The 'Swish Swish' singer talks her new music — and her new look

By Tim Stack
June 08, 2017 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Capitol Records

This story originally appeared in the May 26, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly, available to buy here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

The Katy Perry you know and love is different in 2017. She released her last album, Prism, nearly four years ago, and in the interim has transformed both physically — peace out, long hair! — and emotionally. (She also has a new gig: American Idol judge.) “I embraced my 30s. I’ve been doing the work,” admits the artist born Katheryn Hudson, 32. Since Prism, Perry has endured a breakup with Orlando Bloom, the 2016 election (she supported Hillary Clinton), and rumored bad blood with a certain pop star. With her latest release, Witness, arriving June 9, EW asked Perry to open up about those big life changes — and share how they led to the most ambitious album of her career. “There’s been a lot of healing in my life personally,” she says. “And that shows in the lyrical content [of the record].”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going into this album, did you have a goal or concept in mind?
KATY PERRY: After I was on tour and did the Super Bowl [in 2015], I was just exhausted, from the tip of my toes to the top of my head. I took October to June just to kind of slack and rerack and re-center. And when I do that, I go to Santa Barbara, which is where I’m from. The energy is just totally different — it’s not thirsty or desperate or clingy. It’s a really beautiful, Zen-like place. I just went there to gather myself, and I started making a record in June of last year. I’m really proud of it. It moves me. It makes me move. It’s revealing, very vulnerable, very empowering. But very raw in a beautiful way. I’ve surrendered. I’ve healed some of my issues with my family, with my relationships. Today I’m sober, but I don’t know about tomorrow! One day at a time, right? [Laughs] It’s all kind of beautiful. I built up Katy Perry, and she was so fun. And I still am Katy Perry and I love her so much, but at the core I’m Katheryn Hudson, and I think that’s being revealed as I embrace who I really am.

Does your new short haircut play into the vibe of the album?
Well, I think sometimes there’s a need for a physical transformation when you’ve gone through such an emotional and spiritual transformation. I healed a lot of stuff with my father [Perry’s parents are Christian preachers], which has been quite beautiful. I think I’ve had a really delicate dance with gentlemen and was caught in kind of a vicious cycle for a while. All of them were lessons, and they were all trying to teach me something, and I did learn a lot. But I feel now, more than ever, [that] I broke the cycle. Someone asked me the other day, “What’s the biggest thing that’s changed about you when you cut your hair?” I said, “I started doing my hair and makeup for myself.” The hair transformation is just the physical thing of change, but there’s a lot more. You can hear it in the music.

You were a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton, and your first single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” is definitely the most political song you’ve released. How much did the election and the aftermath affect this album?
Well, it’s subversive. I’ve been the queen of innuendo and subtext my whole life, and still am. Even with [the second single] “Bon Appétit,” it’s just like a smile and a wink. Right now in my life I feel very sexually empowered, rather than being taken advantage of sexually or being manipulated by other people. I must have opened up a chakra in my hips at some point, because I feel great! I know exactly what I want.

“Chained to the Rhythm” I wrote with Sia and Max Martin, and it was toward the end of the writing period. I came into the room and it was like a week after the election, and they were somehow okay and I was definitely not okay. I couldn’t write a happy-go-lucky song. I wasn’t in that place. But I also don’t want to preach to people because I’m not that person either. I want to empower people and lift people up.

What did you learn from being so involved in Hillary’s campaign?
I was so grateful for the experience of the election: to be able to find and test my voice. There was a lot of noise about me taking a stand because I was “neutral girl” for a while. I was okay when someone told me, “Oh, just shut up and sing.” I have a song on the record called “Bigger Than Me,” and I think the song talks about Hillary and the election and something is happening that’s bigger than her. Yes, maybe at that moment she lost. But that might have been a battle, and we’re [now] looking at a war here. I think you have to think about long-term. I think [the election] woke up a sleeping giant that is now getting its strength back and breathing and about to just slay!

I need you to save summer, since this year has been such a bummer.
What are you looking for, and I can tell you if I have it.

A big dance song!
I have one song for you: It’s called “Swish Swish.” You can just knock one down, do a death drop, and go, “Swish swish bish!” Okay?

Okay! Who else did you work with on this album besides Max Martin and Sia?
It’s a beautiful smorgasbord, honestly. Max has kind of been my longtime guy. Drake has [his producer, Noah “40” Shebib], and I have Max. We do our best work together. But I wanted to experiment and fly away from the nest. I wrote some with Jeff Bhasker, Mike WiLL Made-It, Hot Chip, Purity Ring, Hayden James, Rationale. It’s going to be interesting to watch people digest it. I don’t know what to expect. But I know that I’ve laid my heart out in a very authentic way.

It sounds like your riskiest and most diverse album yet. Are you thinking about its commercial success?
The artist inside of me has been calling me to come to this position for a long time. I think I have to surrender to that now. Evolution is not easy, and change is not easy. People say they love change, but they actually f—ing hate it. [Laughs] I have to evolve as an artist. I’m not saying that this record is going to be Teenage Dream — I don’t think anything else will. I think it’s even hard to do that. That has been done.

That album is the one that made you a star and has become iconic.
Sure. But when it first came out, nobody said that. It had to age. People had to attach memories to it. This is really a record. I think that’s what the difference is: This is like a front-to-back record that has a narrative and has all kinds of subject matter in it. At the end of the day, I’m really grateful for everything that I’ve been given, every opportunity I’ve been given. I’m not trying to sabotage — I’m just trying to grow. I think that growth and evolution are a beautiful thing and nothing to be scared of.

Obviously, there were rumors that Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” was about you. Does this album have a reaction to that track?
Well, that’s not my question to answer — if it’s about me. I think it’s a very empowered record. There is no one thing calling out one person. One thing to note is you can’t mistake kindness for weakness, and don’t come for me. Anyone. Anyone. Anyone. Anyone. And that’s not to any one person, and don’t quote me that it is. It’s not about that. Honestly, when women come together and they decide to unite, this world is going to be a better place. Period, end of story. But let me say this: Everything has a reaction or a consequence, so don’t forget about that. [Laughs] We gotta keep it real, honey.