It’s a sticky summer morning in Los Angeles, and Carly Rae Jepsen, 29, is sitting outside at a cafe, eating a bagel, her eyes shielded behind oversize sunglasses. “I feel like I’d turn really mean if I couldn’t eat carbs,” she says. “Like, horrible as a person.” She seems pretty relaxed considering she’s just a few weeks away from releasing E•MO•TION, the album she spent three years recording.
This is a critical moment for the Canadian singer-songwriter: the meteoric success of “Call Me Maybe,” which dominated the summer of 2012, didn’t translate into similarly huge sales for her underrated U.S. breakthrough Kiss, released that same fall. But her new album is less about capitalizing upon the popularity of a hit single and more about executing her artistic vision. “I wanted to be pop, but I wanted to be my type of pop,” Jepsen says. “I didn’t want to worry about anything other than that I love it, and I’m proud of it, and it feels like me.” That’s turning out to be a winning formula—critics have already begun hailing E•MO•TION, with its surging choruses and vibrant ’80s-inspired production, as one of the best pop records of the year.
Jepsen talked about the indie album she left on the cutting room floor (including a weird song about Mike Tyson), fangirling over legendary songwriter Max Martin and how she thinks she’s going to die.
TIME: Talk to me about the genesis of this record. How did you start conceptualizing it?
Carly Rae Jepsen: I started writing the moment that I turned in Kiss. I have this really annoying thing that happens to me—three albums in a row now, the week after I turn things in, I have a prolific month. It’s really inconvenient, because I don’t know if any of those ideas are still going to matter to me a year later. One of the first ideas we started in the back of the tour bus, my guitarist and I, was “Boy Problems.” Some of the stuff in the first week eventually made its own form later with Sia and Greg [Kurstin]. Then a lot of stuff came at the end. I have this little easel at home where I’d be artsy-fartsy and write out, “Here is the final track listing,” and then I’d go and have another session and come home and be like, “I don’t know.” I rewrote that thing probably nine times. It’s a big scribbled mess now.
I didn’t know at first what I wanted to do. I thought about it a lot. I talked about it with friends and family and anyone who would hear me. I think that was helpful in starting to decipher a mission statement, which was: I really want to make an album I’m proud of. I don’t want to feel rushed in it.
Did you feel rushed with Kiss?
Before I had any intentions with the label and “Call Me Maybe” was just in Canada, I was planning to put out my second release in Canada. It was going to be an album called Curiosity that I had written along with Ryan Stewart. We had this whole album ready to go. Then, the song took off, and everyone funneled in with, “Do you want to come down to LA and meet some writers here?” It was my dream to do that, so I threw all those songs into the abyss and went and started new. I had the security blanket that if I didn’t write anything I loved, I could go back and release bits of that album.
And it doesn’t hurt that they’re putting you in a room with people like Max Martin.
You get in a room with these people who are like the Wizard of Oz from your childhood, and you’re like, “Draw back the curtain! Hello!” It was a fun challenge of two months to see what I can do. See if I can beat it. I ended up scrapping everything because I loved the new material more.
But surely the process was very compressed.
It was. There was no luxury of going into a studio, writing a song and it not working, and just giving up on it. In a way, that’s a really powerful type of pressure because you can’t not let a song work, so you’re like, “Well, this bridge isn’t working. Instead of throwing it away to start fresh—why not? What does it need?” But I knew I didn’t want to do it that way again. I needed time to experiment and try things. There’s an indie pop album that I made that’s much more left-of-center than E•MO•TION turned out to be. That’ll never be released anywhere, but I needed to write it. It was necessary for me to fight through those songs.
There are also songs that are darker, and more cynical, than people are likely to expect from you. “LA Hallucinations” is written from the perspective of someone who’s been around the block a little.
Everyone’s experience with LA is either love, or it takes a couple years to adjust to it, if you’ve come from a different world. I landed in a place that I had never spent any significant time before, and I was suddenly famous. It was shocking to me to be recognized. It was shocking to have no makeup on and go to the store and have people be like, “Oh, hey.” I went to a Starbucks and they asked my name and I was like, “Jessica,” and the girl put “Carly” on my cup anyway. I was like, “Really?” Sometimes you’re just not in the mood. I remember going to fro-yo, and I didn’t have [cash]. The girl was like, “Are you the girl…” and I was like, “No, I get that a lot though!” I just would like my fro-yo and to get out of here. And she was like, “All right, that’ll be $6.25,” and I was like “F—, I have to give her my credit card.” So I was basically like, “I lied earlier. I’m really sorry.”
It must have been so strange and foreign, especially since Los Angeles is such a weird and surreal place to begin with.
My introduction was Justin Bieber’s birthday party. It was day two when I arrived, and there’s, like, Mike Tyson in the corner. I actually wrote a song about having a dream about Mike Tyson. And it was this conversation about what pain was, because he had this tattoo on his head…
Where is that song?
It was too weird. It’s in the vault. We tried a couple of times to make it work.
Will you sing it for me?
Yeah! Do you believe in dreams, do you believe in dreams? / The ones you have in your sleep / They never mean that much to me / I was fighting against Mike Tyson / And do you believe in pain? You said, with that tattoo on his head / Don’t mean that much to me, no, I never let it get to me. Something like that.
Can you put that as a bonus track somewhere? Maybe the Brazilian deluxe edition.
I’m glad you appreciate it! I think a lot of people would be like, “What?”
One of my favorite songs on the album actually is a bonus track—“I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance.” Where did that song come from?
I liked the idea of going out with my girlfriends at that time, and they were like, “I just came here to dance.” You see them in their skimpy-ass outfits, and they spend forever on their hair—I just felt like calling them out and being like, “No, you didn’t! And that’s fine! But have the balls to f—ing say it!” I was like, “Somebody needs to be brave and say, ‘I did not just come here to dance, if you know what I mean.’” When I went to Sweden to meet Max Martin for the first time, I had one intention, and it was to show him this [song]. We got through “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” and it was the end of our session—we got done at maybe midnight, one o’clock, and he has a daughter so it’s not like he wanted to go until five a.m. I was like, “OK—I never thought I’d meet you, I grew up idolizing your writing, and even if it’s just to have you listen to this one little jingle of a line—this is what I want to show you. I think it’s good.” I showed it to him, and he was like, “It is good.” And he stayed for an extra two hours with me, and we jammed out together.
You got Max Martin to stay up for you!
I was walking home on a cloud. I called my parents and woke them up.
You need a big dirty dance remix for the clubs. Because most of the people there did not just go there to dance.
I told this to my brother and he was like, “What did you go there to do, Carly?”
What’s the takeaway from this album for listeners—especially people who might have heard “Call Me Maybe” but don’t know much more than that?
For lovers of pop music, I want to be able to scratch that itch. I love pop music from the ‘80s because there’s so much longing in it. The melodies aren’t just hooky for the moment and annoying in your head—it’s emotional. That was my mission statement. I wanted to make an emotional ‘80s pop album. It felt like the only thing I did for two and a half years was write 200 songs. I turned it in and felt like a lost puppy because I don’t know what to do with myself anymore, so I’m just going to appreciate the sacrifice of three years of my life. Obviously, you write music because it’s something you need to do, but the bonus part of that is you get to hopefully be a part of other people’s lives.
[A fire truck passes with its siren going.] Whenever I hear a fire truck go by, I’m almost certain it’s me that left the candles on.
Is it always you?
No, but it’s a fear that I have. If you predict how you’re going to die, I think it’ll be by a candle that I forgot to blow out.