Katy Perry & Kacey Musgraves Take America: Inside Their TV Special, Tour (Cover Story)
Katy Perry is practically naked.
Dress rehearsal for "Crossroads," the June 13 CMT special that pairs the pop star with country newcomer Kacey Musgraves, is an hour away, but all Perry can think about is getting undressed. Recently arrived at her trailer on-site at Sony's Culver City lot, she slips out of her Jeremy Scott tube-sock dress and into a white bathrobe and flip-flops, clearly unconcerned about who might be watching.
"I've seen her naked," says Perry, 29, motioning to Musgraves.
"A couple of times," Musgraves, 25, confirms. "And it won't be the last."
Further occasions for dressing-room exhibitionism will come in August, when Musgraves joins Perry's arena tour for 15 dates and the better part of a month. It's an interesting move for both. Headliners often bestow their validation, and the benefit of exposure, on opening acts they admire. "I always like to introduce great music to the people in the audience," says Perry. But pop princesses like Perry don't often pick country newcomers. And while the other acts opening various legs of Perry's U.S. tour — Capital Cities and Tegan & Sara — make oddball pop music, both have had top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow" peaked at No. 60 on the Hot 100 and reached No. 10 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
The contrasts between the two are evident when they take the stage the next night, from head (lime-green shoulder-length choppy cut for Perry, long Loretta Lynn curls for Musgraves) to toe (Manolo Blahniks for Perry, custom-made Old Gringo boots for Musgraves). But so are the commonalities. Both are all-American girls who get away with pushing the boundaries. Perry broke out in 2008 with "I Kissed a Girl"; Musgraves endorsed the same behavior in 2013's "Follow Your Arrow," a song about those who find the straight and narrow "a little too straight."
No doubt in both cases this represents a sensibility shaped by a combination of a conservative background with a moral and artistic restlessness. Perry is the child of evangelical ministers. As for Musgraves, "My parents aren't crazy conservative," she says. "They're actually pretty open-minded. But my grandparents are, and where I'm from, East Texas, is the Bible Belt." So she can relate to Perry on that score. "It gave us perspective because we both have that. But we both left those worlds."
"We left those worlds, but we kept our compasses," Perry adds. ("Awww," Musgraves interjects.)"I think [Kacey] straddles the line like I straddle the line of appropriateness and still maintaining a sexuality that is healthy and exciting. And it's not all about that. It's about sending inspiring and empowering messages and being a think-for-yourself type of woman." These two freethinkers crossed paths when Musgraves released the first single from "Same Trailer Different Park," "Merry Go 'Round," in September 2012. Perry tweeted her love for it. "I understand that I have a lot of followers on Twitter, and one tweet can go a distance," she says.
Musgraves felt the effects at a distance — she was crossing a street in Dublin when she glanced at her phone and saw her Twitter following spike. But Perry wasn't done yet. "Stalked her on the Internet, as I do with everyone," says Perry, who reached out to bring Musgraves to Los Angeles to work on the early writing sessions for "Prism." Though those songs didn't make the record, a partnership was born. Musgraves — along with Sara Bareilles, Ellie Goulding and Tegan & Sara — was part of Perry's We Can Survive concert, a benefit for young women with breast cancer, at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, in October 2013. And the two got in another studio session at the time. "A good song came out of it," Musgraves told Billboard in December. "I love when brains come together with different colors and influences to throw into the mix. We're fans of each other, so it works." The announcement of the "Crossroads" taping followed a few months later.
The stakes are high for Musgraves to leverage her association with Perry into crossover opportunities in radio and touring alike. Although she has played a handful of stadium dates as an opener for Kenny Chesney and just wrapped an arena run with Lady Antebellum, her own draw as a headliner tells a more interesting story. On her most recent club tour, at the end of 2013, she played 800- to 1,000-capacity venues like Detroit's Saint Andrews Hall and New York's Bowery Ballroom — rooms more commonly associated with the latest indie-rock craze than a Nashville newbie. Playing to mainstream crowds in the Midwest and Canada could provide the exposure Musgraves needs to go from critical fave to Taylor Swift-like crossover. "It's an amazing pop look, the stamp of validation in another world for Kacey Musgraves from the queen, Katy," says Mitch Rose, head of the Los Angeles music department at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which booked both artists on the tour.
Perry is the latest headliner to anoint Musgraves. "Having the opportunity to open for people like Kenny Chesney, Little Big Town and soon on the Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss tour has afforded her the opportunity to play in front of extremely diverse crowds," says Musgraves' manager, Jason Owen of Sandbox Entertainment. Musgraves is planning a headlining tour for the fall and has been road testing a potential new smash called "Biscuits" (as in, "Mind your own biscuits, and life will be gravy") that could set up her next album.
The Prismatic tour is Perry's second arena run, following California Dreams, in 2011 and 2012. The trek grossed $52.5 million from 105 shows, according to Billboard Boxscore, and was Billboard's 13th-highest-grossing tour of 2011. Although it proved to be a success, with 54 of her 98 gigs in 2011 selling out, it was a big risk for a singer who had "never played bigger than 2,500 seats," says Rose, who has been booking clubs and theaters for Perry since she got her start in 2008 as a Warped tour performer.
Not only was demand higher to expand Perry's U.S. dates this go-round (65 vs. 59), CAA was also able to bring in AEG as Perry's first arena-tour promoter (California Dreams was promoted by the venues individually) and Citi for a presale that was promoted heavily via a fall TV campaign. From its U.S. presales alone, Citi sold 140,000 tickets, worth $13 million in revenue.
With its multiple costume and set changes (there's an Egyptian-themed staging for "Dark Horse," an acoustic section for the ballads and a "Hyper Neon" segment for hits like "Teenage Dream" and "Birthday"), Prismatic is Perry's bid to cement her status as a pop icon who can tour as well as she can churn out hits. "She sold every ticket to every seat the first week it went on sale," says AEG Live's Brian Murphy. "Our mouths were dropping." Connecting with her fans, he adds, was of utmost importance to Perry, whose set includes multiple walkways, some as long as 120 feet. "There's not a bad seat in the house."
The following night, at the "Crossroads" taping, there's a moment where the two singers present a mixed message. When Musgraves sings "Light up a joint — I would" near the climax of "Follow Your Arrow," Perry shakes her head no. (She's not a pot smoker. "I'm sensitive to Advil," she cracks.) For a second, it's as if Willie Nelson and Nancy Reagan were about to duet.
But other than that, these two aren't working at cross-purposes. Their harmonies are spot-on, and that's not all. "Crossroads" executive producer John Hamlin marvels at how much collaborative thought they put into their taping, well beyond song selection. Perry brought in neon palm trees for the set, to coordinate with the lighted cacti that Musgraves uses for her backdrop. Besides the foliage, "They hired one stylist, Hayley Atkin, to style both of their outfits," says Hamlin. "That has never happened on the show."
Apparently they both thought that Perry should be the one to wear the transparent skirt. And they certainly both agree about each other's songwriting. "At our cores, we both think a lot about narrative and characters and the subjects," says Perry.
Musgraves says "Teenage Dream" is "the best pop song ever written," and adds, "If you have the lyrics first, then it doesn't matter what the hell you do as far as fireworks or showiness."
Perry, no stranger to showiness, puts it in a nutshell: "If you don't have the songs, you look really dumb in the costumes."
Andrew Hampp contributed reporting.