Carly Rae Jepsen knew she was pushing her luck as Canadian Idol 2007 rolled on - choosing songs that were a nightmare in terms of clearance, like Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s In Love”, and then shoving her retroussé nose into the arrangements more than any contestant before her.
“I got a reputation for that on Idol,” she giggles, sheepishly. “I‘m a stubborn girl. And it caused some headaches.”
It was during a post-finalé dinner with the band and musical director that the 22 year-old Mission, BC native was quietly told, “It was challenging, but you’re a true musician, because you know what you want.”
One year down the line, a vindicated Carly comments, “You gotta push to get what you want, but as long as you do it politely and treat people well, there’s no wrong in that.”
Indeed. Carly is endlessly polite as she pursues what she wants, not to mention effervescent, levelheaded, and unpretentious. But pursuing what she wants seems to be an essential part of her DNA. The real Carly Rae Jepsen was destined for a career in music with or without the chicken run we lovingly call Canadian Idol – which in any event was no more than a passing challenge suggested to her by an old high school teacher. Carly was, by her own admission, “skeptical”. She figured she’d use the free trip to Toronto as a way to find work.
With Carly’s debut Tug Of War, one gets the sense we’re hearing an album that would have shimmered into existence with or without the blue-lit over-exposure native to a nationwide talent contest. As Carly points out - without a hint of self-aggrandizement - there can’t be too many Idol-survivors whose first album contains nine self-penned originals.
Or for that matter, nine self-penned originals that are quite this good. Jepsen's unfussy debut plays like a middle passage through the stealth pop gloss of Nelly Furtado and the more adult concerns of Feist, whom Carly adores. Her childhood diet of James Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald, and Van Morrison serves her well on Tug Of War, from the smartly built, double-edged title track, to the sense of drama that invigorates the record’s centrepiece, “Sweet Talker”. Canada has already been exposed to Carly’s sensibilities through a nimble, sparkling cover of John Denver’s “Sunshine” (providing plenty of musicians with a forehead-slapping “Why didn’t I think of that first?” moment), but her intuitive grasp of simplicity as a musical force in and of itself is total, and it informs the entire album. In short, Tug Of War is a million miles away from the bubblegum factory.
But if you really knew Carly, you wouldn’t be surprised. This is the Carly who scored a bartending job at Vancouver's Media Club by singing to the manager; who instituted a still-running acoustic night at a local coffee shop; and who was in the midst of assembling a swing band when opportunity sent a certain TV show knocking. And it’s the Carly who raves about Cat Power’s The Greatest, sighing, “Eat your heart out with a bottle of wine. It’s awful. But wonderful. It’s wonderfully awful, but hurts in the best way.”
In other words, the Idolatory seems almost irrelevant now, when you stack it beside the self-possessed natural, triple-threat beauty, and all-round heart-melter who still cries at concerts because she loves music first and foremost, who found the perfect foil in producer Ryan Stewart, who took aggressive charge of the career she was always built for, and who emerged with an album that vibrates with the possibilities of the long arc ahead.
Tug Of War is no less than the album Carly Rae Jepsen wanted to make. And that’s all that need be said in the end. Although she should probably have the last word.
“I want to play good music that lasts a lifetime. You don’t need to be known by everybody. You just reach out to the people who feel what you’re doing, you know?
Spoken, as somebody once said, like a true musician.
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