The 30-year-old Canadian singer and songwriter behind one of the decade’s biggest hits made 2015’s best pure pop album. There was only one problem: Nobody bought it. Why she’s the perfect embodiment of our weird music moment.
Carly Rae Jepsen built her career crafting fantasies that other people either believed in or wished they did, and she’s always coming up with new ones for herself. The latest goes like this: Jepsen and her boyfriend, cinematographer David Kalani Larkins, move to Spain and live in San Sebastián, a postcard paradise in the Basque country with Michelin-starred restaurants and blue-green bays. They ride bicycles to the Playa de la Concha and eat fresh peaches and drink great wine and maybe get good at surfing because why not? There, in sunny San Sebastián, are none of the gnawing annoyances that shade the reality of pop stars generally and, since the release of her latest album, Emotion, in September, Jepsen’s in particular. No monotonous meet and greets, or urgent messages on her phone asking for the approval of this or that, or repetitive interviews with journalists. Just little pleasures and time to enjoy them.
“I’ll make a quiche!” she told me this fall in a tiny, rustic New York coffee shop that served vegan banana quinoa muffins. “That’s like my main famous dish. Or lasagna. But it’s nothing really to brag about. It’s more about the process.”
Both natively and dispositionally Canadian, Jepsen doesn’t like to brag and is loathe to complain, though the promotional cycle for Emotion has been particularly grueling. She discovered that San Sebastián was her spirit city just days before we first met, when she visited while on a brief vacation and — as often happens in her songs — quickly fell in love. Traveling is her favorite perk of the job, which is fortuitous since she is beloved not just in America, where she lives in Los Angeles, but in Canada, across Europe, and in Japan, where she is among that country’s biggest foreign pop stars. The vacation was carved out before a performance in Barcelona, and it came just in time.
“Usually, there’s a balance between work and play, but this time it was a little too much,” she said, laughing ruefully. “I got to the point where I was like, ‘I wanna pull a Britney Spears and shave my head.’”
Jepsen is short with glacial blue eyes and leonine features. In conversation, she’s unfailingly articulate and unabashedly bohemian, with a gift for describing nearly anything as “beautiful” and a conspicuous willingness to consider things like the importance of “letting life live you.” She laughs often, but her laugh isn’t so much a laugh as it is a deep giggle, which reverberates suddenly and intensely from her chest like a happy earthquake. Jepsen comes from a family of teachers, and if she weren’t a successful singer and songwriter, it would not be totally impossible to imagine her as a young Ms. Frizzle type, with doddering students enthralled by her quirky exuberance. She was wearing a black three-piece short-suit with coaster-sized metallic gold polka dots and shimmering, ruby-red lace-ups à la Dorothy — a character she played in her high school production of The Wiz.
As the singer and co-songwriter of “Call Me Maybe,” that Justin Bieber–tweeted, devilishly disarming unicorn of a song that spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2012, Jepsen has one of the most recognizable voices in pop music. But in an era when viral hits can take an artist from nowhere to everywhere and back in the time it takes to click “refresh,” notoriety alone rarely translates into sustainable stardom. Despite having created one of the most popular songs of the decade (19.7 million singles sold, according to her label), Jepsen’s track to becoming a cultural force on the level of, say, a Katy Perry or Taylor Swift has remained elusive.
Kiss, the album she rush-released in 2012 to capitalize on the success of “Maybe,” never gained traction, selling only around 300,000 copies in the ensuing three years. AndEmotion, though brimming with ostensibly radio-friendly dance pop and nearly universally lauded as an artistic breakthrough, has so far fared even worse, debuting at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 with just 16,000 first-week sales. In its second week, it plummeted to No. 67.
Scooter Braun, Jepsen’s manager, who also manages Bieber and Ariana Grande, claims that he never really expected Emotion to be a commercial hit, and that he sees it as primarily a stepping-stone to help Jepsen transition from “the ‘Call Me Maybe’ Girl” into a credible artist.
“For us, domestically, yeah, it was… it was… I won’t say it was disappointing, it was expected, and now we have a job to do,” Braun said. “Carly did her job. She gave an incredible album that she’s incredibly proud of, and I will be so proud for the rest of my life knowing I’m associated with it.”
When I asked Jepsen if she was disappointed by the performance of Emotion, she seemed surprised by the question, which surprised me. “I don’t ever really put my attention too much into…” she said, pausing briefly. “I feel quite happy with how the record’s done, to be honest. I don’t really compare it to Kiss or whatever I’m gonna do next. That’s not where my attention goes. I feel really lucky that people have received it so well and that it has soldany amount.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It isn’t, after all, Jepsen’s dream to be as big a cultural presence as Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. Talking to her, you get the sense that what she really wants — even beyond the “happy to be nominated” veneer — is actually much more simple: bike to the beach, eat fresh peaches, drink great wine, maybe get good at surfing. As ambitions go, this is both modest and sensible, which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what we expect from our pop stars — even the Canadian ones. How can someone so well-adjusted exist in a world where butt glue and Twitter shade abound? And if she’s selling what we all say we want, why aren’t more people buying?