Carly Rae Jepsen Has a Cynical Side

But she’s still optimistic about love.

Photo: Tina Tyrell
Photo: Tina Tyrell

Carly Rae Jepsen has a lot of feelings. If you’ve heard her songs, you know this: Intense crushes, first loves, and devastating breakups make up the musical vocabulary of the bubblegum-pop princess (or queen, if you ask her fans) who pours her heart into critically acclaimed records. In conversation, she’ll casually drop deep thoughts about romance between updates on her meditation journey (she just started) and riffs on Billie Holiday. “When you feel euphorically in love,” she tells me conspiratorially, “it feels like a miracle that’s happened only to you.” But Jepsen also knows she’s not the only one who feels this way. “It’s an extreme emotion that we experience privately but is universally shared,” she says of her most frequent subject.

When I meet Jepsen on a fall afternoon in New York, the light is glinting off her star-and-moon nail decals while she gestures wildly into the aisle of the Central Park Boathouse. Dressed in a black crepe turtleneck and a quilted jacket-and-short set, she stands out amid the Canon-toting tourists and uptown retirees sitting on the Boathouse’s back porch, overlooking the park’s lake. She is, to put it mildly, happy to be here. Her eyes, accented at the corners with little clusters of face sequins, widen incredulously when our salads arrive. She speaks quickly and a little breathlessly, as if she has too many thoughts to squeeze into a single sentence. At one point, our waiter tells her she looks like an actor from House of the Dragon, which she takes as a compliment — despite having never heard of the show.

She launches into a story about planning the So Nice Tour, which began in September and will incorporate songs from her fifth album, The Loneliest Time. “I was getting so fixated on the video-wall content and the placement of our hands and where the clouds were and the moon being timed right that I was talking a million miles a minute and losing my voice,” she tells me. “I had to give myself a real talking to, like, None of this will matter if you can’t sing!” She pauses briefly to marvel at the olive focaccia another uniformed waiter forks onto our plates. Her meticulously planned celestial-themed manicure, she explains, will come off the second she wraps the tour in February. “I can’t text. Everything comes out like a haiku.”

Being back in New York is a treat for the Canadian native, who decided at the last minute to stay at the Plaza in order to give herself a brief respite from her first week of tour-bus coffee and corporate hotels. “Look at this!” she sighs, beaming and stretching her arm toward the rowboat-dotted water. “Look where we are right now! I didn’t know this existed.” Her giddiness makes our surroundings feel like a cross between a ’90s romantic comedy and an advertising campaign for the city. “Days like this make me want to move to New York,” she admits.

Photo: Tina Tyrell

While she may be “coquettishly” browsing apartments here, Jepsen’s home base is Los Angeles. Amid the explosion of “Call Me Maybe,” the inescapable hit that made her a household name and tween birthday party staple, the musician left Vancouver and settled in California, where she’s been living since 2012 — though between tours and festivals, she confesses, it quickly became more like where her clothes lived. In the past decade, Jepsen has evolved into a more mature musician and earned herself a spot in the pantheon of low-key pop girls with passionate, if small, fan bases and plenty of clout with music critics. Her songs still clearly come from the same artist who sang “Call Me Maybe,” and for every deeply confessional lyric, there’s an irresistible hook that loops joyously in your head for days. But the candid uncoolness of her writing, full of yearning and the outlandish fantasies that come with having a crush on someone you barely know, is offset by a surprisingly indie-leaning roster of collaborators. (Dev Hynes and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij have both made appearances in her liner notes alongside more predictable pop writers such as Jack Antonoff.) In the world of Jepsen’s music, the emotions are just as big as the saxophone riffs, and your most desperate, heartbreaking thoughts can become glittery pop anthems to belt out in the shower.

The concept behind her new album stems from a deep-rooted feeling of discomfort. “It’s been a lifelong inquiry that I’ve had with myself about my relationship to loneliness,” Jepsen explains. “The idea that you have to be happy by yourself — like, ‘Go be alone and be happy!’ — that’s bullshit to me. You become really happy on your own when you know you have connections out there.” She finds isolation and connection to be two sides of the same coin: Being lonely can bring people together, hopefully through music like her own. “Loneliness is a similar thing to love,” she says, digging into her “insane” peach-cake dessert. “It’s felt everywhere by everyone at different moments in their life.”

The Loneliest Time is an extension of Jepsen’s familiar, infectious sound — but tinged with cynicism. She wrote most of it during the pre-vaccine months of the pandemic, quarantined at home in L.A. Having spent most of her adult life working, traveling, and recording, she was suddenly, undeniably, “home alone with the cat.” The existential-crisis questions rushed in: Was she happy being on the road this often? Did she need more balance? Was she connected enough with her family and friends? She ventured onto a dating app for the first time, which did not help her find love but did provide the inspiration for The Loneliest Time’s summer single, “Beach House,” a send-up of Tinder clichés. (“Boy No. 2 had a beautiful face / Highly agreed to go back to his place / His wife really had some impeccable taste,” she sings in an early verse.)

But Jepsen is quick to point out that, on “Beach House,” her cynicism is “very pointedly at the sharks and not the lovers.” If she’s sneaking fewer starry-eyed ideas about love into her music, it’s because she knows she’s not the only one experiencing those feelings. “I thought music was for escapism,” she says, but a recent James Taylor concert where she found herself having a cathartic cry made her realize something else: “It’s permission to feel whatever it is that you need to feel.” While she left that concert in a puddle of tears, you’re more likely to leave one of her shows bopping your head to a flawless pop earworm. Whether you want to dance or cry to your feelings, the outcome is the same: You’re feeling them to the fullest extent.

Photo: Tina Tyrell

Jepsen is a notoriously prolific songwriter — she’s said to have written over 200 tracks for each of her two most recent albums, which she hones down to an album length through a complex system of sticky notes, poster board, and listening parties. But The Loneliest Time was different. Instead of writing on the road, where she solicits constant feedback from her band, she was at home plowing through ideas by herself (and, occasionally, on Zoom with her collaborators). She couldn’t go into a studio to record as often as she wanted, which meant she didn’t have her usual bounty of tracks to whittle down. The seclusion ended up working to her advantage. “I thought what I was making was a little bit too strange to get right away,” she says tentatively, “and I didn’t want someone to stop me by saying a negative thing I wasn’t ready to take in yet. So my artwork itself had a lonely time.”

Once she shared the album with her label, she was surprised and a little panicked to find they liked the most personal tracks — ones she initially wrote “just for me” and would now, it seemed, be sharing with the world. Ahead of Coachella, where she debuted The Loneliest Time’s folksy lead single, “Western Wind,” she gathered her bandmates and had them check off their favorite tracks on a chart she’d drawn up. The results had very little in common genre-wise, but, she says, “they all came from a place sparked by loneliness.”

Jepsen thinks of The Loneliest Time as her most experimental project yet. The album ricochets from pop to folk to smooth disco, fully shifting into new genres rather than merely taking inspiration from them. There are plenty of Jepsen-style classics, too. The opening track, “Surrender My Heart,” is a straight shot of epic-sounding pop in which she sings about struggling to be vulnerable with a new partner. “Far Away” also lives in the scarier parts of a new relationship (and is true to Jepsen’s recent experience: She just started seeing someone whom she says she’s slowly opening up to). “Here’s a jar of tears I cried,” she sings on “Bends,” which she says is about grief, “’cause I can feel the darkness sometimes too.” There’s a slow, bitter folk ballad ingeniously titled “Go Find Yourself or Whatever,” which digs painfully into the gutting parts of a breakup instead of making them sound victorious. The title track, which comes at the end of the album, steers back into optimism and sounds as if it should be played at an ’80s roller disco.

I wonder, amid all this exploration, if anything was deemed too out there for the final cut. Jepsen’s previous two records, Dedicated and Emotion, got their own B-side releases. Will The Loneliest Time get a bolder, weirder part two? “We’ll see,” she answers thoughtfully. “I’m not sure if the world’s ready for more of that indulgence.”

Carly Rae Jepsen Has a Cynical Side