Carly Rae Jepsen was 26 when “Call Me Maybe” hit the U.S. charts in 2012, making her an instant tween idol. Everything about the track felt young: the MIDI-like string flourishes, the subject matter (references to wishing wells, ripped jeans, the way “maybe” was tacked on to the chorus in Valley Girl patois), even the candy colors of the music video. “Call Me Maybe” may have been the song of the summer, but its sparkly sugar trail seemed to melt as quickly as the track caught on — and right as Jepsen released Kiss, an album she says her label rushed out to try to capitalize on the breakout single. Kiss was a solid pop record, a bouncy background for a slumber party. But the curse of the one-hit wonder seemed to hit Jepsen hard: Kiss was released to disappointing sales, and her young fan base moved on to the next radio banger.
Jepsen began wading through the difficult period that sometimes befalls pop stars with a monster hit, the one where they start to question everything they believed in. Her roots were in Canada’s singer-songwriter scene (more Laurel Canyon than Teen Choice Awards), and suddenly she was in Hollywood, posing in sequin dresses and blowing kisses at screaming middle-schoolers. After a long Kiss tour, she found it difficult to listen to any contemporary pop music. “The only thing that sounded good to me, other than silence, was old jazz, like the ’40s on 4 [Sirius] station,” she says. “I really needed to somehow cleanse my palate.”
Another palate-cleanser involved ditching the touring circuit for an old-fashioned gig on Broadway in 2014, playing Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein revival. All the while, Jepsen was dreaming up a new record, but this time, she had a very different goal: to finally act her age. Between performances, Jepsen would head to a Chelsea studio to work with singer-producer Dev Hynes of Blood Orange on a more grown-up sound. She also flew around the world to work with other producers and writers, tapping talent from L.A. to Stockholm and London. At the end of a three-year writing period, Jepsen had more than two dozen songs that she later whittled down to a slick 12 tracks. The result, Emotion, out Friday, sounds like the work of a completely different artist.
With Emotion, Jepsen sloughed off any traces of bubblegum stickiness and instead made a compelling, vaguely retro, synth-bathed record that recalls the best of Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper, as well as recent output by the Weeknd. In the video for her sax-heavy new single, “Run Away With Me,” Jepsen sports a shaggy black bob and a devious smirk, looking more like a silent-film vamp than the squeaky, swooning girl from 2012.
“If there is one big change between Kiss and this album,” she says, “it is changing the idea of what a pop star is and acts like and looks like. For the last record, I had moved fresh from Canada to L.A., and was like, ‘Okay, what do you want me to do? I’ll do anything; thank you; whatever you want.’ But now, I can show up to photo shoots and be like, ‘I’m so happy to be here, but I don’t want to wear the fluffy pink dress.'”
In order to give her new album an Eighties wash (“it’s not a period piece,” she says, but it is tinted with “shades of that era”), Jepsen sought out co-writers who had mastered the modern new-wave sound, including Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmanglij, Ariel Rechtshaid, Tegan and Sara, and Hynes, who has written dark, pulsing tracks for Solange and Sky Ferreira. Together, Hynes and Jepsen wrote the slow jam “All That,” which they performed together on Saturday Night Live. Jepsen says that, in addition to her jazz period, the only pop songs she could stomach while she worked on Emotion were the Eighties hits she would listen to on her morning jogs through New York City — Lauper, Madonna, Prince. “I saw Cyndi [Lauper] play in Osaka and was amazed that her songs still sounded so fresh, so yearning and painful,” she says. “I wanted to put out songs like that.”
Hynes says that when Jepsen first reached out to him to collaborate, he was skeptical. “But I quickly found out she was really a fan of the music I make,” he says. “And I also realized that after having one of the biggest songs of our generation, it puts her in such an amazing position to be a lot more free. She would just come down to the studio in Chelsea when she was on Broadway, and we would tweak little bits of the song, and in the end she fought for our track to be on the album. She really works hard on her songs, and it feels really honest.”
“After having one of the biggest songs of our generation, it puts her in such an amazing position to be a lot more free.” —Dev Hynes
Stripped-down honesty is the vibe that Jepsen is going for most with Emotion, from the songs themselves down to her more natural appearance in the “Run Away With Me” video. “Half of that footage was shot by my boyfriend, who is a cinematographer, and I didn’t even realize I was being filmed,” she says. “I am in no makeup and mom jeans. It was a hard decision to put that version of myself out there, but now I feel free,” she says. “I’m like, ‘So that’s what I look like without million-dollar cameras on me.’ It’s a little more rugged.”
Still, Jepsen admits she hasn’t fully abandoned the dreamy, romantic girl who sang “Call Me Maybe.” “I tried really hard not to write all the songs about love,” she jokes. “But I couldn’t do it. So please forgive me for not writing one full song that is not about a man.”