Dateline: ASCAP Expo 2013 in Hollywood, California
Panel - Wide Awake: “I Create Music” Interview with Katy Perry
By Lori Shube
In one of the keynote highlights at the ASCAP Expo 2013 in Hollywood, California, Singer/Songwriter Katy Perry shared some of the ups & downs of her journey with Randy Grimmett, ASCAP EVP of Membership. She sat perched at the edge of her chair on the Dolby Ballroom stage, in front of a couple hundred fans (who also happened to be serious musicians). “You think you know me? You have no idea.” With a dazzling smile she added, “I’m just a girl.”
Ms. Perry settled back in her chair for the panel discussion, crossing one leg over the other. The stylish Perry wore a Suno Cellphone Print Silk Dress, with her hair down and parted on the side with a single barrette.
Katy Perry and ASCAP EVP Randy Grimmett
We all know Katy Perry as the multi-platinum singer songwriter, who set sales and chart records with her album Teenage Dream. She’s the artist behind “I Kissed a Girl,” “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” and “Firework.” Most know of her story – but today we learned more – we witnessed the side of her that got her through her decade-long roller-coaster ride to where she is now. Strength, Courage, Perseverance, Smarts, Grace…Integrity. These are words that come to mind when I think of Perry after seeing her speak here.
As the daughter of a Cleric in the coastal town of Santa Barbara, California, her first fifteen years were filled with nothing but Christian music. But she loved it: “There was so much cool Christian music,” she said, noting Crystal Lewis among her favorite artists.
At 15, Perry made a discovery where she “broke in two like the Ten Commandments.” She had found secular music: The Beach Boys, No Doubt…and Freddie Mercury. Since Perry couldn’t listen to these artists at home, she went to lots of sleepovers (sneaking in the CDs) just so she could rock out to the “woman who doesn’t give a f---” in the lyrics of “Killer Queen.” “That’s the beauty of sleepovers,” she laughed. She saw her future self as a Killer Queen.
During this time, she was discovered singing in Church, and brought to Nashville where she started recording and studying with music veterans. At 17, she came to L.A. with her mother. In the motel one night, she turned on VH1 where producer Glen Ballard was talking about Alanis Morissette. Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” influenced her decision to meet and work with Ballard. That’s where her real education began.
There are some things you just shouldn’t handle on your own, whether you’re starting out or you’ve been in the business for a while. Perry said, “I didn’t understand music politics yet, didn’t have a real relationship with my label. Glen did it all.” The scary thing about music politics is that it could “take away your uniqueness,” she said. “He taught me everything I know (except guitar); he challenged me to write songs every day. He pushed me and kept on pushing me. We wrote 60-70 songs together.”
She also worked with Dave Stewart, and when Perry told him she was still afraid to write about certain subjects, he told her she could and should write about anything she feels. As a result, Perry was off to the races, so-to-speak--she said she’s always looking up words. She noted, “Words are like little treasures,” saying that she carries a red Dictaphone (it’s really her iPhone) so she can record all her ideas – whether they’re from the newspaper, or she hears something in a conversation—anything at all, and then she goes through and highlights the things with which she can do something. Lyrics are very important to her—she said, “Make the lyrics so they stand on their own (even) when put to music.”
ASCAP's Brendan Okrent, Katy Perry, ASCAP's Loretta Munoz and Sue Drew
Perry explained that for her “music can be very spiritual. I’m channeling…just a messenger.” She said she loves to collaborate, “Greatness happens because of collaboration—everyone’s pooling their strengths. There are so many ways to create—start with a lyric, a title, a beat—lately I’ve been into sounds or ideas for lyrics.” The key is to just write: “I wrote all those songs I’ve written to write ‘that’ song.”
Perry’s path went from Santa Barbara to Nashville to L.A., from album to album, from label to label. She survived labels that closed, labels that signed her and dropped her a few times, and periods where she almost lost everything. Through it all she kept making music, and taking “day jobs” to pay the bills.
Perry reminisced about one of her “day jobs” at TAXI Music, where, of all things, she answered calls from artists trying to get signed. “All these people want to get found. It was like Chinese water torture listening to the worst music ever…and I was so depressed,” she said, “How can I give any hope to these people?” She said this period made her a “student of life, one who speaks from the heart, and is open and honest.” She said that ‘vulnerable’ is not a negative word to her—it’s a foundation of strength.
She was dropped from Island/Def Jam records, refined her team at Columbia, was dropped from Columbia, and brought her team to Capitol Records—where she feels at home. “The reason why I’m here is because of my team,” she said. If anyone doesn’t appreciate the importance of having a good team by now, we understood after hearing her speak. Music collaboration is only half the battle—the other half is mastering the challenges of the music industry.
In the Q&A period after the panel discussion, a 13-year-old singer asked Perry for advice. She responded, “Take up an instrument. It will save your life. Play all kinds of small places – but you really have to work hard. When you make it, you have to work ten times harder.”
Perry recommended that artists be open, grateful, and really work to build a good team. But more importantly, no matter what happens, “Just don’t stop making music,” she urged.
Photo Credit: PictureGroup