Carly Rae Jepsen made me a better writer

What I learned about community, competition, and the creative process from the pop visionary.

January 8, 2019

After her smash hit, “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen went away. After a few months, the name Jepsen faded away from the charts and people filed away their memories of the singer from Mission, British Columbia, to the “one hit wonder” crevices of their brains; joining long forgotten Canadians who also climbed to the top of the Billboard charts but failed to pass the threshold of relevancy, like Snow, the white reggae singer from North York who is remembered best for his 1993 hit “Informer.” Jepsen may have disappeared from the spotlight for a while, but she never stopped working.

Following the tour supporting her sophomore album, Kiss, Carly Rae approached her record label and management with a simple request; give me some time, put your faith in me and I’ll come back when I’m ready. Three years later, she returned with the critically acclaimed album, EMOTION. Shortly after the album’s release she told CBC Q’s Tom Power that she wanted to come back with a new sound but needed time to discover exactly what that was. “I was lucky to have a team that wasn’t about trying to mass-produce things and was really more looking at the quality of it,” she explained during the interview.

In the years leading up to the release of her third album, Jepsen did a lot—she moved to New York City, and did a short stint on Broadway (playing Cinderella in a Rodgers and Hammerstein production). But above all, she wrote, and wrote, and wrote. In all, Jepsen wrote 200 songs for the album, with only 12 songs making the cut and an additional 8 songs released a year later as an EP of B-Sides. “I think some people have painting in their blood, or dancing in their blood. And even more than singing for me, writing is very much a part of me and I can’t not do it,” she says at the beginning of a mini behind the scenes documentary, released alongside the album on YouTube.  The 8-minute clip shows Jepsen humming, writing, singing, and bouncing ideas back and forth with a team of artists and producers that included Tegan and Sara, Dev Hynes, Rami Yacoub and Joe Janiak among others.

EMOTION is an album that captures the ethos of being in your twenties; an unpredictable rollercoaster, filled with ups and downs. Relationships are made and broken, often with other people who are also most likely a complete mess, trying to figure out their place in life. These songs tell stories about running away to another city with a lover, and later, in another ballad, telling them you’re going to the grocery store to get more almond milk, but in reality, you’re blocking their contact and heading to the state line. I can’t do the songs on this album justice, so for more, I recommend you read what Hanif Abduraqqib and Jia Tolentino have written on the subject.

While Jepsen was busy writing in 2015, I was busy being a mess; or at least my writing was. I spent most of the year producing work that was angry, uninspiring, and about the same topic I had the misfortune of being ensnarled in at the time—campus politics (but that’s another story).  None of my writing was particularly good, nor was it gaining much traction. At the end of the year, I wrote a blog post on my personal website, describing my frustration—which is part of the reason why I can remember these thoughts about my writing from four years ago so vividly today.  I highly recommend documenting your feelings periodically like this.

If EMOTION documents the uncertainty of young adulthood, perhaps its production can offer tips to the young writer.

Months passed, I graduated from university and slowly started to make progress on my writing. Still, things were far from perfect. I wrote badly composed emails to editors looking for advice, I wrote many bad pitches and when a piece was published, I naively thought it would get at least one hundred retweets on Twitter and that I would be on my way to becoming a respected blue check writer. Even when I had a few articles published online and in major publications, it seemed like other writers were coming out with new pieces, books, and awards by the day; eclipsing my meagre bylines. At times, this turned to bitterness and resentment, wondering why others had it so good when I didn’t. On occasion, I’d send a snarky message to another writer friend about “x writer”s latest accomplishment.

If EMOTION documents the uncertainty of young adulthood, perhaps its production can offer tips to the young writer. In producing EMOTION, Carly Rae Jepsen found a community of writers and people she trusted to help incubate her creation. Jepsen did not see herself in competition with her peers, but rather with herself; constantly seeking to improve upon her work. In addition to writing songs with other artists, she sent songs to her family members through a dropbox; her brother wrote three sentence reviews for each song, while her sister used a five star rating system, all to help her decide what would make the cut. I learned that not everybody is part of your chosen community, and it’s important that you trust whomever you choose to share your work with.

“The key important qualities to me is that there is a friendship there, there’s safety to have that ridiculous idea—because it could be great or could be ridiculous, but to feel like it’s safe to say it,” she told Tom Power. Jepsen is not perfect. In the same interview with Power, she said that after a particular session one day, she had to catch herself. “It’s important that you don’t bring your ego into that spot. You gotta in there with confidence knowing what you can do, and with the confidence that [other artists] are there to help you,” she says. “Together, if you have that peace of mind that you’re not there to show off, you’re there to make the best song possible, then you can listen sometimes when its just as vital.”

 EMOTION became a critical success, but failed to fair as well commercially. While “I Really Like You” went platinum, none of the songs on the album became  international anthems similar to “Call Me Maybe.” But Jepsen remained unperturbed. For her, EMOTION was about more than radio play; it was about producing her best work possible, satisfying her creative ambitions, and making music that others could relate to.

Since then, Jepsen has been hard at work on her next album for which there is no release date, despite the cries of pleading fans. She has received a sword at Lollapalooza, has become a favourite amongst some members of the Democratic Socialists of America, had a poem written about EMOTION, and dropped two singles. The music video for one of those singles, “Party for One,” in essence, outlines Jepsen’s creative process. In it, she spends a night alone in a hotel room, partying with herself; while other individuals, in other hotel rooms. are also partying on their own. Towards the end of the video, they congregate in the lobby, but only temporarily. For Jepsen, writing is an individual act that is nourished by community, not threatened by it.

Writing is an act of production, but it also one of self-improvement. As you work on your writing, it simultaneously works on you and changes you. This is a never-ending process that we all go through—whether you’re a seasoned songwriter working on a song at a café in Milan, or a novice writer working on an article in Toronto.

I’d like to think that I have come far as a writer, that I am behind my most vapid and worst tendencies, but if I’m honest, it’s something I still struggle with. I am still far too preoccupied with how well my work will be received and how far it travels and some days, I’m still a little petty. I’m still finding the writers I can form a community with. It’s a work in progress; but like Carly, I’m excited for it.

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