SHE STARTED SINGING at 9 and picked up guitar four years later. Soon Perry was writing songs and busking for $20 a day at local farmers’ markets; a member of her parents’ church with ties to a Christian music label in Nashville took notice. She released her little-known 2001 debut, Katy Hudson, a Christian rock album that featured songs with titles like “Faith Won’t Fail.” The label folded shortly thereafter, along with her faith-based music career.
Two years later a decreasingly pious but still teenage Perry got her first big break: a meeting with producer Glen Ballard, who co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and discovered Alanis Morrissette. Perry’s father drove her down to Ballard’s Los Angeles home and waited in the car while she played him a song on her guitar. “I’ve been looking for you since I found Alanis,” Perry remembers him saying. Adds Ballard: “Like other great artists, there was some je ne sais quoi, some intangible, that I knew instantly.”
Ballard signed her to his boutique label and offered her a monthly stipend of about $1,000 to move to Los Angeles; her parents agreed, on the condition that she room with a Latin gospel artist they knew. She started writing songs with Ballard. Not long after that he took her to Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong to play gigs at fashion shows and basement clubs. “We were getting better reactions outside of the U.S. than anywhere,” says Ballard.
When she returned to Los Angeles, Perry stayed afloat by buying and selling clothes at local thrift shops and honed her skills at tiny clubs like Hotel Café. A gig there earned her an introduction to Cobb, who brought her to meet his partners in their office, where she made an introduction that immediately convinced them to manage her. “She began doing handrolls, head over heels,” Kirkup recalls. “Arrived at my desk, did a split, held her hands up in the air and said, ‘Hi, I’m Katy!’”