Even in a time when only the stuffiest of retrograde curmudgeons still has a problem with commercial pop music, the effusive critical response to Carly Rae Jepsen’s album E•Mo•Tion is a little mind-blowing.
It’s one thing for pretty much everyone to basically be okay with with this kind of music (that has been the story of the past 18 years or so of popular culture, after all: All old objections have been summarily overruled) but they way people are responding to E•Mo•Tion, and to Jepsen, feels almost—not defensive, exactly, but fiercely protective.
The young woman who gave the world the most narcotically catchy song since “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” has re-emerged as an underdog with a groundswell of tastemaker advocacy to bolster her.
Who can ever understand why people rally around what they rally around? When “Call Me Maybe” was splitting the YouTube atom in 2012, would you have expected, less than four years later—as a socialist Jew and a fascist tumor duke it out for the hearts and minds of America’s ideological poles—that Carly Rae Jepsen would have wound up on so many Top 10 Albums of the Year lists? And without ever getting near the top 10 sales charts?
No, you probably wouldn’t have.
But she did. She is. E•Mo•Tion is touching a nerve. Some friends of mine and I were discussing this perplexity at the Redwood just last week when the whole record began to play—as if Google had finally achieved dominion of the physical realm, stripping our preferences not out of our searches and e-mails, but from our spoken thoughts.
And yet, it sounded normal. Is E•Mo•Tion good? I mean, yes. It’s empirically good. It’s also perfect, which isn’t the same thing. But these really aren’t the pertinent issues. What is it about Jepsen and her record that makes people care about them so intensely? I thought it might be useful to talk to Jepsen herself about it, in advance of her show tonight at the Showbox. She talks fast.
How has it been for you to go back to playing club shows?
Really fun. I’m loving it (laughs.) I think it’s been like the tour of tours – the reason that it feels like we worked so hard to make an album that would be celebrated as an album rather than just like a song, and it just feels like the crowd is there to embrace that with us. It just feels like a big celebration.
People are really embracing E-Mo-Tion as an album. Are you finding yourself surprised and gratified by that reaction?
Both things, yeah, extremely so. I think even in the last show that we had, the other night, it kind of just caught me off-guard. We were singing a song called “Favourite Colour” which is nothing like a single—it’s on the album like eight tracks deep or something and I saw through the lights a couple people just like passionately singing along to every word and it meant something to me. I think it’s sort of the dream when you’re a young writer is that one day you’ll be able to travel the world and get to find people that you can have an effect on and share your love of music with and it’s moving. I found myself even onstage just stop in place for a moment and really cherish it.
Can you talk a little bit about what the show is like, and how you’ve scaled what you do to these venues?
I mean, we really wanted to focus—I think because we’re trying to make a pop album that was like pop for adults, like an album with maturity at the same time still being pop music. We wanted the focus to be a little less like confetti and craziness versus just like the musicality of it, so we’ve got our great band, drums, guitar, bass of course, and then we just have kind of a light show and we just keep it stripped down to those essentials so that the focus can be more on the music than anything else.
Do you have a sense of how that approach would work in larger venues? Do you have a next tour in mind?
I think that’s always the dream—I mean, there’s the slow build that feels like it’s kind of snowballing for us and I think that’s always the dream to kind of slowly but surely take that to the next level and hopefully the level after that. I think it would be different though. I think the type of production that we do would not necessarily be in line with what’s exactly expected from a pop artist. I think it would be a little more art, just our tastes and the stuff that we like. Right now I’m really kind of enjoying the bare bones of it. It feels like the highlights are being played to the places they should be, which is more the album and the songs and slowly and surely we can build off of that, but right now it feels really right.
You’ve sort of gone back and forth—you started off playing in clubs.
You done every version of live music performance, right?
Yeah, it’s been a strange journey. I don’t think anything has matched this tour. It feels like the one. In Canada, we were playing kind of clubs and theaters but the reach was small. It was just in Canada and that was a really fun time of our life, but it felt really contained to our home country. And of course with “Call Me Maybe” it all of a sudden exploded into more world live markets. Getting to tour with Justin Bieber in stadiums was really fun and new and terrifying and all those things.
I think right now it’s probably my favorite to play some more intimate shows and then on top of that to be able to spread it to still that world live market where you’re getting to go to different countries and different places and be surprised that people are knowing the words to the songs in places you haven’t even visited yet. I think that’s what gets me the, you know, goosebumps and the feelings I’ve been searching for.
Production challenges aside, what are the differences for you between playing on the larger stage to many many tens of thousands of people to playing for 1,000 to 2,000 people a night?
I think that it feels for me a little bit more terrifying to play in smaller places because the room is right there and the faces are right there and the connection is deeper and for that reason you feel a bit more exposed. In a stadium, it’s almost like a numb feeling. it’s very exciting and it’s a thrill but the actual person-to-person connection is harder to get to because there’s just a blur of people over in the distance.
I really get off on getting to kind of feel the room and feed off of the room. I do really feed off of the audience in a big way. It changes our show and I like that immediate reaction I guess.
Is there the expectation when you go out to play of things like choreography and spectacle because it’s pop music?
Well I think that as I’ve gotten older—I’m 30 now—I’ve come to realize that the stereotype of what a pop artist needs to be isn’t necessarily what I fall in line with. I really admire those artists who add choreography to their stuff, but it’s just not my style. I think that I’ve tried it on in little ways before and realized that I feel the most at home when I’m not even in high heels, when I’m in a pair of kind of stylish flats and then just kind of rock out with the boys the way that I grew up watching music and the music that I grew up watching was a little bit more like Melissa Etheridge and like Sinead O’Connor. I think Sinead O’Connor was like the poppiest I got growing up and she’s like not totally pop. And I mean, when it comes to classic performers, I think I’ve always admired Cyndi Lauper – how she has a little bit of that rock-and-roll and like uniqueness to the pop world and I think that’s inspired me to feel like I could really be very authentic and very myself and anything I wanted to be, you know what I mean?
I have the sense that people are really kind of weirdly rooting for you. This record has been embraced by people who—I don’t know if they would have necessarily expected to like it, but they now seem to really be rooting for you. Is that your sense also?
Um, there definitely is a feeling of like a lovefest at each of these shows which has been a new experience for me. I think getting to open for Justin was a lot of young girls, a lot of people who are there in support of that sort of pop sound and I enjoyed that for what it was, but there’s something so gratifying about getting to play a room of people who are a little bit more like-minded in thought just because our ages are similar. It does feel like there’s a massive sort of wave of support that I don’t think I’ve experienced before, if only in the fact that they’ve learned the words to the entire album and that is just blowing my mind and feels better than I can explain.
Do you read what people write about you? Do you read music blogs and criticism of your work?
You know, it’s funny: I try not to read too much because I think my grandma says “if you believe the good stuff, you’ll believe the bad stuff” so I try to stay away from it. But I would be lying to say that I didn’t get wind of it because my mother—god bless her—sends me stuff all of the time. However, she’s a really good filter so I think she only ever sent me the good stuff. And I’ve been like not so privy to anything else. But I actually try not to take any of that too to heart because it’s—I think the main thing that’s stuck out has been the surprise of getting support from the songwriting community and some of the more artistic outlets and that has meant a lot to me, probably more than it should. I think when you work so hard at something, it’s a beautiful feeling to be recognized for that.
I’ve noticed that in promoting this album, you’ve really emphasized the work you’ve done as a writer, on your own and in collaboration. Can you explain a little bit what the division of labor with your songwriting?
Well I think with the collaboration process, I know producers, so any time you get in a room with a person, even if you have like a fully achieved song, the production will take it to a whole new place. I found with “Call Me Maybe” the same thing: Once we got in a room with Josh [Ramsay] the way he was producing just changed the way that you wanted to write, because all of those strings were added. And with E•Mo•Tion it was very much the same. I would be nicknamed the cookie jar for having like a million too many ideas and then you get in the room with somebody who looks at how to produce a song and it changes where the song would go. But when it comes to dividing who did what, I very much will say that I was blown away by the talent and the people who were part of this thing and they changed the album in a big way by offering their headspaces and their thoughts on music and challenging me on the way that I write even. But the division of labor would depend on the song. I think there some songs that were very much more my ideas or much more heavy in my area and there were songs that heavier in other people’s. And I think the key to being hopefully a good writer is not having an ego about that and just going in the room, just trying to find the best idea and search for that. And whether it comes from me or it comes from somebody else in the room, I think that as long as you agree and don’t deny that “this was way better, let’s go there” then it’s a safe bet, but yeah, I think that the heart of the album I can say with confidence was mine, and I say that knowing that the people who wrote it with me would feel the same way.
Right. I’m just curious, technically or mechanically, how the songs originate. When you wrote “Call Me Maybe,” for example, was there a demo? Did you write it on a keyboard or a guitar or… Because I’ve heard how they turn out, I’m curious about where they begin.
There were three writers including myself on “Call Me Maybe.” “Call Me Maybe” began on acoustic guitar with my buddy Tavish Crowe who’s my guitarist and one of my favorite writing partners in the world because I think he’s become my brother and you don’t feel scared to say any stupid idea out loud, and the chorus kinda came to us, he was just jamming and I sort of sang out the entire chorus and said “I like the melody, but I think I’m gonna switch the words later. Those are just filler lyrics” and he was like “I think those are good, actually, I think it’s like tongue-in-cheek, let’s run with it.” I think the chorus actually essentially started out as a pre- [chorus] in my mind and Josh [Ramsay, producer] was like “I think that’s the chorus, I think you should repeat it, like, take it on home” and I think that a lot of getting in the room with people is figuring out the parts and where things should go and sometimes I think one of my weaknesses is I’ll have like eight too many parts for one song and get in the room with somebody who is in the pop business and they’re like “All right! I think you’ve got six ideas and I think we need only three of them” so it’s really kind of nice to have that guidance and structure.
Did that happen on the new record as well?
No, I really love the fact that every process of writing is different for each song. It would be impossible to describe sort of one solid sort of formula because, I mean, even when I went to Sweden—I worked with [production team] the Wolf Cousins there and it was very different in the fact that we started off with nothing on the table to begin with. We all showed up kind of like bare bones. I loved the fact that we kind of began it together and there’s actually a documentary of that process because we had somebody kind of come to film everything and you can see us with the acoustic guitar—same thing—as we’re following up on ideas like (singing) “blah-dee, blah-dee…”
I think I really dig into the lyrics in a big way that’s a part that I like to sort of pick at probably for longer than anybody else does. They’ll be kind of happy with where it was and I was like [drama voice] “I don’t know why but it’s not right yet!” I can drive everyone mental with that. But I have to say I’ve been very lucky and I think even the search for finding the people who were part of this album was a big part of it. I had my label sort of setting up writing sessions every single day with every LA writer out there and it wasn’t until I kind of just started to listen to music that I loved and be like “Hey, Solange’s album is awesome. Who produced that? Oh, Dev [did. We should reach out to him!” And Rostam [Batmanglij, now formerly of Vampire Weekend http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/rostam-batmanglij-quits-vampire-weekend-20160126] reached out to me, and
it was just sort of different collaborations that led to some of the coolest discoveries and every person who is on that album helped make it what it is right now today so I feel very lucky to have met them and to be able to not just call them brilliant people, but really good friends at this point.
I know you’ve been doing a bunch of musical theater, on Broadway in Cinderella in 2014, and just recently on the Grease Live TV special recently. I’ve always thought that pop music and musical theater have a bit more in common than either one might have with other forms of music, like rock’n’roll or folk music. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between singing in that sort of Broadway school and doing the music you’re doing on stage now? Or the similarities?
I look at them quite differently, actually. In a weird way it sort of rejuvenates me to come back from a musical project. Don’t get me wrong, because I lllove musicals, but it’s almost like a kind of rebellion that happens afterwards where I write in a completely different way. While I was doing Cinderella, for example, I think I made, like, a folk/alternative album that no one will ever hear, but it was really fun to play with. And actually, the song “Emotion” took shape when I was in New York, there. That was one of the first songs that led to the discovery of, like, “Oh, this is what I want to do”: kind of like ‘80s pop with some alternative productions—still keep the top line very pop, even lyrically, very heart on your sleeve type emotions. I would say I don’t find them too similar at all, but they’re both passions of mine and I like to swim between both circles.
It seems like a big part of the narrative of this record involves you realizing there was no way to top the success of “Call Me Maybe” and going in a completely different direction. Is that real, and was it hard to find the confidence to stand up to what must have been constant business pressure to have another megahit?
I really embrace the era of “Call Me Maybe” and Kiss in a big way. It was the adventure of a lifetime. But musically, it wasn’t the only thing that I had to say, or the only type of music that I wanted to make. There was absolutely some real pressure of “oh my gosh, what do we do next?” And I think I took that break consciously with the idea that I wanted to make something different, free of that pressure. And that was gonna take time for me to come to terms with before I could get anybody else in line with it. And it took a lot of processing and talking to people about what it was that I loved about pop music and what it was that I wanted from my life. And the answer was the obvious: Well, I want to make an album that I love. I want to make an album that I’m really proud of and can stand by. I want to be an artist and that means allowing yourself to explore and follow whatever is turning you on at the moment. With E•Mo•Tion I feel like I really allowed myself to do that. I really played for a while. And I had so much support from other people who were like-minded, and who weren’t just trying to make another “Call Me Maybe,” but were instead excited to try something a little bit different.