Carly Rae Jepsen tells us how she created a pop masterpiece

Carly Rae dipped into '80s pop for <i>E•MO•TION</i>

Carly Rae dipped into '80s pop for E•MO•TION

It's a well-documented fact by now that Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION is a pop masterpiece. From the opening sax blast to the final endorphin rush of buzzing synths and drum machines, the album is a straight line to escape. It's as triumphant in its immediacy as it is immaculate in its '80s pop nostalgia, and in that way it is timeless.

In the three years since her ubiquitous chart topper “Call Me Maybe,” and her sophomore release, Kiss, that quickly followed, the 30-year-old Canadian artist took time to clear her mind for E•MO•TION. She returned to her theater kid roots and played lead in Broadway's Cinderella. She relocated to L.A. and then New York and back to L.A. She traveled the world, working with producers the likes of Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), Ariel Rechtshaid (HAIM, Sky Ferreira), and Shellback.

As a result, when we were gifted E•MO•TION last August, we were also gifted a more multidimensional pop star. On E•MO•TION, Jepsen is singular in her pursuit of capital "E" Emotion, yet wise enough to know that when everything comes apart, the heart will learn to love again. She is us at our most exposed yet most fearless, and when we’re not so fearless, she is the friend with the crystalline voice and the conscience to match.

Since the album’s release, Jepsen has embarked on a range of somewhat idiosyncratic ventures: She’s recorded a Simlish version of “Run Away With Me,” starred in Grease: Live, remade the new Fuller House theme song, recorded a (good) song with the (culturally clueless) Knocks. But most importantly, she’s been working on new music of her own and is now touring the album.

We sat down with Jepsen on the phone in February just before she set out on her Gimmie Love Tour, which hits the Varsity Theater on Wednesday. We spoke about how she herself finds escape, the writing of E•MO•TION, her current obsession with disco, and more. 

City Pages: One of the things that's so special about E•MO•TION is that it is pure pop escape. In making it, how did you personally find escape, or how do you find escape?

Carly Rae Jepsen: I love the feeling of waking up and discovering a new place and not really knowing where I am and getting acquainted with all of it. While making this album, I traveled a lot, and I found that the cities I was in really did inspire new types of music for me.

I think that E•MO•TION came to me when I was in New York with a bunch of buddies there. It was right around the time we were doing Cinderella, so it was just a completely different style of music from Rodgers & Hammerstein. But in a weird way, the city of New York just had me buzzing and thinking about my ex and how I kind of wanted him to miss me, even though I didn’t want him back.

It was just this weird, awful human quality that — I needed to put it to music. And so that came and then again when we were in Sweden, sort of a new [fount] came from that. I think I learned a lot from the writers there as well.

But to answer your question, I have a life that doesn’t have a lot of off time, but built into it is kind of this constant holiday feeling mixed with work, and for me, that’s my favorite escape, is getting lost in a new city.

CP: What kinds of music from different places, you mentioned New York and Sweden, were inspiring you?

CRJ: I wasn’t listening to a ton of music while I was making this album. I was listening to a bit of old-school Prince albums and a lot of the Dev [Hynes] records, because I had oddly searched being able to work with [Dev] after hearing the Solange album.

I heard Solange, and I did some digging into who produced the song “Losing You,” and I just got Dev’s name, and then I got into his catalog of work. And to my delight and surprise, Dev was so game to meet up, and we just kind of hit it off, and he has so many incredible ideas, and I was dying to show him mine too.

We actually did a bunch of songs together in New York, hopefully a couple that you’ll get to hear later on down the line. But the one that made it on the album this time was “All That.”

CP: Another one of the things I love about the album is that the music is general and encompassing enough that anyone can find themselves in the songs. But then I wonder how you balance those bigger, abstract feelings with more concrete details?

CRJ: Well, I think what I love about pop music is [it’s] almost like an old-school jazz song. The lyrics are very potent, everything’s important, because you don’t have a lot of words in there, and you kind of cut straight to the heart and feeling, and I think that’s also what I loved about '80s lyrics.

It’s very wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve-and-get-it-on-out-there. There’s like, a feeling of yearning in everything that I hear from Cyndi Lauper to old-school Madonna where it’s like, everything feels so vital and so right now, and you’re not shy to just tell somebody that your heart is breaking or burning for them.

And I wanted to tap into that, almost that sanctity, especially today, when I think people are much more coy and kind of hidden with their emotions. I wanted to be right out there and open about it all, because I think that’s kind of what we all are desiring in a secret way, is to be able to be that open about it.  

CP: How do you keep yourself so open, especially in an industry that can be so suffocating? How do you not lose that magic or that sense of wonderment?

CRJ: I don’t know. If I were to analyze it, which I try not to do too much, I think I do have a side of romance and fantasy that I’m attracted to, and I think it comes out definitely in my music. But in real life, I think I’m probably a little bit more reserved and careful with how I approach love and relationships, but I think music is a safe place to kind of let those boundaries go and let it all out there.

CP: I saw another project you’re working on, well not exactly a project, but you’re going to be on Song Exploder, the podcast. How did that happen?

CRJ: They just reached out and asked if I’d be interested in talking about one of the songs I’d written for E•MO•TION. And obviously, it’s always really fun to dig in with people about how a song began and where it landed, because it’s always such a journey. Actually, I found that the ones that really made it [to the album] were the ones that took a journey.

CP: Do you have a favorite song that demonstrates that?

CRJ: I think two of the songs that stand out to me as ones that really had an evolution to them, which, “Run Away With Me,” I could show you a bunch of different demos and almost-finished versions that sound completely different and slightly familiar at the same time, before we landed where we landed. It was two trips to Sweden in order to get that song right.

I was working with Mattias [Larsson] and Robin [Fredriksson] from the Wolf Cousins and Noonie Bao who I’m a huge fan of, and we would just rack our brains all night and go to sleep and wake up with a new idea and need to try it.

Another song that took a journey through different people, and from beginning to end — it began as a very sad song and has an almost happy quality to it now — it’s a song called “When I Needed You,” that began with my guitarist Tavi [Tavish Crowe] in New York City.

And it was just like, a morning I woke up, and I had a dream of an idea and sort of sang it to him over breakfast, and we did this completely moody version of the song to begin with and then showed that to Nate [Campany] and Dan [Nigro], and they added elements, and then again Ariel [Rechtshaid] when it sat in his hands, it took on this totally different quality we weren’t expecting, but it felt really right. So those are two songs that took kind of an incredible journey from where they began to where they ended. 

CP: I was reading some interviews where you said that you get this big rush of writing that happens after an album. How was that prolific, post-album creative rush for you? Did it happen this time?

CRJ: Yeah, there’s always kind of a prolific phase for me — well, it seems to be, I’ve only done three albums that I’ve actually released, though there’s been tons in between. There’s this thing about releasing an album and putting it into artwork and packaging and calling those songs The Songs that feels like the end of some sort of journey.

I’m always ready to just talk about it. The creativity for me is important. It doesn’t mean that any of those songs that I write afterwards are for anything other than for me or for just the writing of it, but I do find I can’t stop once I’ve started.

CP: Was that rush different this time from the past couple times? Like, did you find yourself gravitating towards different music more in your writing?

CRJ: Well, I think I’m always allowing myself the freedom of what my heart desires. So yeah, I think every time’s a little different. With E•MO•TION, it was an '80s pop album with indie production, and it was a lot of songs in the making to get to that.

And when I turned that in, I found myself making a very understated disco, which I don’t know if anyone will ever hear, but I’m still on that high right now. That’s not to say that you can expect an understated disco on my next album, because God knows with E•MO•TION where I started was not where I ended.

So it’s just something that’s happening right now, and we’ll see if I find anything that I love in there. For me, I write a lot and there’ll be a ton of weeds and then the occasional flower where I’m like, “Oh, I like that one!”

CP: What is your favorite kind of love song to listen to or to write? Like, apology songs, or you-wronged-me songs, or just, “I love you!”?

CRJ: That’s hard. I do gravitate towards the topic of love, because I think it’s the most important thing, and it’s hard not to want to write about the most important thing. But it doesn’t have to be romantic love.

I even think relationships in general are really fascinating to me, whether it’s romantic or not, and I think that’s generally where my songs end. We made a joke on this last album where I would try to make one or two songs not about a relationship, and it’d always end where I couldn’t help it! 

Carly Rae Jepsen 

With: Cardiknox and Fairground Saints

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed., March 9

Where: Varsity Theater

Tickets: $25-$30; more info here