Katy Perry's 'PRISM': The Billboard Cover Story

Photograph by Ryan McGinley

After record-setting success and personal loss, the pop queen sees the light and roars back to the top

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

"Honestly, I'm just masquerading as a pop star." Coming from Katy Perry -- that most DayGlo of pop stars -- such a statement could verge on the absurd. But today, Perry has stepped outside the smoke and mirror balls. Sitting on a couch in a rehearsal studio in Burbank, Calif. -- where she is preparing for a live appearance at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas in just a few days -- Perry carries only a fleeting resemblance to the cotton-candied persona she's crafted during the last five years. Wearing zero makeup, with her hair pulled back and sporting black Adidas workout tights and a faded hoodie over a "Christian Death Metal" T-shirt, Perry sips on a grande Starbucks iced green tea. She more resembles an art-school undergrad on her way to the gym than, well, Katy Perry.

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The reason for that is simple: To get ready for the rigorous routines of the new stage show that she unveiled at the iHeartRadio festival on Sept. 20, Perry has undertaken intensive training regimens. "I am exhausting so much energy right now," Perry exclaims between bites of Cheez-Its -- furtive bites, because eating Cheez-Its is breaking training. "For eight days straight, I've been conditioning -- just going, going, going at the height of my physical capabilities. I'm supposed to eat meals every two hours, but it takes me an hour to think of what I want to eat, so by lunchtime, I'm starving. I'm just so hungry all the time."

Hunger and drive have characterized Perry's career up to this point-and despite past triumphs, right now is no different. The success of 2010's "Teenage Dream" -- Perry's second major-label effort-set a dizzying amount of records and has sold 2.8 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Most notably, she became the first woman, and second artist overall following Michael Jackson, in the 55-year history of the Billboard Hot 100 to send five songs from the same album to No. 1. The bar, meanwhile, keeps rising: With the rapid ascent of "Roar" -- the instantly ubiquitous first single from the upcoming "PRISM," due Oct. 22 -- Perry has tied Rihanna for the most No. 1s on the Pop Songs tally with her ninth chart-topper. At this point, all metrics suggest PRISM will equal Teenage Dream's multiplatinum trajectory, but Perry doesn't take such rosy projections to heart. "It's a comfy spot to be in, but I can't get too comfortable," she says. "Otherwise, I'll lose perspective."

It's an approach shared by Steve Barnett, who became chairman/CEO of Capitol Music Group in November 2012, two months after the Universal Music Group (UMG) acquisition of EMI's recorded-music group was finally completed. His appointment followed a seven-year stint helming Columbia Records that included transformative campaigns for Adele and Beyonce, among others, making Columbia the industry's top imprint for the last two years of Barnett's tenure.

"In the first meeting I had with Katy, we found we shared the philosophy of taking nothing for granted," Barnett says. "Last week, Universal made history: We had 10 songs in the Hot 100, and Katy was No. 1. That was fantastic for Universal and [Universal chairman/CEO] Lucian Grainge, who supports Katy's vision completely. But it doesn't matter how many No. 1 singles you have. There is no more important artist or album than this to the company, so we had to have the most massive, far-reaching global plan possible. Put that together with the fact Katy made a fantastic record, and I couldn't be more thrilled."

What that record was going to be, however, proved to be the subject of much speculation in the months leading up to the announcement of "PRISM"'s release. In a June 2012 interview with L'Uomo Vogue, Perry stated that her next album "would be a much darker album than the previous one. It was inevitable, after what I went through." And in November 2012, when she was honored as Billboard's Woman of the Year, she joked that her "upcoming adventure" with her new UMG family would be a change of pace: "I just have to let you guys know my Saturn has returned, so it'll be ugly."

That cathartic experience to which Perry refers is the tumultuous dissolution of her short marriage to British comedian/actor Russell Brand-unflinchingly captured in "Katy Perry: Part of Me," a combination autobiographical documentary/concert film that proved another Perry win, with a worldwide ticket gross exceeding $32 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Perry recalls one particularly telling encounter: a scheduling snafu that made her late for a TV sit-down with Barbara Walters.

"I shouldn't have done the interview: I was playing Madison Square Garden that same night, and I knew that the end of my marriage was coming. I was just exhausted and stressed," Perry says. "I'd prepped everyone that I was running late, but Barbara showed up at the original time anyway. When I got there, I apologized immediately, but then she said to me, 'You know, I've only ever waited for one other person this long, and you know who that person was? Judy Garland. You know how she turned out, right?' I was like, 'Oh, snap! Yes, bitch!' I think it's the coolest thing that Barbara Walters shaded me. I just couldn't tell her as we were sitting down for a mega-interview, 'Hey, my marriage is falling apart. Give me a break.'"

Katy Perry's 'PRISM' Preview: 10 Things You Need To Know

However, the creative process behind "PRISM" turned it into quite a different beast from what even Perry expected. "I was really inspired by this little six-minute thing by Eckhart Tolle where he speaks about loss," she says, referring to a video from the author of the best-selling inspirational tome "The Power of Now." "When you lose something, all your foundations crumble-but that also leaves a big hole that's open for something great to come through."

According to Perry, "PRISM" began with a process she calls "slow cooking." While on tour promoting "Teenage Dream," she began recording fragments of ideas into a dictaphone on her iPhone. Then Ngoc Hoang, a member of Perry's team at Direct Management Group, transcribed them and put the results into a "treasure chest" that Perry referred to throughout the album's creation. Perry notes the sessions for "PRISM" began to "dibble-dabble" last November, when she went into the studio with longtime collaborators Greg Kurstin and Greg Wells. "I was still in a dark place," Perry says. "I hadn't let the light in."

When sessions for "PRISM" began anew in March, however, Perry had already gone through an intensive period of self-examination. "I took a trip to Africa that really put my priorities in perspective and started doing more work on myself," she says. Renewed, Perry reunited with her creative team from Teenage Dream, spending a month in Santa Barbara, Calif., with longtime producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, frequent songwriting partner Bonnie McKee and Henry Walter, aka the young studio mastermind Cirkut. From there she headed to Stockholm to work with Scandinavian pop maestro Max Martin for a few weeks to put "the icing on the cake." In addition to those power players, Perry tapped such hitmaking collaborators as Stargate, Benny Blanco, Juicy J, Jonatha Brooke, Sia, Christian "Bloodshy" Karlsson and Klas Ãhlund of the Teddybears. (Perry shares co-writing credit on all of the tracks.)

"In May, I sat down with my managers and said, 'Guys, I think I'm going to have everything ready enough to come out this fourth quarter,'" Perry says. "We weren't really thinking we'd be able to put anything out until February, but you don't want to sit on something that's about to burst."

NEXT PAGE: "That song is evident of how tough it really was at a certain point. I asked myself, 'Do I want to endure? Should I continue living?'"


Along the way, uplifting survival anthems like "Roar" and the tribal power ballad "Unconditionally" (the album's upcoming second single) came pouring out. "You held me down but I got up/Already brushing off the dust," goes the defiant pre-chorus of "Roar." "You hear my voice, you hear that sound/Like thunder, gonna shake the ground." Perry had definitely begun to let the light in.

Instead of the dark opus Perry had imagined, "PRISM" reveals the singer/songwriter at her most empowered: This is today's pop queen doing what she does best-uplifting anthems with sticky-sweet choruses and an unexpected emotional kick. "I didn't want to do Teenage Dream 2.0," she says. "Teenage Dream was highly conceptual, super-pop art. "PRISM" is more organic, au naturale, vulnerable and honest, but still has the same amount of fun."

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"PRISM" certainly has its share of lighter moments and potential smashes. "Birthday" proves shamelessly exuberant, a disco dancefloor-filler down to its live brass provided by the "Saturday Night Live" house band horn section. "I wanted to make a song that was like what Mariah Carey would have put on her first record," Perry says. It's not "PRISM"'s only throwback track-she's having an early-'90s moment. "I'm too young to have a raver past, but I love the '90s," Perry says. "Black Box, C + C Music Factory, CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters. I'm so into that vibe right now." Tracks like "Walking on Air" update '90s club grooves, while "This Is How We Do" is a completely current party-banger that wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to "Spring Breakers." Perry calls it "the sequel to 'Last Friday Night'"-one of the No. 1s from "Teenage Dream" -- and it balances blingtastic shout-outs to Maserati and Chanel with references to La Super Rica, a taco shack in Perry's Santa Barbara hometown.

But it's not always party time on "PRISM." Self-help and astrological references abound on tracks like "Spiritual" and "Legendary Lovers," reflecting Perry's recent immersion in Transcendental Meditation and mindfulness therapy. Elsewhere, Perry pointedly confronts her turbulent recent history. The line "You sent a text/It's like the wind changed your mind" from "Ghost" references how Brand delivered the news he wanted a divorce. "By the Grace of God," meanwhile, begins with Perry lying on the floor of a bathroom, fighting suicidal thoughts. "That song is evident of how tough it really was at a certain point. I asked myself, 'Do I want to endure? Should I continue living?'" Perry says. "All the songs are real-life moments. I can only write autobiographically. I put all the evidence in the music. I tell my fans if they want to know the real truth about stuff, just listen to the songs."

As such, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to discern that Perry's on-again, off-again romance with John Mayer is definitely on. That was evident from "Who You Love," the delicate, unadorned duet Perry and Mayer perform on Mayer's recent album, "Paradise Valley." On "PRISM," meanwhile, Mayer shares a co-write credit with Perry and Kurstin on "Spiritual" and plays guitar on the Stargate-produced "It Takes Two." Perry also claims Mayer provided the title for the album -- a reference to her wide spectrum of emotions.

And one even less subtle clue: During her Billboard interview, Perry suddenly realizes that the hoodie she's wearing is Mayer tour merch. "I can't believe I'm wearing my boyfriend's shirt!" she giggles, a bit abashed. "He literally is a genius, as is evident from his songwriting. I always tell him, 'Darling, you know I'm going to have to give your mind to science after you've passed, because we're going to have to understand how all these sparks work.' We'll be in bed, and he'll be doing the crossword puzzle. Every night, he tries to finish it in under 10 minutes. When he puts his mind to something, he really gets it done very well. I always ask for his help."


Perry's promotional activities for "PRISM" will include select spot concert dates, including a Sept. 30 headlining gig at the iTunes Festival in London and Katy Perry: We Can Survive at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 23 (Perry's only full U.S. concert in 2013) benefiting breast cancer charity Young Survival Coalition, thrown in conjunction with CBS Radio and Citi.

Traditional broadcast media is also playing a major role in PRISM's marketing and promotional gambits. That includes a unique partnership with "Good Morning America" where various high schools across the United States compete to make their own videos for "Roar," with the winner revealed on "GMA" on Oct. 25, capping off the first sales week of PRISM on, appropriately, Perry's birthday. As well, Kirkup claims terrestrial radio remains "a key, strong element for PRISM," with major events involving Clear Channel and CBS Radio already set.

On Sept. 24, Perry kicked off her international strategy with an appearance in Berlin to promote the global launch of her third fragrance with Coty, Killer Queen, in addition to PRISM-related events in London, Paris, Sydney and Tokyo.

"Katy has combined everything great about her last record and taken it to the next level," Barnett says. "What she does really is pop art. She's got an acute awareness of how youth culture works, and we're along for the ride."

Expect it to be a long one: Perry sees herself in for a long, fruitful career a la Madonna-if Madge ever makes room for her, that is.

"I love Madonna to death, but she's never going to give me that damn baton," Perry jokes. "I'll probably turn into more of a Joni Mitchell. As I inch towards my 30s, I think my fourth record will be more of an acoustic guitar album. That's where I started when I was first discovered by Glen Ballard and got my first record deal. We'll see-I can't get ahead of myself. I'm still doing the work: I'm a good balance of left and right brain, and to be an artist with a long career, you've got to have both. One thing John said to me was, 'It's harder maintaining success than finding it.' I've got a few records under my belt, and I still feel like a brand-new artist. People still want that truth to cut through."

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