It wasn’t exactly a romance for the ages. In fact, the 1980 version of Popeye starring Robin Williams is considered by many to be a flop. However, to Carly Rae Jepsen, the lighthearted ballad “He Needs Me,” written by Harry Nilsson and sung by Shelley Duvall, felt like the perfect inspiration her woozy synth-pop single, “Everything He Needs” (even if Olive Oyl would never utter lines like, “Like pressure points, my love can easy him in my hand). Jepsen laughs, “I love the idea of sexing it up a bit, funk-ing it up a bit!” The most challenging part for the 33-year-old musician was how to get Disney, notoriously tight with permissions, to sign off on a decidedly un-PG song. Having exhausted traditional routes and coming up against deadlines, she finally paid a visit to the big boss.
“Who knows what the straw was that broke the camel’s back,” she tells CR. “I decided to take matters into my own hands. For a friend’s family’s visit, I got my picture taken with Mickey with a little fake contract that said ‘He Needs Me.’ And then I got him to sign it. I sent it off to [my] publishers and said, ‘The big boss says it’s okay! Let’s go!’ Then, about a week before the album was due and we were deciding which songs were going to make or break it, we got a message that, yes, we could pay them the rights to have that hook in the chorus.”
In her own words, Jepsen isn’t afraid of being “a little bit on the creative side in order to make things fly.” The singer-songwriter, who could have easily slipped into the footnotes of pop history as a reality show runner-up or a one-hit wonder with her Justin Bieber-approved 2012 single, “Call Me Maybe,” has been a slow study in surprises, each of which she attributes to an admirable combination of self-expression and a desire to make things work: She hustled to make her first music video work with a microscopic budget, convincing co-workers at her restaurant gig to play her friends. (They’ve since become real friends, she clarifies.) She also played Cinderella on Broadway before pivoting from the sugar-sweet pop of her breakthrough sophomore album, Kiss, to the sleek 1980s pop of her third album, Devotion, and was featured on Charli XCX’s Pop 2 mixtape. Even what she wears on stage, which recently included an outfit she calls “cow at the MoMA,” is an extension of her limitless ideals.
“It’s just my fashion, which is a little all over the map,” she says. “I love the idea of playing with fashion and reinventing myself every day. Weirdly, it’s taken to this age in my more adult years to say, ‘Hey I can do whatever I want—there are no rules, especially in pop music today.’ It’s limitless. And I love that about it.”
Dedication, Jepsen’s fourth album, is another synth-pop dip into the dizzying highs and sticky lows of romance. However, for all the sonic reinvention, which critics have likened to nearly every 1980s producer and a handful of excremental composers, the singer-songwriter seems, in spite of herself, to be in love with love. “It’s a classic topic,” says Jepsen on the constantly reoccurring theme. “It doesn’t get old to me. It’s fascinating, the subject of love and all of its complexities. I haven’t tired, looking at the different angles of it all. It’s just something I like. When I try to steer myself away I always land back on the topic of love.”
During the protracted writing period (where almost 200 tracks were considered for final inclusion), Jepsen went from what she describes as “dead single” to in a relationship, one that’s played out against most of the tracks, save for “Now That I Found You” and “Feels Right,” which she describes as exercises in fantasy and mood.
“I think there’s an agelessness to the butterfly feeling of romance,” she muses. “It makes me feel childish in love, because it’s exhilarating and there’s a high. But I think real love, and the courage it takes, there’s a much longer time to build a relationship. That topic is something I’ve been fascinated by. It’s something I really want to explore in my own life, so it’s something I indulge and explore a lot on this album.”
Allowed to chase both her sonic proclivities and romantic obsessions, Jepsen is in a privileged position in the pop world, one that four albums in still mystifies and excites her. (“I would probably pay to do it!” she laughs.) It’s a position she credits, in no small part, to her support system, including an assistant and close friend who encourages her to take regular breaks, the family that she not only loves but actually likes, and a former drama teacher, who physically drove her to the audition that would eventually play a large role in determining her future. Platonic love is incredibly potent, and without it, she might not be where she is—a fact she acknowledges with gratitude.
“One pivotal moment in my life was right before my Canadian Idol audition, which I didn’t really think was my thing,” she muses. Despite her misgivings, Jepsen placed third, jumpstarting her career. “I was really pushed by a teacher who told me, ‘You can’t be picky about which opportunity is going to work for you. You have to knock on every door and see what opens. If you’re snobbish, or say that’s not cool, it’s just getting in the way of getting more chances to get where you want to go.’ It was such a life lesson—don’t expect that you know exactly how your life is supposed to play out. You’ve kind of got to get up and be there for it, and it will unfold in some beautiful, crazy way that you didn’t predict.”