Carly Rae Jepsen is working through something, something she needs to get off her chest. It’s early May, and the singer is about to put out her fourth album, Dedicated, the long-awaited follow up to 2015’s critically adored pop masterpiece E•MO•TION.
Jepsen, 33, spent the past few years traveling all over the world — Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm, a beach town in Nicaragua — writing and recording close to 200 songs that she’s whittled down to 13 tracks (15 if you count the deluxe edition). Putting out the album should feel like crossing the finish line. But it’s clear when we connect over the phone she’s still making sense of the final cut. “I need to talk about this process,” she says.
Understandably: Sometimes Jepsen talks about choosing the tracklist as if she were fondly recalling a tricky puzzle, but other times it sounds a little traumatic. Like when she was coming up against a deadline and spent almost three days cooped up inside her house with her assistant as they FaceTimed her longtime guitarist and tried to figure out a sequence for their ever-changing list of favorites. “Every time we felt like it was starting to make sense, we would celebrate and tap-dance,” she recalls.
But she’s trying to be a little more zen about the whole thing now, thinking of the release date not as an end, but as a kick-off: If she wants the world to hear the leftover songs, she can always throw them onto streaming services (not unlike what she did with E•MO•TION: Side B, a 2016 collection of outtakes). “It doesn’t feel like only 15 songs get to be out there, she says. “I’ve been hibernating and holding onto my babies, but through B-sides or other avenues I’m excited to share a lot of them.”
Below, Jepsen walks Billboard through the process of selecting the songs that became Dedicated, out today (May 17), step by step.
1. Let go of expectations.
Jepsen originally set out to make what she describes as a chill disco record for her fourth studio album. But while that vision may have been a helpful starting point in the studio, it eventually got in the way of finding the best material. “[Producer] Patrik Berger in Sweden said to throw that idea away because it was limiting us,” she recalls. “And then I started to play.” Later in the process, she also threw out conventional wisdom about tracklists by burying lead single “Party For One” as a bonus track on the deluxe edition, and cutting “Dedicated,” which inspired the album’s title, from the project entirely. “I do have that rule of thumb [about including a title track], but I have a bigger rule: Don’t rush the song if it’s not right yet.”
2. Find a benchmark song.
Jepsen has called Dedicated opener “Julien” the song that taught her “the heart and direction of this album.” She knew as soon as she wrote it during one of Neon Gold’s renowned Nicaragua writing camps that it set the tone for the project and would be the first song on the album. “There was something about it that had this maturity to it, but at the same time, it had this old-school old-fashionedness that I loved — almost in contrast to [E•MO•TION opener] ‘Run Away With Me’ and the theatrical saxophone. I loved the subtlety of it.” The excitement she felt about the demo also proved to be a handy reference as she identified other album contenders: “That confidence [about ‘Julien’] helped me know when I had that feeling about other songs.”
3. Wait for the honeymoon phase to pass.
“I always feel like I have a high in the middle of writing a song — oh my God, it’s so good!” Jepsen says. So after cutting a demo, she likes to wait at least two weeks before revisiting it. “Sometimes you go, ‘Yeah, it has staying power, let’s workshop it, let’s fix this lyric or tweak this melody,’ or it gets to a point where you’re like, ‘I’m not really feeling this the way I was before, let’s put this to the side.’” Divorcing the song from the context of its creation is also crucial. “There’s nostalgia and emotions involved with remembering the day [you wrote a song]: If you feel like you connected with the people you were with, if you were in Sweden and it was a wonderful day,” she says. “But is the song really there? Or is it just the memory?”
4. Change your listening environment.
Jepsen has joked that a working title for the record was Music to Clean Your House To, so as she sorted through the mass of songs she recorded, she’d often do just that: Throw on a playlist and start tidying, taking note of what felt good or made her want to sing along. That method suited the lived-in intimacy of the new songs as well as her own low-key listening habits. “It’s just how I digest music,” she says. “I think where I am in my life, it’s less about wanting to go to a club all night or even a coffee house.” Still, going outside was an important step: “The setup I have at home is when I’m listening and thinking, but when I’m listening and feeling, it’s in my car. There’s something nice about in motion when you’re listening. That’s really the best place for me.”
5. Think of the fans (to an extent).
Jepsen’s intensely loyal fanbase has been described as cult-like, and she certainly keeps her devotees in mind as she’s sifting through songs: “‘Would this be fun to play at a festival? What will get people dancing? Will this connect to anyone other than me?’ Those are always important questions,” she says. But giving too much thought to what fans might like is a “dangerous” rabbit hole to go down. “What I think I owe my fans, and what every artist owes their fans, is to be bold and crazy and do something they just might not like and come from a place of vulnerability as opposed to guessing,” Jepsen says. “The artists I’ve seen guess at that, it doesn’t come across as authentic.”
6. Focus-group the material.
As Jepsen got deeper into whittling down the list of songs, she threw listening parties with different social circles: her friends, her bandmates, her family — all of whom have wildly different tastes. “It seems like the top six to eight songs always arise out of that experiment,” she says. Jepsen’s assistant would give listeners score sheets to mark down their opinions — “Nobody ever pays attention, they put their own categories. Three hearts and one star? What does that mean?” — while she would study body language. “I turn those listening sessions into an actual party: ‘Let’s have some wine, let’s have some food, let’s talk over the music.’ When you find people are moving to something in the middle of conversation or get quiet to stop and listen, it flickers for me as something to notice.”
The surprise favorite among the focus groups? “I’ll Be Your Girl,” a rock-tinged number with a Police-esque chorus. “It was my first real angry song,” Jepsen says. “It talks about jealousy in this way I’ve never really allowed myself to expose.”
7. Get organized.
To make sure her album covered a range of moods and emotions, Jepsen developed a coding system for songs. “A girlfriend teases me and says that my process is like that scene from A Beautiful Mind, where I’ve got posters everywhere and it looks like I know what I’m talking about, but there’s no real rhyme or reason to it,” she says. “I work really well visually, so I write out a lot of songs on these big poster boards and color-code them. I rate a song’s energy from 1 to 5. I also put a word next to every song for what it’s about. So ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’? Jealousy. ‘Want You in My Room’? Sex.”
8. Go with your gut.
Despite her meticulous system, Jepsen says, “at the end of the day, all of that gets tossed out for what I wake up worried or excited about in the middle of the night: ‘This song has to make it.’” One of those tracks? “Real Love,” which closes out the standard edition of the album — and also went through 17 different iterations as Jepsen and songwriter James Flannigan (Marina, Hayley Kiyoko), unable to let go of the song, struggled to find a version to their liking. “There was something about the demo of the song that stuck with me,” she says. “It wasn’t until the very last inning we felt like we got it right.”
9. Don’t sweat hit potential.
Jepsen chose not to include the giddy “Cut to the Feeling” on E•MO•TION, out of concern that it was too theatrical to fit in with the rest of the album — only to watch it become a fan favorite and one of her biggest streaming hits after its eventual 2017 release. But Jepsen doesn’t spend any time second-guessing her own judgement. “The right songs come at the right time,” she says. “It might not have connected that way if it was on the album. So I’m less worried about the strategy and just excited to start sharing. I’ve let go of the idea of having any control over what connects and what doesn’t.”
10. Remember you can always put the rest out later.
Knowing she can do something similar with Dedicated as she did with E•MO•TION: Side B back in 2016 helped take the pressure off of perfecting a tracklist. Jepsen’s thinking of having some sort of Dedicated “part two” that ends with the actual song “Dedicated,” but she hasn’t settled on any plans. “Who knows anything until it’s done,” she says. “Even the night before the E•MO•TION B-sides, I got nerves and almost called the whole thing off. Sometimes you live with songs too much. I just warn my manager, if we’re going to go with something, we should probably go with it soon, because God knows this girl changes her mind.”