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Depression, heartbreak and then a reckoning: The rebirth of Katy Perry

Katy Perry is about to give birth to her first child and her fifth album, "Smile."
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Before the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, Katheryn Hudson and her family gathered in their home, readying for the apocalypse. Her parents, both Pentecostal ministers, had already stocked the garage with canned food. And so, on the eve of Y2K, they turned down the blinds and instructed their three children to join them in prayer.

Armageddon, of course, never arrived. But if it had, the 15-year-old — who is now known to the world as Katy Perry — would have been ready.

“I was kind of born into chaos,” she says. “So I thrive in it.”

At 35, Perry still does not scare easily. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she has continued to work while pregnant, taking what she describes as “calculated risks.” At an oft-sanitized warehouse in Burbank, she has filmed music videos and other promotional material for her forthcoming album, “Smile,” with a 10-person crew that is continuously tested for COVID-19. And though her due date is rapidly approaching, she is not fearful about giving birth to her first child. She simply does not entertain that energy, she says. “The pain will pass. It’s temporary.”

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VIDEO | 01:37
Katy Perry photo shoot at Capitol Records

This is also the message of “Smile,” her fifth studio album for Capitol Records. Written over the past 2 1/2 years, the songs tell the story of a difficult period in Perry’s life, during which she reckoned with both her romantic life and her place in the music industry. She broke up with and then got back together with actor Orlando Bloom, her now fiance with whom she will soon welcome a daughter. And she struggled after “Witness,” her 2017 album, failed to resonate with fans in the way her prior music had. It was the first of her albums to not produce a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single, of which she has had nine since 2008.

“Every day, Groundhog Day / Goin’ through motions felt so fake,” she sings on the title track of “Smile.” “Not myself, not my best / Felt like I failed the test.”

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Lyrics notwithstanding, her new material does not have bummer vibes. Recorded in various locales — Sweden, New Zealand, Santa Barbara — and made with a squadron of collaborators including Zedd and Charlie Puth, it’s still quintessentially Perry: buoyant, playful, neon pop. As she puts it: “It’s an upbeat record. The tones are very hopeful and resilient and joyful, and I hope that it can ignite that in anyone who is listening.”

Even nine months pregnant, Perry still commits to a look. She has always leaned into the caricature of a pop princess, unafraid to don a highlighter-bright wig, dance next to cartoon sharks or shoot whipped cream from her breasts. Today, she is comparatively sedate: Her theme is polka dots, with a dress that matches a coordinated top-knot headband and pair of earrings. She is sitting in the courtyard of the Capitol Records building, where two chairs have been measured to rest six feet apart, a bottle of hand sanitizer and container of wipes between them.

Putting out a record this pregnant was never the plan, Perry says. “Smile” was initially supposed to come out in June, then on Aug. 14, and now Aug. 28. In fact, motherhood wasn’t something she ever felt destined for. She attended her sister’s two home water births, “holding her leg back” in the makeshift tub. But as she watched her sibling raise two children, Perry worried she lacked the same maternal instinct.

“Five years ago, I would be like, ‘Get this out of me,’” she says, looking at her belly. “But I traced back the reasons I felt insecure about it from my own upbringing. And then I reprogrammed them. Our brain is really malleable. You can reshape it any time you want.”

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This is the same way she speaks about her 2017 bout with clinical depression. She did Transcendental Meditation. She took medication. She took part in the Hoffman Process, an introspective retreat that she describes as 10 years of therapy concentrated into a week. She’s an “A-minus type” person, she says — someone who likes to check off tasks and goals. Feel problem, identify problem, solve problem.

 Katy Perry
On her new album, Katy Perry sings about overcoming a bout of clinical depression.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Not that she was eager to dive into this emotional work. For years, she says, she distracted herself with traveling and shopping and eating. It was only when “The foundation started shaking and a couple of the screws started coming off” that she felt she could no longer ignore “what kept knocking.”

By then, she said, she and Bloom had already split up, because she “wasn’t ready for the growth.” He was willing to investigate his own darkness, she says, waking up at 7 a.m. each day and chanting for an hour.

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When her past romances failed — she and Russell Brand divorced in 2012 and then she dated John Mayer and Diplo — she turned to her work. She’d had, after all, a meteoric run of success: pop super-smashes like “I Kissed a Girl,” “Teenage Dream,” “Firework” and “Roar.” The only woman, and second artist after Michael Jackson, to send five songs from a single album to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. A headlining spot at the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show — still the most-watched performance in the game’s history. The requisite fan-army nickname: KatyCats. And a reported $25-million annual salary to serve as a judge on “American Idol.”

But then “Witness” fell short of her previous efforts. The New York Times labeled her a “pop star without ideology.” Her social media was overrun with trolls.

“I think the universe was like, ‘OK, all right, let’s have some humble pie here,’” Perry says now. “My negative thoughts were not great. They didn’t want to plan for a future. I also felt like I could control it by saying, ‘I’ll have the last word if I hurt myself or do something stupid and I’ll show you’ — but really, who was I showing?”

She found a confidant in Sia, whom she’d met when the “Chandelier” singer was rising to success around 2014. At first, Sia jokes, Perry served as her “pop-star concierge” in Hollywood, instructing her on how to get a private doctor to make a house call or putting her on the list for Madonna’s Grammys after-party. But their bond was cemented when they connected through their respective mental health struggles, with Perry turning up at Sia’s home “in a bad way.”

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“She had a real breakdown,” recalls Sia. “She’s on stage with 10 candied lollipops and clowns and dancers, selling the dream, the joy, the happiness — and that’s really hard sometimes when you’re not feeling it yourself.

“I knew she was driven and ambitious, that was clear from the beginning. But I didn’t realize that she was so reliant on that validation for her psychological well-being. She did say ‘I feel lost.’ I think it was a big kick to her ego, but it was the best thing that could have ever happened to her, really, because now she can make music for the fun of it. Getting number ones does nothing for your inside.”

Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry reunited at the end of 2018 and have since gotten engaged.
(Zack Whitford / BFA.com / Museum of Contemporary Art)

Behind the scenes, Sia was also talking to both Perry and Bloom about their relationship without the other knowing. “I’d be on the phone with Orlando and have call waiting with Katy trying to call me,” she says. When the couple eventually got back together at the end of 2018, Perry wrote “Never Worn White” — a song about surrendering to the idea of love and marriage — and played it for him.

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“He was very moved,” Perry remembers. “It’s the most personal gift I can give.”

As if on cue, Bloom attempts to FaceTime her, and she leaves the call on speakerphone as they make plans to meet up that night at their home in Beverly Hills. That’s where she’s calling from a week later when she resumes our conversation over Zoom. She’s in her bedroom, but her fashion is, nonetheless, noteworthy: a hot pink daisy-covered top with matching turban.

The baby is still “cooking,” as she says, and she’s starting to physically slow down. She’s “clutching the railing of the stairs harder” and has begun to pack her hospital bag. She says she’s excited to bring up a daughter “differently than the way I was raised,” allowing her to follow creative pursuits and giving her “choice and freedom of thought.”

She pauses and says she has to pee, an urge that has been hitting her more suddenly as of late. She returns a few minutes later holding a cup of fruit.

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“Dates,” she says, raising the snack toward the screen. “Whenever moms were like, ‘Fruit for dessert!’ I was like, ‘Go f— yourself.’ But now I get it.”

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Since sitting outside Capitol Records, Perry’s name has made the headlines — and not because of “Smile.” On Aug. 4, she tweeted her support for Ellen DeGeneres, who is facing allegations of fostering a toxic workplace environment at her talk show. Critics lashed out at Perry — along with fellow DeGeneres supporters Kevin Hart and Diane Keaton — arguing that her message was tone-deaf.

“I started that tweet off not undermining anyone else’s experience,” Perry says, defending her post. “I wanted to only speak from my own experience. I have over 100 million people that follow me on Twitter, so not everyone is going to agree with me. And I’m not here to make everyone agree with me.”

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Perry acknowledges that it took years for her to feel comfortable speaking out on hot-button issues. In 2017, she was deposed in Kesha’s legal battle against Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, the music producer behind some of Perry’s biggest hits whom Kesha accused of rape. The unsealed transcript from the deposition revealed that Perry was fearful of being attacked and criticized for being “the one woman that is against women” if she took a public stance in the matter.

“I knew both of them at the time. It sucks when you know both of the players,” she says of the legal battle. “I can only speak for my own experience, and my own experience [with Gottwald] was a healthy one. I believe in due process. And I also believe that only they know the truth.”

Katy Perry performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game in Glendale, Ariz.
Katy Perry and sharks perform during halftime of Super Bowl XLIX.
(David J. Phillip / AP)

Since making amends with Taylor Swift — they had a public beef after Perry reportedly lured Swift’s backup dancers to join her on tour — Perry says she’s conscious of not contributing to “the old archetype of inequality” in the music industry. She tries to listen to the records of all her female peers, usually on long car rides. Recent picks have included Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica,” Selena Gomez’s “Rare,” Halsey’s “Manic” and, yes, Swift’s “Folklore.”

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“I’m halfway through it,” she says of Swift’s surprise July album. “I love — love — ‘Tears Ricochet.’”

Dua Lipa, who has been friends with Perry for two years, described the singer as only ever being supportive of her as a fellow female artist. When she was 15, Lipa attended one of Perry’s London concerts and was such a big fan that she jumped on stage during the show. In 2018, when Lipa had her first big L.A. gig at the Palladium, Perry turned up to surprise her.
“It was a dream come true to hang out with somebody I’d looked up to,” says the British dance-pop star. “She is exactly what her music is. I think her authenticity is what’s given her longevity. Her lyricism and playfulness haven’t changed since that ‘California Gurls’ tour.”

Perry mostly agrees with that assessment. Before “Witness,” she says, her music was “getting a bit too saccharine” even for her own taste. Amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, she’s been “constantly checking in and reeducating” herself, questioning if beliefs she held even a few years ago still hold up.

“Having more awareness and consciousness, I no longer can just be a blissful, ignorant idealist who sings about love and relationships,” she insists. “Even my travels have afforded me a new perspective on cultures, class systems and the inequality around the world, not just in the United States. There’s definitely a reckoning — an uncomfortable but necessary reckoning — that is happening right now.”

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And yet many of the songs on “Smile” are, in fact, about love and relationships. On “Never Really Over,” she sings about how she drifted back to Bloom after their separation. “Champagne Problems” is about a couple that has weathered so much turmoil that their future now appears to be smooth sailing. “Harleys in Hawaii” tells the story of, well, riding on a motorcycle with Bloom while on vacation. Puth, who cowrote “Harleys in Hawaii,” says his recording session with Perry “was just like a party. She’s a serious pop act, but she’s never been super impressed with herself.”

Katy Perry takes a selfie with a billboard promoting her new album “Smile,” near her record label, Capitol Records.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Perry won’t go as far as to say she doesn’t hope “Smile” performs well. She doesn’t need to project that energy, she says. But she knows that music has undergone a seismic shift since she scored her first No. 1 with “I Kissed a Girl” in 2008. Hip-hop now dominates the streaming charts, fans create TikTok hits out of bedroom dance routines and, as Perry notes, “There’s 30,000 songs that come out a day, pre-COVID, on Spotify.”

Her career, she says, used to be her life. But that had to shift so that she could welcome in something more “expansive.”

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“I’m thankful that I’m out of the loop of how intense it is to be red hot for 10 years,” she says. “Because I’ve had all the numbers, honey. Still set those records, honey. Talk to me when you’ve done that. Do I need to keep ringing that bell, or can I start ringing others?”


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