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Sabrina Carpenter Gave Us the Song of the Summer. She’s Got a Plan for All Seasons


O
n a warm
day in July of last year, Sabrina Carpenter woke up in a tiny village south of Paris and headed to a crêperie, which happened to be the only restaurant in town. The singer had just finished some tour dates and was spending a bit of downtime exploring France. Like any self-respecting European café, this crêperie, Carpenter noticed, served espresso. An idea for a song arose — one that would grow into this year’s likely song of the summer. Released in April, “Espresso” is a preposterously catchy pop jam full of cheeky quotables, including a chorus built around the unlikely phrase “that’s that me espresso.” Carpenter has had the song stuck in her head since France; these days, it’s probably stuck in yours. “I decided to put that burden on other people,” she explains wryly.

Like any pop-culture phenomenon, “Espresso” has generated a slew of memes, and Carpenter has seen them all. Back stateside, the singer sits at a corner table of a cafe in New York’s West Village on a warm day in May, wearing blue jeans, black-rimmed glasses, and a white-gold-and-diamond ring emblazoned with her initials. The meme-ification of “Espresso” has been something to behold. In rare internet form, it isn’t born out of ridicule or snark; most jokes play on how catchy the song is. Carpenter recognizes a couple of tweets I show her; one warns folks about drinking “the me espresso” at Chili’s (“That sounds a little like poison,” Carpenter notes). There’s another one she’d reposted onto her Instagram page: “Excuse me where is the me espresso” asks one user in the supermarket coffee aisle.

“Espresso” is a global smash, and it’s unlocked a new level of stardom for Carpenter. Yet, when I meet her, the 25-year-old is calm and cerebral about it all. “My mom has been like, ‘Do you feel crazy right now?’” Carpenter says. “I just love that people get my sense of humor.”

Carpenter has spent more than a decade in the public eye, first in a starring role on a Disney series and later as a singer with a slew of sunny hits, the vocal chops to command a stadium audience, and a pen game that’s brutally honest about the ups and downs of love and stardom. “The way she puts things, I’m immediately right there with her,” Carpenter’s collaborator Jack Antonoff says of her songwriting. “And [for] anyone who’s got to see her live, let alone record her, she’s an unbelievable singer. When you’re in the presence of that kind of voice, all you want to do is capture it.”

Carpenter wrote “Espresso” with longtime friend Steph Jones and more recent collaborator Amy Allen; coming in for production was Julian Bunetta, who worked on Carpenter’s 2022 juggernaut “Nonsense.” The group cheffed up lines like the awesomely quotable “Move it up, down, left, right, oh/Switch it up like Nintendo” and the viral “I’m working late ’cause I’m a sing-errr.” “That’s the only way those borderline idiotic-slash-funniest lyrics can happen,” Carpenter says about working with people she’s the most comfortable with. “I’ve really honed in on the people that I love making music with.”

Sabrina Carpenter in NYC on May 3, 2024.

Thea Traff for Rolling Stone Mag

Dress by Dilara Findikoglu. Shoes by Jimmy Choo. Earrings and Ring by Tiffany & Co.

As we talk, Carpenter is putting the finishing touches on her sixth studio album, Short N’ Sweet, out Aug. 23. She’s trying to practice self-restraint, avoiding going back, overthinking, and making too many changes. “I think every artist is like that,” Carpenter says. “I figure music is in seasons and the project should dictate a specific time. Just because I might’ve written a song a year ago and I don’t feel that way anymore, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong on a project.”

Antonoff worked on about half of the album, including the new single “Please Please Please,” which has given Carpenter another hit since it was released June 7. In the song, which sits at Number One on Spotify’s Top 50 Global Songs chart (“Espresso” is Number Two), Carpenter adopts a gentle twang to warn a love interest, “Heartbreak is one thing/My ego’s ­another/I beg you don’t embarrass me, motherfucker.” “There’s like an Olivia Newton feeling, there’s a Dolly feeling, there’s an incredibly super modern pop feeling,” Antonoff says. “The little vocal runs she does are so bizarre and unique — they’re doing this really odd, classic, almost yodel-y country thing. She’s becoming one of the biggest young pop stars, and that song is such a statement of ­expressing yourself, not just lyrically, but sonically.”

Carpenter recalls meeting Antonoff, whom she calls one of her best friends, outside a comedy club in New York a couple of years ago. “I was peeing my pants because I wanted to work with him for my whole life. After that, we, luckily enough, became friends; personalities meshed, and it was only a matter of time,” she says. “He heard some of the stuff that I was working on for this album, and we just started to make magic.”

Carpenter says Antonoff was receptive to her vision for Short N’ Sweet, bringing his own ideas to the table and working on about half of the project over the course of the past year. She calls her time working with him “some of the best days of my life,” noting it wasn’t difficult to mix the work she had done with Antonoff with the work she did with her other collaborators. “At first, I was wondering if it was separate projects or if it felt like one, and then, as everything came together, I was like, ‘This is one album,’” Carpenter says.

Despite a slew of pop triumphs, Antonoff has become a polarizing figure across social media, with some fans criticizing the producer for a sense of monotony when he works with the same artists; those critiques picked up after the release of Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department. Carpenter offers a rebuttal to those critics: “Fuck them all.”

“Fuck them all,” she repeats. “I think he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. When he’s in a room, he’s able to literally touch every instrument in the room and make it sound magical. He also works very fast, which I really appreciate because I work very fast.”

Carpenter says she unlocked the ability to genre-hop — folk-pop, alt-pop, electro-pop, and more — on her 2022 breakthrough, Emails I Can’t Send, and is looking to do more of the same on Short N’ Sweet. She’s also doing the most honest songwriting of her career — sure, that’s a selling point for almost every pop act in 2024, but there’s something about Carpenter’s pen that feels like she’s never putting on airs. “I think that the aesthetic of not giving a fuck or the aesthetic of telling it like it is has become so popular that there’s a lot of people who pander to that concept rather than are that concept. Sabrina actually is,” Antonoff attests.

It’s not all sunshine and espresso. Carpenter can write gutting bars about love, loss, and the purgatory between the two. On her Emails I Can’t Send standout track “Because I Liked a Boy,” Carpenter laments the way folks treated her after a relationship went south: “Now I’m a homewrecker, I’m a slut/I got death threats filling up semi trucks.” On “Opposite,” Carpenter sings about an ex hard-launching a new relationship in Paris: “She looks nothing like me/So why do you look so happy?/Now I think I get the cause of it/You were holdin’ out to find the opposite.”

Carpenter wants her fans to find solace in the stories she shares through her music. “I hope they find whatever they need to guide them through their life through my mistakes, because I think the more open I am with my experiences, the more that other people are like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s OK that that happened to me. It’s not the end of the world,’” Carpenter says. The biggest difference between life when she released her last album and life now?  “I cried every day then. I don’t cry every day now.”

She’s no stranger to spicy lyrics, either. Recent shows saw her freestyling outros to her 2022 hit “Nonsense” that were, more often than not, horny as hell. Opening for Taylor Swift on an Eras Tour stop in Singapore, Carpenter sang, “I told that boy to sit me down on all fours/I told that boy ‘Go faster,’ now I’m all sore/You hit a little different here in Singapore.” 

Carpenter doesn’t seem troubled by pearl-clutchers or folks who can’t fathom that Disney stars do indeed grow up; she’s proud of the fact she grew up on her own terms. “When I was younger, I think I’d almost feel pressure to write about mature subject matter because of the people around you being like, ‘This is something that is cool and what works.’ I didn’t do it until I felt like it was actually authentic to me,” she says. “Those real moments where I’m just a 25-year-old girl who’s super horny are as real as when I’m going through a heartbreak and I’m miserable and I don’t feel like a person.”

Bodysuit by Nina Ricci. Earrings by Studs. Rings by Ring Concierge.

CARPENTER WAS BORN in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, to two performers in their own right — her mom, a chiropractor, was involved in a dance company, and her dad played in a garage band. At around age 13, Carpenter moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, one that took off when she booked a role on Girl Meets World as the protagonist’s best friend. But if old YouTube clips — including one from 2009 in which, in an incredible act of manifestation, she covers Swift’s “Picture to Burn” — show anything, Carpenter’s first love was singing (“I thought acting was just lying on camera,” she says). Carpenter taught herself piano and then guitar, using YouTube videos after she realized lessons meant not learning the songs she wanted to play (“I didn’t want to have to learn ‘Alouette’”). She honed her craft over the years and built a dedicated fan base because of it.

Carpenter’s latest era jump-started at Coachella in April, where she got to play “Espresso” for the first time during a sunset performance on the main stage. During the festival, she kicked it with a few fellow musicians: Videos of her catching Ice Spice’s set with Swift went viral, and you can see Carpenter meeting Victoria Monét in her “Brina’s First Coachella” Instagram photo dump. Carpenter, who’s seen the posts about the joint success of “Espresso” and Chappell Roan’s song “Good Luck, Babe!”, got to hang with the fellow pop starlet in the desert. “I’ve been just as obsessed with her as everyone has,” Carpenter says. “It’s so weird when you’re hanging out as two young women as opposed to thinking about when she goes onstage and is that person and when I go on stage.”

Posted up front and center during Carpenter’s set? Her rumored significant other, Barry Keoghan. (“How do I skirt around this question?” she asks when I wonder if she’s calling Keoghan her “boyfriend.”) Rocking Burberry shorts and a matching handkerchief that covered the lower half of his face, the Irish actor looked positively giddy when Carpenter threw a sultry wave his way during her set.

Carpenter isn’t dying to talk about the relationship, but the two young stars pulled up to the Met Gala with one another, and then just a couple weeks ago, the two starred in Carpenter’s “Please Please Please” video, racking up over 21 million views in a week. Still, Carpenter tries to keep things private. “The [dating] pool is the pool, and when you meet people that feel authentic and are so brilliant and amazing in every way, that’s what you do,” Carpenter says. “Obviously, I write songs about exactly how I feel, so I guess I can’t be so surprised that people are interested in who and what those songs are about. That’s something that comes with the territory.”

DAYS BEFORE CARPENTER and I meet up in May, only two acts comprise the top five spots on Spotify’s U.S. songs chart. Four songs belong to Taylor Swift; the other to her longtime fan Sabrina Carpenter. Last year, Carpenter opened for Swift starting with four dates in Mexico City and later in South America, Australia, and Singapore. “I hold her to such a different echelon,” Carpenter says of Swift. “I could never compare my life, my career, my trajectory to anything close to what she’s done.”

Opening for Swift, Carpenter had a front-row seat as her idol cooked up the Tortured Poets Department songs that would go on to challenge “Espresso” up and down the charts. Carpenter gets animated talking about her TTPD favorites (“Guilty as Sin,” for one). “She always puts out music at a time where I didn’t realize I needed those songs,” Carpenter says. “We’re very, very verbal with each other about our mutual love and admiration.… She played me ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ before it came out, and that’s also one of my favorites.” The two have grown close: They attended a Kansas City Chiefs game last October, partying in a suite at MetLife Stadium (“One vodka cranberry in me and I’m not thinking about football,” Carpenter admits). 

Back in April, Carpenter starred in a new campaign for Skims, Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand. Kardashian, of course, has a rocky history with Swift. But Carpenter says the Skims campaign, a viral success, didn’t cause her any grief with her friend, and she didn’t pay attention to online criticism she got for doing it. “As much as people want to believe you’re tuned into every little thing, I’m not because I’m constantly working. In that scenario, I’ve been very, very communicative with her about that situation, and I just love her so much and support her till the end,” Carpenter says. “So it was no weirdness for me, but I know people will just say things because that’s all they have time to do.”

These days, Carpenter is living life as it comes. She pulled up to the Met Gala in a stunning custom Oscar de la Renta bustier gown. She appeared on the season finale of SNL, performing “Espresso” and a “Nonsense”/“Feather” medley, and playing Daphne in a Scooby-Doo-inspired scene. She’s stoked about her new velvet bed frame. She likes to sketch and goes to Disney World with Keoghan and her friends. She splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, preparing for album promo in the summer, the tour she keeps teasing, and the little rest she’ll get in between. She’s not a club girl, but loves dinner out at a nice restaurant (in New York, she’s partial to her friend’s spot Palma on Cornelia Street). We joke that perhaps the biggest perk of a chart-topping single is making the battle with Resy a little easier.

I ask Carpenter if there was ever a moment when she thought music wasn’t going to work out? No shot. “I’m just annoying. I’m literally just annoying,” Carpenter says with a laugh. “I never had the plan B, and it wasn’t even a thought in my mind that it wouldn’t work out. I just always knew it was about not if it would happen but when it would happen.”

And she’s feeling more ambitious and determined than ever (“Coachella, see you back here when I headline,” she sang during her “Nonsense” outro in the desert). “I feel really grateful that this has happened over the course of a lot of time of me figuring it out because it doesn’t feel like it was sprung up on me,” she says. “It’s almost like I can just relax and be excited about it.” She looks at me with a grin. 

“I say Sabrina wasn’t built in a day.”

Production Credits

Styling by JARED ELLNER at A-FRAME AGENCY. Hair by DANIELLE PIRANO at KALPANA using SEXYHAIR. Makeup by CAROLINA GONZALEZ at A-FRAME AGENCY using ARMANI BEAUTY. Photographic Assistance: CHRISTIAN LARSEN, HANNAH ROSE. Styling assistance by MAYA SAUDER. Makeup assistance by VERONICA GAONA.

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