Carly Rae Jepsen Is Poised to Be Top of the Pops

What artist has benefited more from the genre’s newfound seriousness?

Photo by Markus&Koala

It’s indisputable that over the past decade, perceptions of super-serious music-lovers have shifted when it comes to pop music. What was once viewed as disposable, manufactured crap is now being seen as a genuine artform, worthy of Coachella.

Perhaps this is partly due to the arty, uncompromising career of Lady Gaga, or how Lorde makes a point of not fitting in with traditional pop-celebrity norms. Or maybe we can tip a hat to John Seabrook’s unflinching look at how the sausage is made in his frankly magnificent book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. But what isn’t in doubt is that artists like Carly Rae Jepsen benefit from this sea change.

The Canadian singer, songwriter, and actress has been at this for 12 years now, since she was 21. In that time, her sound has matured considerably. (Her lyrics sure-as-shit have.) Jepsen’s career has taken her from her early-20s to mid-30s, but she hasn’t lost any of the fresh, hooky fun that made her music so attractive when she released her debut, Tug of War, in 2008.

This May, she released her fourth studio album, Dedicated, her first since 2015’s Emotion. The response so far, from critics and fans, has been largely positive, as it should be. This is an intelligent pop record from a singer on top of her game, both in terms of her vocals and writing. Jepsen is glad other people like it, although she admits that she’s been largely oblivious to the response.

“I’ve been in travel mode,” she says. “We did seven different countries in two-and-a-half months. I’ve been exhilarated and excited to play some of the new songs — not all of them yet — but it’s been a different kind of whirlwind. I’ve been grateful for the change because, of course, when you’re making an album, you’re just in that heady space of ‘Is this the right mood I want for this song?’ So it’s a nice, new energy for me, for sure.”

Jepsen, who we’ve snagged for a chat during a break while she’s rehearsing for her forthcoming tour, says that she knows she’s grown as a songwriter, performer, and singer since Emotion.

“I think I’ve grown to have more confidence in my line of pop music and what I feel comfortable making, and what I feel inspired to make,” she says. “Not judging it next to anything else and knowing that those who connect to it will connect. There’s been freedom in that, I think. When I was younger and first moved to Los Angeles, I think I was in the space of ‘What will people like?’ rather than ‘What will feel authentic and true to me?’ That’s a scary and brave thing to do in music, but I think I’m getting better and better at that.”

We put it to Jepsen that this is a great time for pop music, and that she appears to be on the verge of breaking into the genre’s premier league. She stops short at rah-rah-ing herself, but she’s astute when assessing the music.

“I’ve always taken pop seriously,” she says. “Start with a melody and the lyrics, and it’s just the music that I make. But indie lovers are seeing pop as a harder thing to do than you might have anticipated, considering it’s sometimes classified as bubblegum and simple. I also think pop has diversified in what it means. It’s not just this pigeonholed idea of the girl has to look like this and the guy has to dance like that. The music has to sound this one way. The beautiful thing about what has been done this past decade is it’s shown you that anybody can be a pop artist. There’s not one way to go about it.”

Of course, a lot has happened between the releases of Emotion and Dedicated, with the 2016 election at the top of that list. Jepsen says that there’s no way it couldn’t have had an impact on her writing. Perhaps a more overt inspiration has been a strong interest in ’70s disco, particularly ABBA, the Bee-Gees, and Donna Summer. In fact, Jepsen even admits to the creation of a “secret” album that will likely remain unreleased.

“I had an album I named Disco Sweat that will probably never be released, and shouldn’t,” Jepsen says. “I started off with a very strong intention to make an understated disco, living room dance party thing. I think that came from going to Sweden and really digging into some ABBA stuff. Then exploring the ’70s. I did ’80s last time, maybe I’ll do this. But it was never that simple. I think there are songs on the new album that achieved kinda what I was envisaging, I think ‘Julian’ is a good example of that. I ended up getting out of a rut, and found some songs that were a little ’90s that I wanted to include, a little something that made more sense than this Disco Sweat, that will be buried in my backyard.”

As we mentioned, Jepsen is currently deep into rehearsals for this tour, and the details for the San Francisco set have yet to be nailed down. But we can expect some big things.

“I’m really digging into it,” she says. “I’m in the middle of doing the video work and all the really fun details that go along with scripting a show. This does feel like the tour I’ve been waiting to do so far in my life. I’ve learned so much from the past, and this one feels like it’s mine so I hope it’s something that flies. We’ll have to see.”

And what’s next? Perhaps greatness?

“Whatever road I’m carving is my own little path,” she says. “It’s a fun path to walk down and there’s a surprise at every turn. We’ll see what happens next.”

Carly Rae Jepsen, with St. Lucia, Mansionair, Friday, June 28, 7:30 p.m., at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St. $49.50, billgrahamcivic.com

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