So here we are: just after midnight, October 25th, 2011, in Katy Perry’s dressing room at Belfast’s Odyssey. She is still dressed in her sparkly pink stage costume, has just completed a shake’n’hug’n’meet’n’greet with several troops of her fans, and welcomes us in with a whoop and a holler of “It’s my birthday! Glass of wine?” Well, it’d be rude to say no, wouldn’t it?
Apart from turning 27, and celebrating one year of marriage to Russell Brand (she wasn’t to celebrate a second), the birthday girl has other reasons to celebrate, not least that she has, in the space of three short years, become one of the most successful female pop stars on Planet Earth. Between multi-nomination this and multi-award-winning that, she has eased her way into the VIP corner where the one-name likes of Rihanna, Gaga, Britney and Beyonce reside. And yet, here we are: me, the birthday girl and a glass of wine, trading chat and quips as if it’s Monday morning around the water cooler. If you ever think that hugely successful pop stars lose the run of themselves, then Perry is one example of how wrong you are.
She talks ten to the dozen, often interrupting herself, talking in different accents – the Irish one is not good, the British one is spot-on – and making sense in every one. Yes, she’s sipping wine, but aside from the bottle on the table and few cakes here and there, there are no obviously silly pop star extravagances. Yes, she has a scar on her leg that is evidence of an imperfect Wonder Woman twirl undertaken at a music awards aftershow party over a year ago, but we’re all of us allowed one fall (literally) from grace, aren’t we?
She may say that her highly entertaining concerts are “a break from reality because reality is a pain in the ass”, but the impression here is one pop star whose grounding in assessing real-life issues indicates a zero tolerance stance towards nonsense. The awards, for instance, she has attained in the past two years, mean something to her only if she feels she deserves them. “The ones that mean the most are the fan voted-ones. They’re nice gestures, but my favourite gesture is when they come and see me, and I get to have a year-long sold-out tour. That feels like commitment to me.”
The awards, of course, says Perry, “are extra, a bonus. I got into music because it was my outlet. Some people are painters, some are writers, and music is how I express myself. It makes me feel very good expressing myself through that outlet. But, also, I love the reaction I can get; it’s almost like I’m a magician and have my trick – levitation or disappearing – and everyone goes ‘ooohh!’ You get everyone’s attention for, like, a hot second [clicks fingers]. That feels really good. Besides, I was always a show-off when I was growing up. Still am, kind of. That’s wearing off a little, though.”
And here’s the dichotomy: you’re perceived, if not clearly defined, as kooky, wholesome, impish minx-next-door, yet your songs don’t have fireworks behind them all the time. You’re sparky so often sometimes the shading gets lost, is that not the case?
“Well, I’m not all pink champagne, that’s for sure. I have different sides to my character and personality, and I just play them whenever I feel like playing them, you know? And I couldn’t be all cotton candy and fluff, anyway, because that would be too sweet – you can’t have cake for dinner all the time, can you? Every once in a while you gotta have the rest of the food groups or else you’ll just rot. So, I like to keep it balanced, and it’s nice to show that side because it surprises people, I guess. Not many people are aware that I started out playing acoustic guitar and singing in cafés, and the like. I didn’t always have the crazy outfits…”
Born in Santa Barbara, California, as Katheryn Hudson, the daughter of two Christian pastors (whose pre-Christian life was enmeshed in West Coast psychedelia), Perry (her mother’s maiden name was taken to avoid confusion with the actress, Kate Hudson) released her self-titled, gospel/rock debut album at the age of 17. It sold very little, but for Perry the bug had bitten, and from this point on she toiled her way through a few record labels, collaborating, recording albums, being dropped, going nowhere fast. Exactly four years ago, however – with a new record label on board – came the first buzzy single, Ur So Gay, and then its May 2008 follow up, I Kissed a Girl, the latter of which nailed mainstream success to the mast for her.
“In the very beginning, I think, it was really easy to peg me as being the kooky type. I knew that, for sure, but I was going for the home run; I love independent music, I love that whole hipster indie vibe thing, but I know I’m not pop star lame, either. When I Kissed A Girl came out, I knew I was going to have a lot of opinions coming towards me, but also I knew I couldn’t have put out that song first without having so many other different things to follow it up with.”
She’s at the point now, she says, where her level of success is such that she occasionally forgets to ground herself. “It’s a double thing – I appreciate my success and I’m very grateful for the opportunities I get, but sometimes I have to smack myself into that mindset – when I’m tired, or whatever. And sometimes I have to keep telling myself that this is my fucking job, dude, this is cool – and a lot cooler than where you could have been, so be grateful, you little snot. But, yes, I have my days like anyone else – I’m not superhuman; I bruise, I bleed, I vomit, I shit, the whole thing.”
No grandstanding for Perry, then. What she does, she is at pains to clarify, is entertain. “My main thing is to make people happy and smile. I’m not a Maharishi! I reckon sometimes people think they’re the Second Coming. What I do is fun; it’s like anything else that is entertaining and exciting. We have so much of that these days, though, that it goes so fast. But I will always create through the medium of music, and whether I’m really successful at that kinda isn’t the point. I do it myself, try to come to it from an honest place, and I think that’s why it works. You have to take all of it at face value.”
Well, yes, of course you do, but there’s quite likely another reason or two why Perry is so appealing: she’s risqué, but not overtly raunchy, slinky but not seX-rated. She’s arty, too (the film inserts that act as scene changes throughout her ‘Teenage Dream’ live shows are as much Jean-Pierre Jeunet as Walt Disney), but not in a way that makes you want to laugh for all the wrong reasons.
“I enjoy walking that line,” Perry enthuses, “because I think that if you’re too much of anything it can get old really fast. You also don’t have the opportunity to change as much if you make yourself ‘Oh, I’m so artistic, fuck you’, or ‘I’m so sexy’. Besides, when someone is so overtly sexy, you can’t really take them seriously. It’s nice walking in the middle of that because it gives me so many different options on where I want to go. I love evolving, trying new things, challenging myself. I don’t have a huge attention span for myself, either, so that’s what keeps me moving.”
Speaking of which… The birthday girl is tired with too much excitement – a gig, a glass of wine, me! – for one day. What happens next, Katy?
“When I come off this tour, I will take a breath, assess my situation, reconnect with my core, put my finger on the pulse of where the world is at and try to connect all of those things to the next album. That’s the way I’ll go.”
(This first appeared in The Irish Times/Ticket, November 4th 2011.)