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Katy Perry On Expanding And Reframing Herself On 'Smile'

"This record is really about hopefulness. It's about resilience, it's about joy," says Katy Perry. "To me, it's not just about noise, it's about me walking through real hell."
"This record is really about hopefulness. It's about resilience, it's about joy," says Katy Perry. "To me, it's not just about noise, it's about me walking through real hell."

Katy Perry has had nine No. 1 songs since 2008, including "Teenage Dream," "California Gurls" and "Roar." She has this upbeat, candy-coated, not-quite-real human-with-real-human-problems persona. And then in 2017, she released an album called Witness that was supposed to show a more authentic Katy. Critics didn't love it; more importantly, a lot of her fans didn't either. Her response is her new record, Smile, which is out Aug. 28.

Katy Perry is quarantining in Los Angeles, with all the real-human problems that entails, but she's smiling anyway. When she spoke to NPR's Noel King, she was only a few weeks away from giving birth to her first child — and she was feeling confident.

"My sister and I are super close and I've been able to observe how she raises her daughters, who are 3 and 6. She gave birth to her daughters in the room, in her living room and on her bed, and I was there and holding the leg back, so I've seen the miracle of childbirth in all its form," she says. "I'm not going to be surprised. Anyone who's been in the room for the miracle of birth is not surprised."

Perry and fiancé Orlando Bloom had UNICEF announce the birth of their daughter, Daisy Dove Bloom. Both Perry and Bloom are Goodwill Ambassadors for the United Nations Children's Fund.

Since her last album, she's learned to go with the changes. NPR's Noel King spoke to Katy Perry about reevaluating what's important to her after Witness, how her new album is a testament to resilience and about seeing this moment in her career as an expansion of her artistic ability. Listen in the audio player above and read on for an extended transcript of their conversation.


Noel King: How ready do you feel to be a mom?

Katy Perry: I feel ready, figuratively. Literally, I need to put the car seat in. I was supposed to have the record come out Aug. 14, but because of the times of the world and manufacturing, we had to bump for two weeks. I don't know if the baby's coming first or the record, but it's all up to the stars.

It sounds like you've gotten used to dealing with uncertainty.

I think in this job, you have to roll with the punches, or just know how to ebb and flow, bob and weave — all the sayings. But this year is definitely a year of the loss of certainty and for me, it's learning how to surrender. All control freaks are spiraling right now, and I'm definitely one of them.

This song "Only Love" that's on the record coming out talks about what happens if life were to hand us a curveball. How would you look at the things that are important? Will you re-prioritize? Would you reframe?

What's it been like making the new album, Smile , while also preparing for a baby?

While in the middle of a pandemic, while in the middle of a race revolution, while in the middle of an election year? Nuts, huh? Thankfully, I was able to put most of the work in pre-March, but I was in Australia and I flew home March 13, that Friday the 13th where everything started to feel a little [ sings the Twilight Zone theme]. I set up a little studio in my bedroom. My brother-in-law is also a music producer — we don't work together a whole lot, but we ended up putting the finishing touches on my record. This song "Only Love" talks about what happens if life were to hand us a curveball. How would you look at the things that are important? Will you re-prioritize? Would you reframe? And it was all getting so real, so it was very emotional at that moment. I turned in the record in [the] middle of March and I started mixing and mastering from my car. I would just go drive to the beach and I was listening to the music. All the videos had been canceled — everything had been canceled — and I was just thinking, "Well, how am I going to do this? But it's not very important, obviously. There's much bigger things going on in the world." But I've been able to stay super creative during this time, which I'm really grateful for because whether or not we're in a pandemic, watching the hands of time go by while you're pregnant is not fun. It's a long process.

What's a thing that you've started doing differently, like in the song "Only Love"? Has the pandemic changed anything for you?

I created a stronger bond with my family than I ever had. I think our silver linings have been just the bond that's been created out of intensity, maybe, and also I've been able to find my own balance and stillness because I'm a fiend. I love zipping around the world. I love going from Australia to Europe like, twice a week like a lunatic. And I've been able to have this exercise of what it's like to be in the same room for weeks on end.

Well, if you know how to measure a woman, you may not be a woman, first and foremost.

The song "What Makes a Woman" takes us through all these different things that define a woman. At the same time, your body's obviously going through lots of changes. Has being pregnant make you think differently about what a woman is?

I wrote this song before I had conceived but this whole record is a product of me going through quite an emotional, spiritual, mental journey since 2017 and rewiring how I think about life and a lot of those negative ways that I thought about life. I did a lot of stuff to get to this place of acceptance and surrender. When I wrote "What Makes a Woman," it was kind of like a trick question. I believe, even now in my last trimester of pregnancy, it's like "Man, women can handle so much and are so diverse and so adaptable." It's a song that tries to pose a question about how do you define a woman? Well, if you know how to measure a woman, you may not be a woman, first and foremost. But it's an amazing, beautiful thing and I feel this [awe] about bringing in a little girl to the world.

It's like I had gotten too used to the view from the top of the mountain and the universe decided it was time to serve me a little humble pie.

What happened in 2017? You mention that some changes in your life. What was the turning point in that year?

I had been on an upward roller coaster. You're just going all the way up, but you know eventually this thing has to come down. I had 10 years of just [an] insane rocket-fuel ride from 2008 to 2017. I put out a record; it was a different record, it wasn't like the past three. This one was a bit more sonically experimental. It's exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to break out of the loop of the idea of what people thought I could do, musically. If you look at the long-term graph of any artist, they've always had a moment where they've revolted or rejected or pivoted, and that was my time. So I did it, but I wasn't really getting quote-unquote "high" off of my own supply anymore. It's like I had gotten too used to the view from the top of the mountain and the universe decided it was time to serve me a little humble pie — which I hated at the time but looking back, obviously, it was so necessary for me to grow and become grounded and more expansive as a human being and not just be on this forever-loop of trying to ring the bell of [mockingly] "being the best pop star ever" but not knowing how to literally boil water.; having no other dimension in life and just being so single-minded it started to wear and tear on my mental [health].

I actually went to this place called The Hoffman [Institute], which really changed my life. My fiancé, Orlando [Bloom], had done it before me and a few other friends and I had resisted because I was like "I'm good, I'll just turn to my old tricks of being validated by the outside world." And then when that turned on me, I was like, "OK, I'm not good! So I'm going to go and work on my foundation." I really rebuilt the way I think about myself because we all have that CNN ticker of negative thinking going on in our head at all times it feels like. And mine was really loud; especially when you have to be quiet, it starts getting really loud.

What was it telling you?

My narrative was always "You're not enough. You're not really invited to this party. You're not really in the club, you just got kind of lucky."

I remember when Witness came out in 2017, and there was this buzz that felt a little bit like maybe marketing buzz but also something real about it where it was like, this is authentic Katy Perry. And I had this moment where it was like, "Was she not being authentic before?"

I guess authenticity is probably the No. 1 word or characteristic that I have leaned on my whole life because I was raised in a religious world where you weren't really allowed to talk about your feelings; you weren't really allowed to investigate curiosity or questioning [something] even as simple as getting hurt. [ Imitating] "You will be healed by Jesus." So everything felt like it wasn't authentic. I was thirsty for authenticity; I look back and everything has had genuineness about it, but I was raised in a whole different mindset and I've had to peel the layers off year by year. You're only as conscious and aware as you can be in your early 20s. It just takes time. I will look back at myself now, speaking at 35, when I'm 55 and go, "What an a******. You have no idea what's coming to you and life is not how you see it, missy."

But Witness was a little bit of my way of just "OK, I'm not a saccharine sweet pop [star], there's some edges here and I'd like to show them off." It wasn't a huge shift, although the music industry has changed seismically since I first started. The gatekeepers have changed, the platforms have changed, the way that we digest music has changed since 2008, so of course it's going to change and I just have to manage my expectations and figure out what that means for me and go along with that change.

Your new album is a compilation of all of your lived experiences and all of your authenticity. When you think about being 50 and looking back on this album in particular, what do you think you'll say Smile is about?

People that survive and are still artists their whole lives, they haven't always had an upward trajectory, it's been peaks and valleys. But it's about how you are in those valleys which takes you to the next peak. I think maybe I'll look back and I'll be like, "Oh, this is where the expansion happened. This is where the character was built. This is where the making of me showed up." Because I don't think you really know who you are until you get thrown down the stairs of life and/or just punched in the face a couple of times. So I think this is going to be the beginning of the wholeness of me, not just one part.

And who do you think you are that maybe you didn't know three, four years ago?

I've always been very resilient. I'm a bit of a Scorpio. I'm kind of a Libra-Scorpio cusp, so I've got some pragmatism. I definitely associate with this kind of phoenix from the ashes, learning from failing. Unfortunately, I have to do some of that in the public eye, but I just decide to get back up every time.

I don't know what the definition [of me] is. This is just a chapter in the book and the book is [ singing] "still unwritten."

So you're headed out after this interview back into the world, about to give birth. What do you think the next month or so looks like?

My hope is just to provide an example of resilience, maybe, during this tough time through my own experience and to talk about it very [unashamedly]. The conversation on mental wellness is so necessary right now. Let's talk about it. I think that takes some of the pressure off of the pipes a little bit.

I'm just going to be a mom, but I'm definitely one of those moms that's going to continue to do what she loves. I think it's a really old narrative that you have to give up life and just become a mother. I'll have interviewers ask me: "What, are you just going to go away?" I'm like, "You know Beyoncé has twins and another child!? It's fine! Maybe you should reframe."

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