Carly Rae Jepsen: Queen of Hearts – Rolling Stone
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Carly Rae Jepsen: Queen of Hearts

Her new album is full of big, sparkling dance-pop. All it took was four years, a breakup and 200 songs

Carly Rae Jepsen

Amy Harrity for Rolling Stone.

“You have to promise you won’t think I’m a maniac,” Carly Rae Jepsen says, sitting in the living room of her Spanish-style home on L.A.’s east side. A devilish grin spreads across her face, which these days is framed by a short, blond bob instead of her signature mahogany hair. She sets down her tea, jumps off her plush blue couch and runs to the dining room. When she returns, she’s clutching a few large, sturdy poster boards.

On the largest — scrawled in different colors and surrounded by a bouquet of Post-it notes — are the titles of nearly 200 songs Jepsen wrote for Dedicated, her fourth album (due May 17th). Her latest track list is on the smallest board. That one is a mere two dozen or so songs.

Jepsen, 33, is trying to figure out the next move in one of modern pop’s weirdest careers. She went from open-mic nights in her native British Columbia to a third-place finish on Canadian Idol to a folky debut in 2008. Then she swerved into synth-pop and recorded 2011’s “Call Me Maybe,” which topped the charts for eight weeks and is probably still stuck in your head. But the album it appeared on, Kiss, fell flat, and Jepsen seemed destined to become a one-hit wonder — until she swerved again, working with indie-minded producers (Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij) for 2015’s Emotion.

The result was an excellent album that gave a cool, Eighties-flavored sheen to her bubbly pop; it wasn’t a massive hit, but its straightforward, emotive songs about heartbreak and rebirth earned Jepsen an intensely devoted cult, inspiring memes, academic conferences and drag shows. Her fans — heavy on millennials, members of the LGBTQ community and writers — post with sincerity about all the feels Jepsen’s songs give them and start movements to, say, give Jepsen a sword for no reason other than believing that she, more than anyone else, just deserves one.

Jepsen wasn’t planning a big reinvention for Dedicated; the original concept was “chill disco,” songs that could be played at a laid-back house party. But making the album was a decidedly un-chill process. As the poster boards indicate, Jepsen can be obsessive. She has both a gift and a curse: She never gets writer’s block, so her creative process is almost never-ending. “I rarely write a song and am like, ‘It’s done!,’ ” she admits. “It’s sort of my passion and obsession in a way: late at night being like, ‘I found the lyric!’ I envy writers that are like, ‘I just wrote this and put it on the album.’ I’m like, ‘How do you sleep at night?!’ ”

Jepsen is a self-proclaimed workaholic; when asked what she does outside of work, she says that’s a “scary question.” After Emotion came out, she stayed in near-constant motion. She toured both as a headliner and as the opening act for stars like Katy Perry, and played Frenchy in Fox’s live production of Grease, for which she performed a brand-new song (the pink-haired beauty school dropout doesn’t have a solo in the original production; with Jepsen in the role, that changed).

Going into the new album, Jepsen thought about the ways she listens to music: Usually it’s on in the background as she cleans or even as she does an interview (her favorite artist, Billie Holiday, plays from a turntable next to a human-size teddy bear that Jepsen swears is an unusual fixture in her home). Hence, “chill disco,” and the working, half-joking title Music to Clean Your House To.

Jepsen knew she wanted to work outside of the usual Los Angeles crowd of pop writers. She ended up making Dedicated literally all over the place: “Two or three” trips to Sweden; a trip to New York to work with old friend Jack Antonoff, who co-wrote the very Bleachers-esque bop “Want You in My Room”; and two trips to Nicaragua for Neon Gold Records’ now-defunct writing camp. There, she met Captain Cuts, a production trio known for Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and their regular DJ gigs at L.A.’s beloved Emo Nite parties. When they weren’t surfing or drinking, Jepsen and Captain Cuts worked up songs like the dance-floor burner “Now That I Found You.”

 In 2017, Jepsen finally decided to take a break. She booked a three-week trip to Italy, but when her assistant asked if she wanted a second ticket for her boyfriend of two years, photographer David Kalani Larkins, her reaction was telling: “Without thinking, I was like, ‘No, just one.’ I realized something bad was coming.” Jepsen and Larkins broke up, and the trip became her personal Eat, Pray, Love — albeit an almost cursed version when she realized she left her credit cards in L.A. “A lot of my travel is kind of like I’m a little lamb that follows everyone,” she says. “It was important to travel without any sort of guide and go out to dinners by myself and just do the thing.”

She shouts out her Rome Airbnb host Georgio as well as Carla, the wife of the man who ran a hotel Jepsen stayed at in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. After a few drinks, Carla drove Jepsen around on a moped while wearing stilettos. “Halfway through our drive, when the sun’s on the back of her moped, I thought, ‘I might die this way if she had a couple more cocktails,’ ” she recalls. “Another part of me [thought], ‘If this is how I go out, this is awesome! Carla and her stilettos on a moped! It’s a story to tell.”

The trip had a big impact on Dedicated. The whirlwind, one-two punch of going from a tough breakup to a self-affirming solo pilgrimage is the type of melodrama primed for one of her songs. Jepsen herself admits that she’s addicted to love, or more specifically the highs, lows and great rushes that make for blast-this-with-the-windows-down pop anthems that have become her calling card.

“When you get to the place where you know somebody, and they’ve seen your absolute embarrassing worst and love you still, there’s a rush and a high,” she explains, grinning at the mere thought. Even the way relationships evolve excite her; she cites her continued close friendship with Larkins since the breakup. “I try to create that with the music that I make: a feeling of a moment being so intense that you’re present in it and you’re nowhere else.”

Amy Harrity for Rolling Stone.

After Italy, Jepsen began to let the music take her where it needed to go. “Chill disco” gave way to what Jepsen is best at: big emotions and sparkling tunes, all of which suggest she may be the new queen of heart-wrenching dance-floor catharsis. “Party for One,” which she began writing while getting drunk alone in a hotel room after the breakup, is a supercatchy celebration of being on your own (and, possibly, masturbation). Jepsen says the heart of Dedicated is a gentle slice of longing-pop titled “Julien.” It’s a track about an “everlasting fantastical love” that follows you for the rest of your life.

The title track didn’t actually make the final poster board, but it epitomized the album’s strong emotions. Jepsen’s greatest muse is “new love.” She wrote “Dedicated” for her new boyfriend, a British musician, soon after they met in Nicaragua two and a half years ago. He had been “going through some heavy shit,” she says, and it’s a song about “what it was to fight for someone.” They began dating about a year ago after realizing she had written three different songs, including “No Drug Like Me,” about how he was her “very, very best friend.”

If Jepsen talks about romance like she’s been studying it her whole life, it’s because she has been. As a kid, she developed both a taste for theatrics and a lifelong fascination with the machinations of love. Her parents, both teachers, were her first case study. They divorced when she was young and eventually both remarried (also to teachers), but maintained an extreme devotion to co-parenting. Her mom lived just 10 minutes from her dad, and Jepsen and her brother would switch houses every two days. “They had family meetings once or twice a month to discuss what time bedtime was and who’s grounded,” she explains, noting her mom was more of a hippie in comparison to her more conservative dad. “It sparked my fascination with the dynamics of love and how complicated yet functioning it can be, even if it isn’t in this little pigeonholed idea of what love needs to look like or what family needs to look like.”

Jepsen had a vivid imagination. She played make-believe games with her friends in the basement of her mom’s home, including one Annie-inspired rouse she titled Orphanage, in which she always played a villainous, Mrs. Hannigan-type. She would dive so deep into the scenes that she once kicked her way through a glass window. “My parents were like, ‘Your imagination’s getting a little out of hand,’ ” she recalls of their reaction to the hospital visit following the accident.

Those creative inner fantasias bleed through her songs, which create a total immersion into the moments and scenes where love either begins anew or crumbles completely. But even at her most heartbroken, Jepsen’s songs are surprisingly devoid of sadness. Studying love has done the unthinkable: given her hope. She may be the only person in pop history who can sing the line, “I think I broke up with my boyfriend today/And I don’t really care,” with neither malice nor tears.

Her infatuation with infatuation is a big reason why her fans found themselves addicted to Emotion in the first place. Both in her songs and in real life, Jepsen lacks the otherworldly ego of your average pop star, which helps her remain a down-to-earth, relatable figure even while her songs take on larger meaning. She was a pop underdog in danger of career purgatory who became an avatar of heartbreak for the romantically challenged.

“She talks about real-people things, but it doesn’t come across forced or too metaphorical,” RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Aquaria says. “It’s unapologetically pop music, without trying to call it something else.” The Brooklyn-based, 23-year-old drag queen experienced the same Jepsen-awakening other fans did with Emotion, and has performed in drag as the Canadian singer and also to many of her songs. “Her music has such a sense of escapism … and the vibe is positivity and fun. I think that that’s something that a lot of queer people [and] a lot of alienated groups of the world can relate to and find happiness and togetherness in.”

For people like Aquaria, Jepsen’s music has been a unifying element to her community and in the Brooklyn drag spaces she frequents. She’s noticed how enlivening Jepsen’s music becomes at drag performances and mentions CarlyFest, a recurring event hosted by Brooklyn collective CasaDiva. There, Aquaria performed “Your Type” to a large turnout that was even blessed with a video message from Jepsen, something that made Aquaria appreciate her even more. “I think very rarely there’s an artist that you can kind of rely on like that,” Aquaria says. “Like, I’m a massive Lady Gaga fan, but there’s still times where [there’s] a news article or a decision she’s making gives me a little bit of anxiety, but anything Carly Rae Jepsen does only makes me feel better.”

Jepsen only engages when the memes, like ones based around the saxophone in “Run Away With Me,” become too big to ignore. She was shocked that a lot of people even listened to Emotion, an album made without much concern for commercial appeal and coming off the type of inescapable hit that could paralyze most stars while working on their next release.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 15: Singer Carly Rae Jepsen performs onstage as a special guest during Charli XCX "Pop 2" performance at El Rey Theatre on March 15, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Jepsen makes a guest appearance during Charli XCX’s Pop 2 performance at El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles last year.(Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

“Here’s how I’ll put it,” Jepsen says, her bright blue eyes at their most intense. “I would much rather have a small and mighty group of people who are getting what I love about music and connecting than a ‘Call Me Maybe’ ever again.”

Jepsen has been chipping away at the nonwork part of her life the same way she chips away at her songs. Her home, which she moved into three years ago, is starting to feel more comfortable. She’s indulging in nights alone, reading by the fireplace, as well as dinner parties and girls’ nights on Sundays. She’s getting into rock climbing and bread making.

Most importantly, she’s learning to be honest and vulnerable outside of her songs, especially with people she loves, people she once believed wouldn’t understand her very specific touring-musician problems. “I’ve been honest about how hard it is sometimes,” she admits. Coming off her last tour was particularly brutal; she was simultaneously “so sick of the bus” but also found it difficult to relinquish the feeling of security that touring for months straight gave her. She forced herself into solitude, staying at home alone with the shutters closed, living in her guest room. It took a friend coming over and recognizing her post-tour anxiety to get her to realize that she needs to be open with the people around her about the “weird shit,” even if those people aren’t pop stars receiving swords from fans.

Jepsen looks at her sister’s life in Calgary, Alberta, far removed from the pop world, and sometimes craves that kind of “normalcy,” like coming home from a regular workday to watch The Bachelor. Even as Jepsen wonders what that would look like for herself, we get a glimpse of the girl who concluded that dying on the back of a moped being driven by a tipsy Italian friend would maybe be kind of cool. “I don’t really have any rules for how the course of the adventures of my life will look,” she says, adding that marriage and kids aren’t necessarily in the cards for her. “I know I’m gonna be happy as long as I’ve got [my] relationships in order.”

As with many of Jepsen’s best love songs, the chase for stability may actually be where the fun lies. She’s finding ways to combine the life she admires and the life she has; the night before, she had some close friends over to vote on her rather large song list, and she filmed an anti-drug PSA spoof for “No Drug Like Me” from the comfort of her kitchen. And yet, “my main thing is this,” she says, stretching an arm toward the pile of boards in the distance, like a short-form scrapbook, only slightly embarrassed by the obsessiveness of it all.

A month after we first meet, she’s back on vacation, but this time joined by her beau, in Big Sur, California. As she calls from their cabin, she’s in “celebration mode,” with her 200 songs whittled down to an album-length number. As for those boards?

“Oh, my God,” she says, speaking the way an eye-roll feels. “I’m gonna burn them all.”

 

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