The karaoke bar Break Room 86, tucked on a quiet side street in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, feels like a well-kept secret; to even find it you have to walk past a loading dock, then down a long dark hallway to a vending machine that’s actually a hidden door.
Behind the dusty candy bars and Doritos, though, lies a strobelit temple to pop nostalgia: stacks of glowing televisions, Fleetwood Mac albums and Duran Duran cassettes shellacked to the walls, drink menus printed on vintage VHS cases. It’s a fitting space for an artist like Carly Rae Jepsen — with her singular knack for decade-spanning, sweetly retro songcraft — to sing a few bygone classics (and before the photo shoot is over, she will nail Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”), but also to tell EW all about her fourth studio album, Dedicated (out May 17).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you a big karaoke girl? What’s your karaoke personality?
JEPSEN: The last time I did it was when I was in Tokyo for my “Run Away with Me” video, so it’s kind of a funny coincidence that yet again today it’s [more] for a photo shoot. I think it’s time for me to just go and do a pure karaoke for the sake of karaoke. [Laughs] I’m all for it not being a performance but, like, a group singalong. It’s just more fun to go up with your girlfriends and be the Spice Girls together, you know?
Let’s talk about the new album. How did you land on the title?
I had a mission statement for the album that I wanted to make it understated disco. Which didn’t totally end up happening — it’s got elements of the ’70s but also ’80s and ’90s — but it is sort of music to kind of clean your house to, so that’s what I titled it at first. [Laughs]
I landed on Dedicated because of a song that actually didn’t make the album but still felt like a great theme, because in my love life I’m just a hopeful romantic, always.
You’ve always called yourself an overwriter. Was that more or less true on this one?
I do overwrite! Not unlike E•MO•TION, I wrote about 200 songs again and then narrowed them down to these 15 so yeah, I went a little crazy. [Laughs]
But I think part of the journey is just what rises to the top at the end — what I keep coming back to, and my friends and family and label people. I definitely have a desire to secretly release all of them at once, but I also believe in the beauty of an old-fashioned cohesive body of work. I wish my process was different. There’s a world where I’m like, maybe I’ll just write the first 15 songs and release them and stop! But I guess I’m a bit of an overthinker and a perfectionist.
E•MO•TION became a real sort of cult record, critically and with fans. Did you expect that?
No! I was pretty certain that after taking a significant amount of time after “Call Me Maybe” and Kiss and going to Broadway for a bit [to star in Cinderella in 2014] no one would remember me or care about what I did next. But that’s why it felt empowering to be like “Well, now I’m gonna do the type of music that I’m craving to share that feels really unique — and I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m gonna figure it out!”
When E•MO•TION came out there was a feeling like whatever happens, it was honest and this was authentically my take on pop music, so for it to get any kind of reaction at all still kind of blows my mind.
You also toured with Katy Perry last year. How was that?
It was a wild thing to be back in a stadium. The last time was with Justin Bieber, and I was terrified. I thought, “Oh god, am I gonna feel like an impostor?”
I think what actually helped give me the confidence to do those shows was just feeling the support of this [fan] family that’s been created, so when I stepped out on stage it wasn’t like the scared young 20-year-old who did it the first time. It felt like we had learned some lessons and felt some confidence that not everyone has to get it, but the people that you do connect with that that’s sincere, and that’s empowering.
At this point in your career, do you think you’d even want to deal with the tabloid celebrity that comes with a certain level of pop stardom?
I have experienced very briefly what it is to have an intense amount of fame, and I wasn’t too comfy with it for sure. But I think it was mostly because it happened in such a rush, and it was really shocking. Also, you don’t have a really strong perception of yourself right away when you’re starting, and it’s dangerous if you start to let other people tell you who you are before you have an idea of that yourself. So I think it was a weird time for me. Nothing bad happened, but I did feel like I wanted to cocoon myself a little bit when people would tell me “If you go to this restaurant you’ll get seen by this paparazzi,” as if it was, like, a helpful tip. [Laughs] I was like “Okay cool, I’m never going there!”
I think it was also reaction to when “Call Me Maybe” hit, that I [knew] I wanted to be known as an artist, not a famous person. So that’s kind of why I said yes to Broadway — to get out of the pop bubble and into the theatrical world, which was also really exciting for me just as a little musical-theater nerd. But yeah, now I would say it’s landed in a place where I don’t really get recognized that often, and when I do it’s like, a shocking lovely thing as opposed to an invasive thing. I do get to have a love life that feels quite private, and I value that.
Would you be interested in writing songs for a musical, like Sara Bareilles did for Waitress?
Jack Antonoff and I have actually been talking about making a musical for ages, and a couple of the people from Cinderella have been interested in it. It’s very much a faraway dream, but we also have it very much in sight, what we’re gonna do. And I think the fantasy is that we go away to a cabin somewhere and we start from scratch.
There’s a lot to get into on the new record, but tell me about the chorus on “Everything He Needs.”
You know what, it’s from the movie Popeye With Robin Williams. It’s an interpolation where Olive Oyl goes, [singing] “He needs me, he needs me,” and it’s super creepy. [Laughs] The musical-theater part of me was like, “Can we buy this from Disney and, like, funk it up?” And we did! So that’s why that song exists.
You actually bought it?
Disney is very hard to get approvals from, so I went to Disneyland and got a fake contract, and I had a Mickey Mouse there sign it, and then I sent an email to them saying, “Please! The big boss says yes!” [Laughs] I tried everything.
You write so well about love, and often yearning for it from the outside. If you’re happy in your personal life, is that easier or harder to do?
I was in a relationship when I started this album and then I went through a breakup and now I’m in a new relationship. I actually made a joke with my girlfriends that one day instead of doing song titles I’m just going to do the name of the guy: [singing] “Jaaaaames, James-James-James.”[Laughs]
Who’s the inspiration behind “Julien”?
That one for example is more of a metaphor — when I was touring in Canada as this new woman, still a teenager, I met a French-Canadian guy named Julien, and the first thing I said to him when I met him was ‘Your name is so musical, I love it!” and I’d been working on different versions of songs with the name Julien in it since then so… I have to text him [now] to be like, “I don’t mean it! I have a boyfriend! But we had a wonderful time in Quebec City for a weekend, and I’ll never forget it.” [Laughs]
Is anything in your personal life off limits for you, lyrics-wise?
I would never want to betray somebody. I think I have protection over that. But the beautiful thing about lyrics — at least the way that I love to look at them — is that, in this sort of 1940s jazz song kind of way, you have a very short amount of time to pack a punch. So it’s almost I think more impactful when it’s less like your own journal than the feelings you have that can connect.
“I’ll Be Your Girl” is weirdly probably one of the most personal songs, and it’s about jealousy post-relationship — the voyeurism of stalking the guy and “Who’s that new girl you’re with?!” [Laughs] It’s that ugly emotion and you want to be like, “Let’s share this!” So it’s more of a “When you feel jealous, put this song on and let it be your anthem” kind of thing.
You’ll be touring the world this summer to support Dedicated. Do you still enjoy that part of the job?
I do. I’m almost scared that I like it more than home life. I really get comfortable in the back of my bus, and I love traveling. I love even the romance of what that does to your love life, like, “Come meet me in Paris!” I’m a child in that way. I love the adventure of it — even the weird showers in the bottom level of the hockey rink or whatever. I’m down for all of the chaos, yeah.