Pop music is in a funny place. Right now, the biggest stars in the world are not to be sneered at. They’re not musicians that artists who would ordinarily be considered “alternative” should pit themselves against. Lately we’ve been treated to Kanye West working with Bon Iver, Justin Bieber getting together with Skrillex, Beyonce featuring James Blake on her new album and Rihanna singing a Tame Impala song. It’s a musical free-for-all, with a new surprise at every turn.
Also standing on the corner between Glitzy Pop Avenue and Indie Alley is Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen. In 2012 she released what was essentially the perfect pop song: Call Me Maybe, a tune so sunny, so simple and immediately loveable that it seemed incredible that no one had written it earlier. It spent four weeks at number one and went double platinum in the UK, not to mention nine-times platinum in the US. It’s always a pleasure to have a gigantic hit under your belt, of course, but what’s unusual is what’s happened since then.
“Call Me Maybe was an amazing opportunity and an amazing thing, but it was also in a lot of people’s minds a statement of who I was as an artist,” the 30-year-old tells me. “Afterwards I found my freedom to rethink that for myself, and allow people to look differently at the types of music that I like to do, because it isn’t just one thing.”
In 2015, she released her third album, Emotion. It’s marvellous. Nobody bought it. Did you buy it? Thought not. It spent one week at number 21 over here. Yet her critical approval rating went through the roof. Last month she released an eight-song collection of Emotion B-sides. As an indication of the esteem in which she is now held, it was heralded by a long thinkpiece in lofty publication The New Yorker, in which the writer made a comparison between the lovestruck lyrics of this third-place finisher in Canadian Idol 2007, and the work of 17th Century metaphysical poet John Donne.
The reason is her nose for a cool collaborator who can help to take her catchy tunes in unexpected directions. On Emotion she was working with Ariel Rechtshaid, known for his production jobs on Vampire Weekend and Haim as well as another brilliant album that took pop into edgier places: Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time. There was also Dev Hynes, who makes arty soul music on his solo albums as Blood Orange, and Vampire Weekend escapee Rostam Batmanglij. “I’ve always been open to it,” she says of her desire to experiment. “When it comes to collaborations, the point is to visit a new world, a world that you’re not necessarily in and to challenge yourself to think differently.”
Now, though, she’s dared to visit an even weirder place: the world of London’s PC Music collective. PC Music is a music, art and fashion project that has resulted in probably the most divisive pop sounds of recent years. Their characteristic mix of chipmunk vocals, candyfloss melodies, Japanese and Korean pop influences and retro computer game sounds can be cuter than a puppy in a paddling pool, can sound like the imminent genius future of pop music as a whole, or can be so irritating that it makes you want to listen to a dozen Metallica albums in a row to take the taste away. The Guardian recently likened the work of affiliated producer SOPHIE (who is male) to the Seventies novelty singles of disgraced songwriter celebrity Jonathan King. Hipster bible Vice compared those who don’t get it to Truman Capote hating Kerouac’s On the Road.
To Jepsen, who took her parents to a PC Music club event in LA in July, it sounded amazing. “It was like landing on a different planet and I loved that about it,” she says. “It’s really not often that I hear something that sounds so different. There were a lot of crazy costumes. My parents were definitely wigged out by the whole thing.”
She was there to perform her new collaboration with PC Music’s Danny L Harle, Super Natural. It sounds like the best chance for the PC Music bunch, who have behaved from the start as though they were making world-conquering pop smashes, to have their first real world hit. It has bubbly synths, a euphoric Jepsen vocal, and a melody that really sticks. I haven’t had this much trouble getting something out of my head since my kids gave everyone headlice.
Harle, a 27-year-old north Londoner with an impeccable musical background, also proves to be the most likable, straightforward member of a group that otherwise seems to trade in mystery and irony – either not giving interviews at all or giving them in character. Polly-Louisa Salmon, who performs as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year) has so far proved the most objectionable. An art dealer’s daughter plying the persona of an obnoxious rich girl, in 2015 she had to apologise for making a racist remark in a review of the Field Day Festival.
In contrast I get absolutely no sense that Harle is making his pop music in ironic quote marks. “At no point have I ever wanted to get up people’s noses or make fun of anyone,” he tells me. “My music is all an act of love for the music that I love. I couldn’t make a track that’s a parody. I don’t see the point.”
We meet in his temporary recording studio, a small room in a warehouse full of creative types near unglamorous Seven Sisters tube. In a few months the entire PC Music collective will be moving out this way to have rooms next to each other in a nearby building. Tall, bespectacled and rather posh, he’s best friends with PC Music mastermind AG Cook. They were at the independent King Alfred School in Hampstead together. “It was quite a hilarious shock when people said that this music was making fun of this or that. For me and Alex [Cook], it was just a combination of all the stuff that we liked and maybe a lot of people just weren’t aware of the influences. We were interested in what would happen if you took something that sounded like a pop song and sent it off in another direction. We were playing with ideas, experimenting.”
Whatever you make of the end product, there’s no denying that Harle knows what he’s doing. He seems to have lived the traditional route of music discovery backwards. He played cello as a child, falling in love with free jazz as a teenager thanks to his father – notable classical saxophonist John Harle – then studying classical bass and composition as an undergraduate at Goldsmiths and a postgraduate at the Guildhall School. Before he got into pop music he was composing soundtrack music for the BBC and playing jazz on board the Symphony, the glass boat offering dinner cruises from the Embankment. There is an impressive collection of classical pieces among the electropop and remixes on his Soundcloud page.
With all these disparate things, however, the dominant theme is fun. “My final submission for Goldsmiths was a series of chamber pieces using video game consoles as musical instruments,” he announces proudly. Asked if what he’s doing now is in opposition to his highbrow younger years, he says not. “I see it as the same thing. I’m using the same brain. What I’ve learned from writing this kind of music is what I should have been doing all along with my concert music: simplifying and clarifying all the time.” At one point he mentions minimalist composer Philip Glass and Barbie Girl hitmakers Aqua in the same sentence. “They’re not unrelated, I think! There are a lot of synths in Philip Glass, a lot of repetition.”
Such enthusiasm was enough to convince Jepsen to become the first global star to give the PC Music sound a chance. “I liked the guy and was intrigued by the song,” she says. “It seemed fun not to research too much, to say yes on a whim. I just thought, why not?” She won’t be the last to get on board this rocket to pop’s strange next phase.
Super Natural is out now on Sony Music.