The beloved pop underdog talks ‘gift’ of having LGBTQ fans, gay magic and mullet power
By Chris Azzopardi
It’s certainly not Carly Rae Jepsen’s fault that the English language is, at least when she needs it most, a total let-down. It offers her scant synonyms for describing what, exactly, she’s checking off on her color-coded poster boards when making an album: “I’m always embarrassed to say, but emotions.”
She giggles, the winsome sound of the greatest pop song not yet written. To hear her floaty laugh is to experience a little miracle, a bit of magic in a time when the world’s lost some of its own – in other words, hearing Carly Rae Jepsen giggle, or say anything, quite honestly, is a lot like hearing her 2015 glitterstorm of pop greatness, “E•MO•TION”: sweet, bubbly, infectious. A daydream.
Content occupying her own queer wonderland (shh, she’s “still” our best kept secret), Jepsen’s post-“Call Me Maybe” trajectory into gay darlinghood is a strange, beautiful thing considering how truly delicious her escapist bops are: framed around prismatic beats that lean into the retro pop sounds of the ’80s and ’90s, her lyrics speaking to the human condition, the fickleness of love her trademark. Broadening her e•mo•tion board (sex!), “Dedicated”, Jepsen’s fourth, more-exposed album, is an exciting next step in the 33-year-old industry outsider’s free-spirited career. Recently, Jepsen kept it real while talking about how the LGBTQ community’s wholehearted embrace of her is “a beautiful gift in my life,” being more open to showing the public who she is, and almost getting eaten alive by gays (because of course!) during a recent shopping trip.
I saw you play with The Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2017 and that was gay heaven. So many gays. I kept thinking, with you around, who needs Grindr? Go to a Carly show, find your husband. Or your husband for a night.
(Giggles) I mean, that’s all I’m trying to do, man, is set up new love lives.
Are you feeling that gay love when you’re on stage no matter where you are?
I would say one of the gifts of this whole experience, from “E•MO•TION” on, has been a swell of being accepted and embraced by a community that I have loved since I began, basically. And I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun than when I play a Pride festival; there’s nothing more joyful, and the rooms and the fields are so full of an energy that you don’t get anywhere else, and what a cool thing to be involved in.
Does the queer fandom for you on social media translate to everyday life? Like, are LGBTQ fans openly expressing their enthusiastic love for you on your way to Starbucks or at gay brunch?
(Giggles) All of my fans and my gay fans, too, are the coolest, most realest people I’ve ever met, so it’s never been the type of fandom where you feel like you have to run away; it’s more like you’re meeting new friends everywhere you go and I love that about it.
I just wonder if, at this point in your career, you can go into a gay bar as yourself and not be gay-mobbed.
I mean, I was in New York recently with my boyfriend and we were shopping and we found what was gonna be a store for everything glitter, based on, like, drag, and I was like, “I better go and see if I can find some sparkly gloves for the Cyndi Lauper event” (on April 29, Jepsen performed alongside Lauper at Carnegie Hall for the New York Pops’ “36th Birthday Gala, Hall Full of Stars: The Songs of Cyndi Lauper” concert). I walked in and he just grabbed my hand and slowly walked me out, and he was like, “I love you, love, but you’re gonna get eaten in there,” because we got noticed by, like, six different people on the way in. I was like, “But I want the gloves!” So yeah, sometimes it’s a little bit more crazy.
And did you get the gloves?
I got gloves elsewhere; I was really bummed about it!
I’m sorry that the gays got in your way.
(Giggles) No, no! Normally it’s something I love, but there’s sometimes when, yeah, it’s gonna be a bigger deal.
Why do you think gay audiences have embraced you as much as they have?
I have been asked that question a couple of times and both times I was perplexed because I don’t know that I have the exact, proper answer. It’s a beautiful gift in my life. I think that, maybe, when I’m writing I’m thinking about not being shy of what I’m actually feeling and really getting to the heart of all of the insecurities and concerns and wishes and desires I have, all combined at once. I think maybe authenticity and that realness is something that connects. I’m hoping that’s the reason, but I wouldn’t know for sure.
Perhaps, more so than in straight adult culture, there’s a willingness to indulge and unabashedly celebrate extraness and even kitschiness.
Perhaps! I definitely have not been shy about the playfulness and the joy that I find in writing music. If that connects, then I feel wonderful. I think that’s the whole purpose for why I write: to connect to like-minded people.
We also love someone who’s an underdog, and someone who we can claim as our own. I wonder if you think your outsiderness in the pop world has been part of your queer appeal, because I think it has been.
There’s a part of me that thinks that I sort of exist on an island, but it’s how I like it. (Giggles) I don’t think I totally belong in the L.A. world of pop music, but it’s been a really big learning curve for me that’s wonderful and I get to celebrate the world that we’ve created in some way. And it’s a much more comfortable one for me than one – I don’t know, you feel like you lose your identity in the other one, I think. In this one, I feel like identities get to be celebrated for how weird and wacky they become.
You recently told The Guardian you’re “more confident in your weirdness,” and I think that’s something a lot of queer people feel or hope to feel.
It’s funny reading articles back about things that you’ve said, and sometimes in the past I’ve shied away from ever reading anything that someone has printed about me because it’s always felt so false. Lately, with this round, I read things back – and there are mistakes here and there – but, in general, I’m terrified by how real and exposing it all is. It’s like, “Yeah, OK! I made a decision to be really honest and this is how it unfolds.”
Because you’re being more yourself at this point in your career?
I don’t think I could do this anymore if I wasn’t allowing myself to be real. And it wasn’t that I was fake before; I just was scared of showing all of me. I think even with this album there was a real decision to go to the places, even the melancholy ones, because those are feelings that I experienced too, that I needed to explore, and I’m hoping that it’s the right move. It’s a scary thing, always, to expose yourself, but I think even if it’s embraced or not embraced it’s still gonna feel better than playing the safe game.
Who are your gay icons?
My friend Brandon Hamilton. He was the first man in my life who really taught me about the challenges he was overcoming, and he’s been such a beautiful support in my life and such an inspiration. He would be my number one.
I love that you chose a friend. How about musician-wise?
I’m a huge Cyndi Lauper fan. I was really gifted, because two days ago I got to talk to her on the phone for an hour while she interviewed me (for Interview magazine), which I’m still coming to terms with (giggles). I was freaking out. My cheeks were hurting from grinning the whole time. To me, her whole career and the way she embraces the community, and also is just comfortably, at this point in her life, killing it and looking for ways to give back and doing gracious things like getting on the phone with me, that’s like, if I could be anything when I get older, I would love to be someone who follows that footpath.
Oh, I already see it.
Aww, thank you. I hope so! And I hope I still have as much fun with my hair! It’s purple right now! (Giggles)
What was your first reaction when you saw Mark Kanemura snatching his wigs to your song “Cut to the Feeling” in his viral video?
(Giggles) Honestly? I was like, we should’ve just had this guy do the video. It’s a thousand times better than anything we could’ve made, oh my god. And then the second thought was, how do I meet him? So it was wonderful: We reached out and just invited him to a festival show and said, “We’d love to invite you (onstage) for ‘Cut to the Feeling’; you can do whatever you want to do; the stage is yours,” and when we arrived that day he was super chill and super calm and acted, in the best way, too cool for school. I was like, “You don’t even know, but this is amazing,” and I was like, “I don’t need to know what you’re gonna do but come on out and do whatever you want.” He blew my mind away, because he came out, and you thought the Instagram video was amazing, the live show was, like, even 10 times better. I had a hard time continuing to sing because I just wanted to laugh out loud and party with him!
Did you figure out where those wigs he tossed went when he threw them up and they disappeared?
(Giggles) I asked him about it!
No, seriously! (Giggles) That was, like, the first question I asked him: Who helped with the wigs? Was there someone catching them? Was it CGI? I have so many questions! And he’s like, “No, it’s just the way the camera happens, that when I threw them, they kind of disappeared.” I mean, what can I say, it was a little bit of gay magic right there.
“Now That I Found You” was used in the season three trailer for “Queer Eye”. Was that a big deal for you?
Yes! I love that show! And I love those men! And I love the whole concept of just what the show is doing. I think right now it’s such a wonderful time for people to be making creative projects that are uplifting and inspirational and make you feel good at the end of your day, and whenever I watched it I always felt like (she affects a fairy-like accent; it’s magical), maybe the world “is” a wonderful place! And being a part of that in any way, I was so thrilled.
You’ve been giving us gay content since the gay twist at the end of the “Call Me Maybe” video, with “Boy Problems” and “Party of One” being very LGBTQ-inclusive. Not to mention, your lesbian aesthetic in the former. That mullet! You’re not queer, so where does your queer sensibility come from? Basically, how are these videos so gay?
(Giggles) That’s an amazing question. I grew up in Canada, and this is gonna sound maybe strange, but the idea of the struggles and the confusion – and even different, fucked-up opinions – didn’t really come into my consciousness until later, when I kind of got to see the world. And I was outraged. And it blew my mind, because it just seemed so normalized to me to not be thinking about any person who loved whoever they loved as anything other than normal. So I think part of that is a bit of the reason why I fight the good fight: to try to make people see it the way I’ve been seeing it my whole life.
That is definitely conveyed in these videos. Are you consciously saying, “We should get a trans woman for this video,” or “I’m gonna rock a mullet for this video,” or “I’m gonna cast a real gay person like Mark to be in the ‘Party of One’ video”?
Inclusiveness is always something that just comes naturally to me, but also, the mullet, I just had broken up with my boyfriend and felt empowered to rock whatever fucking hairstyle I wanted and I felt powerful when I had it, so that was not a decision to look any certain way but just to look myself.
After “E•MO•TION”, an album that’s essentially become a gay classic, what kind of pressure was on you when recording “Dedicated” as its follow up?
I wasn’t intending for myself to feel pressure, but I feel like there’s always pressure when you love what you do and you want it to connect. I think it’s mostly pressure I put on myself versus feeling pressure from the outside world. I wanted to make something very different, I wanted to honor the fact that I was going through a breakup, and some melancholy.
There was some expectation of me to always maybe write the feel-good songs – and I felt good – but I also wanted to indulge the feeling of sad too, which is probably more on the second half of the album. I think I went there. But I feel like honesty is always the best move; being authentic, you can never really go wrong. I’m hoping that by at least being real that will connect on some level to the people who need it.
What was the vibe when you wrote and recorded what I’m already calling the Song of the Summer, “Want You in My Room,” with Jack Antonoff?
The beginning lyric of that song, the lighthouse line about how the idea that when somebody you’re obsessed with, it’s like that light beam comes back to your mind every couple of seconds and they go away and they come right back again – it’s obsessive. And Jack is always so playful and fun to write with. He was shouting, “I want you in my room!” We were both dancing and I was just shouting, “On the bed! On the floor!” And we were laughing (giggles) and it was like, “Let’s just go there.”
And when I write songs, I always put a word theme afterwards about, “What is this about?” so that the album is made up of lots of different – (giggles) I’m always embarrassed to say, but emotions. And when I put that song on the billboard of my little list of stuff I was like, “SEX.” “This. Song. Is. About. Sex.” And it was really fun because I haven’t had something as simple as that.
Sonically, it’s a real throwback to the ’80s. Artist-wise, did you have anyone in mind when recording it?
I think at that moment in time probably embracing a little bit of Squeeze, a little bit of Cyndi, and a little bit of getting to shout-sing in a way, because it isn’t coy. There’s a big part of my personality that’s shy, but there’s also a real part of me that goes to that place when I’m private, so it was really fun to be, unabashedly, “Let’s just go there.”
You’ve said you find inspiration from your friends and their love lives, as well as your own. What kind of conversations had you been having with your LGBTQ friends about love and sex that might’ve found their way into some of these songs?
You know, my friend Brandon and his boyfriend came down to stay with me and listen to some of the first songs as I was working on selecting them, and they were mostly supportive. (Giggles) They were like, “I like this one!” “I don’t like this one!” That kind of stuff. I was like, “Cool cool cool.”
We gay men are good at having opinions.
Which is why I love any friend who’s not afraid to tell me, like, “Please don’t leave the house in that.” Or, “I’m really not a big fan of this.” At the same time, when they say something complimentary, it means 10 times more. But I think in the writing of this album, because it took me so long and there were some experiments along the way, there was a real feeling that it was like little snapshots of my life, sort of processing my life as it was happening, so it was very personal. It’s probably my most personal album in a lot of ways. But, at the same time, with everything that I ever write I’m always looking to connect on a bigger level with people who are hopefully feeling similar things, and for that I think I strive to feel less lonely in it.
That feeling of “you are not alone” is something I felt at your show in Toronto.
I can remember the first show that I did in New York at Irving Plaza, or maybe it was the second show. It was a big deal, this night to me, because I was blown away by the size of it – and that they were there for us, and we were headlining. I know I had played stadium shows before, but this one felt way more important in all the good ways, and I remember walking out on the stage beforehand, 30 seconds beforehand, and thinking, “I’m terrified. What if I blow it?” And then hearing the crowd and going out there and feeling like, wait, this is the safest place. This room is so full of love. I felt like I could fall flat on my face and everyone would cheer and be like, “Stand back up again!” And I felt so grateful in that moment, that somehow in this world the reality that we had created together was one of love and safety and acceptance. I still, to this day, don’t know how that happened. It’s the luckiest gift of my life. I’ve never really been nervous in the same way since. I’ve just felt really accepted.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.