“You can never get it better than that first take. Sometimes that’s the magic right there.”
It would be easy to merely duplicate the formula of 2011’s ubiquitous Call Me Maybe, but Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t one for repeating herself. “I wanted to make an album that had different layers to it,” she says. “The songs had to be about the story and the emotion, the longing. You need to be invested in the story of a song that also has great hooks in it.”
To do just that for her new album E·MO·TION, Jepsen spanned the globe to co-write and co-produce a dozen songs with the likes of Sia, Peter Svensson (The Cardigans, Ariana Grande), Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Madonna, Major Lazer), and Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend). From the percussive glee of Run Away With Me to the perfectly cool ’80s vibe of the mega hit I Really Like You to the Purple Rain-like emotional tug of All That, Jepsen has taken her electro-pop roots to another level.
Jepsen called Digital Trends (definitely) to discuss her songwriting process, her love of vinyl, and how one of her favorite songwriters of all time might approach covering Call Me Maybe. We really really really really really really liked hearing about all of it.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Digital Trends: How do you usually do your demos? Do you sing them into your phone as voice memos and then go into the studio to work on them?
Carly Rae Jepsen: It’s different every time. The more proper demos are done in the studio where you’re trying to put the idea together, when you’re trying to pick the right producer, and when you’re trying to get the label onboard. But sometimes I’ll hear a little vocal melody in my head and some words will form with it at the same time, and it’s not going anywhere. The next thing I know, I have to document it just in case, and a voice memo is one of the easiest ways of doing that to have it for later.
That reminds me of the classic story of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, when he had the tape recorder next to his bed in his hotel room that time he woke up in the middle of the night and played Satisfaction into it on his acoustic guitar before falling back to sleep. Do you feel using the voice memo is similar to that — if you don’t get it in the moment, you lose it?
I definitely feel that way if I’ve written something in the middle of the night. I have this really strange sort of thing where I feel like I’m dreaming a song — it’s not with every song, but I’ll wake up with a full-blown kind of melody, verse, or chorus in place, almost as if someone had already written it. I’ve always felt that to be a little bit like magic, to be honest.
I do believe that half of songwriting is just believing in your ideas. I don’t know where that kind of positive vibe comes from. It’s the one place in my life where I do have confidence, so it feels very important to me.
Is there one particular song on E·MO·TION where you feel everything came together perfectly on the back end, that the production realized the original ideas you had?
More like pieces of songs that have come to me that way. The song that I do with Rostam from Vampire Weekend, Warm Blood — some of the melodies were in a different form from another song I had done earlier that we gave a new facelift to. And the way that facelift began was just like one of those nights where you wake up in the middle of it, and there’s the verse! And that was (sings), “I’ve got a cavern of secrets / None of them are for you.” I showed that to Rostam at the studio the next day, and it turned out that it really jibed together well with something he was playing. That was another one of those magical moments — the perfect combination for what your mood was that day, what you were already counting on doing and bringing it all together.
How do you personally listen to music yourself these days?
Well, I bought myself a record player! (laughs) It was one of the first and only purchases I made when I moved my things into my apartment in L.A. a couple of years ago — just a mattress and a record player! I only just started my collection over the last two or three years. When I go through it, I’m my grandmother’s daughter, because the majority of stuff is from the 1940s — it’s like, everything Billie Holliday has ever made! (laughs)
“I can’t decide how other people find music. As long as you’re finding it — that’s the main thing.”
I found that as I was mixing this album, I listened to stuff from the ’40s as a palette cleanser from making ’80s-style music during the day, which was enough of a vacation from it. I always think of those classic, standard jazz songs in the same way as what I love about pop music. There’s a kind of challenge to really try and evoke an emotion in such a simple way. It’s something that hits you on the first listen, and I think jazz songs have that capability — where they’re simple, but they’re potent. I think pop songs can be the same way.
Does listening to music on vinyl sound better to you than it does on other formats?
It’s just different. There is something that I like about the actual process of it — looking through the vinyl, picking out the one you want, and putting it on. The old-fashioned romantic in me finds the whole experience of it to be charming.
I do love the idea too that you’re more conscious of your music that way. You put the album on, and you can be your own DJ again. There’s a conscious choice as to how your day is moving, because you’re involved with it.
Do you have a favorite vinyl album you keep putting on again and again?
Actually, in just the past year, I’m new to discovering Chet Baker. You hear about his stories, and half his songs are about his lovers. In the beginning, he’s not able to be public about them being male. You cue these songs like Just Friends, and it just kills you.
What do you think about streaming?
I can’t decide how other people find music. As long as you’re finding it, that’s the main thing — having the access to all the stuff that’s coming out. For me, I’ve listened to music in all sorts of ways, and I just personally prefer record players. That’s why I look forward to making the vinyl for E·MO·TION. That’s where I’ll feel like it’s when I truly hold my music in my hands, you know?
So we’ll be getting a 180-gram vinyl version of E·MO·TION, then?
It’s very odd, timing-wise, for this sort of interview, because someone from the label later is coming over with the first vinyl for me to check to make sure it came out well. So that will be a cool moment.
Congratulations on that. Overall, E·MO·TION is kind of a perfect ’80s callback album. It feels like it could have come out in 1983, or something.
Oh, wow, thank you! I wasn’t sure that I would be doing a period piece or not, but I do know that I definitely wanted to have elements of the ’80s in there. And that’s what came out! I think ’80s music can go really dramatic, and it can go really light.
A lot of times when I go in the studio, I don’t have the intention of making any “type” of song. I just naturally sort of found myself getting back to the ’80s niche. Whenever I stepped away from it, I still kept going back to it.
Is there a particular song or album from that era that you consider the blueprint for the kind of ’80s sound you wanted?
“The old-fashioned romantic in me finds the whole experience of vinyl to be charming.”
There’s so much stuff that I love that I couldn’t narrow it down to one song. I can narrow down the moments that I got tracked by the ’80s again in a big way, like [Cyndi Lauper’s] Girls Just Want to Have Fun. That song is timeless, and it has those special qualities. I would put it out as is right now without changing a bloody thing! There are not a lot of songs that you can say that about.
And the lyrics [by Robert Hazard] are just genius! As somebody who’s found herself fascinated by lyrics and how much they can say in such a short amount of time, they just make you want to sing along — even on the verses, where you get the deeper story about this sort of, I don’t know, this chaotic thing that’s going on.
Let’s talk more about your recording process. Warm Blood has some interesting vocal effects on it. How do you decide where those effects go, when to be breathy, and when to whisper?
First of all, credit has to be given to Rostam, because he came up with the decision to change my vocal down and lowered the pitch to make it sound warped in an almost scary, Vampirish way. We both immediately liked it, in a creepy kind of way.
The decision to sing it a pitch lower on the verse had to do with the fact that I had shown up one day, and my voice was a little shot. The idea was that I would come back and sing it “properly” once I’d recovered, but we ended up getting married to how it sounded since my voice was kind of smokier, so we kept it.
I like that it’s not overly processed. Sometimes songs can get the emotion produced right out of them, and taking any of that out would almost be a false move and actually eliminate some of your character here.
I think it’s a constant challenge to want to make things polished yet at the same time, you have to be careful to walk that line as delicately as possible, so that you don’t ever fall too far on the wrong side of the fence.
A lot writers say, “first take, best take,” “first idea, best idea.” You can play the feel out of anything by taking too many cracks at it.
I do believe there’s something about that initial spark that you need to go back to and “A and B” with what you’ve produced, because there really was something to that initial idea that you messed with.
A lot of my songs have benefited from going back and re-analyzing them after some significant time away. Does this take have enough emotion, or as much emotion as when I’ll go, “I remember when I wrote that”? You know, all of that. And then go back and realize, “Are we really improving what we’re making here?” and challenge it. I found that all of my best material has come from going away from it and then coming back to it again.
Do you have a favorite Canadian songwriter?
Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. I think they’d have to be tied, because they were such soundtracks of my childhood. There’s some nostalgia there for me. I think A Case of You by Joni Mitchell might be one of the most beautiful songs in the entire world. (sings) “I could drink a case of you, darling / And I would still be on my feet.”
“Half of songwriting is just believing in your ideas.”
Ahh, that’s a great choice! You know, I’d actually like to hear Leonard Cohen do that first little hit of yours. Could you imagine him doing Call Me Maybe? How awesome would that be?
(laughs hysterically) He’d probably do it like a spoken word thing, and have those angelic women doing the backup. (continues laughing) Ah hah, hah! That song has been covered enough, I’ll let him off the hook!
Could you see yourself doing a bare bones, raw, stripped-down version of Call Me Maybe in, say, 20 years down the line?
No — well, I don’t know. That song and I, it doesn’t even really feel like I’m being a part of it so much as where it sounds more like crowds celebrate for a second. I never feel like I’m singing it on my own. It kind of feels like something that the crowd takes over, and I can just bounce around to it. (laughs)
Songs are blueprints of when you wrote them and they evolve over time, so it will be interesting to see how your songs evolve as we keep going forward.
Yeah. I think some of my favorite performances are exactly someone’s own work where they’ve taken a song you’re familiar with — and not ruined it by any means, but added a new texture or a remix of sorts to it. Just stripping it down and making it acoustic is one of the ways we can add a new color.
Who knows? To do it with Call Me Maybe — I think that’s one of the ones where we’ll have to see if I’ll want to give it a different look and try something “refreshing,” I guess. (chuckles)