Very rarely is there an artist that can straddle, move between, and operate within, the areas of child star, pop star, and musical force. Disney is a factory for these types of creatives, bolstering the careers of Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Miley Cyrus fairly early on. For years, however, its seemed that the media giant — and the Disney Channel more specifically — had slowed down on its output of multi-platform personalities with indefinite longevity. Sabrina Carpenter, former star of Girl Meets World, happens to be one of the few Disney-christened stars in recent years to carve out such a powerful foothold in the mainstream, and her star power is only growing.
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Appearing in films like The Hate U Give and The Short History of the Long Road, rising on social media as a top Instagram presence, in addition to touring with her critically-acclaimed pop records, Carpenter is blazing down a path towards household name-status, if you don't already consider her one. There's something different about her from the past incarnations of Disney mega stars-turned-pop powerhouses, though, and it has to do with her music on a more fundamental level.
Carpenter has managed to maintain an elevated sense of sonic integrity throughout her career. This is not to say that those who came before her did not maintain that same level of independent vision and artistry, but to look at Cyrus' post-Disney breakout, "Can't Be Tamed," and to try and compare it in terms of autonomy is tough. Carpenter, conversely, is acutely aware of her stake in the game, as she acknowledges repeatedly on her newest album, Singular Act II.
On "Exhale," the emotional apex of the record, Carpenter tackles the topic of anxiety, and not from some over-generalized, sugar-coated stance. She addresses anxieties that are specific to her, something that artists of the past might have once been encouraged to shy away from: "I listen to the labels, listen to the man/ Try to keep a sense of knowing who I am." It's a line that's tough to swallow, and is squeezed into a record so diverse in sound and emotion that it doesn't stand out as an anomaly, but rather a highlight of a truly great standalone pop record.
"Fakin'" demonstrates her melodic prowess and pushes it to a beastly boundary, one that dares listeners to not bob along like you're four drinks in at a college day rage. "Tell Em" demonstrates a similar ability, but it's rooted in a Pop&B sensibility, a genre blend ushered in by the likes of Ariana Grande and Kelela. Each song on Singular Act II draws on something different, a reference we haven't yet seen invoked by Carpenter in her discography thus far, making it ironic that the record bears the title of "singular." In all actuality, it's a culmination of pop eras — a rich plurality that separates itself from anything modern hit-writing has tried to glue together in recent years.
PAPER sat down with Sabrina Carpenter to talk about the new record, her approach to songwriting, and the unseen difficulties she experienced while creating the Singular era.
Let's start with the idea that Singular Act II is a conclusion to the first half. What are you closing the door on with this record?
I mean, to be honest, I literally just turned 20. I feel that when I finished writing this record, this was kind of closing out a chapter of my life, in general, and musically, I think it's not a closing chapter, but the opening to whatever is coming next. Singular was initially slated to all be one album of 16-17 songs. I just wanted to do something different. I had never really released an album in parts before, and I really wanted my fans to be able to hear each and every song. The way we digest music nowadays is at such a rapid pace that things get lost so easily. Those were also themes within the album that I decided I was ready to talk about in Act II. Each and every song stands alone on both sides of the album. I didn't want any song to sound like another song, but I wanted it to feel cohesive. It'll be nostalgic and bittersweet. It's not the end of this album cycle, because technically I'm just putting out this other half, so there will be so much life for it to live. Mentally, I'm already onto the next thing. I'm so excited for everyone to finally hear it.
When you said that you wanted each song to sound different, it comes through when listening. It's an extremely varied pop record, and you have a lot of influences. Does creating such an album come naturally, or do you consciously pull from different areas of your life?
I feel like, personally, when I go to write a song or I'm in the studio, I'm not going in with a specific sound. I'm not going in with a specific word or concept. I just like to talk, I like to see where the day takes us. I always have ideas in my phone and I write down things exactly how I feel in the moment because I know I'll need them later. That's how so many of these songs and stories came to life. I did have "Almost Love" as a title in my phone for over a year, and then something happened in my life where I was sued, so, "Sue Me!" That's funny, maybe I'll use that one day. These things, they come in handy much later, but I never really like to tell a song what to be. I like the song to tell me what to make it, in a weird way. That was very confusing, now that I listen back to it.
I feel like it makes a lot of sense.
When I was younger, I started posting covers on YouTube. To be honest with you, I was always so drawn to so many different genres and to so many artists. I was posting covers of Ozzy Osbourne and Guns N' Roses, then I was covering Christina Aguilera and Carrie Underwood at the same time. I was always very drawn to different things. When creating my own record, I didn't want to feel like I was boxed in. Of course, it's so nice that you can listen to it and be like, "This is a nice pop record," because I feel like pop, now, has given us so much freedom to label it as many different things.
There's certainly a freedom to creating those sounds in a pop context. Within that pop world, is there something you find comfortable, or maybe even something about it you find uncomfortable that you actively try to resist?
Interesting. Everyone thinks of pop music as this really light, feathery-type of thing that's supposed to make us bop through life like everything's fine. I feel like I always was inspired to take things that I was going through that were more uncomfortable situations — not the brightest or the most positive — and musically shift the narrative. You end up remaking your memories as something that you can listen to, that doesn't remind you of a negative time. I definitely think there's parts of music that have to be uncomfortable. You have to face things you're not comfortable talking about on a regular basis. That makes it hard, because then people choose to ask you questions you don't want to be asked, but at the same time, it helps you grow. That's everything I've learned from this record. I don't think that growth stops here, I'm assuming my 20s just get worse or better. I'm going to find out.
As a movement and live experience, pop music is comforting — but I can understand sitting down and recording being uncomfortable. Do you find anything uncomfortable about being a pop star? Is there anything within that label that you find messes with your creative process, or do you embrace it?
I think it goes both ways. I think if you were to look at the "life of a pop star" and really break it down, you'd probably be disturbed by many things. There are a lot of things within this world that are still very messed up. If you approach it from the perspective of me getting to create beautiful things and do what I love, and also be able to share that in-person when I'm performing live, it's all based around love. The energy at my shows is always based around love. Everyone is there because they love music, everyone is there bringing someone they love with them, their friends or their family. I think that in a lot of ways it's a positive community. In other ways, it's supposed to make you question things and learn about yourself. There are some pop songs that are meant to be simple, but there are others that are meant to make you question things.
In the end there's so much thought that goes behind it.
Also, I respect pop writers in general. It's such a gift and a talent to be able to write down what everyone is feeling. Pop is popular because it resonates with everyone, whether they like it or not. I look up to so many writers and producers for that reason.
It's funny that we're talking about this because I talked about this with Maggie Lindemann not too long ago.
I love Maggie.
Yeah, your tour mate. We were talking about pop as a vehicle for genuine emotion, and raising the art form above the stigma. I think a lot of artists feel that. With that tour having wrapped, are you planning another?
I will tour until I die, probably. I'm going to say that, and then maybe in 20 years I'll regret it, but I really do think it's a huge part of my life. In a weird way, it helps me move onto the next chapter, mentally. I feel like every time I've been able to write a record and perform it, I'm able to set it free. Now, with Act II, I don't know what the plan is for it. I know I still have a lot of places to go and go back to. I have loyal fans that have been there since the beginning that I'd love to see, but I also know my life changes on a dime every five minutes. I'm going to release it and see how it goes.
Do you have a memory of the first time you got excited by music?
I could tell you so many different times I've heard a song and felt like I was in another universe. I will say, I had a pretty vivid listening experience to Lemonade when I first heard it. I was very, very in love with that album. I'm not comparing my album to Lemonade whatsoever, by the way. I will say that was an album that was very diverse, musically, and had many, many different genres pulling on it. I've always admired that, because it felt like an experience. I've loved so many albums throughout my life. Also, when I'm deep in the process of writing a project, when I'm writing every single day for weeks or months, that's when I'm most excited. I have so many little secrets that nobody knows about and no one has heard. I think that's a pretty cool way to feel. I get excited when I get to play songs for people I love. It's like having a kid, I assume. I've never had one. You want to show everybody.
Then you have to sit and wait for five months until you can release it, or longer. It makes it all the more exciting, I'm sure, though.
It's exciting, but it's something I have to learn to deal with. My brain moves fast, and I fall in love with things very fast. I don't fall out of love fast, but when it comes to music, I grow at a much quicker pace. I write a song and a year later I feel like a different person. That song will just be coming out and I have to go back to where I was, re-feel how I felt at that time in my life.
Are there any other artistic mediums, besides singing and acting, that you want to explore? Or are those your two main modes?
Wow. Those will always be my two mains, but a big goal of mine for the future is to write songs for other artists. I think it's helpful to find yourself as a songwriter and artist before you take time to figure out other peoples' narratives, but it's still something I've always wanted to do. I want to help others tell their stories.
Do you ever get overwhelmed by the songs you write for yourself, because they're so personal? For "Exhale," I actually wrote down, "What overwhelms you?" It's a very anxious song.
That was one I never planned on releasing. It was hard. At the same time, there's been so many moments where my fans come up to me at meet and greets, or on the street, and tell me some very personal things. When they say those things, I feel like a loser if I don't tell them how I'm feeling. They're so strong when it comes to being honest and open and vulnerable. On this last tour, I think they were tender with me when it came to that song. That was the last song I performed for every show. Some nights it was easy to perform, others were difficult and it would come out. There's something comforting, though, to know that at the end of the day it lives in a safe place in my head and my heart. No matter how people interpret the lyrics, I'll always know what they mean.
Not to jump from a really slow and emotional song to the undeniable banger of Act II, but can we briefly talk about "I Can't Stop Me," with Saweetie? Do you love that track too?
I'm so happy you brought it up. That was the first song I ever wrote with Stargate. Mikkel was basically like, "I don't think you have anything like this." I was like, "You're right." We put down melodies in ten minutes and it came together to be the song. It came so easily to me, I didn't have to think about it. I love the overall theme and message, it feels like what Singular should feel like, it feels like when you're putting on a side of yourself that is more confident and you can let everything go. I love that song, it does make you want to pop your ass [Laughs].
Photography by Mr. Iozo