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Carly Rae Jepsen: ‘Even I was sick of hearing myself on the radio’

The Canadian musician is responsible for a new era of cult popstars. She speaks to Alexandra Pollard about her struggles with fame, learning to say no and why she won’t be getting veneers any time soon

Saturday 08 February 2020 08:09 GMT
Carly Rae Jepsen: ‘I found fame to be a really jarring experience’
Carly Rae Jepsen: ‘I found fame to be a really jarring experience’ (Natalie O’Moore)

Carly Rae Jepsen is not a celebrity. Unlike other pop stars of her calibre – and there are few – she gets to go outside. She can blend into the mass of New York City, or hike up the mountains near her home in Los Angeles, and barely prompt a second glance. Passersby don’t realise they’re brushing shoulders with one of the best pop songwriters of this century. “If I am recognised,” she says, “it’s somebody being like, ‘Hey, I love your album!’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re a friendly person! Thank you!’ I can go live my life. That’s happiness to me.”

This is by design. At least, as much as anything can be in this industry. For a time in 2012, during what the 34-year-old refers to as “the ‘Call Me Maybe’ era of my life”, she had a glimpse into what it was like to be a bona fide Famous Person. The cutesy, carefully crafted synth-pop song was everywhere. Number one in every country you can think of, it was the biggest-selling single in the world that year. The attention on Jepsen was immediate and intense.

“I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would have,” she says. “I found it to be a really jarring experience.” For one thing, she had a concept in her head of what it meant to be a popstar, “and I was really confused about how I would fit into that, because it was so unlike me”. How so? “Well, I can’t dance,” she says with a laugh. “And I think I’m a little bit private”

Cross-legged on a sofa in her label’s London offices, dressed in a green suit dotted with pink eyes, Jepsen has been up since 1am. She’s still a bundle of energy – fast-spoken, giggly and hopped up on the same adrenaline that courses through her music – but that private person is there behind the pep. She’s direct when she wants to be, but if she doesn’t want to answer a question, rather than refuse outright, she’ll dance around it until the original subject is a distant memory.

Instead of riding the “Call Me Maybe” wave until it crashed somewhere out of her control, Jepsen made a conscious decision to step back. “Even I was sick of hearing myself on the radio,” she says. “I needed some time to reflect about my next move, because I was hungry for something but I hadn’t figured out what. And then with Emotion, I started to gain my footing.”

Emotion, the 2015 album that came three years after “Call Me Maybe”, was a turning point not just for Jepsen but for pop music as a whole. Released to critical acclaim, it sold a fraction of its 2012 predecessor Kiss, but ushered in a new era: the rise of the cult popstar. The influence of the genre’s top 1 per cent was shrinking, and left-field artists with a smaller but fiercer fanbase – Charli XCX, Troye Sivan, Christine and the Queens, Lorde, Kim Petras, Halsey – began to rule. Five years on, that’s still how things are.

“I think everyone is starting to realise that the radio we were being fed all the time wasn’t what everyone wanted to listen to,” she says when I put this to her. “With Spotify, it doesn’t need to be drilled into somebody, ‘This is a good song.’ Is it though? Or are we just singing it because we haven’t heard anything else? I think there was a period of time where I didn’t like anything that I was hearing on the radio, and so I wasn’t sure that I wanted to belong to that team anymore.”

She tried, half-heartedly. Driven by a competitive streak, she began writing the kind of music being played on the radio. “Everyone would be stoked on it,” she says, “and I’d be like, ‘I hate it. Like, it actually makes my stomach turn.’ I walked that road for long enough to be like, ‘Turn around, run in the other direction darling!’”

A conversation with her stepfather helped, too. “He said to me, ‘What is the point of this if you’re just miserable?’” Was she miserable? “I wasn’t, but I was tired.” When her stepdad asked what she actually expected of herself and her career, she came to a firm conclusion. “I’m not gonna sell out at the one thing that you can’t sell out at, which is the music,” she says. “Like, do a shampoo, whatever, but the music has to have integrity for me to sleep at night. There’d be nothing worse than putting out what you thought people would love and then to have them hate it. And you hated it too. No one won here! I have to like it, and if they do too, wonderful, and if they don’t, well, nobody gets my weird self and that’s fine.”

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People do get it. Jepsen makes the kind of music you’d give an aspiring pop artist to study and dissect. Kiss, Emotion, its 2019 follow-up Dedicated, not to mention a handful of perfect EPs, all offered up heady earworms, with lyrics so simple that they would be funny if they weren’t so devastating. “Tried to let it go and say I’m over you. I’m not over you, but I’m trying,” she sings on “Party For One”. “I’ve been denying how I feel, you’ve been denying what you want,” she sings on “Cut To The Feeling”, a B-side track that builds to such rapturous heights, Jepsen has to grasp for the top notes. And, of course, “I need to tell you something. I really, really, really, really, really, really like you. And I want you. Do you want me? Do you want me too?”

A love of musical theatre inspired Jepsen’s earnest side. Growing up, she and her family would sing along to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat on 18-hour drives from their Canadian hometown of Mission, British Columbia, to California. At school, she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, little orphan Annie in Annie, and Sandy in Grease. “I didn’t necessarily know exactly where I belonged, but on stage felt like the one place where I had confidence,” she says. “I got to transform into this empowered version of myself.”

Being in this industry, she’s had to channel that version of herself often. By her own admission she is a people-pleaser, and it’s led her to “carefully colour around” saying no to things. She’s had to overcome that. “It’s OK to just be like, ‘I don’t think that’s me, I’m sorry.’ No one should have more authority over you and your vision and your artistry than your own damn self. I want to have the steering wheel, versus some 50-year-old guy and a group of old people telling me what I’m supposed to wear.”

She makes her own decisions now, not least when it comes to how she presents herself. She picks out her own clothes, and if she doesn’t want her face to feature on the artwork, then it doesn’t. On the cover of Dedicated, she has her bare back to the camera. The world of pop, she says, is becoming less obsessed with looks. “There’s not this concept of beauty being one thing anymore,” she says. “It was drilled into all of us, with Cosmopolitan, like, ‘This is what you’re supposed to look like.’”

Living in LA doesn’t exactly help in that regard. The other day, she went to the dentist, and he suggested she get veneers. “And I’m like, ‘Who the f*** are you?! I didn’t come here for this! Just dental floss me!’ He was like, ‘I have veneers, could you even tell?’ And you know that scene in Friends when Ross does the whitening and it’s so extremely bad… I didn’t wanna be like, ‘Yeah, it was the first f***ing thing I noticed about you!’”

Carly Rae Jepsen: ‘I don’t want some 50-year-old guy telling me what I’m supposed to wear’ (Alex Perkins)

Another time, she went to get her eyebrows done. “And the woman’s like, ‘You ever thought maybe you could narrow your…’” She points to her nose. “This place is just crazy. And you can’t buy into it. You can’t. At least, I can’t. Or I would lose myself, and I have no intention of doing that if I can hold on.”

Los Angeles can be an ageist town, too. The music industry equally so. Lily Allen, who’s six months older than Jepsen, said last year that she wasn’t played on the radio anymore because “I’m female and 33”. Does Jepsen have the same concerns? “I personally have been happier every year that I’m getting older,” she says. “I don’t stand by the idea that there’s an age limit to being a female pop artist. The idea that there’s a stopping point to this career is a false one, and if I can do anything, then I’m gonna try and prove that.”

There’s certainly no stopping point in sight. Jepsen’s just released her new single, the playful, sarcastic kiss-off “Let’s Be Friends”, and she’s in the middle of a tour. “Onstage, I can’t explain it, but it’s the most happy I am,” she says. “I used to think all these people are looking, and they’re wondering how I’ll do, and whether I’ll slip or miss a note or how my hair is, and I realised it’s about them. I’m here to just be the conductor of some good energy.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s exhausted at the end of every show. “There’s always a moment afterwards where I have to take 10 to just cocoon and come back down.” She’s used that word – cocoon – several times during the course of our conversation. Does she consider herself an introvert? She thinks for a moment. “I would like to say a different answer. I can be social, but I only enjoy it in small doses. I slowly come out of my cocoon in little ways here and there, but it’s still an exposing feeling. Sometimes I do need that time alone, because on the road you’re in constant company all the time. There’s a point where you just need to shut off.”

When we’re done, she plans to do just that. “I’m gonna go home, have a hot shower, little glass of sauvignon blanc.” She sighs happily. “Peace baby.”

Carly Rae Jepsen plays Brixton Academy on Saturday 8 February

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