An interview with Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen is a world renowned entertainer. Since her mega hit, “Call Me Maybe,” she had a stint on Broadway playing the title character in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, played Frenchie in Grease:Live!, and come out with what Cosmopolitan hailed as the number one album of 2015, saying it was “joyous, relatable, and catchy to the point that your brain will temporarily contain nothing but Carly Rae lyrics after just one listen.” Carly Rae is a fascinating artist who knows how to craft good writing into good sound.
I was lucky enough to speak with her by phone the other day to talk about her recent accomplishments, as well as her upcoming show at the Cannery Ballroom on March 14. As a fan of her work, I was very excited to talk with her about her history, her work on Grease:Live! and why it took so long for this album to come out. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
Can I call you Carly Rae?
Yeah, you can call me Carly if ya want, but whatever works for you.
Ok, Carly. It’s really nice to meet you by phone. I’m really excited for this. I’ve got some questions for you, so let’s get started! In my research, I found that, like many artists, you’re Canadian. Tell me a little about how you got involved in theatre as a kid.
Well, theatre was absolutely my passion. Part of the reason I picked Heritage Park was that it was attached to a theatre. I wanted to be as close to a stage as possible, and to have the ability to learn about it.
That’s really neat. Reading through your background seeing that you have done so much theatre, it’s really great that you had that experience.
Yeah, I was really lucky. I had great teachers, David Spire and Beverly Holmes, a duet of young teachers who were just really into theater and jazz music and putting on performances, and they were constantly giving me so much guidance and opportunity and kept really pushing me so I was very lucky in High School to have that.
That’s so cool. You must have been listening to a lot of different types of music. What kind of sounds were you into?
I probably had some strange tastes compared to what kids my age were listening to. I was really into what my parents were listening to which was more on the folkier side. I think some of my favorites were Sinead O’Connor, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. That’s what my parents were always listening to in the house growing up and I think it wasn’t until later on that I discovered Spice Girls and thought ‘Ah, it’s so pop and so different from anything my parents have shown me’ and there was such a real joy to it that I was very attracted to. But it wasn’t until I was 17 that I started writing. I really started more in the folk area before I got into the pop side.
Yeah, I was actually headed there next. Listening to your first album Tug of War, it’s immensely different from anything like what you’re known for now. It’s very folk. That came out in 2008, right?
Yeah, it’s such a great album!
Thank you so much!
But it’s so different from KISS and Emotion. You’ve got the electropop sound on point in those albums, but I was really curious as to where the folksiness of Tug of War came from, so it makes a lot of sense that’s what you were listening to.
Yeah! I’ve think the assumption is if you make one type of music, that’s all you’re supposed to be attracted to, but I go very much into the vocal greats. My first attempt at writing was almost journal entries put to music. I had no idea how to make a song, but I had songs and I wanted to share them. I met Ryan Stewart and we worked on that album. It was more of a passion project than anything. I was just beyond delighted when it started getting some radio play. That was before I had a label or anything, so it was just one of those incredible things. I didn’t start writing pop until Ryan asked me to write for a pop group coming out of Toronto, I don’t remember their names, but he said ‘Can you help me to try and write a pop song for them.’ I remember working on it with him and feeling like there was a high from the challenge of trying to make everything so potent and important, the way you have to in a pop song. I really got off on it and kind of switched gears after that and just felt that my new passion was really trying to find out what it was about that I loved about pop music.
Wow. So it must have been really awesome having "Call Me Maybe" be your first big hit, right?
Well, it was such a sweet surprise. Ya know I’d been waitressing in Canada and every minimum wage job possible. I started making radio money off of Tug of War and I had the cover of John Denver’s "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and then to my surprise and delight, the song "Tug of War" got some airplay there, we got top 10 with that and the same with the song "Bucket," which were all kind of folky pop. I was actually able to quit my waitressing job. If you’d have asked me then, I really thought that I had made it. All I wanted to do was make a life out of music, so I was excited to be making enough money to not be waitressing anymore. So when I got signed to indie label in Canada, they signed me as a folky-pop artist. I remember going in on day and saying, ‘Ok, I know you all wanted me to do this, but I’ve had a change of heart. I want to make a pop album’ I had some songs I had in mind for them, but then they said ‘Well, what about this song 'Call Me Maybe'’ I just didn’t know about it. I asked all my friends and family and it just became obvious that it stuck out. So I released it at radio and yeah, it became really exciting. I think it became top ten here before I even knew about it and then Justin Bieber came to town and tweeted it. Then it was EVERYWHERE. It was a really strange thing because it was almost like a dream you had forgotten. I thought it would be great to have something like that but never dreamed it would actually happen. It was a late-in-life fairytale.
So since then, you’ve recorded with Owl Smith and Justin Bieber. Do you think that your relationships you’d cultivated with Owl City’s Adam Smith and Justin Bieber propelled your success?
I absolutely think that Justin has been a fighter for me in this, and I’ve been a fan of Owl City since probably before he even knew me, and when he asked me to sing on his tune with him. From that moment, and still even today, I make decisions on whether I want to do it or not instead of thinking about if it’s a good idea or not. And I’m just really glad I did it. He’s a huge talent. I really like his style. So yeah, those are two people that have been helping to guide me in this new world of Los Angeles and in the world of pop music, for sure.
That’s so great. Now, I feel like I’m making a sharp turn in this interview, but so did you, kind of. After the success of "Call Me Maybe" and your KISS album, you took a turn to Broadway. You were the title character in Cinderella with Fran Drescher playing your stepmother. Quick question about that, did she laugh all the time like she did on The Nanny?
(laughter) She does have that voice for real and she does have that laugh for real, and that’s one of the many reasons I love her. Yeah, it was a big left turn in a lot of people’s eyes. But as you know, from my history of loving theatre and kind of dreaming before I ever thought of songwriting, I always wanted to be a part of a big production like that. It was just one of those things that I had to say yes to, even though it was intimidating and terrifying all at once. I met with the director and I met with Fran and had a feeling that it was going to be one of those experiences I’d never forget, so I signed myself on up and I’ll never regret it! It was only supposed to be a 3 month run, but we ended up extending to eight months in total, I think? Yeah. Eight months I lived in New York working on that show. Man… I think it’s just really healthy for me to just jump from theatre projects into my own personal writing music projects, and kind of get that balance between the two. There’s just something you get from being a part, like a thread in a story of a Broadway production that that’s very humbling and good for you brain, and then to go back to use all that you’ve learned about singing, about performing and be able to add those stage elements where you have a bit more of control and spontaneity in the moment, I just think it always adds so much to my music.
I was a little surprised myself to hear about you taking on a Broadway show, but when I read a little more about you, it really wasn’t surprising at all. So, back to your music, you released Emotion at the end of August in North America. You hadn’t released an album since 2012. Some would call that three year span taking a break. Is that what you would call it?
I really feel like, when you say 3 years, in my mind it feels so much shorter than that. But it definitely wasn’t a break. It was more of an exploration, a time to really figure out what it was about the industry that I really wanted to hold on to and what I wanted to shake off. I had such a gift with that song "Call Me Maybe," but it was also an undeniable challenge to come back from that and figure out what kind of music I wanted to continue making. The pretty obvious thing to me at the time that I was able to articulate before I even started making the album was that I wanted to discover what I loved about pop music so much. I didn’t want to feel any of the pressures of needing to make the same thing twice. So I talked to my management and the label, not to take a little hiatus as to not work my ass off, but to do exactly that, to figure out what kind of album I had in me to share. So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote… I was making sessions where there weren’t any. I was writing alone, I was writing in partnership. I was learning a lot about who I am as a writer and other strategies how to write. Slowly but surely, I had about 150, maybe 200 ideas and probably 100 fully achieved, produced songs. It was one of those things I needed to get out of my system before I landed on the songs that you hear on the album. All this was going on while I was doing the Broadway production and living in New York. I still feel so lucky that I had that time to travel and write.
So I know we’re running out of time here, so quickly, let’s talk about Grease: Live! What was that experience like, and also how did it feel to be playing Frenchie with the original Didi Conn in the production as well?
Grease: Live! was one of those experiences you’ll never get to repeat. It was a couple months of living with these people who are all pining for this same end goal; putting on this performance. Something that will pay major props and respect to the original yet offering some new elements to it. I think maybe what attracted me to it wasn’t necessarily the idea of a movie remake, but it being a live musical theatre production on TV. Which, if you’re going to do something that’s this kind of a classic, you’ve gotta add your own spin to it. And I’d heard incredible things about the director, Tommy Kail and his work with Hamilton and obviously a lot of successful projects, and I got excited about challenging myself in a way that I found to be scary, but mostly exciting. And I’m really glad I did it. I met a lot of incredible people in the process, Didi Conn being one of them. She’s just my idol, she’s very very sweet, very very giving, very very talented, and, in a big way, someone that I was leaning on a lot throughout the process, because it was a new world for me, TV. And acting is obviously not something that I have been brought up on, even though it’s always been my secret passion and secret joy, but it was something that I felt really new to. So it was lovely to be able to go to her to talk about those insecurities get warmth and confidence from her.
Ok. So it’s time for me to wrap it up, so last question. What do you have to say to your listeners in Nashville who are coming to the show at Cannery?
I just wanna put on a party for you. The making of this album has been such a turning point, so this tour just feels like an after-celebration of that time and I work I put in for years. So if you love pop music or even if your just curious about pop music, come to our show and we’ll show you everything that we love about it and hopefully get you grooving with us.
That’s so cool. I’m so excited about this show, and I know my readers are as well. Good luck on your tour and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and I can’t wait to see you at the Cannery!
Yeah! You too! And thank you!
Talking to Carly was like talking to the sweetest girl next door there has ever been. She had such a gracious, kind tone in her that made her feel so genuine and that I’d known her for years. Her album Emotion is something you need to go get now and listen to. If you love the pure pop sounds of the 80s and 90s, that of Madonna, maybe with the folksiness of Jewel, and the ability to convey a story in a pop song that isn’t just bubble gum, you’ll love Emotion from Carly Rae Jepsen. The depth of her catalogue of songs is so deep and meaningful that she is so worth listening to. TIME Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, New York Daily News and so many others have given it critical acclaim due to the fact that it truly is one of the best pop albums to come out in years.