“How do we eat this?”
Carly Rae Jepsen is contemplating an artichoke. I’m not sure how we eat it, either. That’s why we’re sharing it, anyway. This is not an uncommon issue at Little Dom’s, a favorite of hipster L.A. and Hollywood alike, in Los Feliz. The Infatuation notes in its review of the restaurant that one of the things that makes the grilled artichoke so great is watching other people try to figure out how to eat it. It’s why I mention I want it, but I’m afraid to order it when we first sit down. Jepsen suggests we suffer the inscrutable appetizer together. She is just that kind of lunch date.
When she talks about what she does on a girls’ night in, she asks if I know how to cook; when I tell her, apprehensively, that I do and I’m kind of good at it, she flanks me with praise, encourages me to embrace my own ability to praise myself. “Don’t be afraid to say you’re good at something,” she says. “We all do it, and we all need to stop.” After telling a story about the end of her last relationship, she asks to know about my own failed romances.
But Jepsen’s enduring appeal is that she seems to have an all-embracing knowledge of love, both good and bad, and her songs whittle those feelings down with affecting precision. Her breakout single “Call Me Maybe,” which stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks in 2012, introduced her to the world and foretold the kind of glittery pop she would deliver on her debut U.S. album Kiss. That only scratched the surface of the enveloping euphoria on her 2015 album Emotion. Although she hasn’t since made the kind of dent on the charts that she did with “Call Me Maybe,” Emotion was an instant cult classic replete with memes. One hater obsessed enough to write a manifesto declared that all of Jepsen’s music is about her own despair. “Carly Rae Jepsen is in hell,” he wrote. These sentiments don’t have much to do with how most listeners obsess over her music and the soft touch her latest, Dedicated (May 17, Schoolboy/Interscope Records), should continue to prove the bizarre document wrong.
The sound of Dedicated is much more subdued than the sugar rush of Emotion, but that has nothing to do with any pressure to conform to the low-key, vibey sound currently conquering pop radio. “I’m very out of the loop and I’m okay with it,” she says. “The sound of this album came from a place of doing what I authentically wanted to do. I wanted to be a little bit more reflective and reserved.” Although the sound is reserved, the lyrics have a little bit more bite. The sexual suggestion in a song like Emotion’s “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” is much more pronounced on Dedicated. The lead single “Party For One” is loved not just for being an ode to being single, but the suggestion that it’s also a paean to masturbation—the lyric “I’ll make love to myself” probably means it’s more than a suggestion; the Jack Antonoff-produced “Want You In My Room” is one of her most lyrically salacious tracks to date.
Some of the writing for the album was done while she was going through a breakup with cinematographer David Larkin. The two remain friends, but their split gave Jepsen the push she needed to add some extra creative juice to her new music. “Breakups make you brave out of sheer loneliness,” she says. “I don’t think I would have gone to Nicaragua if I hadn’t just been newly single.” She is referring to Neon Golden, a writing camp hosted by the label Neon Gold, where songs have been written for Tove Lo, MØ, and LPX (aka Lizzy Plapinger from MR MS), among many others. Three songs on Dedicated were recorded at the camp, including “Julien” and “Now That I Found You,” and produced by James Flannigan, Jepsen’s current partner.
When asked what it was like to meet in such intimate creative circumstances, she just responds: “Casita number 17, man. I saved the keychain.” Their romance abroad made an impact, although when Flannigan asked Jepsen if the album track “Automatically in Love” was about him, she was unafraid to playfully shut him down. “We took a year [to get together],” she says. “No, it is not about him.” But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t look ahead.
There are things outside of the pop game she wants to do—if you’re reading this RuPaul, Jepsen wants to be a judge on Drag Race “so badly”—including a more hands-on approach to musicals, not just as a performer as she’s previously done in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway and Grease: Live on Fox, which she starred in with Vanessa Hudgens and Julianne Hough.
“When I was last in New York for press two weeks ago, [the assistant director from Cinderella] sat me down like, It’s time we stop talking about this and do this and I said, ‘okay,’” Jepsen says of her desire to write a pop musical. “I’m about to go tour my ass off, but this something that I really want to do. And I wouldn’t be doing it alone, but with experienced people, which is the best part.” It’s clear that Cinderella was a significant creative project for her: she recounts different memories she has of the experience as we finish our lunch.
Afterwards, she is off to a fitting for a sailor outfit she’ll wear on a boat party Spotify is throwing the following day in anticipation of Dedicated. “I texted my manager that everyone on the boat should get free ice cream,” she says. Whether or not the free ice cream actually materialized on the boat is of no matter, Jepsen just projects a goodness that she wants to envelop everyone else with. If Carly Rae Jepsen is in hell, then hell seems fine.
Claire Lobenfeld is a writer and community organizer based in Los Angeles.