Katy Perry: The Billboard Cover Story
Katy Perry is dangerously close to falling. Not because she's launching herself into the air with a harness like Pink, or clomping through a Heathrow terminal in a dozen-inch platforms, like Lady Gaga. This pop star's potential collapse is due to an unfortunate combination of sand, schmoozing and exquisite heels.
For her part, Perry says she wanted "Teenage Dream" to have more tempo than "One of the Boys" in order to make her live show more dynamic. "I really love going to shows where I'm sandwiched between people, and you don't know if the sweat on you is yours or the person's next to you," she says. "I love that feeling, and when I was on tour I would see that I was missing that a bit."
Anokute reteamed Perry with serial hitmakers Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald and Max Martin, who made sure "Teenage Dream" bounced as much as rocked. "Katy definitely knows what she wants and doesn't want," says Gottwald, whose five credited songs include "Gurls," "Teenage Dream" and the celestial hip-hop track "E.T.," which he'd originally intended for Three 6 Mafia. "She has an amazing voice, great taste and she makes great videos. It's nice to work with an artist who can deliver your music so well."
"We really went for a feel-good '80s vibe" on "Teenage Dream," says Benny Blanco, who worked with Gottwald and Martin on the title track as well as "Gurls." "Katy is such a star on this album. She's molding her own lane like Play-Doh, and people are going to have to follow."
"I love what I get out of them," Perry says of Gottwald and his cohorts. "It's just pure, unabashed pop, and they definitely have the Midas touch when it comes to radio."
Perry also found new collaborators in Stargate and Christopher "Tricky" Stewart. Stewart produced "What Am I Living For," "Hummingbird Heartbeat" and "Circle the Drain," a Pat Benatar-inspired number about Perry's ex-boyfriend, Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy. (She's now engaged to British comedian Russell Brand.) "It's kind of like my 'You Oughta Know' Alanis Morissette moment," says Perry, who sounds unusually candid on "Drain," singing, "You fall asleep during foreplay/'Cause the pills you take, I know your forte/I'm not sticking around to watch you go down."
Stargate helmed two more songs with the potential to match "California Gurls" in anthem status: the epic, orchestral "Fireworks" and the ridiculous, phallus-fetishizing "Peacock," which should soon claim a place next to Toni Basil's "Mickey" and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" with its girl-power cheerleader chants. "It's just a silly play on words," Perry says with a laugh. "Peacock: It's an obvious innuendo, and I love an obvious innuendo."
Even among all these superstar producers and songwriters, Perry says she stood her ground creatively from start to finish. "I'm in the studio fighting with them to change the melody, or I'm fighting for the best lyric at all times," she says. "I think we rewrote 'Teenage Dream' five times for 10 days straight. On the last day, I was so happy to finally get somewhere that we all agreed on."
"She felt the pressure on this second record as any artist would, but she didn't panic," says Bradford Cobb, Perry's manager. "She just reminded herself, 'I know who I am, and this is the kind of record I'm going to make.' "
If radio embraces "Peacock" despite its risque content, it will be in part because Perry already proved with "I Kissed a Girl" that she can sell sexual taboos with the best of them.
"Nobody [at the label] believed in the record," Anokute recalls of "I Kissed a Girl." "They said, 'Who's going to play this in the Bible Belt?' Our head of top 40 radio, Dennis Reese, was the one that made everybody believe. At that point, we just had to put it out because Katy was on her way to getting dropped again."
It would have been the fourth time for Perry, who was previously signed and let go by Columbia, Island Def Jam and Red Hill Records, a now-defunct gospel label through which Perry released a Christian album under her real name, Katy Hudson.
"I used to just feel numb," Perry recalls of her early struggles. "It was like taking a kid to Disneyland and then making them wait outside. The people just wouldn't let me through the gates -- what could I do?"
Anokute was introduced to Perry by publicist Angelica Cob-Baehler, and the two persuaded Capitol's then-chairman/CEO Jason Flom to sign her "for cheap . . . it was a really bad deal because she'd been dropped, so it's not like we were going to give her a huge advance," he recalls.
Most of "One of the Boys" was finished by then, but because Perry was still missing a radio hit, Anokute says Flom sought out Gottwald, who had worked with her before. "Because we paid [Gottwald] significantly and Katy did a deal with him, he was basically incentivized to work with her again, and the rest is history."
"I knew that song would open up doors, but I also knew that it wasn't going to make me a critics' favorite," Perry says of her breakout single. The blessing and curse sticks with her two years later. Even as Perry continues to rack up hits-all of which she has co-written, and many of which she has conceived, "California Gurls" included-it's safe to say that Perry isn't thought to be as self-directed as Lady Gaga, who endows her every move with the air of performance art.
"Katy's smart enough to realize that she's perceived, perhaps, without the weight of someone like Gaga," says producer/songwriter Greg Wells, who met Perry when she was 19 and helped work on much of "One of the Boys," including "Ur So Gay," "Waking Up in Vegas" and "Thinking of You." "She's happy to have things swing a little more to the entertainer side."
This time, Wells and Perry made "Pearl" and "Not Like the Movies," two songs with real vulnerability that most recall her singer/songwriter roots. "Some producers get things out of me that others wouldn't," Perry says. "Greg never makes me feel anything but respected."
Perry insists that no matter how tongue-in-cheek her songs, statements or outfits can be, she's always true to herself. "I'm not coming out trying to prove anything to anyone, like, 'Oh, I'm in assless chaps!' or 'I can't be tamed!' " Perry adds. "I've already been through that phase. I started at 23, you know?"
Nor does she regret having sent a caustic Twitter message about blasphemy just hours after the premiere of Gaga's "Alejandro" video. "[Spirituality] is just important to me," she says. "The details of the importance are still to be determined, I guess . . . It's one of those things that as the older you get and the farther you try to run away from your parents, you just turn right around and they are embedded into your DNA."
Wells has witnessed Perry's maturing firsthand. "When I met her, she was a lot more insanely silly -- constantly throwing food at me in the studio, rolling around on the floor and being a goofball all the time," he recalls. "She doesn't strike me like that now. I think she realizes that she's running a small empire and she feels a real sense of responsibility. She's a little more demure, in a good way."
As a top 40 darling, Perry is that rare music star in 2010 who can get a large-scale promotional budget greenlighted. The "Teenage Dream" campaign kicked off in May with the release of "California Gurls," followed by Perry's high-profile appearance at the MTV Movie Awards, where she performed the track for the first time with the song's guest artist, Snoop Dogg. On the red carpet, Perry premiered a short teaser for the video, which turned out to be set not in California, but in a phantasmagoric Candyland. Almost instantly, a host of parody/tribute videos sprung up on YouTube, all of which are being aggregated on a Tumbler page (caligurls.tumblr.com) and linked to from a banner on the home page of Perry's official website.
The "California Gurls" clip was inspired by its creative director, Will Cotton, a Los Angeles-based artist who sculpts edible tableaus featuring many of the motifs in the video -- candy cane forests, lollipop headdresses -- then photographs or paints them. Capitol VP of marketing and product manager Bob Semanovich introduced Perry to Cotton.
"Katy wants to do things that are special and may have not been done before, so it opens up all these doors creatively," Semanovich says. "She met with Will and they hit it off, and now the album cover art is an actual painting of Katy that he made." Semanovich says Cotton photographed Perry posing in clouds of real cotton candy in his studio. The artist then used those images to create a 6-foot-by-6-foot composite painting that was unveiled live on Ustream July 21 for Perry's fans. To fully showcase the artwork, "Teenage Dream" will be released as a Digipak in its first run and printed on cotton candy-scented paper.
The packaging isn't just motivated by aesthetics, Semanovich says. "Our biggest goal is to turn single buyers into album buyers. The idea here is to create a spectacular package that people actually want to own and feel and look at, and even smell in this case. You're not going to get any of that digitally."
Thompson adds, "She's sold a lot of albums [1.2 million of "One of the Boys," according to Nielsen SoundScan], but an astronomical amount of singles. The album is really deep, and we want to give consumers a lot of reasons to buy."
In that vein, fans will also get to hear a second single before the album drops: the title track, whose video was shot in Perry's native Santa Barbara, Calif., and will also premiere before street date.
Perry performed at Canada's Much Music Awards June 20 and will both host and perform Aug. 9 on Fox's Teen Choice Awards. Additional TV bookings include CBS' "Late Night With David Letterman" and NBC's "Today" summer concert series the week of release, while several magazine covers have been secured in addition to the ones that have come out so far: Lucky, Esquire U.K. and Elle Canada.
On July 27, Katy will answer questions from her fans live on YouTube. To stoke interest, she announced the event with a prerecorded video that has been viewed more than 1 million times and produced 12,000-plus questions so far.
The day after her New York album listening event, Perry performed "California Gurls" wearing a PVC dress splashed with palm trees in the middle of Times Square, as part of a launch event for Volkswagen's 2010 Jetta. Her street team has also handed out posters at gay pride parades in key markets, while single-release parties were held at gay clubs across the country, Semanovich says.
Cobb says that as far as touring is concerned, Perry won't launch the follow-up to her Hello Katy trek until February 2011. She will, however, crisscross the globe until then for promotion duties. "She's traveling the world two to three times over," Cobb says. "We go to Germany next week, Southeast Asia after that, back to L.A. and then Australia."
As Perry's star rises, so do opportunities to extend her brand. For instance, she is lending her voice to Smurfette for an upcoming animated movie based on the classic cartoon slated for 2011. "I am a walking cartoon most days so it was an obvious go-to," Perry says. "I would love to do more of that . . . to be a desk lamp in a Pixar movie or something stupid, like a fork! A spoon! A knife!" A fashion line and endorsements have also been discussed, but Perry insists that for now, her focus is on building her music career.
What that means is releasing more songs from "Teenage Dream" once the ubiquity of "California Gurls" starts to taper-ones that aren't just seasonal hits, but can showcase the full scope of her talent. Perry believes that "Firework" will be a defining single for her. "It's a song where I think my purpose to some people might change when they hear it," she says. Anokute adds, "It's the best vocal performance I've ever heard from Katy."
As Perry tells it, the inspiration for the song came from an unlikely source. "Basically I have this very morbid idea . . . when I pass, I want to be put into a firework and shot across the sky over the Santa Barbara Ocean as my last hurrah," she says. "I want to be a firework, both living and dead. My boyfriend showed me a paragraph out of Jack Kerouac's book 'On the Road,' about people that are buzzing and fizzing and full of life and never say a commonplace thing. They shoot across the sky like a firework and make people go, 'Ahhh.' I guess that making people go 'ahhh' is kind of like my motto."