So you’ve just scored a No. 1 single in 18 countries, a song so huge it’s spawned countless spoofs and spinoffs, and then become the best-selling track of the year. The follow-up pressure is enormous: What do you do next? Canadian composer Carly Rae Jepsen, who accomplished that stunning feat with her 2012 earworm “Call Me Maybe,” chose an unusual path to her next album, last year’s sonically adventurous Emotion. She disappeared from the pop world entirely and retreated to Broadway instead.
It turned out to be a smart move. After touring the world with Justin Bieber — who first discovered “Call Me Maybe” back in 2011 and brought Jepsen to the attention of manager Scooter Braun — she was desperate to decompress.
So, for 12 strenuous weeks, the pixie-ish pop star switched gears and played Ella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s production of Cinderella. “I was looking forward to doing something a little out of my comfort zone, and also right in line with my passion,” she explains. “And musical theater and Broadway has been something that I’ve dreamed of my entire life. I trained in musical theater in college. So when I heard that Cinderella was an option, I was fighting for it with everything that I had.”
Jepsen jumped right into the deep end with the show. On her opening night, she was supposed to trip casually down a staircase, placing her glass-slippered foot on Stair Step #3 on a precise beat to the song she was singing, where the spotlight would hit it and glitter. “But my big toe got caught on the slipper, and rather than placing it gently on X-marks-the-spot, I kicked it into the audience. And in embarrassing moments, I have a weird reaction, so instead of being scared, I hysterically started laughing and couldn’t stop. But that’s the joy of live theater — it’s all happening right in front of you, and you have to roll with the punches.”
It was during her Cinderella run that Jepsen had the songwriting breakthrough she needed. Ultimately, she penned over 250 songs for Emotion, including an entire album’s worth of specifically acoustic-folk material, à la her 2008 Canadian debut Tug of War She was rebelling against the sugary pop sweetness of “Call Me Maybe,” she admits. But once she sat down with three friends in New York to concoct the record’s jubilant title track, things started to click.
“It felt like the first song where I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want. It feels really real, and it feels authentically me,’” she recalls. “And once we had that first song, the rest of the album just took shape really quickly.” Rejuvenated, the star went on to collaborate with talents like Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij (“Warm Blood”) and Sia (“Boy Problems”). Singles like “I Really Like You” and “Run Away With Me,” meanwhile, boast quirky hooks that are still undeniably Jepsen, landing Emotion on a number of critics’ Top 10 lists.
Jepsen clearly comprehends that art should please the artist first. “But I have to say, from this experience, one of the things I was lucky to do was to work with many different types of writers,” she notes. “And I think that only strengthens your own writing. Because, when two minds combine that way, you challenge each other. And sometimes you learn, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool tool! I’m going to use that from here on in now, thank you very much!’”