by Bill Palmer
“It’s hard not to feel ecstatic,” says an upbeat Carly Rae Jepsen who sounds way too happy for someone who just woke up for an early morning interview after having been up most of the night working on a new song with a big name producer. She had been tempted to be intimidated when she first met him, until his cellphone rang and his ringtone turned out to be Call Me Maybe. After all, that’s her song.
Call Me Maybe has taken the nation by storm in the type of phenomenon which only comes along once every few years. But while the song seemed to come out of nowhere, Carly spent years in Vancouver trying to get her music career off the ground before suddenly finding American fame this year. It’s a story which involves playing at pubs while supporting herself as a bartender, a fortuitous stint on Canadian Idol, paths colliding with Justin Bieber, and it all culminates this week with the release of her album Kiss.
“I had every job you can name when I was working in Vancouver,” the twenty-six year old says of her years in obscurity. “It was kind of a brutal awakening. After a year of performing arts college, there wasn’t just this job you could line up and be a singer. You kind of had to still start from the ground up and work at it. I was fronting a swing band while I was pastry chef assisting, and I was bartending while I was playing little piccadilly pubs, and I even hosted this little Vancouver acoustic singer-songwriter night at the coffee shop I was working at.”
Then she tried out for Canadian Idol “just by chance” and ended up parlaying it into popularity in her home country. “To be very honest, I had been knocking on a lot of doors, and at this point I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what was going to be a part of my story. But I did have some sort of faith that something was going to work. I don’t know if it was blind faith or what. I did feel like if I kept trying, something would happen. On that show I do remember thinking, okay, this might be my door to at least getting to put a record out in Canada. When I found out that I made it through on the show, I didn’t expect to place third or go as far as I did. I did hope to do something with it. Even if I got a tiny bit of exposure, I was planning to run with it after the show was done.”
Somewhere along the line, fellow Canadian musician Justin Bieber became her biggest fan. “The entire beginning with Justin began with a tweet. I actually remember my sister calling me thrilled and excited. I could barely understand her: ‘Justin has tweeted about your song.’ I do remember thinking that she must be wrong, and I had to go and see if it was actually Justin’s verified account. When in fact I did go check and realized that it was him, I remember thinking well that’s strange and random and awesome and I have no idea why this is happening, but that’s great. Then it just continued. His girlfriend put out a picture of him smiling while he was listening to the song. His friends put up this jet plane dance. And then of course the viral video came out. Every week a little more craziness would happen with him supporting the song and seeing what he could do to create some vibes. It was so unexpected and so wonderful.”
Now she’s signed to his label, and she’s found herself in the unusual position of crafting the rest of the album after its first single has already become a hit. She says the rest of Kiss isn’t crafted to sound like Call Me Maybe, though. “I think more that this experience has influenced that,” she says of traveling the world on whirlwind promotional tours while finishing the album in between them. “I write from life, and you can’t not say that this experience is affecting what I’m writing now because there’s even a song about the travel involved because there is so much travel. I want to talk about seeing Paris, and I want to talk about seeing New York for the first time, and LA, and those introductions to these places through work. And so yeah, I think it has definitely an effect on what I’m writing. But I try not to think too much about ever writing to sell, or writing for some sort of expectation of the type of music that I’m doing. I just want to write about the experiences that I’m living through.”
Carly Rae Jepsen is not your prototypical pop star. On her last album Tug Of War she covered John Denver. Growing up she thought James Taylor was “the bomb” and Leonard Cohen was “where it was at.” Like most kids she listened to what her parents listened to when she was little. But “unlike most kids, I loved it.”
So did she come out of the womb singing? “I don’t think it’s too far from the truth, actually. I was lucky enough that I grew up in a family where there was always music playing. My dad used to play guitar before bed, and my brother and sister and I would sing along. It was definitely part of my life, but I think I was the one child out of the three who couldn’t stop singing and couldn’t stop performing. My parents took notice of that. By the time I was seven, actually, they asked if I wanted to sing on stage in front of people. I was so thrilled at the idea, and I did my first performance ever when I was seven years old.”
She’s also getting her first taste of international fame a bit later in life than most of her fellow female pop stars who found their way to popularity while they were still barely adults. “I know that I’m grateful to be twenty-six and experiencing this,” she says of the additional life experience before things took off. “It’s a lot. The travel is a lot. The workload is a lot. The transition in my life is a lot. Even having other people’s opinion on what to put out and what type of musician I am is a lot. Knowing that and having that time in Canada to realize this is what I like, this is the sound I’m after, this is the woman that I am, is information that I’m grateful that I’m grateful for and I probably wouldn’t have had if I were twenty-two years old. So for me it’s the right time. There’s also a feeling of appreciation that I don’t think I would have had, had I not experienced those late night coffee shop hours and the piccadilly pubs. None of this would be quite as exciting, had I not known the grunt work of it all too.”
Kiss includes a pair of high profile duets. The first, an up tempo collaboration with Owl City called Good Time, is already on the charts. The other is, naturally, with Bieber. “It’s something that happened the first day that we met,” she recalls. “He invited me down to his studio in LA and showed me a few of the songs off his album. By the fourth song in, he turned and said ‘What do you think of this one?’ Luckily enough, it was my favorite song. He suggested that I sing on it, and I was like, I’d love to do that one day. And then Scooter [Braun] comes over and he’s like, ‘I think he means now. Want to jump on the studio and work on it tonight?’ Okay. And there was a room full of people that I’ve never met before, and this was my first introduction to Scooter and Justin and LA. But I was thrown in the booth and away I went, and the song was completely that night.”
The whirlwind year of creating an album to go along with the Call Me Maybe phenomenon has had a just a few moments where she was able to catch her breath. London sticks out because “I was able to take five days in the same place and we got to explore a little bit.” At some point she got three days back home. “I had dinner with my parents, I had a little bit of a house party with all my friends, and I even got to go on a nice little Vancouver hike one of the mornings.” And what to make of returning as an international pop sensation to the town where she used to collect spare change from coffee shop audience members on her behalf? “Every time I go back there it’s always going to feel the most surreal.”
Carly Rae Jepsen sounds impossibly upbeat about life. She can’t always be this ecstatic, can she? “I’m human and I have all of the emotions just as much as anyone has,” she admits. “But I would say I have a lot to be happy right now, so it’s no wonder that I feel as happy as I feel, because I feel extremely lucky. I feel like I’m living my dream.”