Carly Rae Jepsen describes the evening of Sunday, Nov. 11, as a “Cinderella night”-and one that would’ve been unimaginable a year ago.
At the 2012 MTV Europe Music Awards held in Frankfurt, Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was nominated for song of the year, alongside hits like fun.’s “We Are Young,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”
Those three songs spent a combined 24 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, but Jepsen’s smash, which held onto the peak position for nine frames last summer, was too undeniable to defeat. After performing “Call Me Maybe” earlier in the evening, Jepsen strode onstage in a flowing silver gown to collect the song of the year prize, and made sure to let the moment sink in.
“I had shivers up and down my spine the whole night,” Jepsen says the day after the awards. The 26-year-old, who also earned the MTV Europe Music Award for PUSH artist of the year, met 2011 Billboard Woman of the Year Taylor Swift at the awards show, and received a Twitter shout-out from her pal Justin Bieber for the pair of wins.
“It’s been such an impossibly wonderful year,” she says, “and it just keeps getting better.”
Last November, Jepsen was still throwing wishes in wells: As a modestly successful pop singer from Mission, British Columbia, Jepsen had just released a single, “Call Me Maybe,” that had quietly debuted on the Canadian Hot 100. But the year that followed has been a fairytale for the artist, earning her a spot alongside the world’s biggest mainstream music stars through a pair of smash singles, a top 10 album debut, a slot on a best-selling arena tour and, most important, the arrival of a genuinely sweet pop persona.
Jepsen’s wholly organic path to success-marked by, but not defined by, the impossibly catchy song of the summer – has earned her the 2012 Billboard Rising Star award. The singer/songwriter is set to receive the honor at Billboard’s Women in Music event on Nov. 30 in New York.
In hindsight, the success of “Call Me Maybe” was staggering. Since making its debut on the Hot 100 in early March and reaching the summit 15 weeks later, the single has sold 6.1 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the second-biggest-selling digital song of 2012. The track ruled top 40 radio for the summer season and beyond, garnering an astounding 2.4 billion in cumulative audience on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay chart, according to Nielsen BDS. In September, Billboard named “Call Me Maybe” its Song of the Summer, making Jepsen the first artist to claim the honor with a first Hot 100 hit since Katy Perry won with “I Kissed a Girl” in 2008.
The song’s refrain, marked by streamlined strings and a flirtatious phone-number swap, inspired viral tributes from the all-male Harvard baseball team, the U.S. Olympic swimming team, Perry and Bieber, who eventually helped sign Jepsen to his Schoolboy Records label (along with Interscope and her Canadian label 604 Records) last February. But as 2012 progressed, Jepsen’s appeal spread outside of her lone smash: “Good Time” paired the singer with “Fireflies” artist Owl City, and the collaboration has sold 2 million downloads, according to SoundScan.
Both songs previewed Kiss, Jepsen’s sophomore album released in September, and a more radio-friendly departure from the acoustic-leaning songwriting of her 2008 debut, Tug of War. Fortunately, the singer had already been shifting her creative focus before “Call Me Maybe” took off, and the hook-filled “Kiss” is the work of an artist comfortable in her own skin.
“There’s been a natural progression from folk to pop that’s been happening for a while,” Jepsen says. “And ‘Call Me Maybe’ was the first time that I really embraced it, and saw that it could be embraced by other people too.”
The mainstream opportunities have been plentiful following “Call Me Maybe,” from performances at this year’s Billboard Music Awards and MuchMusic Video Awards to an opening slot on Bieber’s Believe tour, which began Sept. 29.
Through Nov. 12, the North American leg of the arena trek has attracted 400,097 fans to 28 sellouts, according to Billboard Boxscore, and Jepsen has been front and center, utilizing big-budget stagecraft while presenting Kiss tracks to thousands of screaming fans.
But as Jonathan Simkin, co-founder of 604 Records and Jepsen’s manager since 2007, points out, the singer/songwriter’s mainstream pop moment would not have been sustainable if she had strayed from her musical instincts. Simkin has helped build the durable careers of Nickelback and Theory of a Deadman-as well as been associated with acts like Len and Daniel Powter who couldn’t move past their lone hits-and believes that success is based on more than presenting one great song to the masses.
“Trying to ‘stay true to what you are’ sounds kind of corny, but there’s a lot of pressure in this business to make spur-of-the-moment decisions,” Simkin says. “[Jepsen is] a real artist-she writes this stuff. And I’ve always said to her, ‘Write what feels honest to you.'”
Jepsen has been honing her craft ever since placing third on “Canadian Idol” in 2007 and starting to work on Tug of War. The “Idol” stint prepared her for larger audiences, but in the years preceding “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen worked tirelessly to improve her songwriting. Simkin says Jepsen would constantly volunteer to co-write with her labelmates, while 604 Records project manager Kesi Smyth recalls “listening parties” in the back lounge of the label’s office, where Jepsen would invite friends and family in to give feedback on her ideas.
“She would sit down and play 20 different acoustic songs for us, just to plan her next direction,” Smyth says.
“Call Me Maybe,” the first single from a planned second album titled Curiosity, trumpeted that next direction when it was released as a single in Canada last September. After slowly accruing airplay in her native country, the song picked up steam when fellow Canadian Bieber told his 15 million Twitter followers last December that “Call Me Maybe” was “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard.”
Scooter Braun, Bieber’s manager and the head of Schoolboy Records, quickly arranged a meeting with Jepsen, and was impressed by her work ethic and songwriting prowess.
“I saw her doing some acoustic stuff and I listened to some of the songs that she wrote, and I said, ‘There’s a real artist here,'” Braun says. The man behind Bieber’s global success soon brokered a deal with Simkin to let his Schoolboy imprint and Interscope Records sign Jepsen to a U.S. deal, while 604 would remain her label home up north and Simkin would stay her manager. Curiosity was released as a six-song EP in Canada in February, and Jepsen’s focus shifted to a proper full-length.
As “Call Me Maybe” crept up the U.S. Hot 100 beginning in early March, stateside TV appearances on MTV, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” followed. Meanwhile, Jepsen was constantly writing new material and rejiggering segments of existing compositions.
“My writing process is chaos – I like being up in the middle of the night in a hotel room and coming up with an idea,” Jepsen says. The artist’s new U.S. label partners also helped pair Jepsen with veteran writers and producers like Toby Gad, Bonnie McKee and RedFoo of LMFAO, while longtime collaborators like “Call Me Maybe” co-writers Josh Ramsay and Tavish Crowe also scored their share of credits on Kiss.
“It was never about fitting into a stereotype with her,” Interscope Geffen A&M Records vice chairman Steve Berman says of Jepsen’s label debut. “It was about putting together the best collection of music and art that was authentic and true to her … and we went through so many collaborations. It was important to give her access to as many songs and writers as we possibly could.”
When “Call Me Maybe” began its run atop the U.S. Hot 100 in June, Braun-who had notched top 10 hits with acts like Bieber, Asher Roth and the Wanted-finally was associated with a No. 1 song, a moment he calls “mind-blowing.”
But instead of resting on its laurels, Jepsen’s team released “Good Time” with Owl City less than two weeks later. The sunny track soundtracked the second half of the summer, peaking at No. 8 on the Hot 100 and officially keeping Jepsen out of “one-hit wonder” territory.
On Sept. 18, Jepsen released the album Kiss, a buoyant pastiche of radio pop that was led by the shimmering single “This Kiss” (115,000 downloads, according to SoundScan). The album debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, and 11 days after it hit stores, Jepsen was in Glendale, Ariz., performing some of its just-released deep cuts to a packed arena on Bieber’s Believe tour.
“It was like being in those old bars and cafes, where you’re hoping to grab the attention of the people in the room,” Jepsen says of the tour’s first shows. The singer began studying video of her performances and adjusting her stage show accordingly. Now, she feels more comfortable commanding arenas, as audiences have had time to learn her new material.
“On the first night, it felt like one or two kids knew the words to ‘This Kiss,’ and by the second night, a few more. A month in, everyone was singing along to it, and it was a cool process to witness,” she says.
Simkin describes Jepsen’s stint on the Bieber tour, which will continue into 2013, as “amazing, but also limiting in some ways.” The shortened set time of an opening act has kept the singer from performing more than 10 songs at a time, and Jepsen’s team predicts that next year will be filled with more headlining opportunities in markets like Japan and Europe. A follow-up single to “This Kiss” hasn’t yet been chosen, as the single’s music video arrived in late October and the song is continuing to impact top 40 radio. Meanwhile, Simkin says endorsement offers are “coming in from all over the place,” with companies hoping to latch onto Jepsen’s happy-go-lucky image.
And of course, a writer as prolific as Jepsen is still staying busy: Four new songs have been written on the road, and the artist says that she’s still drawing inspiration from electro-pop acts like La Roux, Robyn and Dragonette. “I could see [myself] wanting to go a little dancier with the next look,” she says, “and later on, many years from now, I’d be anxious to get back and go very folk-y again.”
For now, however, Jepsen is reveling in the realized dreams of stardom she’s had since she was 7. “Call Me Maybe” has guided her into the limelight, and with a tenacious dedication to her craft, Jepsen’s Cinderella moment won’t be striking midnight anytime soon.
“She knows that this was a big year, but she doesn’t want it to end,” Braun says. “She wants to push herself-she wants to see how far she can take it.”