In August 2015, an album released by a Canadian Idol runner-up with just one (albeit massive) hit under her belt produced a pop album so singular, it not only broke the rules—it rewrote the manual entirely.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION took fans and the music industry itself by surprise, filtering traditional ideas about pop—sticky hooks, big-budget production, deceptively simple lyrics—through a sharp, weird, experimental new lens. With the exception of a straightforward lead single (the comfort food “Call Me Maybe” doppelganger, “I Really Like You”), every single song on E•MO•TION dismantled the unfair expectations that had shadowed the singer-songwriter since her 2012 mega-hit.
Enlisting a murderer’s row of indie collaborators including Ariel Rechtshaid (HAIM), Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange), Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), and Mattman & Robin (Max Martin acolytes), Jepsen made a straightforward pop album that was actually anything but. E•MO•TION refracted pop music through a Pitchfork-shaped prism, gathering a collection of hand-crafted songs that felt genuine rather than mass-produced. The album was so thoughtful, ambitious, and refreshing, multiple critics included it on their Best of the Decade lists last year.
E•MO•TION also opened the door for a new generation of singers and songwriters (think Maggie Rogers, MUNA, and Julia Michaels) to make some of the decade’s most inspired pop music. In 2020, it remains one of the most beloved, exciting, and enjoyable records of the past 20 years. “She’s so keen to put out music, and she’s so prolific,” Rechtshaid says over the phone. “She’s a hard worker who’s just so down for the process. That’s the spirit I caught working with her on E•MO•TION.”
Last month, Jepsen celebrated the five-year anniversary of the album with a new line of limited-edition merch (including a track list beach towel easily the best non-music offering from a pop star this year), a YouTube karaoke party (which turned out to be more of a lip-sync extravaganza), and the release of two Japanese-exclusive bonus tracks on streaming services worldwide. “This wasn’t particularly my idea, but I feel like someone’s throwing me a surprise birthday party and it’s amazing,” Jepsen says with a laugh, sitting on her patio as ELLE.com calls her days after the album’s anniversary. “I thought it would feel uncomfortable, and almost indulgent, but it’s turned out to just be this love fest of memories.”
Over Zoom, Jepsen opens up to ELLE about new music, her creative process in quarantine (think funk, then think funkier), and what it means to celebrate E•MO•TION half a decade later.
Have you done a lot of writing over quarantine?
The most awkward thing for me so far has been trying to do writing sessions over Zoom. You’re trying to spark creativity with, sometimes, a complete stranger. It’s just a really awkward beginning process. We’re staring at each other like, “Can I call you back when we each have some ideas?” [Laughs]
I’m always writing, chipping away at a couple ideas here and there. Right now I would say it’s been the most successful with my guitarist Tavish [Crowe], who’s based in Canada, just because we are really used to each other’s flow and I don’t feel self-conscious sending him a voice memo, even if it sounds crap. I know he trusts that we’ll get it to the right place. So I am kind of writing a lot, but not necessarily landing on exactly what it is I want to share next. Just kind of experimenting.
But you do a lot of that, right? Historically, don’t you enjoy feeling out where you want to go before you actually get there?
Yeah, I do. I think you’re exactly right. I like to allow myself to play. Sometimes that means almost going too far with something. I’m really liking funk sounds right now, so that’s been really fun, but it’s shocking when you hear what’s coming from my little studio. It’s not what you would expect.
I know there was a scrapped album of folkier material after Kiss, before E•MO•TION. And I know there was a scrapped disco album before Dedicated. As a writer, does it help your process to work experiments out of your system?
One hundred percent. For me, writing songs is like this muscle to continue exercising. Even with these Zoom sessions where I’m working with a complete stranger, I’ll say out loud, “The pressure’s off. Today’s goal is: Let’s just write a really bad song.” Because sometimes that will get you going and you’ll stop thinking about it being perfect, versus, “Can we be creative together in any capacity?”
Once you get to know your strengths and weaknesses with the person, then you’re off to the races. But to answer your question, I do really like to indulge. Right now I’m getting really funky and almost cheesy with it, but I know that’s part of the process before I pull it back a bit to a place that feels authentic and a little cooler.
You dropped a new single in August called “Me And The Boys In The Band.” Did that come out of the quarantine sessions?
It’s a song that would never have seen the light of day had quarantine not been happening. The idea to share it made sense because of the real nostalgia we were all feeling for this life we had taken for granted: Being on the road and having this band of brothers. When I was on the road, I started this pact with myself, a challenge, which is that I was not going to write a love song. No more songs about men! This was one of those experiments.
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You’re someone who, over the past five or six years, has felt extremely prolific in terms of never letting much time lapse without releasing something. Do you find that style of release conducive to your style of making music, too?
If anything, I feel like I’m giving myself a hard time about the fact that I take three or four years between each album! But I guess if we’re factoring in B-Sides, your calculations make more sense. I always feel like I go through this phase—I feel like I’m just entering it right now—of collecting any and all ideas. Like, “Okay, those ones are crazy, but I can’t stop thinking about that one song, or those two songs.” Once an album is done, yeah, I think there is a feeling—a real transitional moment— of “this was mine and now it’s yours, and now we just get to go celebrate it and perform it.” I think that I probably create things daily, and then a year goes by and I’m like, “What do I share next? What’s the next offering?”
The part of this whole thing that blows my mind is sometimes I feel like I would be very lost if I wasn’t…I don’t know how to say this properly, but I would be putting out music whether or not anyone listened to it. The fact that anyone ever does blows my mind.
Earlier this year, you put out Dedicated Side B, a year to the day after releasing Dedicated. Was it always planned out that way?
Yes. I always had the intention of having Side B out—I was really excited about it. It felt like I completed the last part of a two-part package. On the day that Dedicated was released, I sent a text message list of the song order for Side B to my manager, who was like, “Do you think we could just celebrate today? Right now?” I was like, “Yes, good point, good point. But just so you know…these are the ones.” I don’t think it strayed too far from that list, but “This Love Isn’t Crazy” and “Solo” weren’t on the original. That was partly due to the fact that we were in quarantine all of a sudden and I felt like a song about being alone but okay made sense, and that’s “Solo.” And something fantastical to open up the album made sense to me, which is why “This Love Isn’t Crazy” starts it off.
There was a bit of polishing to do. It was tricky to do mixes when you don’t have people in the same sound room. You can go over notes on a lot of FaceTimes and phone calls, and I was really happy to get it done, but it was a bit more of a challenge than any other release has been for me.
When you put a song on the shelf, how do you know when the moment is right to bring it back?
With time, you have different kinds of relationships with different songs. I knew on the day that I sent my manager my text message that this is what Side B would be, but that there was a really good chance that my opinion would change after a year, when I had fresh ears and a new perspective on these songs.
I do listen a lot to what friends and bandmates are thinking, but what was cool about Side B is there was less opportunity for that. I really just went with my gut, like, “These are the songs that feel right. Don’t overthink it. Don’t throw a bunch of listening parties and get confused by the end of the night because people have strong opinions that don’t match with each other.” I wasn’t given the luxury of overthinking it so much. In a way, I took some lessons from that. This was a lot less painful [of a process].
My favorite piece of art that I own in my house I got at a craft fair when I was in Amsterdam and it just explains me so perfectly. The fact of the matter is that I didn’t see the comedy of this until I got home. I bought a poster. I bought two posters because I couldn’t decide which color was better—a pink and a blue one—that said, “I think I think too much.” I gifted one of them to my manager and I was like, “A token of me…and I’m sorry. I had to get both colors because I couldn’t choose.”
E•MO•TION just turned five years old. What do you remember about that time in your life, and how does it feel now to revisit that album?
It was a real career shift for me, and I don’t think I really understood the beautiful changes it was going to bring to my life. There’s one memory that pops into my head right away, which was playing a New York show [at Irving Plaza]. The crowd was different. The crowds felt like they had an energy to them. There was a sense of safety in the room. I had never been in rooms like this before in terms of performances I had done. And I think that’s the gift that’s continued to give since E•MO•TION, a feeling of total joy in these rooms and safety—the feeling like I as a performer could fall on my butt and everyone would be like, “It’s all right, get on up.”
It’s changed the game for what the audience has been like since this album came out. And I think it’s brought together a lot of really lovely humans. I’m so happy being one of the orchestrators of the night. The first time that it happened, everyone sang the entirety of the set back to us, to the point where I literally could just put my microphone up [to the crowd]. I was so shocked. There was not one moment where I wasn’t looking at Tavish to my right and looking at [guitarist and saxophone player] Jared Manerika to my left. We got onstage and we’re trying to play it all cool. We get behind closed doors and we’re like, “What the hell just happened?” Every night we were equally surprised and thrilled. It seemed to be the same way in New Zealand and Europe. It just was crazy to us.
I was at that Irving Plaza show and remember feeling I’d never been part of a crowd like that before. Looking back now, why do you think that album still connects so deeply with people?
I was really searching for what sort of pop music was authentic and made sense to me. Because, essentially, “Call Me Maybe” was the first pop song I’d ever released. So that follow-up album [2012’s Kiss] was very me just dipping my toes in the water of what this was.
When I took the time off to make E•MO•TION, I knew that I wanted to really like what I was putting out. I wanted it to be something that felt like I wasn’t trying to follow a trend or do what was expected. So I was very picky about what made it onto the album. I called it E•MO•TION because I was looking to put a positive spin on, and embrace, this word I’d been called in a negative way my whole life—like, “she’s very emotional.” [Laughs.]
I think a lot of people are very emotional. They’ve been taught that it’s not cool, and you’ve got to tone it down or not feel too much. I was rebelling against all of that. Hopefully people connect to the freedom to tap into their own dramatic emo-ness or whatever it is that they’re feeling, to just go there.
It sounds like E•MO•TION helped you turn a corner not only in your career but also in terms of self-confidence. Did that album also help redefine what success looks like to you?
Yes. I think that there was a real liberty to feeling like a pop artist and a pop star doesn’t have to be this one cookie-cutter thing. It could be anything. Even when I’m seeing other artists emerging now, that’s becoming more and more evident: you have to look this way or dance this way. I was none of those things. So it was really liberating to be like, “Oh, that’s okay.” It flipped the script on everything I was already thinking about—including aging in this business.
With the rooms of people giving me love back, I just deleted [the idea] that there has to be a certain way for this to go, or for my career to look. That pressure being gone? It’s the most joyful I’ve ever been in this business. I think it allows for creativity to really be at its strongest for me, because you’re not trying to manufacture music that works versus music I want to creatively share, and what might connect.
It’s interesting you say that, because a lot of people were wondering what came next for you after Kiss. I imagine for you, creatively, it must’ve felt freeing coming off of E•MO•TION, knowing those expectations were, if not gone, then at least…different?
Yes. I mean, there’s different pressures for different reasons. I feel like I was equally hard on myself about what Dedicated needed to be. I didn’t want to just recreate E•MO•TION all over again, but I also wanted to honor this ’80s world I love while also entertaining disco. But I still put a bit of pressure on myself. I think that’s why I enjoy B-sides so much—because I feel like, by that time, the pressure is gone and you’re just like, “Here’s a couple of different weirdo ones that I wasn’t ready to share earlier!” And for me during quarantine, it was also really nice to have a focused project every single day, especially at the beginning of this. Now I’m a little lost lamb. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.
Are there any particular sessions from E•MO•TION that you look back on fondly five years later, ones that felt special or like things were clicking into place?
Yes. I can remember I was so excited that I called my A&R, who was John Ehmann at the time, from Sweden without thinking about the time difference. I think when I called him it was five in the morning and I was like, “John! I’ve got to stay an extra couple of days in Stockholm! Things are going great with this team.” This was Mattman & Robin.
This particular day was when we made “Run Away with Me.” [Songwriter] Noonie Bao was there as well. And it was kind of funny because they almost seemed shy. They were showing me a bunch of stuff they were not overly confident about, but it was all incredible. And this particular song, I was like, “STOP. I want to open the album with this Catholic sax thing. We have to write a song!” It came together after two or three different trips back to Sweden to finalize and polish up the song.
That song is special to me for so many reasons. Even the making of that music video is another lesson that you don’t have to do things a certain way. My boyfriend at the time was a videographer and he was just like, “Why don’t I just shoot us…running away?” We had to do this promo tour together anyway, so I was like, “I love it.” I would do a show in Germany and then we’d get off and we would go and rent bikes. It’s really documenting the romance as well as the crazy pace at which we were moving during that time. That song probably means the most out of all of them.
I know you took a lot of time between Kiss and E•MO•TION to ensure you had the space to experiment. Did you find freedom in that process?
Yes. We actually had a sit-down meeting [with my label and team] where I was like, “Guys, if I am sick of hearing myself on the radio, I assume I’m not alone. Let me just take a break for a second.”
Coincidentally, it had always been a dream of mine to be on Broadway, even if it was like, Maid Number Three. I was just stoked to be on stage. So out of the blue—I think because of my luck with fame—they were just like, “Do you want to be Cinderella?” And I was like, “…yes, I would love to.” I think everyone thought that was the strangest move in the world. And it was. But I think I knew I needed it for my head. I needed to pop the little Hollywood bubble that I was in.
There’s nothing more humbling than taking on a lead role on Broadway. You’re not special. You show up and you have to work your ass off and you’ve got a lot to learn. I’m really glad that I went through that process before taking on anything that was creative again, because when I reentered the world, I wanted to know I had the reins.
One of the things that kept coming up during the E•MO•TION era was your emphasis on songwriting, ensuring people could see your fingerprints on every single song. When you look back, do you feel like the album achieved that?
Around the time of “Call Me Maybe,” when I first got introduced to the songwriters of Los Angeles, there was this real perception: “You’re here for decoration.” I’d even have sessions where if there was a girl toplining for me, they’d be like, “Tell me what’s going on in your love life.” And I’d always be like, “I don’t need you to emote for me. I’ve got this.” Then you’d be offered 30 percent of a song [ed. note: the songwriter’s share as it pertains to royalties] for literally sitting in the thing and looking pretty and then singing it. I was so against it that Rule Number One became, “If I haven’t written the song, I’m not asking for anything.”
I wanted to start to make that reputation known. If anything, I’m going to go in and work my ass off with people who will see what I have to offer. That doesn’t take away that collaboration is huge and key, but I did have a vision for things. I didn’t want someone to tell me what they thought I should do versus, “Here’s a bunch of ideas I have. Did any of these connect with you? We could start here or we could start fresh.” I just don’t work with those people anymore. And I’ve learned that it’s a waste of my time.
Does the support of your fans, and the fervent devotion they have to your music, mean more to you than quote-unquote “commercial success” at this point in your career?
Oh yeah. Even when I was sort of having some talks with the business world [as it pertained to my career], I had a lot of people asking about the “Call Me Maybe” situation. I’d say, “I’d rather never have a ‘Call Me Maybe’ again.”
I feel like I’ve found a sweet spot. I like having this career, but also being able to go out to dinner and not have it be a crazy thing. At the very most, it’s just one nice person being like, “I love your album!” That’s it. It’s never somebody trying to attack you or get you to sign a million things.
Honestly, you saying that makes me surprised you were so willing to go back and revisit an album with me today. You strike me as someone who’d prefer to be entirely unplugged from those sorts of conversations.
I think a certain amount of being unplugged is very healthy. But I think that, like anyone, I can have my moments: “I was just on Instagram for 45 minutes and I don’t know what I did. I think I just looked at a bunch of cats?” I am very aware of how easy it is to get hooked into that world. What I learned about looking yourself up online is to only do that when you’re in the right headspace and for a limited amount of time—and only if you’re not basing your opinions on what you’re reading.
Most of the time, though, I like not living in that world too much. Honestly, I just learned about Reddit. I’m like a little grandma in certain ways.
To be upfront with you, I spend a lot of time on pop music forums, one of which has a Dedicated thread that’s nearly 600 pages long.
Oh, shit. That’s amazing. Well, maybe it’s good I stay away. I’ll get a big head and then no one will be able to stand me!
Are there things that you learned from making E•MO•TION that you still carry with you today?
First and foremost: Never give your opinion away. Making Kiss, I was sort of like, “I’d like it if you liked it first” instead of realizing that I had my own opinion. If you don’t have that, what are you offering? That’s a really simple lesson, but it took me until this album to learn it.
If you had the chance to go back and give any song the proper single treatment, which would you choose?
The song “Emotion” itself could have been fun to do a video for. I mean, who knows? There’s still time. That’s what we’re learning about this five-year celebration.
Maybe for the 25-year.
I like your thinking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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