Dont let them win: Perry performing at the One Love Manchester benefit concert at Old Trafford on 4 June. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/One Love Manchester
Like all the best pop superstars, Katy Perry seemed to emerge fully formed a riot of cartoonish exaggeration when she bulldozed into the public consciousness in 2008.
I Kissed a Girl a stone-cold pop classic expertly positioned her in the middle of a perfect storm of tabloid-baiting playfulness, knowing kitsch and just enough relatable charm to keep things family friendly (in 2015 she described her appeal as soft-serve sexiness). Alongside the more self-consciously outre Lady Gaga, who emerged the same year, and Single Ladies-era Beyonc, Perry started to dominate the female-led pop landscape, following I Kissed a Girl with a clutch of sugar-coated hits, before enjoying a purple patch of record-breaking success with 2010s Teenage Dream. It was an album that defined the two sides of her musical personality from the candyfloss swirl of California Gurls to the self-help sloganeering of Firework. By the summer of 2011, Perry had become the first woman in US chart history to have five No 1 singles from one album, equalling a record previously held by Michael Jackson in his 80s pomp.
She also started dominating a more modern popularity metric, becoming the most followed person on Twitter in 2016 (her
follower count is steadily creeping towards 100m). In February 2015, in the middle of a gruelling world tour in support of the Prism album, which added Roar and Dark Horse to her growing pop canon, she performed at the Super Bowl halftime show with a stage set that included a gargantuan gold-plated mechanical lion and a beach scene complete with meme-ready dancing sharks. The 12-minute extravaganza garnered the highest Super Bowl ratings of all time, with 118 million people tuning in for Perry (4 million more than for the sports bit either side of it).
With astute awareness of her position in the pop cosmos, Perry has always understood the power of reinvention, moving from
vintage pin-up ( One of the Boys) to kitsch vamp ( Teenage Dream), to pick-yourself-up-and-carry-on warrior (the more spiritually minded Prism, released after her divorce from Russell Brand). Her current, more politicised iteration feels the boldest. Witnesss first single, Februarys disco-pop confection Chained to the Rhythm, heralded what Perry a long-term supporter of Hillary Clinton referred to as the arrival of purposeful pop, and was written in the aftermath of Donald Trumps victory. The lyric, rapped by Skip Marley, calls on people to wake up to the worlds troubles: Break down the walls to connect, inspire / Ay, up in your high place, liars / Time is ticking for the empire. During her performance of the song at that months Brit awards, she was joined on stage by giant skeletal effigies of Donald Trump and Theresa May.
The songs intention, it seemed, was to connect the dots to her newly updated
Twitter bio that read Artist. Activist. Conscious (its recently been changed to I know nothing). So how does she feel about the election result now? Listen, theres a time of mourning. I think with Hillary, it was something bigger than her, and she had to be the person to pull the sword out of the stone and wake up this movement, which is really important. What I started to realise was that its not about one person: its about the kingdom, its not about the king. Its about us. We write the rules as a community, and so Im so grateful that Hillary was strong enough to withstand everything and also wake the sleeping giant. We are the sleeping giant.
She starts to pick at the pore strip, which ends up flapping at half-mast. Im a realist but Im definitely an optimist, and so hopefully theres a real change coming, there isnt just complacency coming. We have to change. We have to shake some things up.
Watch Katy Perry perform her most recent single, Swish Swish, on Saturday Night Live
She is keen to include those who voted for Donald Trump in her broad church. Thats something Im going to do on tour I cant wait to meet those people. I just want to hear what they have to say, and hope they can hear what I have to say.
In April, Chained to the Rhythm was followed by
Bon Apptit, an innuendo-heavy, nudge-nudge wink-wink ode to oral sex (got me spread like a buffet) that featured Migos, the Georgia rap trio recently accused of homophobia following a Rolling Stone interview in which they expressed surprise at the support shown to recently out rapper iLoveMakonnen. That same week an Instagram livestream showed an apparently upset Perry, resulting in fans starting a WeLoveYouKaty hashtag. They tried to make me out to be a victim, she says. I am not a victim. I never cried. On the day Bon Apptit entered the US chart at a lower-than-expected 76, Perry went on holiday. Again, in the hyper-scrutinised world of pop, fans picked up on it. I went on a vacation that I had planned weeks and weeks ago with my girlfriends. Everybody calm down. Why dont people ask me what my story is?
Perrys story is a unique take on the American dream. Born Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson 32 years ago in Santa Barbara, California, she is the self-confessed black sheep daughter of two born-again Christians, both Pentecostal pastors. It was a restrictive, regimented childhood dominated by censorship: secular music was banned (along with her family, she picketed concerts by both Marilyn Manson and Madonna); Lucky Charms cereal was verboten because luck was linked to the devil (devilled eggs became angel eggs), and Perry spent summers at youth groups, some of which, she said recently, were in favour of gay conversion camps. Singing became a form of escapism, both in church and alone with an acoustic guitar she was given at age 13. That same year she persuaded her parents to take her to Nashville to record a gospel album, and, two years later, aged 15, she discovered Queen, an epiphany that broadened her pop horizons. That was my first perspective on that world, and I just loved it. I felt so free and accepted, she told
Vogue last month.
At 17 she left school and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. In 2001 an independently released gospel album sold roughly 200 copies, while subsequent record deals with Island and Columbia both came to nothing. People saw me as damaged goods, she has said of that time. By 2006, having had a pop/rock album shed been recording for years shelved, she found herself working for an independent A&R company and singing at open mic nights. A year later, however, those songs ended up with the head of Capitol Records, who promptly signed her. After swapping Hudson for her mothers maiden name, Katy Perry, the multi-platinum-selling (shes shifted around 81m singles globally), award-winning, apparently unstoppable hit machine was born.
Part of Perrys early appeal was a sense of fantasy. The larger-than-life character shed created sort of Betty Boop meets LA party girl with a heart felt like the perfect encapsulation of every young girls pop star dreams, with the determined, never-give-up-on-yourself backstory chiming with every TV talent show. (To bring it full circle, Perry has just signed up to be a judge on the returning
The reality of Perrys construction, she says now, was more prosaic. A lot of people are living in fear from something that happened in their childhood, or some form of PTSD they picked up along the way, and I created this wonderful character called Katy Perry that I very much am, and can step into all the time, but I created that character out of protection, she says. I was scared that if you saw me, Katheryn Hudson, the girl wearing the Bior strip on my nose, youd be like, thats not glamorous. It was me going, OK, Ive been upset my whole childhood so Im going to show the world I am something, that I am going to do something and that I am enough. I didnt want to be Katheryn Hudson. I hated that, it was too scary for me, so I decided to be someone else. Finally, she yanks the gloopy strip clean off her nose. She looks at it and sighs. It didnt really take enough stuff out.
The disadvantage of creating a character with such a broad appeal is that it can be difficult to remain all things to all people, especially when, as she puts it, liberating [yourself] from everything. Chained to the Rhythm, though painted with broad brushstrokes, was Perrys statement of intent, and one with implications, both personally and professionally. Shes respectful of her Republican parents political views but keen to engage them in debate. If you can have patience and dont flip the table, then a healthy discourse is so important, she says.
Did she worry about the commercial risks involved? Im not going to please everyone, and Im not trying to. If you run around pleasing everyone, youre done. If you stand for nothing then youre done.
Her words suddenly become more pointed. I think its actually quite selfish: if youre all about the people but you dont want to help the people, because you dont want to say things when things get tough, then what are you about? Protecting your brand? Making sure you dont lose zeros in your bank account?
Have you lost money from speaking out? Some people said, look we cant do this thing with you any more because weve gotten letters. Basically, corporations are like, dont have an opinion, and Im like, so if I was vocalising for the other side, youd still get letters, you know that right. What theyre asking me to do is not to speak at all. So, God bless you on your journey. She unleashes a huge grin.
Given purposeful pops statement of intent, there was a palpable sense of disappointment from some of Perrys fanbase in April when Bon Apptit returned to
Carry On-style kitsch with its awkward buffet-based sexual metaphors. [Bon Apptit] is full-on sexual liberation! Perry insists, visibly annoyed. Liberation doesnt just come in the form of talking about politics. Some people will get turned on by it Ive seen it happen.
We talk about Migos, and how some of her gay fanbase were disappointed at their inclusion. First and foremost, I didnt know about [the
Rolling Stone interview] when I met them. I didnt do a background check. Some people dont say the things you want them to say, because they dont know how to say them, she continues. Theres also a double standard no one said anything about Frank Ocean, who worked with them on a track, or Liam Payne, who uses [Migoss] Quavo [on his new single]. Nobodys talking about that.
The conversation quickly escalates into a broader monologue about the dangers of online tribe wars. The problem is that these fan groups think that everybody is in competition, and everybody needs to stop with that shit, she says. Everybodys trying to pit everyone against each other, especially with all this bullshit about women hating women. I am so disgusted by it and done with it. You can ask me that question, I cant speak for [Migos], but anything I do let me reiterate my intentions are pure. I dont know everything, and Im going to fumble, but dont fucking double standard me.
Perry with former husband Russell Brand at an event in Beverly Hills, 2010. Photograph: John Shearer/WireImage
Even when angry, Perrys words are often delivered with a measured, Zen-like calm, something she ascribes partly to a new maturity (I left my 20s, Ive embraced and surrendered to my 30s, and I love it. I wouldnt go back at all) and partly to her passion for transcendental meditation. TM changed my life, she says. I studied it five years ago in India during my wedding [to Brand], and it was an incredible thing that I received from that time. Some people get very nervous about the spiritual connotations of things, but TM is very medical and scientific. This [she prods at her mobile] is the new form of sugar. Its the new dopamine, the new stimulant, and everybody has 20 minutes once a day to turn it off and meditate. When I do it, I can feel the cobwebs lifting and can feel this halo. I think that TM is a beautiful way to find real stillness. You should do it.
Its calming influence is on display when talk turns to Taylor Swift and their fractured relationship, said to be the subject of Swifts song Bad Blood, although neither star is on record as to exactly how the feud began. Swish Swish,
Witness third single, has reopened old wounds. Youre calculated, I got your number, sings Perry over 90s-inspired house, before adding: Dont you come for me, no, not today. Does that song feel like exorcising some demons from your past, I ask. No, I think the trolls come hard at me all the time, she says. So its not about Taylor Swift? Its a message to all of the people who have tried to tear me down. All the haters, the trolls, the negativity. Its liberation from all of the negativity. It could be liberation from she pauses and lowers her voice to a whisper the biggest troll thats in office right now. Why is it one thing? Before I can answer, she adds: Obviously me and her have our stuff, and I have offered it up to her to work out. In person. Over the phone. The whole bit. When shes ready to do that, then Im ready to do it. Im ready to just let that all go. We need to have a conversation about it, totally, and I love her, I really do. But this is something thats different.
You can see her point. It feels like a contradiction to, on the one hand, dismiss the constant pitting of women against each other (its the spawn of Satan, she says), and then on the other to keep stoking the fires of an ongoing feud. Perry surrounds herself with a lot of women does she prefer female energy right now? I love the female energy. Females in general are so beautiful and powerful. Theyre the ones that have enough power to bring life into this world. Im not saying theyre better, because everyone plays their role, and a good man is so beautiful. What Im saying is that women should really know their power and thats what power is about. Its about when did you decide to give away your power?
We chat about Perrys imminent Glastonbury debut; shes excited about bringing the bells and whistles and the authenticity in between to Worthy Farm. Ive only been to the luxury of Coachella, she laughs, referring to the California desert-based festival, which this year hosted an afternoon brunch to help Perry launch her new shoe range. Given the curious decision to have her warming up on the Pyramid stage for beardy alt-rockers the National and default festival fodder Foo Fighters, would she like to one day come back and headline? Sure, if theyll have me. She shrugs. Im happy with where Im at. The thing is, dont cry for me. Im all right. Im happy.
At one point, as the interview starts to unspool and our time together comes to an end, we get into a surreal discussion about ice-cream flavours, and an off-the-cuff comment about a song being too vanilla leads to raised voices and dodgy accents.
Do you know what real, homemade Italian vanilla tastes like, with vanilla bean? Its the most luxurious taste in the world.
I just see vanilla as a bit basic, I confess.
People like vanilla! she screams in mock anger, her springy office chair bouncing up and down. Thats why its one of the top three Neapolitan flavours, motherfucker! Its strawberry, chocolate and vanilla!
The word vanilla starts to roll around her mouth with a slight New York-Italian twang. Who the fuck said vanilla is the barometer for basic? People like vanilla!
The conversation ricochets back to
Witness. There are 15 flavours on the record! she says. Get your Rocky Road, get your vanilla, get your chocolate, get your strawberry, get your mint and chip theyre all there.
Gloriously anarchic: Katy Perry poses with fans as she leaves her intimate gig at the the Water Rats in Kings Cross last month. Photograph: Ricky Vigil/GC Images
Five days later, and those various flavours are being road-tested in the unlikeliest of environments. Nine years after she made her UK live debut at the Water Rats, a dingy, shoebox pub venue in Londons Kings Cross, Perrys back there, performing at the
launch of the new Capital Breakfast show. Its a gloriously anarchic, hit-stuffed hour that starts with Perry trying to connect to the internet so she can livestream the show to the millions who couldnt make it. You know me, always doing the most, always trying to do it all, she laughs. At one point she gives her phone to a guy in the front row so he can film it, before kissing a female fan full on the lips during I Kissed a Girl. I love this because theres no format for tonight, she beams. It could be anything!
Later, before a stripped-back version of 2012s plaintive Part of Me, she refers to the Manchester terrorist attack, and the unifying power of music (she will go on to play at the One Love fundraiser alongside Ariana Grande, Liam Gallagher and Justin Bieber, among others). Whatever you can do to help, you should and if you cant do anything, thats fine, she says through tears. But what you should do is not let them win.
Its a powerful moment, and one that seems to amplify the gigs back-to-basics catharsis for Perry. When I come to the UK, Im going to do a ton of these types of shows, she says later, eyebrow slightly raised as she adds the inevitable, I want to get intimate with you.
Before the closing self-empowerment treaty of Roar, the super-fans pressed at the front launch into an impromptu rendition of Fingerprints from 2008s
One of the Boys, a rallying cry to overcome peoples expectations. By the time the assembled chorus gets to Im leaving you my legacy, I got to make my mark, Perry joins in, screaming the lyrics she wrote all those years ago when she was still unknown. I got to run it hard, she sings, a huge grin smeared across her face, I want you to remember me.
Katy Perrys Witness is out now (on Capitol). She plays Glastonburys Pyramid stage on 24 June, returning to the UK on her world tour in June 2018