What does it take to follow up a song like “Call Me Maybe,” the pop culture phenomenon from Carly Rae Jepsen that went platinum in more than a dozen countries and inspired endless covers, parodies and celebrity lip-dubs in 2012? The 29-year-old Canadian pop star has spent more than two years trying to figure that out. Even her manager, Scooter Braun, the man responsible for bringing Justin Bieber to the masses, told her she couldn’t release new music unless it matched the song that made her famous.
“I definitely felt the pressure,” Jepsen says at her record label’s office on a snowy day in New York. “I would find myself in sessions where people would be like, ‘What are we going to do next?’ When enough people say that to you, you think, ‘Yeah, this is kind of scary.’”
To answer the question on everyone’s mind, a workaholic Jepsen threw herself into recording its follow-up, which has become one of the summer’s most anticipated albums — among bubblegum-pop addicts and indie-music bloggers alike (though these days there’s plenty of overlap), thanks to the acclaimed musicians she’s enlisted.
Jepsen, who returned earlier this week with the buoyant “I Really Like You,” says the follow-up to 2012’s underrated Kiss is the result of her “lovingly stalking” her favorite writers and producers. When she wasn’t booking sessions before and after her performances in the title role of the Broadway musical Cinderella, she was recording song ideas as voice memos on her phone at all hours of the day. “I worked my ass off,” she says. “I was knocking on Tegan and Sara’s door myself, reaching out to artists I love and sending them personal emails: ‘Hey, my name’s Carly, I want to try something a little different. Want to get in a session this week?’”
One of those collaborators was Caleb Shreve, whose work with Canadian band the Zolas Jepsen greatly admired; Shreve, in turn, introduced Jepsen to Tegan and Sara, whose own Sara Quin had actually co-written a track on Jepsen’s last album (“Sweetie”) with Jack Antonoff, another returning collaborator. “I was very nervous because I’m a huge fan,” Jepsen says of getting in the same room with the sister duo for the first time. “We write in different ways, but it sort of complimented each other.” (Their big tip? Learn GarageBand. “Tegan keeps being like, ‘You need to learn how to do this,’ because I’ll be humming something that I did at 4 a.m,” Jepsen says. “I’m a little more old-school.”)
Jepsen logged studio time with Swedish powerhouse Max Martin, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Greg Kurstin, who produced the bulk of Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob as well as recent records from Lily Allen and Sia. As a big fan of Solange’s True EP and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, Jepsen also reached out to their respective producers, Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Ariel Rechtshaid (who’s worked with Charli XCX and Haim). “I was sincerely just going for things that I loved,” she says, wary of skeptics who may think she’s making calculated moves to court the hipster crowd. “Making pop music doesn’t mean that I just listen to pop music.”
Experimentation was a big priority for Jepsen, who felt rushed to complete Kiss in the wake of “Call Me Maybe” blowing up. Though she’s proud of the album — and she should be, thanks to delectable dance-pop numbers like “Turn Me Up” and “Tiny Little Bows” — there was little room for error during the two months she had to make it. Jepsen was rarely in the same city for very long while promoting her breakout hit, and most of what she recorded had no choice but to go on the album.
Despite its more relaxed pace, however, the new record’s sound and subject matter pick up not far from where Kiss left off. Lyrically, “I Really Like You” adds to the growing collection of heart-fluttering, hand-holding crush songs she accumulated on Kiss, something Jepsen realizes has become her specialty.
“If I were to think back to what excites me in my personal life, it’s the beginnings,” says Jepsen, who tried to “age up” the verses with some sexual tension in order to keep the exuberant hook (courtesy of the Cardigans’ Peter Svensson) from sounding childish. “I think I do really get off on that — that spark and that flirtation. With ‘I Really Like You,’ you don’t really know the person well enough to be in love, and that’s part of the infatuation — you’ve imagined all the best things. I’ve found myself in that position a few times.”
Jepsen’s concern with coming off as saccharine also informed the song’s music video, which features an unexpected guest star — Tom Hanks. She rejected more than a dozen video treatments because they were too sincere or literal. “I told Scooter I was really into Wes Anderson films and wanted some dark humor,” Jepsen says. Braun was relaying Jepsen’s vision to Hanks over dinner one night — the two men are close friends — when the actor volunteered himself. “He’s so charming — I don’t think he realizes he’s Tom Hanks,” Jepsen says of their frigid shoot out in the streets of Manhattan. (The two first met before at Braun’s wedding reception, when a hummingbird got caught in one of the tents; Hanks tried to use a broom handle to free a path for the bird, but an oblivious Jepsen just saw a man going in for the kill; she ran over to intervene. “I grabbed his arm and was like, ‘Don’t hurt the bird!’ He turns around and I was like, ‘Tom Hanks!’”)
Musically, the new record further explores the 1980s pop sound Jepsen only touched on with Kiss — as if fans couldn’t tell from the retro drum beat pumping underneath “I Really Like You.” Jepsen was inspired to pursue that direction after catching a Cyndi Lauper concert in Japan, and she compares “All That,” a joint Hynes and Rechtshaid collaboration that she calls one of her favorites, to classic Prince. Jepsen estimates she’s worked on more than 250 songs for the album, and she’s planning on whittling her top 22 down to a lean 11 in the coming days.
“One of my favorite memories of this album is Dev and me in my SoHo apartment,” Jepsen remembers. “He was playing on keys. It was so my magical idea of New York. I was just singing and, half an hour later, we’d written this song together. We looked at each other like, ‘That was so crazy, I don’t even remember doing that!’ Those are the passion moments. This is what I’m in it for.”