Carly Rae Jepsen‘s slinky, lavender-colored silk dress keeps sliding dangerously down her chest. “You let me know if I’m showing too much of a party,” says the singer, 29, sitting in a dark, deserted rum bar in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “It wouldn’t be much to see, these inverted As.”
These days, Jepsen is showing a sexier, looser, less guarded side. Following up the squeakyclean, high-school-crush pop of her inescapable smash “Call Me Maybe,” which spent nine weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012, her new album, E-Mo-Tion (due Aug. 21 on 604/School Boy/Interscope), wades into edgier, more mature alt-pop territory, mixing the same throwback power of Taylor Swift‘s 1989 with, says Jepsen, a more “sexual thread.”
“There’s a stereotype idea of what a pop star is, and I don’t really fit into that,” says Jepsen, who collaborated with indie darlings like Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid and Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmanglij for the set. “The expectation that every song you’re putting out is doing well on radio — that’s stuff that you can’t control. To try would drive you insane.”
Stepping outside of her comfort zone is a relatively new thing for Jepsen, a self-described former “goody goody” who “had an agenda with every hour mapped out.” Chalk up her control issues to having four hands-on parents — two biological, two stepparents — all of whom worked as teachers or principals near her hometown of Mission, British Columbia. “I remember going to elementary school and finding it weird that some kids only had two parents,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘How do you make that work? You need four!’ “
It was when Jepsen went to performing-arts college to pursue her musical dreams — ignoring her father’s skepticism — that she first started shaking off “that feeling where I was just trying to be so perfect,” she says. “I remember sending my father a PowerPoint presentation hoping that he could digest it. If I lived my life for plan B, I would always regret it.”
Plan A led her to Canadian Idol, where she placed third in 2007. Undeterred by the loss, Jepsen supported herself with waitressing jobs and street gigs in Mission. “I remember busking on the street and my father’s secretary walked by, and I was like, ‘Uh oh,’ ” she says. In 2008, she released her folky, acoustic-guitar-driven debut, Tug of War, through indie label 604 Records, spawning two singles that cracked the Canadian top 40. She evolved to shiny pop with “Call Me Maybe,” which arrived on an EP in Canada in 2011. After Justin Bieber heard and tweeted about the song in 2012, his manager Scooter Braun signed her to his School Boy imprint and Interscope, and helped push the tune to global success.
But even with such a dominant hit leading the way, parent album Kiss waffled, selling only 292,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music — a speck compared with the 7.6 million downloads that “Call Me Maybe” sold. “I was personally sick of hearing my voice on the radio,” says Jepsen. “I’m sure other people were too.”
Feeling the heat to follow “Maybe” with another smash, she instead slid into glass slippers in the title role in Broadway’s Cinderella in February 2014. “It took my mind off of the pressure,” says Jepsen. “I opened myself to this whole new world and was like, ‘Life is amazing! It keeps reinventing itself.’ “
In that spirit, after ending her stage run that June, Jepsen returned to the studio to focus on E-Mo-Tion with a new willingness to share her personal life. She was romantically linked to musician Matthew Koma in 2012, a relationship almost entirely kept from the public eye, and on the new album’s “LA Hallucinations,” she blasts “Buzzfeed buzzards and TMZ crows” for encroaching on her privacy (a nod to false reports that she pawned a $25,000 purse and starred in a sex tape). But with her current boyfriend, director David Kalani Larkins (Jack U’s “Where Are U Now,” featuring Bieber), she made their love a part of her art, traveling the world with him to film a video for single “Run Away With Me.”
“I usually keep my cards close,” explains Jepsen, who globe-trots with her beau in the clip, which has amassed more than 3 million hits on YouTube. “He helped me show this more authentic side he gets to see. I never really felt free until I met him.”
Jepsen’s willingness to finally open up more helped yield what is already being hailed as one of the best pop albums of the year, one as sexy as it is sweet. “Gimmie Love” is a plea for a romantic interest to “touch me” over bubbling synths, while the jangly “Let’s Get Lost” finds her “keeping my fingers crossed” that a date won’t come to an end. “There’s this intense sense of romance and honesty,” says Batmanglij, who produced “Warm Blood” and also has overseen songs for Charli XCX and Jenny Lewis. “She is the person in her life and in her songs. People connect to that.”
Lead single “I Really Like You” — easily the most straight-ahead pop song on the album — only reached No. 39 on the Hot 100. But Braun, who’s also helping Bieber make a similar transition from bubbly teeny-bop, says that matching the heights of “Call Me Maybe” was never the plan. “We had the biggest-selling single in the entire world last time, and it didn’t drive the album as much as it should have,” he says. “So this [time it’s] about the album, and how good it is — that’s the most important thing in the world.”
Another “Maybe” may never present itself, but Jepsen doesn’t mind. Meeting expectations is no longer on her agenda. ” ‘Call Me Maybe’ was such a gift, but I don’t need that to happen again,” she says. “I wanted to be brave and [record] music that was really me rather than just putting out what I thought would sell. I would’ve regretted more not doing what I did — making a passion project come to life.”
Listen to music from Carly Rae Jepsen and more artists from this issue in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.