Carly Rae Jepsen could have easily become a one-hit wonder. Her song "Call Me Maybe" has more than 780 million views on YouTube, roughly 8 million copies sold in the U.S. and was a top-10 hit in 29 countries. It's been parodied by Sesame Street and "Weird Al" Yankovic. It's been covered by Kelly Clarkson and the cast of Glee. It was an international earworm. However, the album it was featured on, Kiss, had poor sales in comparison and Jepsen, who was 26 at the time, could have simply ridden the wave to obscurity.
Instead, the now 30-year-old pop singer has established herself as a multi-platform performer and recorded a critically acclaimed follow-up, Emotion, that reaffirmed her abilities as a songwriter. (Hell, even Pitchfork gave it a 7.4 review.) Jepsen returns to the road this month with a tour that stops by Charlotte's Fillmore on Feb. 13.
"It was a huge hit," Jepsen says of "Call Me Maybe." "It was one of those things you never expect to happen in your life. I think I could look at it a lot of different ways, but the way that I've been looking at it lately, at least, is that it opened the door to me having the opportunity to do all of these other things I like, including making an album that was a pop album that I love."
Emotion is soaked in 1980s influence without sounding dated. It's got pop sensibilities without being overproduced. It's danceable without coming across as cheesy. It's an album made by a mature and talented singer-songwriter instead of something forced by a record label. In fact, Jepsen took her time crafting Emotion with the blessing of her label while writing roughly 250 songs.
"Luckily, I had a management team that very much supported that decision [to take my time] and that desire and really believed in the stuff I was making," Jepsen says. "They got off my back for a while and let myself be an actual artist and figure out what I wanted and slowly but surely Emotion took form."
She worked with an array of producers, co-writers and musicians as the album took shape. She took a break to perform in Cinderella on Broadway, too. It was all in an effort to clear her head and find solid footing after the immense success of "Call Me Maybe."
"There was definitely some 'this song has taken over, what am I going to do?' moments, but I kind of talked about them and processed it and turned it into 'this is great news,'" she says. "Before 'Call Me Maybe,' I was exclusively doing my thing in Canada and all of the sudden, after it, I had this platform to show the other music that I loved to the worldwide market and that's nothing but a gift."
So, has she grown tired of singing the song?
"That song became so covered and redone and parodied in so many different ways that it's never a song that I have to sing by myself," she says. "I think that alone keeps it really fresh for myself. It's the moment in the show when we celebrate and do a grand sing-along and I can even point the microphone at the audience for like 80 percent of it and feel totally fine, like 'you guys got this.' It's actually something I find joy from, it's not necessarily an anchor weighing me down in the show."
Jepsen acknowledges that her career launched relatively quickly. She placed third on Canadian Idol in 2007 and released the single "Call Me Maybe" in 2012. From there it was a whirlwind. The success of "Call Me" had her label clamoring for an album. She offered to write one in a week, but the label gave her two months to finish Kiss.
"I really enjoyed making that album, but it was one of those challenges in itself that we had such a short period of time," Jepsen says. "I was coming from Canada with my first international deal and I was very hungry and excited and wanted to prove myself as a writer. Every single song that I wrote, I made work, but it was a zany time and I think from that experience I took away, 'When I do my next album, I think I'm going to be very vocal about saying that I'm going to take as long as I need and I'm going to experiment and try things and when I land on it, I'll know and I'll let you know.'"
Since Kiss, Cinderella and Emotion, she recently appeared in a live television remake of Grease as Frenchy. And yes, as a fan of the movie, she knows it was a big risk to appear in a remake.
"There are some decisions that your heart makes before you even have time to let your mind process it," she says. "I think before I really let it sink in about what kind of challenge this was that I was taking on or what the risks were, I said, 'Yes.' I think I get off on things that do challenge me and scare me a little bit. I think it's healthy to be a little bit out of your comfort zone as long as it's something you know you want to do in your heart of hearts and the only thing that's holding you back is fear. I think when I started digging into the process and realized how they were making this thing, what excited me is that it wasn't going to be a movie remake. Doing a theatre live version where it was more of an homage to and it's own kind of thing all together was more safe and exciting to be a part of."
Jepsen says she wants to keep challenging herself in different ways. Although people might not be familiar with her acting interests, she says it's all a part of performing and finding inspiration outside of her comfort zone.
"It's all a part of my wheelhouse of passions, but not necessarily the same thing I did last time or what I'm expected to do," she says. "That always sort of heightens and strengthens my live performance which is always my main goal with my writing and music projects. Broadway was rejuvenating to come back with new confidence and a new head on my shoulders and that really helped."
She's also not above having fun with her fame. Earlier this month, Funny or Die released a video of Jepsen busking on a California street. It took a while before people realized who it was and helped her sing her hit songs. She says the experience was fun and silly and gave her the chance to poke fun at the song in a lovable way.
For each of her albums, Jepsen says she finds time to walk on the beach with her headphones on and listen to the album as a whole. She wants to make sure it's ready to release to the masses.
"The same went for Emotion," she says. "I can remember listening to it and having a little party with my bandmates and some of the producers. I remember sitting there with pizza and wine and going through it and not knowing if it was going to be loved or hated and I really didn't care because I felt it was me and authentic and that's really all I can offer."
She attributes her work ethic to the reason Emotion turned out the way it did. She worked day and night and was constantly meeting with producers, researching production methods and experimenting with different sounds. She says it took about four albums worth of material before she had a clear vision of where she was going on Emotion.
Jepsen says her priority has always been writing and her recent television performance has inspired her writing in a new direction.
"I find that even experiences like Grease have me writing in a different way — almost outside of myself because it's been getting such musical theater songs in my head. I'm almost rebelling against that and writing really folk-y songs," she says with a laugh. "I don't know if those are going to end up on the next album or not. I don't know when the next album will be done because, God knows, I made about eight of them before anyone heard Emotion. One day, there will be a bunch of unreleased tracks out and people will wonder, 'When did she write 17 albums?' I went crazy, I guess."