship connection is so important to me. I'll go in with a stranger, but I feel like we usually don't get a good song until we've gotten to know each other and there's a mutual respect, no egos involved, everyone knows what everyone is capable of. You're just there to be vessels for the song.

Which I guess is how you end up taking a Popeye sample...

That was a long friendship with C.J. Baron and Ben Romans, who had worked on “Emotion” with me. That song, I scribbled out the lyrics on a coffee cup — we couldn't find the paper — but those guys and me area all not-so-secret musical theatre nerds. We were all saying that one day it would be great if we could get a cabin in the woods and write that pop musical we've been talking about. I liked the angle of how, when [Olive] was singing it to Popeye, it was very like "He needs me," but more like a man needs a maid — to cook him dinner. I love spinning it on its head, like he needs me emotionally, physically, sexually, intellectually. He needs me for who I am rather than what I can do for him. And I love the idea that we could sex up a Popeye song. Why not? Give it a go. Add some fuck.

That's very Carly Rae Jepsen — taking an idea to its extreme. That’s what struck me about “Too Much,” which seems like something new for you lyrically. It feels a little like a hangover — like things have gone too far and caught up with you.

Yeah, on that song I think was indulging my insecurity. Romantically, but also just in general, I feel like there are people who can make you feel like you should be smaller. And that is one of the hardest things to express, why that hurts so much. I am not a naturally subtle person, and I feel like romantically that's a tricky thing to find the right kind of bullfighter who can not be scared of that. It's been a lesson in my life to look for the person who can do that rather than trying to make myself small.

Indecision and immaculate pop with Carly Rae Jepsen