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

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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."

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."

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."

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."

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.

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.

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."

"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."

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.

"He was very moved," Perry remembers. "It's the most personal gift I can give."


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