The singer behind the 1998 hit "Crush" has a new LP—and a totally new sound

By Nolan Feeney
March 30, 2017 at 10:00 AM EDT
KA Wright

An artist known for an inescapable, guilty-pleasure hit reinvents herself with an album of deeply emotional, critically acclaimed synth-pop. No, we’re not talking about Carly Rae Jepsen — it’s Jennifer Paige.

Nearly two decades ago, Paige scored a worldwide hit with her 1998 song “Crush.” (That’d be the one that goes, “It’s just! A little crush! Not like I faint every time we touch.” You definitely know it.) She followed it up with a handful of studio albums, but following the frustrating experience of releasing 2008’s Best Kept Secret, Paige considered walking from a solo career entirely.

She started working behind the scenes and making music for advertising — you may remember her from this commercial — but in the intervening years she also dealt with more than her fair share of personal turmoil. In 2008, her mother passed away from a pulmonary embolism. Two weeks later, her father suffered a fatal heart attack. In 2010, not long after selling their estate, Paige’s parents’ house was destroyed in a flood. And then, to top it all off, she was diagnosed with skin cancer. (She ultimately made a full recovery.)

“The loss of my parents and personal health issues definitely made me think, ‘What am I doing with my life? What’s really important to me?’” Paige tells EW. The release of her 2012 Christmas album — something Paige had wanted to make for years — also put her back on the path to writing and recording as an artist. “From that point on I fell back in love with music and remembered how much I enjoyed doing it for myself,” she says.

One unexpected royalty check and a successful Kickstarter campaign later — more on those below — Paige is back with her new album Starflower, which EW is exclusively streaming here a day before its March 31 release. Starflower is Paige’s first album of original material in nine years, and it also comes with a brand new sound inspired by cutting-edge Swedish pop singers like Tove Lo and Erik Hassle. (There’s even a reimagined version of “Crush” on digital editions of the album.) “I followed my gut instinct,” Paige says. “My heart told me I still have more to say, more to sing, more to perform.“

Below, Paige tells EW about her return to music, life as an independent artist, and how she feels about all those “Whatever ever happened to Jennifer Paige?” tweets.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to pursue this new electro-pop sound for this album?
JENNIFER PAIGE: It’s funny, because I didn’t think I was going there at all. I thought I wanted to make a really simple record — just vocals and acoustic elements. But then I got in the studio and my pop side came out! I love the lushness of it, all the background elements and lots of little ear candy here and there. I try not to overdo it, but I was listening to a lot of that kind of music, like Tove Lo and Erik Hassle. So it wasn’t intentional. It really was the influence of the producer and what I was listening to.

It’s been nearly a decade since your last album of original material. Was there a moment when you decided to step away from a recording career?
Totally. It was after the Best Kept Secret album. It just had increasingly gotten more difficult. The last album I made was with a German company, so even just traveling and communication barriers and all the differences started taking the fun out of music. Little by little, I lost my fire. And that’s something I’ve always relied on in the music business — you have to have that extra bit of fire to last, I think.

You didn’t totally walk away from music, however. You worked behind the scenes.
I would write for commercials, different campaigns. I worked with a lot of advertising houses. I would write for film and television, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a skill to be able to write to something very specific like that. That was the bulk of it, but I also did some production for some other young artists, and did some writing with other artists — I wrote a song with Smash Mouth. Just random things throughout the years.

When did you realize you wanted to make another record again?
It started in 2012 when I did a Christmas record. I had always wanted to make a Christmas record, and that seemed doable. So I made it, and from that point on, I fell back in love with music and remembered how much I enjoyed doing it for myself. During that process, I was like, “This just feels so right, I really missed this.” I think that reawakened me. And then from there, somebody put the bug in my ear to do a Kickstarter campaign, and that wasn’t something I intended on doing. I’m the girl who never wants to ask for help. I try to be strong in that way. When I pressed submit, I thought I was going to die. I felt so exposed and so vulnerable. But it worked! I knew I had to do something different if I was going to do it at all.

In 2015, you wrote an essay for Medium called “What Ever Happened to Me?” What has it been like seeing people on Twitter wonder about where you’ve been — and then tag you in those tweets?
It’s so weird. People really do forget you’re human. “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” Say it, just don’t tag the person! Like, hello! It’s crazy. It doesn’t offend me because they just really don’t believe that I’m human. I wrote that essay because I felt like, “Hey, people are asking where the hell I am, so I’m going to tell them! Here I am, here’s where I’ve been, and I’ve got more to do.” Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, that was the beginning of the reemergence for me.

In that essay, you opened up about some really heavy stuff — the death of your parents, their house getting destroyed, a skin cancer diagnosis. How did those experiences shape the album?
The loss of my parents and personal health issues definitely made me think, “What am I doing with my life? What’s really important to me?” The things that everybody goes through. The only song that is literal is “January,” and that song is more about the process of losing people that you love and the anniversary that comes up every year, when you’re happy and sad at the same moment. That’s the only one lyrically that has to do with loss and the crazy rollercoaster of emotions that go along with that. I couldn’t have done this several years ago, but I’m good now. I realize everybody goes through this to some degree. It’s part of life. It’s the part that sucks. It’s just the truth of why I’ve been away for a while: I had other things going on that have kept me distracted.

You also mention getting a surprise royalty check that you put toward the album in addition to the Kickstarter campaign. What was the source?
As a songwriter, you’re paid in a lot of different ways. It’s very confusing. You can be the smartest person on the planet and still not understand how you’re getting paid because there are so many different companies involved. TuneCore [a digital music distribution service] was doing this conference, and I was trying to educate myself [about the business] and not just depend on managers and business managers to teach me. So I went to this conference, and they were talking about SoundExchange [a performance-rights organization that distributes royalties], but I didn’t know what that was. Either I wasn’t signed up, or the checks hadn’t been coming in, but I was able to get stuff cleared and got one big whopping check. I was like, “Holy sh–! I’m so glad I went to that meeting!” That’s why I felt like none of this has been a total accident. One thing has led to another and reignited that feeling of, “This is what I’m supposed to do.” And [the royalty check] made it fun because it felt like free money.

Do you remember the moment when you realized the Kickstarter was going to work?
I had talked to a few different artist friends who had done it before. They said. “In the beginning, it’s super fun, because you’re like, ‘It’s gonna work! It’s gonna work!’ And then somewhere in the middle, everybody totally forgets about you, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, am I going to fail and be completely humiliated?” And then near the end, it picks back up and people are like, “We’re going to get you there!'” It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but it worked, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters. This might sound corny, but I really did reconnect with my fans. I never needed them so much. I was so thankful when it happened.

From following the conversation around this record and your career, it’s clear music fans still have a lot of affection for you and your albums.
It’s funny, I try not to go on the message boards too often because it can be so ruthless, but I do feel like the one recurring statement is, “She’s underrated!” Or “Why wasn’t that album promoted more?” Things like that. That’s why I really felt like I needed to make a record. One, because I think anything can happen — my first record taught me that. And two, I just knew I have more to do still. It doesn’t feel done. I don’t really know what “happened” with my second and third albums. For whatever reason, they weren’t meant to blow up. But I knew with this album, my heart told me I still have more to say, more to sing, more to perform. I followed my gut instinct.

Some editions of the album include a new version of “Crush.” What made you want to include that, and what is your relationship like with that song now?
I didn’t ever want to cover it — I just thought that was cheesy, to be honest. But I’ve been asked to do that a lot by different labels or through different opportunities like advertising. The true story is that someone had reached out to me about [re-recording it for] an advertising campaign, and I was thinking it might be a good idea to do it. It was an experiment: If we were to do it, what would it even sound like? What would I do? It was an experiment that I ended up really liking. It was an afterthought, a nice little bonus for everybody — and a way to remind people of how they know me. It can’t hurt.

The new arrangement brings out a whole new side of it.
Totally! That’s why I thought it was worth sharing. It’s kind of brooding, and there’s nothing brooding about the original. I definitely wouldn’t have put it on the record if I didn’t love it.

Starflower is out March 31.