If you've only seen videos of Katy Perry singing "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold," looking like the love child of Zooey Deschanel and an anime character, you might take her for a lightweight. She giggles, does exaggerated pantomimes of femininity, and jumps into cakes at award shows. Nothing about her screams gravitas
But Perry doesn't mind underplaying her hand. While she was "failing"—being dropped by three record labels before the age of 24—she was taking notes the entire time. And when she arrived at Capitol, she made sure to land on her feet.
"I Kissed a Girl," the first single from her album "One of the Boys," spent seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 2008 and has sold 3.1 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The follow-up single, "Hot N Cold," reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 and has sold 2.9 million downloads. Her third single, "Thinking of You," shipped to radio Jan. 12; it has sold 97,000 copies.
Her album has sold 806,000 copies since its release in June, but if she was hitting 15 years ago, she'd probably be reaching Alanis Morissette levels of album sales.
That change in the music business is not lost on Perry. "People got burned by too many uneven records," she says. "I personally can't live without iTunes."
Her manager, Bradford Cobb, isn't worried. While album sales offer a bigger boost to the bottom line, he believes that Perry shouldn't be painted as a two-hit wonder.
"'Thinking of You' will be the tipping point that gets people to buy the whole album," he says. "It will show the depth and range she has as an artist. I'm comfortable with people discovering Katy at their own pace."
Throughout her career, Perry has proved resilient. At 15, she recorded a gospel album, which promptly disappeared after the label folded. She tried again at 17, working with Glen Ballard on an album for Island Def Jam, which also went nowhere. Finally, she signed to Columbia in 2004, hoping the third time would be the charm.
It wasn't. But the Columbia deal started Perry on her current path. "Columbia was never really willing to embrace Katy's vision," Cobb says. "They were not willing to let her drive. Here was this ambitious young woman with a clear picture of who she was and the willingness to work hard, and Columbia just wouldn't put her in the driver's seat."
One of Columbia's ideas was to pair her with production team the Matrix to serve as the female vocalist for their album. When that situation didn't pan out, Perry started recording a solo album. But before it was completed, Columbia put on the brakes.
"Eighty percent of the record was done, and Columbia decided not to finish it and dropped her," Cobb says. "We got the masters back and then started looking for a new home."
Noting that none of its executives who worked with Perry are with the company any longer, Columbia declined to comment.