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“I’m a bit of an overwriter”: How Carly Rae Jepsen whittled 200 songs down to 12 for her new album

The hosts of Switched on Pop speak with Carly Rae Jepsen, who inspired the creation of their podcast.

Carly Rae Jepsen Performs At O2 Brixton Academy, London C Brandon/Redferns

They say you should never meet your idols — that you’ll only be disappointed. We had this possibility in mind going into our first interview with Carly Rae Jepsen, the pop star who inspired us to start our podcast Switched on Pop back in 2012. Back then, Jepsen’s hit “Call Me Maybe” was the soundtrack for our conversion from rock and jazz snobs to true pop believers. As we analyzed the ubiquitous summer bop, we were blown away by how Jepsen’s musical choices reinforced the lyrics’ sense of nervous anticipation.

The narrator of “Call Me Maybe” switches from past tense in the verse (“I wasn’t looking for this”) to present tense in the chorus (“here’s my number”). As she does, her vocal melody explodes into dynamic motion to underscore the plunge into real time. We were hooked. From then on, our ears could be described as pre-Carly Rae and post-Carly Rae. We would seek to better understand the sounds of Top 40 pop in our weekly podcast, all under the watchful eye of the artist we referred to as “Saint Jepsen.”

Six years and hundreds of pleading emails later, the time had come to meet the muse and unpack her latest offering, Dedicated Side B. In the course of composing her last two albums, Emotion and Dedicated, Jepsen wrote more than 200 songs. Many of her favorite works didn’t make it onto either final album, so she’s started a tradition of releasing “Side B” records on the one-year anniversary of her last release. Her newest collection of unreleased music fluidly crosses decades of musical history and spans a vast emotional range.

We spoke with Jepsen over Zoom about how she curated her latest B-side release from a massive body of work. Would this beatific figure, once described by poet Hanif Abdurraqib and the “most honest pop musician working,” live up to her reputation? Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

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Charlie Harding

It is the one-year anniversary of Dedicated. What were you wanting to accomplish on that record?

Carly Rae Jepsen

I had a mission statement to start off with, but I ended up straying very far away from that. I had this fake album title called Music to Clean Your House To. I thought, that’s when I listen to music at this age. It’s not raging, it’s chill, disco kind of sounds [that] sounded interesting to me.

But the idea of it being exclusively disco was sort of pigeonholing me ’cause it wasn’t coming out naturally. I think “Julien” [the first song on the record] is the closest thing I got to it, but the rest of the album went in different directions — ’90s, ’80s, all the colors. I let go of the rules of knowing exactly what I was going to make and just allowed myself to play in all the genres of pop that I was attracted to.

Charlie Harding

You have a brand new release, Dedicated Side B. How did it come together?

Carly Rae Jepsen

I have a reputation with my label that I think, at this point, it’s kind of common knowledge that I’m a bit of an overwriter.

Charlie Harding

What do you mean by that?

Carly Rae Jepsen

Well, I write all the time. Even when I don’t have a project right now, I’m writing. It’s very therapeutic for me. It’s my greatest joy. So it’s not like this is just my job. Songwriting is something that I am very passionate about. The truth is, by the time Emotion was ready, I had 200 songs to select from. And same with Dedicated. That’s a lot, right?

My publisher says I store songs in my cheeks like a chipmunk. But it was really hard to select [which ones to put on the album], because there were a lot of different places that I experimented with. ... I always kind of knew that I wanted Dedicated to be a two-part album.

I once said when I was done with this album, “Would it be weird to release, like, a 50-song deluxe [edition]?” Like, yeah, that’s weird. No one does that. Okay. We’ll start with 17 and then we’ll get to the rest later. And it’s kind of fun to do it on the one-year anniversary. I’m kind of making a tradition with that.

Nate Sloan

You’re not alone in hoarding songs. The songwriter Irving Berlin [the grandfather of the American Songbook] had what he called his trunk songs, which was literally a trunk filled with hundreds of songs that had never been published. Occasionally, he would pull one out. For example, “God Bless America” was a song that sat in his trunk for 30 years. And then he was like, “Let’s try this.” The song almost became the national anthem.

Carly Rae Jepsen

That’s amazing. I call them albums that I’ve buried in my backyard. I have an entire album called Disco Sweat that no one will ever hear. It was really fun to make, though. “Cut to the Feeling” is a good example of that. It was never going to come out. And then I did a voiceover for the cartoon film Ballerina, and they were like, “Do you have any tunes?” And I’m like, “Well, this one’s very theatrical. I think it could work.” So that’s sort of how I roll. [The song made the year-end best lists on Billboard, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair.]

Nate Sloan

You have hundreds of songs buried in your backyard — how do you choose which ones go on the album?

Carly Rae Jepsen

I go a little crazy. That’s when I turn to my friends and my family. We have these listening parties at my house where I feed everyone and give them copious amounts of wine hoping that they’ll have opinions about the music. And then they all send in their votes to me, including my bandmates, my manager, and girlfriend Alex — she sends me notes in the night. There starts to be at least six to eight common songs that are all resonating with people. Then I pick the rest myself from my favorites and fill in the blanks of what’s missing from the album.

I take the album quite seriously as a whole body of work that I really, really want to get right. I’ll rate the songs for energy level, and if there’s too many fives, then I’ll think, what’s a two? Where do we put the one? And I also rate the songs on subject matter. I’ll give each song a word — like “In My Room” was sex — and I’ll look for all the different emotions.

Nate Sloan

Is there color-coding involved?

Carly Rae Jepson

I could show you the boards. They’re embarrassing.

Nate Sloan

There’s a board? Like you’re trying to catch a serial killer or something?

Carly Rae Jepsen

Yeah. It’s like A Beautiful Mind. Actually, it’s embarrassing, because I have them out about my house and I forget. Then if I ever have somebody come over, beforehand, I would be like, “Don’t look at that, I promise.”

Charlie Harding

What are some of the other themes that people are going to hear on this Dedicated Side B record?

Carly Rae Jepsen

I tried to explore a lot of different things. The opening track, “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” only ended up making the album at the last minute and is now my favorite track. I wanted to open with something really theatrical. With “Julien,” the opening song on Dedicated, I went really subtle. So I wanted to flip the switch and just be like, “Welcome to love, everyone! We’re going to have a party! Stop cleaning your house!”

I also wanted to acknowledge the loneliness that some people might be going through. So I slipped in a song called “Solo” for that very reason. It’s a song that sort of hooks on to, like, “So what? You’re not in love? We’re going to shine bright on yourself dancing solo!” I was looking for motivational, uplifting sort of feelings.

Nate Sloan

You described yourself as an overwriter, perhaps a workaholic in some ways. Which suggests that even though you’re just putting out this record, you’re still writing. What are you working on right now?

Carly Rae Jepsen

Tavish [Crowe, Jepsen’s main songwriting partner] and I have already made an entire quarantine album. And it’s very different. It’s kind of fun. We have to do it from Zoom. It’s been a challenge, but a really fun one. You write differently that way. You have more time to have space in between the decisions you’re making, and more time to be away from the song for a minute. So I find it to be a whole new style of writing. I really like it.

Charlie Harding

Well, that’s really encouraging for us, because we’re vibing off this Dedicated Side B record, and we are excited to see what continues to emerge.

Carly Rae Jepsen

Thank you. I mean, maybe a little of the joint Disco Sweat in the backyard. We’ll see.

Nate Sloan

Carly, this has been so much fun. Thank you for joining us and thank you for giving us a reason to talk about pop music every week for the last five years. This is all your fault.

Carly Rae Jepsen

Well, I’m very sorry, but thank you so much.

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