The tumult of recent years has had a maturing effect on once-frothy pop star Katy Perry, and the new album reflects that. But will her fans understand?
On a recent afternoon the pop superstar was at a Burbank rehearsal studio, fortifying herself with a salad before diving into four hours of sweaty physical movement — a not-so-dry run for a handful of performances in which she’d be doing more choreography than at any point in her career.
Perry, known for bubbly, fun-loving hits such as “I Kissed a Girl” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” was dressed for a workout: black tights, black sneakers, a ripped-up T-shirt with two cats pictured on it. (Big cat lady, Katy Perry.) Several times she used the sleeve of her gray hoodie as a napkin, another sign that she was here to get down to business. No time for niceties.
As focused as Perry appeared, though, she was squishier regarding her new album. We were talking about what distinguishes “Prism,” due Tuesday, from her first two records, and at first she offered only generalities — “It’s got some substance to it” — language that seemed to be circling a more straightforward description.
The music, I finally suggested, feels grown-up.
“Yes!” she said, not flinching at the term but nodding eagerly. “And I love being mature. I’m ready for my 30s — I hear it’s so much better than your 20s.”
For normal folks, perhaps, but rarely for pop stars, whose work usually amounts to selling youth to young people. And Perry has sold more youth than most: Five singles from 2010’s double-platinum “Teenage Dream” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, an achievement she shares with only Michael Jackson; “Roar,” the lead single from “Prism,” reached the top spot quickly last month.
But if Perry is unusually accepting of the g-word, there’s good reason for that: This Santa Barbara native, who on Oct. 25 will turn 29 — a few years older than A-list peers Rihanna (who’s 25) and Taylor Swift (23) — no longer seems like much of a kid.
“Prism,” her third studio disc, follows a tumultuous period the singer referred to as a “real crossroads in my life.” In late 2010, just as her career was exploding, Perry married British comedian Russell Brand; 14 months later he filed for divorce. The experience was reported on extensively by the tabloid press, of course, but it also figured prominently in “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” an unexpectedly candid 2012 documentary that included scenes of the star nearly paralyzed by grief.
“I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t have a failed marriage — it was already out there in the news,” she said of the decision to address the topic in the film. “So why not show the reality of what it was?”
That reality and its aftermath are all over “Prism,” in moody, midtempo songs such as “Ghost” and “Love Me” — in which she rhymes “lost my own identity” with “forgot you picked me for me” — as well as more robust anthems of self-empowerment like “Roar,” with a music video that depicts Perry as a vine-swinging jungle queen singing about having the eye of the tiger.
“Some people are going to see it as a song about cats,” the singer said with a laugh. She was curled on a sofa, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. “But it’s not just a song about cats. It’s about finding your inner strength and not turning into a shell of yourself when you’re faced with a situation you don’t agree with.
“That may be a little psychological — like, What does it all mean?” she added with mock-profound intensity. “But I literally just came from therapy, so I’m already there.”
A weighty message isn’t entirely new for Perry, whose breakout 2008 debut, “One of the Boys,” came after earlier unsuccessful attempts at Christian rock — her parents are religious leaders — and grungy Alanis Morissette-style pop. One of those five No. 1 singles from “Teenage Dream” was “Firework,” an earnest stadium-rave pep talk aimed at misfits “feel[ing] like a waste of space.”
Yet with its adventurous textures and introspective lyrics — not to mention a dreamy cover shot by art-world photographer Ryan McGinley — “Prism” strikes a newly sophisticated balance between accessibility and idiosyncrasy; it’s a work of confession scaled to Top 40 dimensions, one in which Perry uses her success as license to explore inside and out.
“Some of the songs on the album are songs you might be scared to do if you didn’t have the momentum Katy has,” said Dr. Luke, the writer-producer who’s had a hand in most of Perry’s biggest hits. (The singer’s other collaborators on “Prism” include her longtime songwriting partner Bonnie McKee, the Swedish pop wizards Max Martin and Klas Åhlund and, in the throbbing “Dark Horse,” the Memphis rapper Juicy J.)
As an example, Dr. Luke singled out “Legendary Lovers,” a vaguely psychedelic excursion with Eastern-sounding strings and words about feeling one’s lotus bloom. “That’s an amazing song,” he said, “but it may not be a door-opener for a first-time artist.”
Perry felt confident taking risks on “Prism” because her fans “ended up trusting me at the end of ‘Teenage Dream,'” she said. “People have figured out that I’m not going to abuse their attention, so now I think they’re ready to jump off with me.”
Even so, Perry’s label is hardly letting “Prism” market itself.
Beginning in July, when a shiny gold tractor-trailer drove around L.A. with the album’s title and release date emblazoned on its side, Capitol Records has kept the singer in public view with performances on the MTV Video Music Awards and “Saturday Night Live” as well as a Citi commercial in which a dad promises his daughter he’ll buy her tickets to a Katy Perry concert.
On Tuesday she’s set to play a record-release show at Clear Channel Media’s new iHeartRadio Theater in Burbank; the next night she’ll headline a breast-cancer benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. There’s even a fragrance, Killer Queen, that Perry flew to Berlin last month to promote.
“Katy works harder than any female artist I know,” said Ellie Goulding, the young English singer who opened for Perry on tour in 2011. “She’s handled the enormity of her career and all the weirdness that comes with being famous with immense gracefulness.”
One of the label’s highest-profile releases this year, “Prism” should have a rollout that feels “pervasive and big and important,” said Capitol Chief Executive Steve Barnett. But Greg Thompson, who oversees the company’s marketing, insisted the campaign was designed to “pull back the curtain a little bit — to show that Katy is a complex, multidimensional human being.”
Asked what he thinks of peeling back the curtain on five more No. 1 singles, Thompson laughed and said, “I love No. 1 singles, and I’m very happy to stock the record with them. But I’m not in control of that — Katy is.”
Perry, who said she’s involved in every aspect of her business, admitted that she worries about overexposure in the age of social media, especially regarding an album that tries to cultivate a feeling of intimacy.
“You put one thing out and then instantly it’s on Facebook! It’s on Twitter! It’s on Vevo!” she said, punctuating each name with a jab of her hand. “You’re like, ‘Ugh, just let me make up my own mind.'”
In the wake of her divorce, her love life is something to be handled carefully too. “I never play into the paparazzi,” she said. “I don’t feed that beast.”
That certainly hasn’t stopped photographers from snapping pictures of her with her famous boyfriend, John Mayer. (This past summer the singers shared a plush soft-rock duet, “Who You Love,” on his “Paradise Valley” album.) “And I put my phone down if I’m going to have a drink,” she said. “I don’t drink and tweet.”
The challenge, she added as she prepared to head into rehearsal, is figuring out what’s too much and what’s not enough.
“I just want people to see more of me,” she said, and by extension less of the “cutesiness” she clung to on “Teenage Dream,” when she played shows in an electric-blue wig and a ruffly dress adorned with cupcakes.
“Where can you go from a cartoon character?” Perry asked. “You have to maybe go the other way.”