Carly Rae Jepsen Doesn’t Want To Stay In Her Lane
On her wide-ranging new album, The Loneliest Time, Jepsen is ready to surprise you once again.
Several months into the pandemic, deep in the throes of loneliness, Carly Rae Jepsen did something she never thought she’d do: join a dating app. “I don’t even know if I’m going to regret telling you this,” Jepsen, wearing a plain white tank top, tells me over Zoom from her Los Angeles home, laughing in disbelief. In the past, she had clung to the fantasy of meeting someone the old-fashioned way while sifting through records maybe, or at a bookstore, when your book falls and you and the man of your dreams discover you’re reading the same thing — the sort of rom-com meet cute that could easily be soundtracked by the exuberantly lovestruck anthems Jepsen specializes in. But there she was, sitting at home with her cat, swiping like the rest of us.
Jepsen knew, through friends, that online dating could be full of “catastrophic experiences,” she says, with “poachers and hunters who are just in it to play some kind of terrifying game.” On top of that, she braced herself for an onslaught of “Call Me Maybe” jokes. Thankfully, those never came, and Jepsen ended up connecting with someone who invited her to dinner at his Malibu beach house — but not before revealing that he already had a girlfriend. Was she cool with that?
She was not. But the exchange left her feeling invigorated in the studio the next morning, where she exclaimed, breathlessly, “I’ve got a concept! The hook is going to say, ‘I’ve got a beach house in Malibu, and I’m probably going to hurt your feelings.’” Collaborators Alex Hope and Nate Cyphert were initially confused, as she explained that it was a song about dating apps. “I think anytime I have an experience that I don’t know how to process, I document it in writing,” she says. (It all worked out anyway: She’s now dating someone she did not meet online. “I wouldn’t say we met in a bookstore, but yeah, we met in a different way.”)
“Beach House,” from Jepsen’s upcoming album, The Loneliest Time, swerves from the earnest longing she’s become synonymous with, smirking where she typically gushes. It also sounds little like lead single “Western Wind,” whose hippie-drum-circle vibe was already a departure from the dance numbers that herald a new Jepsen project. Now 36, Jepsen has never been one for obvious choices. She is her own kind of pop star: a charmingly talkative musical-theater dork who loves Settlers of Catan and plays online chess “almost to an addictive level”; who will pick an old jazz record or a Pride and Prejudice-era period piece over the latest releases any day; who dressed like a grandma, her friends say, long before the coastal grandma aesthetic was in. “None of these things would be described as, like, cool,” she says. “But I’m OK with that because it’s what I like.”
“I saw comments like, Oh, you’re going Taylor Swift ‘Out of the Woods,’ and I’m like, No, no, no. Expect the unexpected. I contain multitudes.”
Lately, though, she has been thinking about what she does or doesn’t owe listeners. Before making The Loneliest Time, out Oct. 21, she would have therapy-like conversations with Carlos Cancela, her A&R at Interscope Records. What were they hoping to get from her? Did they expect her to stick to the script? “And we got to this spot of thinking, no, people just want whatever is real,” she says, smiling. “And I loved that.”
For pop’s high priestess of Big Emotions, whose best-known songs tend to be as subtle as sequined throw pillows, early snippets of “Western Wind” threw some fans for a loop. There were jokes on social media that Jepsen was entering “her Solar Power era,” a reference to Lorde’s 2021 album, which traded warbling synths for sun-soaked bongos to a more muted reception.
“I saw comments like, Oh, you’re going Taylor Swift ‘Out of the Woods,’ and I’m like, No, no, no. Expect the unexpected. I contain multitudes,” Jepsen says. She’s tired of the constraints she feels as an artist, especially as a woman in pop, to stay in her lane. On one Loneliest Time track, a Western-tinged torch song, Jepsen sounds flayed, her voice tender and exposed over a scaled-back guitar. Elsewhere, she delivers nostalgic, synth-forward bops ripe for twirling under a disco ball. She is a fierce defender of following your muse, no matter where it takes you. “I don’t want to have to feel like I am one thing, and I don’t want my album to feel that way, either. So I think I’ve shut off this idea of cohesiveness. I’m the thread,” she says, her arms swimming up, then opening sideways, as if to encompass the universe.
I ask Jepsen if she released “Beach House” as the second single to keep fans on their toes, and she seems intrigued by the idea, exhaling deeply while staring off in thought. “In retrospect, I like the A to Z of it: There’s ‘Western Wind’ and there’s ‘Beach House’ and then there’s everything in between,” she says, before acknowledging that the answer is much simpler: “It’s summer,” she says. “That playful nature feels really important right now.”
For someone whose album titles tend to read like tender bursts of passion — Kiss (2012), E•MO•TION (2015), Dedicated (2019) — The Loneliest Time feels like an unusually pointed statement. “I wasn’t trying to hide or sugarcoat anything — it was the loneliest time,” Jepsen says. After spending most of 2019 touring, she was suddenly thrust into solitary home life. (“Thank God for my fricking cat,” she says.) Adulting, for lack of a better word, was a life skill that had escaped Jepsen, which she was embarrassed to admit. She took stock of the life she had built: What was missing? Was she really happy? She pondered those questions amid an immense wave of grief. “We lost two family members during [lockdown], and it was just like, you couldn’t get home,” says Jepsen, who grew up in Mission, British Columbia. “It was experiencing my first real lesson in grief, which is not an easy experience to go through, especially alone, for the first time.”
“She could write a song with a knife and fork and a wine glass as the accompaniment and that song could be the next ‘Call Me Maybe.’”
“It doesn’t mean [that time] wasn’t lovely, too, in moments of powering through something or getting to some new epiphany,” she continues, “but it was also very, very real to me to be faced with my loneliness in such a way. Just like love is fascinating, loneliness is fascinating to me.” There have always been thornier, yearning anthems behind her bubbly singles — see: fan favorites like “Your Type” and “Gimmie Love” — and The Loneliest Time felt like a deeper, more intentional step in that direction. She’s long admired the approaches of Billie Holiday and Haruki Murakami, whose novels she reads on the road. “He does such a great job of making solitude quite beautiful,” she says.
Throughout the uncertainty, Jepsen never stopped writing. She sent her publisher some 30 to 40 songs she was considering for the album, which she narrowed down from a hundred song ideas through a “mad, scientific process” involving charts and voting systems. (“I overwrite. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.”) Before in-studio recording was safe, she’d reach out to artist pals for writing sessions over Zoom. But instead of aiming for a specific sound or mission statement, like she had on previous albums, Jepsen trusted whatever felt good. “Which is such a simple thing when you think about it,” she says, “but was actually new for me to look at an album that way.”
It’s that impulse that drew her to “Western Wind,” produced by Jepsen’s friend and collaborator Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, who records as Rostam. When he first played her the beat, inspired by a three-week stay in the queer beach haven of Provincetown, Massachusetts, “I didn’t expect that she would fall for it,” he says, “but she immediately did.” Jepsen spent all night “chipping at it like a poem,” she says, and came in the next day full of lyric ideas. She was a little nervous about the song’s softness, whispering where pop songs usually roar, but Rostam convinced her to see the song’s restraint as a strength. “I liked that we were edging them into the mood,” Jepsen says. “He’s been such a champion for the artist in me. He’s like, ‘Don’t be afraid to go to those places.’ And I feel like I lean on people’s bravery for that.”
“It is vital to take moments to feel the love and the connection and the goodness of the world. If I can be a conductor of any of that, what a gift of my life that would be.”
Rostam attributes Jepsen’s prolific output to her straddling two worlds. She’s a singer-songwriter in the classic sense — her first album, 2008’s Tug of War, is a largely acoustic folk-pop record — who’s also drawn to the wild possibilities of pop production. “She has the craft down in such a way that it’s not about one way of doing it for her; it’s more about achieving a great song,” he says. “That’s the magic of Carly. She could write a song with a knife and fork and a wine glass as the accompaniment and that song could be the next ‘Call Me Maybe.’ The songs just kind of flow out of her. And as a collaborator, you’re just flying by the seat of your pants trying to keep up with her ideas.”
It’s been just over a decade since “Call Me Maybe” catapulted Jepsen, who finished third on the fifth season of Canadian Idol, to global fame. The song, syrupy enough to give you a toothache, redefined how big and fast and relentless a pop song could balloon, then pop, within the echo chamber of the internet. In the past, Jepsen has described her relationship with “Call Me Maybe” as a “roller coaster,” its largeness threatening to eclipse everything she did after. (It’s a testament to her talent that it didn’t.) And yet she still performs the song with gusto, finding new ways to infuse it with whimsy.
Take a video that went viral on TikTok recently, of Jepsen performing at the Twin Cities Pride concert in Minneapolis. In it, she’s on her knees singing “Call Me Maybe” as a security guard stands nearby, his hands tucked into his pockets. Playfully, she taps him on the shoulder and starts singing to him — “Hey, I just met you/and this is crazy” — before suddenly bringing the mic to his lips with a look of hopeful anticipation. “Call me maybe,” he offers like a buzzer-beater. The crowd screams. Jepsen pumps her fists in the air. The whole room fills with pure, unabashed joy.
In September, Jepsen will embark on The So Nice Tour. Jepsen’s concerts have long been a haven for the LGBTQ community — particularly for queer men who tweet things like “Carly Rae Jepsen blew the first saxophone at stonewall!” — and she sees it as her job to provide concertgoers with the kind of communal healing only live music can give, especially in a year as punishing as 2022 has been. “Not just escapism where you forget, but [where] you allow yourself to feel joy, you allow space for celebration,” she says. Her voice grows pensive. “It is really vital to take moments to also feel the love and the connection and the goodness of the world. And if I can be a conductor of any of that, a safe space for that to happen, what a gift of my life that would be.”
Rostam thinks Jepsen appeals to queer audiences because she writes from an outsider perspective in an industry predicated on popularity. He recalls a story she told him while they were recording for The Loneliest Time about working as a waitress just as her music was starting to take off. During a shift, one of her songs played on the radio, and she overheard one of her tables talking about how much they disliked it. “This combination of the light and the dark — the thrill of hearing your song at the place you work and the disappointment of hearing people say bad things about your music, as you’re serving them — that’s her lived experience,” Rostam says. “And I think as queer people, we’re always contending with the light and the dark.”
As she prepares to hit the road again, she knows The Loneliest Time might sound like a downer on the surface. But Jepsen says she’s discovered a light within her loneliness; the impulse behind her ecstatic love songs is still there, just taking on a new, equally rapturous shape. Loneliness, she says, “can cause you to do the crazy things, like join a dating app, or really miss your family, and then let them come and live with you for a long time and wonder why you miss them so much.” She nearly lunges toward the screen, laughing with her entire body. “I’m just joking. Don’t say that. Yeah, I like anything that causes an extreme sort of reaction. Love does that. I think loneliness does that, too. It can kind of make us do crazy things.”
Top Image Credits: Alexandre Vauthier bodysuit, Roberto Cavalli boots
Author: Mitchell Kuga
Photographer: Vijat Mohindra
Stylist: Sue Choi
Set Designer: Kelly Fondry
Hair: Malcolm Marquez
Makeup: Gregory Arlt
Manicure: Emi Kudo
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Alex Van Brande