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Carly Rae Jepsen’s indulgent pop vision
The Canadian megastar explains why music is the best thing in the world on the new episode of The FADER Interview.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s indulgent pop vision Photo by Meredith Jenks.  

Carly Rae Jepsen is a perfectionist. For each of her meticulously constructed pop songs, there are 20 cast-offs. Every synth and violin and drum machine is there for a very particular reason — not that you’d know or care on the first or second or 10th listen. Her last two full albums — 2016’s glistening ’80s pop dream E•MO•TION and its underrated 2019 follow-up, Dedicated — still sound as spontaneous and fun as a blurry night at a karaoke bar. They’re proof that Jepsen’s gift for pop songwriting is irrepressible, that she understands that obscure alchemy that turns melody into magic.

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Her new album, The Loneliest Time, is the result of that same torturous process: Producers and co-songwriters came and went, and well over 100 songs were written and discarded before Jepsen settled on these 13. The songs are still undeniable, theatrical, occasionally spectacular. What’s new is the range. The singles Jepsen released in advance of the album — the gentle and ultra-Californian “Western Wind,” the campy “Beach House,” the more familiarly club-oriented “Talking To Yourself,” and the fantastically starry-eyed, Rufus Wainwright-featuring title track — picked apart one massive idea from completely different angles with completely different sounds. Written and recorded, inevitably, through the pandemic, Jepsen’s sixth studio album is about loneliness in all its forms: its highs and lows, the euphoria and boredom and stupid compulsions it inspires. And here, in ways she hasn’t really before, she’s expanded her sound to accommodate those contradictions.

Jepsen is back on tour now, and when I called her last week, it took her a few moments to figure out which city she’d just stopped in. But after locating herself in Denver, she opened up about the awkwardness of Zoom songwriting sessions, fighting through loneliness while hundreds of miles from family, and writing a love letter to the songwriter who unknowingly convinced her to stick with music in the first place.

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Carly Rae Jepsen’s indulgent pop vision Photo by Meredith Jenks.  

This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.

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The FADER: When we spoke three years ago, you told me you’d written 200 songs for Dedicated and 250 for E•MO•TION. How much did you overwrite this time?

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Carly Rae Jepsen: I don’t have an exact count, but more than was necessary. I’m realizing that’s my process and not judging it as harshly as I used to. I used to really admire artists who could write eight songs, and that was it. I never really know what I have until I’ve made a catalog to choose from.

Your process has always seemed quite convivial — writing camps in Nicaragua, hanging out in L.A. — but you obviously couldn’t do that in the first few months you started writing. Your process lined up pretty perfectly with the worst possible time to do anything convivial. How did that work for you?

I was a little paralyzed at first, like, “Oh gosh, okay. I guess bring out the old, trusty acoustic guitar and start that way.” I was even doing Zoom sessions with my longtime collaborator Tavish Crowe. We write in a way where we’re almost finishing each other’s sentences. It’s such a long friendship that it was easy to transfer the room stuff into Zoom stuff.

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What scared me was the idea of trying Zoom with strangers, because it’s awkward — on a good day, even in a room — to get to that place of connection and trust. Over Zoom, the first one or two we tried was someone sitting there awkwardly with a guitar, and I’m like, “I’ve got some ideas,” and we’re singing, and the timing’s off. You get frustrated. Not only is your idea not landing; you’re not even executing it properly because you can’t explain what you’re trying to say.

I realized that Zoom [sessions] had to take a different structure completely, and that was songwriter’s tag. The producer would send over the beginning of a track idea. Then I would have some time with it and do my own top line and send back my ideas. Then we’d get on Zoom to discuss: challenge the lyrics, challenge the structure — “I really liked this part, but that chord… I could lift it over here” — and then go back to our corners and continue this pen-pal way of writing.

The strength of that was the time you were forced to take with every decision. It wasn’t all done in a day; you sat with a feeling, and when you regrouped to reapproach the song, it wasn’t just a shoot-from-the-hip gut reaction. I started to get excited about the fact that this opened up opportunities to work with people who were probably also existing in their pajamas, wondering what to do with their time.

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“There’s always a high in the experience of writing for me. I’m addicted to that feeling of creating something from thin air.”

Having to rely on yourself almost completely in the songwriting process is quite a big shift.

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I felt supported in it, though. There was a lot of time to sit and ponder an idea, but there was also such ecstasy when a connection was made, because it felt extra fought for. There’s always a high in the experience of writing for me. I’m addicted to that feeling of creating something from thin air.

When I’m writing from a distance, it allows for more intimacy in the lyrics. It’s more journal-esque, like, “Oh God, I didn’t know I needed to process this feeling.” With a stranger, it’s easier when they’re not in the room looking at me. I can say things to this person I’ve never met, because who are they to me at this point? A safe person who’s there to create with me in whatever direction I need. That connection felt so magical, like we were literally reaching across the planet to say “Hey,” and progress was being made.

Writing [collaboratively] is less about your idea being right; you’re both there to actively participate in creating the best song possible. It doesn’t matter who had the idea or who challenged the idea, but that you’re heading in the right direction together. There’s no ego.

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Those weighty feelings have increasingly found their way into your music, but you still have this really joyous feeling at your shows. To what extent do you see the music creation process as a completely different side of your job from live performance, emotionally speaking?

I see them almost as different seasons of my job, different energies it takes from me. The hilarious idea of being a pop artist is that you live this luxurious tour life, and it’s so not the truth, at least not in my experience. It’s a lot of stadium showers. I have an exchange going with my family of the terrifying places where I have to wash myself before I get on a bus to travel to the next place. I haven’t seen a vegetable in five days, and I’ve been searching. I’m looking hard for anything that represents a vegetable.

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The joy of touring is the moment I’m on stage. It’s such relief from the many horrors of the day. Luckily, we love each other. We’ve been in this from the beginning, my bandmates and me, before “Call Me Maybe,” before I could afford to pay them. I paid them in lasagna for rehearsal time. We’re on this journey together, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Studio life is a completely different energy. It’s still adventurous. I can travel for writing, but with The Loneliest Time, it was a lot of home life and contemplation. There was too much time to look at myself in the mirror and consider my life choices, like, “OK, you’ve done a lot to do with your career, but what do you have to show for it other than a cat and an empty house?” It was hard being isolated from my family in Canada while all this was going down. I had to reach harder for those connections. The Loneliest Time isn’t a statement of “Learn how to be alone, and that’s the key…” Being alone is hard, and you have to find peace with your solitude, but you also need to fight hard for your connections in life. That’s the whole point.

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There’s a greater diversity of sound on The Loneliest Time than anything you’ve made before. Even the singles — “Western Wind,” “Beach House,” and the title track — have huge spaces between them, sonically and lyrically. Did you know when you started that you wanted your palette to be wider?

Yes and no. I wanted to show growth. I was excited about challenging the idea that a pop song had these categories of safe topics: falling in love, being jilted, jealousy. I was excited about the gray space between those subjects: humility in a relationship, [for instance]. I wanted to shake loose the idea of what I’m expected to be. That’s probably why I went and wrote in lots of different directions.

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Also, being in my 30s and being in this career for over a decade, I felt more freedom to not have to define myself as one thing. The theme of the album became more important: loneliness and the extreme reactions that come from being really in solitude.

When we spoke last, you said you’d written three or four songs while you were still on the road touring Dedicated. They were about the same subject from different perspectives: what you wanted to feel, what you were really feeling, the sadness and happiness of it. Do you think that approach of looking at this one thing from every angle carried through to this album?

Some people find journal writing helpful because it’s a safe space to try out a feeling before you execute it in real life. That’s what songwriting can be for me. It totally makes sense to me to try on an experience from different angles and see what feels real. I’m analytical with how I take in my emotions. Sometimes I’ll have them and consider if they’re appropriate or not before sharing with anybody else. I don’t know what that says about me as a human. I’m careful with my emotions because they are so strong.

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You seem to feel quite comfortable putting them out there to your audience, though.

That’s why I love music so much. It’s a safe arena to hold back nothing, to say it all. It’s the only arena I’ve found in life where I can fully indulge everything and take it to the extreme.

I don’t think everybody feels that way about music. When did you realize you could have this space, both for yourself and your audience, where nothing’s off limits?

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I recently went to a James Taylor show in L.A., and he’s an artist who I grew up listening to, so there’s nostalgia and meaning behind every song. I grew up in a family that was divorced, remarried, but he was the one artist that lived in both houses. He packs a punch with me.

So here I am, bringing my new boyfriend to James Taylor, like, “This was a mistake. He’s not seen me cry and I’m gonna lose my shit for sure.” I made it through the first set. I enjoyed myself, felt all the feelings, but didn’t feel like I was gonna die. Then he comes back for the second set and hits us with “Sweet Baby James,” “Secret O’ Life,” the ones that make you lose it. I was crying so hard my neck was wet, and it felt so good. Losing my grandma to COVID, I hadn’t had a safe place to listen to a song and cry about it in a way that felt cathartic and good versus sad and terrifying because I was alone in it. To be in a room full of people with “Secret O’ Life” playing, and to be thinking of my grandmother, and to have my man’s arm around my shoulder, and to have a wet face… I had an epiphany that this is what I wanna offer.

I always thought music was for escapism, but what if it’s also a safe place to come and feel whatever you need to? That was the night I went home and started to write the script for my moon mascot, this ambassador of love. She’ll give permission to the audience — in case you need to be hit over the head with it — that if you want to come here to escape tonight, you can. But if you want to come here to feel, that’s what tonight’s for. It’s for whatever it is you need.

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I started to audition moon voices the following week. Then Sophie, my backup singer, nailed it. We all laugh now because every time I look at the moon I can’t not hear Sophie’s voice talking back to me.

Those things Sophie is putting forward there are polar opposites, feeling things completely or fleeing from them. It’s a big range.

[Music] is powerful because it does both magic tricks: It allows you to feel, and it also allows you to escape. That’s why it’s the best thing in the whole world.

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“Being alone is hard, and you have to find peace with your solitude, but you also need to fight hard for your connections in life. That’s the whole point.”

Those weighty feelings have increasingly found their way into your music, but you still have this really joyous feeling at your shows. To what extent do you see the music creation process as a completely different side of your job from live performance, emotionally speaking?

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I see them almost as different seasons of my job, different energies it takes from me. The hilarious idea of being a pop artist is that you live this luxurious tour life, and it’s so not the truth, at least not in my experience. It’s a lot of stadium showers. I have an exchange going with my family of the terrifying places that I have to wash myself before I get on a bus to travel to the next place. I haven’t seen a vegetable in five days, and I’ve been searching. I’m looking hard for anything that represents a vegetable.

The joy of touring is the moment I’m on stage. It’s such relief from the many horrors of the day. Luckily, we love each other. We’ve been in this from the beginning, my bandmates and me, before “Call Me Maybe,” before I could afford to pay them. I paid them in lasagna for rehearsal time. We’re on this journey together, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Studio life is a completely different energy. It’s still adventurous. I can travel for writing, but with The Loneliest Time, it was a lot of home life and contemplation. There was too much time to look at myself in the mirror and consider my life choices, like, “OK, you’ve done a lot to do with your career, but what do you have to show for it other than a cat and an empty house?” It was hard being isolated from my family in Canada while all this was going down. I had to reach harder for those connections. The Loneliest Time isn’t a statement of “Learn how to be alone, and that’s the key…” Being alone is hard, and you have to find peace with your solitude, but you also need to fight hard for your connections in life. That’s the whole point.

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Carly Rae Jepsen’s indulgent pop vision

For a lot of people in that early phase of the pandemic, one of the biggest drags was the blurring of the lines between the personal and the professional — work ends and something else begins, but you don’t know how to signal that. I wonder if, for a songwriter and musician, it might be the opposite, that blurring those lines might be a good thing.

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Those lines have been blurred from the beginning for me. I have to learn to protect a bit more of my personal life. It’s such a joyful and passionate thing to write a song, and the fact that I do that for my living is confusing sometimes. The creative part is easy to blur into my personal life. My boyfriend is a producer, so we’ll find ourselves after dinner writing a song.like, “We should stop. Here are other things to do in life. People walk, let’s go for a walk.” But it’s so fun. It’s hard to not get addicted to that energy.

I can look back on now and only see clearly with hindsight that I never knew the word “no” was something I could say about being overworked. I remember going to a label party once, and one of the [execs] was introducing me, like, “This is Carly. She’s our best workhorse ever. She never says no.” I was deeply offended that that’s how I was seen, but I knew it was true.

I’ve been more selective [lately] about how much I do and why I do it. I’m learning to fight for some space to be confused about what one does with their off time, and to sit in that for a second, because it’s important to find out.

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When in the process of writing “The Loneliest Time” did you think of Rufus Wainwright?

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[After writing] the dream sequence at the end… this big fantasy. If you’re as lonely as I was, you think about driving over to your ex’s in the middle of the night and knocking on the door in the pouring rain to rekindle things. I’m so glad I didn’t do it in real life, but it was fun to put it to music and indulge the idea. Obviously, in that fantasy, it all works out. It’s the morning, sun hits the water, nirvana. But you wake up and it’s not that. You’re like, “Oh my god, he’s still a dick. No one’s offered me coffee and I regret everything.”

I was singing the lead — “And in the morning” — and [producer] Nate [Seifert] was doing the harmony, and I was like, “God, these melodies are so reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright. Could you imagine how fantastic it would be if we could get him to sing this harmony?”

I found out his manager’s contact through my management. I wrote what I would call a love letter to him about how he’s affected my life. I think it was while listening to Poses on the train from Mission to Vancouver when I was like, “I’m gonna make a go of music. This is what I’m gonna do with my life.”

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It turned out that his husband was a fan of mine. I think that’s the only reason that they agreed to have a Zoom meeting. I was just like, “Listen, no pressure, but I have this song and I thought of you. It’s like a disco. Could I send it to you?”

I didn’t hear back right away, but I was persistent. The world was starting to open up, and I was on my way back to Los Angeles, and I threw it out there with some confidence: “I’ll be re-tracking this song Thursday. Wanna come by?” And he came and did the outro and left. He sounded so fabulous that we’re like, “It’s a shame he’s not on the entire track.” We didn’t want to waste his time, so Nate sang all the harmonies we could hear Rufus doing, and we sent that to him, like, “Would you consider coming back? We think this could be a full-blown duet.” He came back and tracked the whole thing and added his own Rufus ideas as he went.

It was like the James Taylor thing: I’m sitting in the studio and my eyes are wet and I’m trying to be cool about it. There was so much hilarity going on. I found eight pairs of non-working headphones for him. I’m like, “Rufus Wainwright is in my house right now and I cannot find a set of working headphones.” But I had this joyful feeling: “Even if the world never hears this, what a feeling to have that man, that vibrato, in my house on a track I wrote.” I still can’t believe it happened.

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Carly Rae Jepsen’s indulgent pop vision