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Carly Rae Jepsen Wants You to Know You’re Not Alone

The Canadian pop star has a lot of emotions, and she’s interested in how they connect with everyone else’s. Jepsen caught up with The Ringer about her creative process, her biggest hit 10 years later, and her new album, ‘The Loneliest Time.’

Jasmine Safaeian/Ringer illustration

It’s just after sundown on a Tuesday in mid-October, and Carly Rae Jepsen is on the moon. Or, more accurately, she’s brought the moon to her adopted home of Los Angeles. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter is on stage at the Greek Theatre in the hills of Griffith Park as part of her So Nice tour. Tonight’s a decidedly lunar-themed affair, marked by a backdrop filled with space rocks and an anthropomorphic moon narrating from an LED screen. Jepsen’s attire for the evening is an array of jumpers and dresses, all glimmering under the stars like an astronaut suit. As she runs through her biggest and best songs—from the massive one you can’t forget, to the cult classics her diehards swear by—she’s in complete command of this 6,000-person expedition. But despite the otherworldliness of the show, Jepsen’s not interested in taking her assembled acolytes to a place where no person has gone before. Rather, she wants to explore the vastness of a space they’ve all occupied and find a deep, human connection.

The moon motif is a nod to her recent single “The Loneliest Time,” the title track to her new album. It’s the latest stellar entry into an oeuvre that’s made her pop’s reigning queen of relatability. For the past decade, Jepsen has explored longing on albums like Emotion and Dedicated, wrapping up heartbreak in vibrant melodies and catchy hooks. (Even before those projects, on the diamond-selling bubblegum of “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen snuck in a beautifully melancholic bridge, “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.”) “The Loneliest Time” is having a viral TikTok moment, thanks partly to its talk-sung final verse, but also because it peddles in the big-tent feelings she’s become known for. While riding a bright disco bounce alongside Rufus Wainwright, Carly Rae goes to the cosmos and back looking for love where it doesn’t live anymore: inside an ex’s embrace.

That she says “The Loneliest Time” was a fantasy written during a dark time makes it even more relatable. Speaking via Zoom last week, Jepsen says that she made the song at the height of COVID lockdowns, when the fate of the planet seemed uncertain and bad ideas seemed smart. And certainly, she sings of other universal experiences throughout the new album. (To hear her smirk through dating-app horror stories on “Beach House” is both shocking and comforting.) But despite the communal vibes that course throughout the project, Jepsen says that she’s been more scared to share this album than any previous one. Turns out that while isolation gave us plenty of common experiences, it also caused Jepsen to turn a mirror to herself like never before.

“Music was something I really leaned on, but in a different way, in more a survival way than I have in previous records,” she says. “It felt less about my career and success, but more about self-discovery. I’m probably more nervous about sharing this album than any other one. It does feel a little bit more personal.”

Luckily she needn’t worry about the reaction to The Loneliest Time, which plays to her strongest melodic instincts and captures what made her last few LPs critical hits and fan favorites. Opener “Surrender My Heart” and the scorching “Talking to Yourself” expand on the synth-driven pop that made Emotion run, while “So Nice” and “Sideways” lock into slow-disco grooves and don’t let go. “Far Away”—Jepsen’s personal favorite on TLT—is a bit of enchanting easy listening in the vein of James Taylor or Peter Gabriel. Elsewhere, she reunites with producer Rostam for two tracks: the Laurel Canyon–esque “Go Find Yourself or Whatever” and the bittersweet “Western Wind,” one of the finest songs in her catalog. It’s an album that shoots for the moon, and even in the rare moments when it doesn’t get there, it still lands on the stars.

Ahead of the release of The Loneliest Time, Jepsen spoke with The Ringer about the process behind the album, the dating-app experiences that informed “Beach House,” and how she feels about “Call Me Maybe” 10 years after it exploded in the U.S.

I wanted to start with the big obvious question and talk to you about the album title: The Loneliest Time. When you use that phrase, is that coming from a personal experience? Or do you mean it perhaps as something a little broader?

As artists, we kind of had two choices after the big lockdown and pandemic. One was to make an album where we completely avoid what just happened, and almost rebel by celebrating. I considered that. Do we just dance our troubles away? The other option was to address what had just happened and try to find the moments of joy in that. Because I think it wasn’t all just darkness and sadness. There was a whole life of being alone that caused some crazy joyful moments as well.

I decided to call it what it was. I’m looking for those experiences that I’ve had that connect. Loneliness is something that I’ve definitely lived. How I feel about my loneliness is a constantly evolving thing. Facing it head-on on this album was really nice, because it’s something that I’ve felt as a traveler and as an artist my whole life—and just as a human being. This was looking at it straight in the face and feeling like it was worthy of an album.

I look at a song like “Beach House”—I think it’s one of the most fun songs that you’ve done in a while, but there’s also this element of real sadness to it. What’s interesting to me is that it’s written about this technology that’s, ostensibly, supposed to draw us closer, but it seems to have been the opposite experience for you.

Well, I think a couple things about dating apps. I’m not against them, first of all. In this day and age, even the nicest man in the world coming up to me at a coffee shop out of the blue and saying, “Hello,” I’d sort of be like, “What do you want?” It’s shocking. And that’s so sad because it’s just ... He might be Prince Charming, and I might still just be like, “I don’t really know that I trust you. You’re being too friendly in a public place out of the blue.” So I believe that there’s a place for them.

This was just my first time on a dating app, and I think that it was deep loneliness that took me to that place. If you had asked me a couple years before this, I’d be like, “Hell no would I ever try it!” We all have this fantasy [of meeting a partner] in a record store, or when at a coffee shop, but then I don’t really go to a lot of record stores on my own and wait for the perfect person to walk in.

So I am for them. I think, though, you shouldn’t really go on them when you’re at your most vulnerable. You should look at it a little like, “I might meet some interesting people. I might have some cool experiences. There’s a one-in-a-million chance I might meet somebody who I really, really connect with.” But this song specifically is definitely for the people who are [on dating apps] more to play a game with you—who are not looking for that connection, but are just in it to be a little shark-like.

I came home from a couple of just gentle walks-around-the-park kind of things. Afterward, it was like a comedy sketch. I’d tell my sister and my girlfriends, “You’re not going to believe this one.” And it became this almost-therapeutic way to get through the experience. In the sharing of that, I realized there were nightmare stories everywhere. Every person who had been on a date—my guy friends, my girlfriends—had a horror story to tell that you had to spin into some comedy to almost pick yourself up.

How bad were the pickup lines that you dealt with? Did you have to deal with “Call Me Maybe” or Emotion jokes?

It was a very brief stint, so I wasn’t on there long enough. I’m not going to lie to you. I think the first person who was friendly enough, I dated for a hot minute. So my joke is that the first person who didn’t scare me, I made him my boyfriend right away. But I did have that fear. I was like, “Oh God, I’m going to have to field these jokes.” But I think people were actually pretty cool.

I’ve seen this referred to as your most introspective record, and I certainly think that Emotion and Dedicated have a lot of moments of introspection in their own right. What sets The Loneliest Time apart from them in that regard?

I don’t know if I would classify anything as one versus the other that way. [But] with The Loneliest Time, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy writing about the gray areas of things even more so. I think “Far Away” is a good example of that. Having been in a relationship for a hot minute and it ending in a way that I wasn’t expecting, it was nice to be the one who was humbled and to see that I messed up in the relationship and try out a song where I wrote from the bad perspective—learning what I would do differently in a future thing.

It’s almost easier to be newly in love or heartbroken. And those are extreme things that we live in our 20s. But I think in my 30s it’s fun to be like, “Oh, maybe I’m the one who can be at fault in this relationship and be humbled by this and learn a thing.” Is there room for a pop song in that lesson? And I love the idea that I just answered yes every time. I wrote from the heart. And I think the reason I was allowed to write from the heart was because I didn’t know when the world was going to open up and I didn’t know when I’d be sharing music.

I understand that you suffered a great loss with your grandmother in the midst of working on this record. And first, I wanted to offer my deep condolences. How are you holding up?

My grandma is a life-changing person for anyone to know. I think of her and, lots of times, I feel really good. There’ll be other moments where a jazz song will hit, or a certain woman will be wearing something my grandmother [wore] and you get …

Grief is so confusing, and it is my first time with it. You can feel like you’re OK and then the wrong thing—or the right thing—can hit you. You notice this if you’ve ever lost someone, that every song you listen to starts to sound like it’s about death. “Over the Rainbow” was the song that she wanted me to sing to her in her last week, and I [didn’t think the] song was about death. But it is. All these epiphanies were happening with jazz songs. So I feel like it was an interesting experience to go through. It was hard, but it was not not beautiful, too.

Part of the reason that I believe people have connected with your music so much is because there’s this certain bittersweetness to it. There’s this real longing in a lot of your songs, but it’s Trojan-horsed in with these real beautiful, vibrant melodies.

So there’s this album [I did] called Tug of War, and it was only really released in Canada and then in Japan, strangely. So I was in Japan and I had an interpreter ask me during an interview, “It’s interesting because your song seemed so happy, but when I really looked at the lyrics and translated it, so much melancholy, so much sadness, so much heaviness.” And I felt like she had just been the first person to call me out on what I thought was a deep secret. I didn’t love how seen I felt, but I also was like, “She’s not wrong.”

I love that juxtaposition about pop and music in general. I even love that in production, when it’s a heavy production and a soft type of conversation you’re having in the top line or vice versa. I think that’s why I’m so attracted to Rufus [Wainwright’s] and my voice together. He comes with that dark melody and I have a brighter pop take.

As I was asking this, I was actually thinking of that song, the title track, even though I think it ultimately ends up in a kind of happy place.

Listeners are very intelligent. I think that the fantasy of that song is quite obvious to everyone. Because I did—on one night, in the loneliest time of COVID—think, “Maybe I should go over to my ex’s house. We had good times and there’s still a spark there.” And [despite] the reasons why I left the relationship, I was completely convinced that this would be an A-plus idea. I’m really glad that I didn’t because I don’t think that would’ve been good for either one of us. But in the fantasy—and this is where music is nice for escapism—I went over and it was perfect and it was nirvana in the morning. I knew that it wouldn’t be that, but that’s what I wanted. And I think when you hear that song, no one’s fooled. Everyone knows that that’s the fantasy, not the real story.

This album seems more adventurous musically in how it traverses different styles. There’s disco on “The Loneliest Time,” but there’s also some straight-up pop. There’s “Western Wind,” which I’ve seen compared to James Taylor. Then “Go Find Yourself or Whatever” has a Laurel Canyon, singer-songwriter vibe. Was it important for you to show off your range on this record, or was that something that came about naturally?

Actually, the mission statement at first was to try to have a very cohesive lane to stay in. I wanted there to be growth, but I wanted to figure out what that was. If I’m being really honest, I was excited about songs like “Western Wind” and living in that world a little bit. But even my boyfriend and my mother and people close to me will tell you that I am quite a joyful person. Even in my sad days, I can still experience joy. I think that even in the sadness, for the relief of it, I was writing these other happier songs. I wanted to get playful. So no, the intention wasn’t to show all these things. It just became obvious to me that I couldn’t really contain myself at this juncture.

I wanted to be able to be dynamic, to be able to be sad at the same time as being playful and light, and to not feel like I had to make a choice about just showcasing only one thing. And I think that I wouldn’t have felt that way, maybe, if I was 17 and starting the project—but I don’t know, there’s got to be some winds of being almost 37 now.

Before you performed “Comeback” at the Greek the other night, you mentioned you wrote the song feeling like you needed to make, well, a comeback—but not for money or fame, you said. Rather, it was for yourself. So my question: As a pop star in 2022, how much of your music are you making for yourself versus the things that you feel like you need to?

The excitement is where it connects, where the song is not just like, “Hey, this is a feeling I had at six o’clock on Friday and I’d really like you to hear about it.” It’s more like, “Here’s a feeling I had at six o’clock on Friday that I think you might also have felt at some point in your life. Let’s enjoy this together.” That, I hope, comes across in the shows, too. Very often, I don’t even feel very important at the show. I kind of feel like I’m there just to conduct the rooms of the other people. It becomes everyone singing, and in the best possible way. I love that feeling because then all of a sudden, I feel very free and confident to not overthink anything anymore.

At this point, I am trying to think of what connects—not for marketability or sales, but just for that human connection I crave so badly. But there are certain epiphanies I’ve had in making this album that the songs I think wouldn’t connect might, actually; some of the things that are a little bit more private and darker. There’s room for those too, I don’t have to only be joyful and only be presenting the happy feelings. I think as long as they are real feelings, there’s going to be joy in the connection: “You weren’t alone when you felt that dark thing, too.”

It strikes me that you’ve always tried to make things for yourself, and they just happen to come out in this, often accessible, relatable way. For example, I think that Emotion is, if nothing else, an attempt to make the music that you wanted to make within the context of pop music.

It’s been a fun discovery ever since [Emotion] just to be like, “What is it that I love about pop music?” Like any passion, it’s a love-hate relationship too. It’s a love-hate genre. Either a pop song lands for you and you love it, or it misses and you kind of hate it. It’s a dangerous genre to play in. It’s tricky. And so it’s been my mission over the last decade—and change to carve out the type of pop that I’m excited about and try to share it.

How do you view “Call Me Maybe” today, 10 years after its release, and especially now, as you’re on tour performing it night after night again?

Every song I view differently every night. To be present in the experience of performing, especially a repetitive show, there are some tricks. You lock eyes with an actual human being who is having a joyful time, and you just feel what they’re feeling. Or you try to remember what it was like when you wrote the song, and pretend you’re writing it as it happens so you can feel that feeling.

With “Call Me Maybe,” I don’t need that because the crowd just takes over in such a euphoric kind of way. I would be saying that that is generally the experience, but it’s different every night. There’s been times in the past when I was really burnt out on the song, absolutely—probably ages ago, closer to its release, where I was like, “Oh gosh, we have to move on.” But I hadn’t written another four albums and change. I can look at it with nostalgia and fondness and gratitude too, because I am very aware that “Call Me Maybe” is the reason for getting to play in this field a little bit carefree ever since.

At the risk of reading too much into it, the other night at the Greek, my first thought watching you perform that song was like, “Wow, Carly really seems at peace with whatever journey she’s taken with this song.”

Yeah, I think so.

Did you really write a hundred songs for The Loneliest Time?

I didn’t count a hundred, but we were going through B-sides the other night with my A&R, and he’s like, “Well, what are the contenders?” And I’m like, “There’s 65 that I’ve listened to that I could make something of, so we can narrow it down from there.” Those were the ones that I liked, but there’s more from that pile.

Does that mean we’re getting a Loneliest Time B-Sides, like with Emotion and Dedicated before it?

I’ll say that I opened up the folder of the songs and started listening again with that question in mind. You know what? I think the verdict is out still.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.