Katy Perry’s new album, ‘Witness’, is a socially conscious record about personal, sexual and political liberation. But it doesn’t mean she’s no fun anymore, finds Dan Stubbs
When, in February, Katy Perry released ‘Chained To The Rhythm’, the ultra-catchy first taste of new album ‘Witness’, it seemed like something of a rebirth had happened. The pop megastar behind 2010’s ‘Last Friday Night (TGIF)’, a song about waking up to post-party carnage, had instead woken up to modern politics, referencing the toxic effects of social media feedback bubbles and concerns about personal liberty (“Come on, turn it up, keep it on repeat / Stumbling around like a wasted zombie / Yeah, we think we’re free / Drink, this one’s on me”). The single promised to usher in a new era of what Perry neatly described
as “purposeful pop”. Her Twitter bio was “Artist. Activist. Conscious.”
Four months later, in the present day, Perry’s bio reads as follows: “I know nothing.” What happened? “The genuine story behind that,” she says, after a long précis of her journey so far, “is whenever I think I know something I just get served.” Served by what? “By the universe.”
Perry has been in London for less than 24 hours. It’s midnight when we meet at a five-star hotel in the West End, and she’s practically bouncing off the walls. She’s wearing stilettos and a boxy, silver-coloured couture jumpsuit, with arcs of geometric blue eyeshadow. She looks like an android and moves like Tigger, bounding into the suite belting out the chorus to Kanye West’s ‘All Of The Lights’ as hotel staff struggle to turn them on.
She circuits the room and, finding a microphone tucked away in a corner, grabs it and does a mock talent show for the benefit of the half-dozen people present. Perry stops, declares she wants a “SPAG BOL” and flops down in a booth for the interview, removing five chunky rings from her fingers as she does, as if to imply she might deck me but spare my teeth. Only when she occasionally stops mid-sentence does Perry show any sign of fatigue. “I’m jet-lagged, so…” she says. She seems full of beans, I comment. “I am full of beans! I’ve always been full of beans. Magical beans.”
Three hours ago, Perry played a secret show at Water Rats, the tiny King’s Cross venue where, nine years ago, she made her London debut. As well as performing a near-incomparable string of hits (you know
all of them), she handed her own phone to a fan to stream the whole gig, cried real, honest tears when paying tribute to the victims of the terror attack at Manchester Arena and talked at length in a stream of consciousness, at one point extolling the virtues of “beautiful, consensual sex” in your thirties. In a time when pop stars are too afraid to say or do something weird or controversial or different, Perry is the blessed antidote.
Her new album has a song about “beautiful, consensual” sex on it, too, called ‘Tsunami’. She describes the songs on ‘Witness’ – out today – as being “like body parts”. Sheelaborates: “‘Swish Swish’ is the middle finger, ‘Bon Appétit’ is maybe the p**sy, ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ is the mind, you know, so it’s kind of like I’m having a mental liberation, or I’m having a sexual liberation, or I’m having a liberation from all the negative things that don’t serve me.”
T￼he record sees Perry working with a cast of A-list collaborators (plus some surprises – UK geektronica types Hot Chip appear on one track) on 15 tracks of very good,very modern pop. Also present is songwriting supremo Max Martin, co-author of Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’, widely believed to be a f**k-you track to, well, Katy Perry. Awks? “I can’t speak for him, but he didn’t know [who ‘Bad Blood’ was about],” says Perry. “I’m not supposed to tell him what he can and can’t do. I’m very fair; I’m super-duper fair and I’m not one of those people who’s like, ‘You can’t do that because I don’t like that person. Just, like, you do you, make your own choices.’ And I love Max. I’ve been working with Max my whole career. I’m not his mother and he was fine before I met him, you know what I’m saying?He’ll be fine continuing.”
In fact, Perry recently spoke about the long-running beef with Taylor Swift for the first time, on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. Why did she break her silence? “Well, James Corden makes me and the whole world feel very safe,” she says. “No one has asked me about my side of the story, and there are three sides of every story: one, two and the truth.” It means it’s difficult to be a Katycat and a Swiftie. Isn’t that against the message of fan-group unity she recently posted? “I said that but, I mean, I’m not Buddha – things irritate me,” she says. “I wish that I could turn the other cheek every single time, but I’m also not a pushover, you know? Especially when someone tries to assassinate my character with little girls. That’s so messed up!”
Now 32, Perry seems to be enjoying a newfound wisdom after a period of reflection – she went into what she describes as “lo-fi” mode from October 2015 to June 2016. “I know exactly when it’s appropriate to get [in] the spotlight or turn the spotlight off,” she says. “Every once in a while, I’m really good at turning off my magnet and when I’m about to release a record, like, let’s go. I’m here to serve.” She says she’s become obsessed with philosophy in her fallow time (“I’ve got a massive crush on Socrates. I’m like, dude! The guy that asked too many questions. Me too!”) and her conversation is peppered with cosmic metaphors and aphorisms. “There’s a saying like, ‘the longer you live life, the better you get at living it, so stick with it,’” she says. “You’ve learned all the tricks of the trade and wisdom comes with age. For me, I guess I did a lot of mending, basically.”
Knowing when to go out and when to stay in, as David Bowie would have it, is important for a person whose last 10 years panned out like Perry’s have. She says it’s been “like a rocket. All of us are kind of in this car that’s on fire and everybody’s really excited to pass [it] on the freeway and they’re like, ‘What is that? I’ve never seen that! Let me take an Instagram of that!’ But at some point you’ve just got to get out of the car or you get engulfed in flames. You know, you have to gracefully learn how to transition.”
In reality, that means turning the microscope on her own creation, the neon-coloured, cream-squirting, cartoony Katy. “There’s a time capsule version of me and it’s been four years,” she says. “I’ve left my twenties, surrendered to my thirties, learned a lot along the way, broke a couple of emotional cycles and decided that I can be more myself. I love being Katy Perry, and I’m not saying anything about Katy Perry, but I was born Katheryn Hudson and I think people are gonna start seeing more of that, because I was terrified to show that, so I built this character that’s still me, but the exaggerated version.”
Perry’s not touched a drop of booze since January. She’s been in therapy for the past five years, but since her third album, 2013’s ‘Prism’, she’s committed to transcendental meditation and group therapy sessions – with her parents. She says the experience is “amazing – and not very English”. Perry’s relationship with her parents has long fascinated the press; they’re born-again Christians who you’d assume were happier with Perry’s pre-‘I Kissed A Girl’ career as a religious rocker. The reality, she says, is more nuanced.
“My parents, they’re in their late sixties and just seeing everyone evolve and keeping their heads somewhat on straight and, like, really proud of everyone because the truth of the matter is, no one in my family signed up for this. They still get… I would say – I want to choose my words right – it’s like they didn’t sign up for this and they benefit from it and they also get bothered by it.”
You can understand Perry’s search for a little peace. Legitimately one of the most famous people in the world (she’s the most followed person on Twitter), Katy has been tabloid fodder for the best part of a decade, a period in which she married and divorced Russell Brand, whom she refers to only as “my ex-husband” in NME’s company. She’s considered fair game – one recent ‘sidebar of shame’ story, for example, concerns her being accused of being a witch by nuns. “God bless those nuns because I really feel for them, but just because I dressed up like a witch once doesn’t make me a witch,” she reasons. “I dressed up like a Cheeto. It doesn’t make me a Cheeto, you know what I’m saying?”
There’s also a long-running online conspiracy theory that Perry is, in fact, murdered child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, something that’s surfaced again following recent documentaries on the case. “That one is definitely the craziest [thing I’ve read about myself],” Perry says. “Maybe it came from… I had a picture of me as a young girl in a glamour pose that looks a little pageant-y, but it’s wild.”
Most recently, Perry was the subject of a widely reported but now debunked piece of fake news which stated that her ‘Bon Appétit’ collaborators Migos didn’t want to be filmed alongside her drag queen dancers on Saturday Night Live. For someone who’s been speaking about the tunnel vision social media gives us, it’s oddly apt that Perry’s become prey to the modern pox of fake news herself. Does she regularly feel the need to set the record straight? “I think I stand up for myself a little bit, as much as I can, [but] there’s so much going on that I can’t. I can’t,” she says. “And also, the news cycle is 24 hours or less. I know that things will pass, and I do think that not everyone on the internet believes everything.”
Faith in people is something Perry reiterates often. Although her album as a whole is less political than the charged (and did I say catchy?) ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ might have suggested, it’s influenced by the turbulent times during its creation. Perry fully committed to Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and was arguably the Democrat candidate’s most famous supporter, at one point even releasing a clip of herself heading out to vote in the nude. How did she feel when it didn’t work out? “Oh, it worked. It worked,” she says, with deathly seriousness. Er. How? “[Hillary] woke the sleeping giant and there’s something bigger than her, than me, than any one person that is happening right now. Something brilliant is really happening, which is: people are waking up. People are waking up and we wouldn’t have… we would have continued in the same pattern, in the same way, in the same comfort, in the same utopia. We’re waking up, we’re all voicing our opinions, we’re all getting more educated, we know the names of [members of] Parliament and the names of [United States senators] more than we know the names of band members these days. That’s how it should be, because those people actually help change our lives, sometimes.”
Perry’s involvement in politics coincided with the groundswell of popular movements such as Black Lives Matter and an increasing social and political awareness among pop culture figures. There have been innumerable thinkpieces asking when Katy Perry got ‘woke’. So when did she? “Do you know, it’s so funny – don’t you feel like we’re in a race to become the most woke?” she asks. But she willingly entered the race, no? “Well, I did, but somewhere along the way I realised that there is no destination, it’s just a journey. Do you know what I’m saying? Can someone tell me where the starting line and the finish line of all the wokeness is?”
It’s ‘I know nothing’ again – and it’s a good defence, if one were needed. But really, Perry just feels like a real person having real experiences, good and bad. She’s fun, engaging, energetic company, jet-lagged or not. And this is an indisputable fact: the pop world is a far better place with her in it. Maybe her theory about being served by the universe is the thing that keeps her real. Who else would be upstaged at the biggest performance of their life – 2015’s Super Bowl halftime show – by an errant dancer in a shark costume, only to have the same happen at this year’s BRIT Awards, when a dancer dressed as a house stacked it from the stage? “Yeah, I don’t know,” she smiles. “Well, I guess I’m just… I’m very OK with not being perfect. I never try and come off as though I’ve got all the answers. I’m a constant work-in-progress. I’ve come so far mentally, spiritually, physically, musically and I have so far to go. I always tell myself there is no there there – and that’s totally fine.”