From child star to pop powerhouse: Sabrina Carpenter has broken free, found her voice and is embracing honesty and relishing in the nonsense on her latest album ‘Emails I Can’t Send’.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Sabrina Carpenter has been in the spotlight for over a decade now. The 23-year-old first became a household name in 2014 via the Disney Channel’s coming-of-age show Girl Meets World and hasn’t stopped being a star since. There’s been a string of TV and film appearances alongside a series of sugary pop records. Sabrina also had a short-lived career as a Broadway actor in the Mean Girls musical, playing Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan’s character) for two performances at the August Wilson Theatre in New York before COVID shut down live theatre.
Despite spending her teenage years as a shiny Disney teen star, Sabrina’s first album away from Disney’s Hollywood Records, ‘Emails I Can’t Send’, isn’t a rebellious reclamation of her identity. Well, not deliberately, anyway.
Sure, Sabrina Carpenter recently left BBC Radio 1 a little red-faced after changing the lyrics to her viral smash ‘Nonsense’ during a Live Lounge session (“How quickly can you take your clothes off, pop quiz. I’m American I am not British, so BBC it stands for something different”), but the smart, funny pop record sees her understanding herself a little better, rather than taking on a whole new persona. “I just learned not to force things,” she explains.
Sabrina agrees that the album is “quite different” from what’s come before, though. “I didn’t feel like there was anybody limiting what I could or couldn’t do or say,” she offers. “With ‘Emails’, I felt very free to do exactly what I wanted to do. I was able to steer the ship.” It’s something she believes every artist should be allowed to do, but Sabrina doesn’t really blame her previous label for not giving her complete creative control. “I didn’t even trust my own voice back then,” she admits.
Sabrina released her debut single, the ukulele-driven ‘Can’t Blame A Girl For Trying’, when she was just 14 before debut album ‘Eyes Wide Open’ came the following year. “[I was] too young. When your voice hasn’t gone through puberty, maybe you shouldn’t be making music,” she suggests, explaining that listening back to old songs just leaves her asking, “why?”
“I do think everything happens for a reason, though. I wouldn’t have this album if I didn’t have those early projects,” she adds. “I’m more sure of the person that I am and the music I want to make now. The stuff before was still a version of me, but I was just so young.”
Despite the already-eclectic musical back catalogue and impressive acting resume, the release of ‘Emails’ last year felt like the beginning of something special for Sabrina.
“I don’t want to jinx anything,” she starts, eager not to get carried away by the millions of listeners and the ever-expanding list of sold-out headline shows that have followed. “I just feel very lucky that this is the album that is resonating with people because it’s the one that feels the most like me. That might be the greatest feeling in the world.”
Sabrina goes on to say that the raw honesty of ‘Emails’ has “helped me trust myself a lot more, and I’ve opened myself up to a lot more possibilities now. That’s very special for a 23-year-old who’s constantly asking themselves, ‘who am I, and what am I doing?’ It’s been very inspiring,” she beams before taking a pause.
“I basically just said I inspire myself, didn’t I?” Her head goes into her hands, and she admits, “I would hate me if I read that in an interview.” It’s charmingly self-aware.
In her defence, Sabrina Carpenter is in need of a nap. She flew into London less than 24 hours ago and is leaving again in a few days. The jetlag is hitting hard, and the brain fog isn’t helped by the fact that the fancy hotel’s idea of a snack is lettuce and hummus. “Me saying ‘I inspire myself’ really was the tip of the iceberg,” she later quips. You have to respect her pun game.
It’s been a minute since her last proper day off, and things have “definitely been intense” since ‘Emails I Can’t Send’ was released in July. “It’s getting more exciting and fun as the days go on, though,” Sabrina grins. “I might not know what day it is, but I keep finding reasons to be very grateful. It’s been a whirlwind, but in a good way.”
“I feel very lucky that this is the album that is resonating with people, because it’s the one that feels the most like me”Sabrina Carpenter
With her stint on Broadway cut short and with all her usual creative outlets also off the table, Sabrina spent the first few months of lockdown writing emails to herself to understand what she was feeling. “It was a way to vent and not harbour a lot of those emotions,” she explains.
At first, she felt like she was going crazy. Over time though, she realised she was being 100% honest with herself for the first time. She wasn’t using this therapy as an exercise in songwriting until she wrote what would become the title track. “As soon as I wrote ‘Emails I Can’t Send’, everything clicked into place,” Sabrina tells Dork. “That song was me vomiting words onto paper rather than worrying about making sure the pre-chorus was catchy. It was so nice to write a song that I thought no one ever had to hear. Then I realised I wish I was writing every song with that freedom.” She then worked backwards through the songs she’d already written, making sure they were as honest and real as possible. It was a process that was both “really cathartic and really confusing”.
“It felt like I was exhaling,” she explains.
The 13 tracks are all very different, but across the record, “there’s this theme of saying things that you’re scared to say out loud. It felt like a really interesting concept for an album that ended up capturing a turning point in my life.”
The result is a record that’s unashamedly vulnerable. “I feel like I didn’t have a choice [with that],” says Sabrina. “At a certain point, if you don’t just rip off the band-aid, you’ll end up lying to yourself forever, and that’s no fun. It also felt nice to just let go and not be concerned about what people are going to think or how they’re going to perceive you.”
Ten years in the spotlight, Sabrina knows people will judge her whatever she does. “[It happens] even if you give them a fake version of yourself, so you may as well just be real with yourself. That’s the way for me to be the most happy.”
Take the fuzzy angst of ‘Because I Liked A Boy’. There’s been constant speculation that Sabrina wrote it after the public backlash that followed her supposed relationship with fellow Disney star and rumoured Olivia Rodrigo-ex Joshua Bassett (‘Driving License’ is apparently about him), but no one involved has ever confirmed anything.
However, the track was definitely inspired by real-life events and sees Sabrina talk about being labelled a “homewrecker” and a “slut” alongside the death threats she got, all because she “liked a boy”.
“Tell me who I am, guess I don’t have a choice,” she adds.
Talking to Dork, Sabrina explains how that song champions the idea that “making mistakes is a real thing that does happen.”
“It’s been so cool to see that track take off,” she continues. “When I wrote that song, I knew I loved it, but I didn’t know if a single person was going to relate to it because it was so specific. It’s me telling a very detailed story from start to finish. To watch the way that young girls, young boys from all over the world relate to it in their own way has been really wonderful. It has honestly inspired me to be even more fearless.”
Prior to ‘Because I Liked A Boy’, Sabrina spent most of her life “really taking other people into consideration and doing whatever I could to make them the most comfortable. It always made me uncomfortable,” she admits. “For the first time, I chose to actually care about myself, and that was very liberating.”
“There’s this unintentional honesty to the entire record,” explains Sabrina. “Those were the things that I felt most connected with and compelled to say.” Safe in the knowledge that none of the songs she was writing ever actually had to come out, “there was no ‘too much’ for this album,” she admits. “I don’t think I held back, and I’m happy I didn’t.”
That fearlessness wasn’t deliberate, but “when you get so tired of people, you start to peel off layers of not caring,” says Sabrina. For ‘Emails’, she had a newfound attitude that saw her telling herself, “’you’ve got to just live your life and not put so much pressure on yourself. You can do things for fun’.”
Prior to release, someone tried suggesting Sabrina call it ‘Letters’ instead of ‘Emails’. Their logic? The album didn’t tackle issues of technology. She quickly dismissed them. “[It] was a little thing, but being really sure of my own thoughts and opinions was a big step for me.”
Telling the story now, it all sounds very brave, but Sabrina spent four days before turning the finished record in with her finger over the ‘delete all’ button. “I didn’t want anyone to hear any of it, and I was very scared.” Then some friends reminded her how special it felt and how much it sounded like her. After that, the nerves turned into excitement. “At a certain point, I went, ‘these are all bangers, and I want people to hear them’.”
“At a certain point, if you don’t just rip off the band-aid, you’ll end up lying to yourself forever, and that’s no fun”Sabrina Carpenter
And people have heard them. As it stands, every track on the album has been streamed at least 10 million times, with ‘Nonsense’ charting both sides of the Atlantic. “The coolest thing has been people that maybe didn’t really listen to my music before, or didn’t think they ever should, hearing this album.”
“I feel like people really appreciate honesty and transparency,” she says of why ‘Emails’ has resonated with so many people. “I think it’s so easy to tell the things that are honest, versus not. I think, for whatever reason, there’s just like a little magical pixie dust that goes into the things where you’re telling the truth. People can sense that.”
Despite all the bone-scratching honesty on ‘Emails’, there is a real rom-com feel to the record, which suits Sabrina just fine. “That’s kinda my life.” She goes on to say that humour is “so important” to who she is as a person and an artist. “That was the thing that made my friends go, ‘oh, this is your album because no one else would say the things that you do’.”
“I also deal with pain with humour. Those things coexist in my life,” explains Sabrina. “Humour has saved me from not taking things so seriously or letting things really ruin me.”
Case in point, it takes less than 90 seconds for Sabrina to call an unfaithful ex a “dipshit” on ‘Emails’, which is perhaps the most underused of insults.
“I’m shocked it hasn’t had more of a spotlight. I was really trying to kickstart a resurgence,” she admits, tongue firmly in cheek. “One of my favourite things about my tour was seeing people buy these dipshit hats. It was so funny seeing 8-year-old kids at a show with dipshit on their head, knowing that their parents had bought it for them.”
A lot of the joke lines on the record started as throwaway lyrics that Sabrina was going to come back and revisit, but she quickly realised that her first instinct was the most natural. “I almost called the album something else,” admits Sabrina. This alternative title was to do with “the way that I use humour to navigate things and how sometimes, that’s the better way to say something rather than taking yourself too seriously.” She won’t give away anything else in case she wants to use the title for a future project.
Speaking of jokes, breakout track ‘Nonsense’ is full of them. The giddy, Ariana Grande-inspired track quickly became a viral sensation last year and remains a radio mainstay. “I wish I could be like, ‘I felt the magic in the room and my life changing’ when we wrote that song, but honestly, I had no idea. I was in a very silly mood, and there was something about it that happened so effortlessly. It was almost like I didn’t even realise we wrote a song that day until I listened back to it.”
“That song is really Sabrina-fied top to bottom,” she continues. Every lyric feels like something she’d say in the real world, and the song “captures exactly how I get when I have a crush on someone. It’s a hard feeling to encapsulate without sounding too cheesy or ridiculously cringy,” she adds.
For ‘Emails I Can’t Send’, Sabrina took influence from the “great female songwriters” she grew up on; Carole King, Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple. “There’s a lot of newer artists that inspire me too, but I have a hard time taking influence from them because whatever they’re doing, is being done,” she admits. “I wasn’t trying to reinvent the classics, but I definitely pulled inspiration from them for sure.”
It means Sabrina’s fifth album “doesn’t really have one specific genre”. It’s opened up the door for what comes next as well. “There are so many possibilities now. I love that pop music has become everything. When I was younger, it was very easy to feel like you had to choose one style and stick with it. Thank god people don’t believe that anymore.”
That said, there’s one genre Sabrina knows she’s not going to toy with. “If I can tell you one thing, I’m not going to make a rock record.”
Before she starts to record anything new, though, Sabrina is gearing up to release a batch of songs written at the same time as ‘Emails’ but weren’t included on the album for a variety of different reasons.
“I’ve been very specific about what fits into the world of this album, because it means so much to me. This era is so special to me, and [whatever’s coming] is an extension of the record.”
She describes the songs as touching on “the thoughts that shouldn’t have made it, but now they get a chance to see the light of day, which is interesting. I’m nervous about that, but I’ve just felt so encouraged by the fans that have really loved the album that I feel like I owe them a treat.”
“There’s a little magical pixie dust that goes into the things where you’re telling the truth. People can sense that”Sabrina Carpenter
“I don’t want to see what anyone makes of anything, though. I’m going to close my eyes,” she laughs. “I can’t wait to sing these new songs at the shows with them. I’ve been living with them for a while now, and it feels like I’m finally letting them in on some secrets that maybe I wasn’t so sure of before.”
Sabrina Carpenter is about to start her second North American headline tour of the ‘Emails’ era. A brief run of South American shows kicks off in spring before a European tour follows. In total, she’s playing at least 58 shows, including her first-ever UK headline shows. The four-date run is completely sold out, and Sabring doesn’t want to upgrade them from venues like Hammersmith Apollo because “I think it’s really important not to skip any steps”.
“I’m already tired,” she laughs. “I love performing so much, and it is a lot on your body, but the music is really healing.”
So far, the shows have been like a big party. “Everyone has a great attitude, a great time, and we’re all looking out for each other. It’s a very safe space. I also feel like I can just be myself on stage, and I can say whatever comes to my mind. That’s scary but also necessary. It brings me a lot closer to the people that come to the shows. It’s a very loving environment” – even with a chunk of the audience wearing dipshit hats.
She’s excited about hitting the road. “I like people to see that everything is actually happening live. I love the energy of how excited people get when they watch someone do the thing they love as well. That’s really special and isn’t something you can recreate anywhere else.”
Sabrina has pretty much always wanted to sing and act. She watched Hannah Montana and The Wizard Of Oz on repeat as a child, knowing she wanted to do something similar. But those dreams have been achieved, so what’s next?
“The cool thing about it all is that it evolves forever. Art is constantly turning into new things all the time. I don’t feel like I’ve been sitting in a cubicle for 10 years doing the same thing; it feels like I’ve been doing something different every single day. I think I’ll be doing this for a long time.”
Despite the success of the music, she wants to keep acting as long as she feels “connected to the project and compelled to do it. Music is obviously such a huge part of my life and takes up a lot of time and space. And you need space in order to live, in order to create things that feel special and real. It all feels a bit like a giant puzzle for me right now, but I definitely haven’t stopped.”
“It’s actually a very annoying trait, the wanting to do it all,” she adds. “I just love making things, though.” ■
Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Sabrina Carpenter will tour the UK in June.