Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves on Country-Pop Crossover, Pot, 'Songs That Take Balls to Sing' (Q&A)

12:00 PM PST 05/27/2014 by Chris Willman, Shirley Halperin

Ahead of their June 13 appearance on CMT's "Crossroads" and a touring stint this summer, the two singers sit down for a candid, laugh-out-loud interview.

It's not just the near-rhyme scheme of their respective first names. Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves are a match made in country-pop heaven, at least judging from how well they harmonized in their taping of CMT Crossroads — not to mention in their joint interview for the cover story of Billboard's May 31 edition.

In advance of their Crossroads episode's premiere June 13, and their double-billing on tour come August, we bring you more of that interview, where we find out some of the things they have in common (like Patty Griffin adoration) and some of the things they don't (like pot).

Why, in a nutshell, does this marriage work?

Musgraves: I think it's a cool pairing because we're both definitely whimsical in our own ways, but at heart we're both songwriters.

Perry: When I first heard Kacey's song "Merry Go Round," I instantly connected with her, and she struck a chord in me that I try to always strike in everyone else. On a lyrical level of how we perceive the world, I kind of feel like we have the same eyes. And I love all her songs, but for some reason "Keep It to Yourself" is particularly heartfelt for me. When we do that song on Crossroads, I'm not going to do anything besides go cry in the corner. That'll be my contribution as a background vocalist: just crying in the corner while listening to you playing that song.

Kacey, do you remember the first time you heard a Katy Perry song?

Musgraves: I was trying to think about this. I remember hearing that first record and being on my back porch and thinking, "Oh my God, I've never heard anything like this — this is amazing."

Perry: Why are you so obsessed with me? Tell me more. (Perry does a kind of Valley Girl voice.) "Aaand, you're like the best, and you're like the greatest …"

Musgraves: Obsession quickly followed, and then I Googled her a lot.

Perry: Come on, Google wasn't even invented then.

Musgraves: But I feel like it was "Ur So Gay" I heard first. Why would it have been that?

Perry: Because that was the first single [in 2007], then "I Kissed a Girl." A real LGBT theme for me, for a while.

Musgraves: Hey, I support it.

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How did you two first come to meet up?

Musgraves: We have the same publishing company [Warner/Chappell]. She was working on a record [Prism] and brought me out to L.A. for a few days in late 2012 to write. She had heard my song "Merry Go Round" and had tweeted about it and given it some love.

Perry: I just thought we would make a good duo. We hung out and liked each other. I love championing new artists as much as possible. I have a nice, big platform, and I get to use it to help out some people sometimes.

Katy, did you ever have someone champion you the way you've championed Kacey?

Perry: Well, I mean, she's doing good on her own. She don't need me! But the one thing that sticks out a little bit is that when my EP Ur So Gay came out, Madonna talked about it on a radio interview and it blew up, so that was very helpful in that way. But Kacey was always going to be a star. Everybody felt that.

Musgraves: That really was so sweet, though. I just love when girls, especially, can be champions for each other.

Perry: Girls especially! Yeah, it's nice when girls are friendly to each other, because in the industry there are some that are not.

How did you end up getting to this point, doing a CMT taping together, followed by a tour?

Perry: I've always wanted to do Crossroads, and it's been on the table for a while with various ideas, but it's never been right until now. And I feel like this combination is very fresh.

Musgraves: It's definitely going to be the best episode.

Perry: Ummmm, let's sing first.

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Musgraves: I mean, have you seen some of them? Some of them are so awkward. Anyway…

Perry: On my tour, [this year I have] Kacey, Capital Cities, Tegan & Sara, Australia's Tove Lo, Betty Who, Icona Pop — a fun, rotating group. It keeps me excited. And maybe our worlds aren't exactly the same, but I think anybody that appreciates great songwriting — and I think that my fans are really into lyrical content — is going to be really into her.

Musgraves: I feel like anything goes, you know? I like that it doesn't make a lot of sense, so it does make sense.

Perry: I did look at the routing to make sure that it was appropriate routing for Kacey, and that people would understand the places we were going. But she's not just a country artist, she's a crossover. So she puts on a pop-country show, and she brings it with the costumes and the sets.

Musgraves: I'm a super-visual person, so neon cacti, light-up suits, whatever it is, we'll bring it and it'll make sense.

Perry: Don't forget the palm trees! I brought those in.

Musgraves: Neon foliage — very important.

In country music, women struggle to get heard on radio, but in pop, it's almost the opposite, with divas ruling. Kacey, do you ever wish you were over in pop instead?

Perry: She is, though.

Musgraves: I open my mouth and it sounds country. And I love country music. But I just want to make good music, you know?

Perry: It's actually just great songs. She reminds me of some of my favorite artists growing up: Patty Griffin and Jonatha Brooke. And what would you consider those? They're kind of alt singer-songwriters. They're not really country; they have a little bit of a folk twist. I love that we both love Patty Griffin. You reminds me of an Alison Krauss too.

Musgraves: Oh, shut up! I love her. That being said, I love that my summer consists of touring with Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and Katy. I mean, that really sums me up musically.

Perry: I think what she's trying to say is, mostly she is breaking the kind of confines of what a country artist is. I think she has the potential to be like Taylor.

We were thinking about thematic overlap between you two, and there is "I Kissed a Girl" and "Follow Your Arrow," for starters.

Perry: Yeah. (Sings Musgraves' song.) "Kiss lots of girls, kiss lots of boys."

Musgraves: They both take balls to sing.

Perry: Did people come at you a little bit for that?

Musgraves: Westboro Baptist hasn't come at me or anything. I was kind of hoping they would. No, not a ton. I mean, radio stations won't play it, or they try to bleep the word "joint." But I mean …

Perry: It's a different time, too. I mean, [marijuana] is going to be legal all over the world pretty soon.

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This is something else you've bonded over, maybe?

Perry: No! I can't do that stuff. It makes me psycho — more psycho than I already am! No thank you. (In a drunken, quasi-Southern voice) I mean, I like a little Cha-blee, and there's champagne any day of the week, but keep that devil's lettuce away from me!

What do you admire in each other that you maybe wish you had more of yourself?

Perry: (Sarcastic) I don't like her at all.

Musgraves: I mean, God, her personality …

Perry: I admire her musical ability as far as how she plays guitar all the time, and banjo. Because, you know, I go in and out of several different worlds when it comes to me writing music; I approach it in so many different ways that a lot of times it's not on the guitar, which is where I started. Sometimes I just write to tracks or sometimes I just have a melody idea, or it'll be a synth, a beat — it's so many different variations. But I admire her really natural, organic approach, and yeah, I love seeing a girl on a banjo, and especially it being bedazzled.

Musgraves: Yeah, it's sparkly. It's pretty ridiculous.

Perry: Even her capos are bedazzled. It's so crazy. It's like she's got extra jewels hanging around all the time.

Musgraves: You beat me on the mic stand. You have the mic stand game going on. As for what I admire, I guess I feel like I get stuck in my world sometimes. I feel a little limited by my — it's kind of a storytelling-y kind of vibe. But I just love the powerhouse vocal ability that she has. I don't have that. That's why I was kind of nervous coming into this, because I was like, how am I going to do these songs? You're here (puts hand way up in the air) and I'm like, right down here.

Perry: But you have a real individualistic texture and tone, and also the way you paint with your lyrics is really pretty.

Katy, let's talk about your last No. 1, "Dark Horse," which was not what we'd expect a Katy Perry song to sound like. Has it made you think more about what's needed to get a hit with the current state of the music business?

Perry: It always comes down to a great song, but I definitely had no idea that "Dark Horse" was going to be a literal dark-horse hit. I really am surprised by it, although "E.T.," which was somewhat similar from the last record cycle, had a lot of attention on it. You know, I think the difference is that I do have a big female audience, but "Dark Horse" is both a male and female audience. And I think people just like the voice with the beat; they don't expect it. The last cycle, everything was planned. This cycle, we are planning as much as we can, but we're also listening to what people are saying and watching all the radars concerning the songs. Because I was on "Unconditionally," and "Unconditionally" wasn't necessarily hitting like I wanted it to. [It peaked at No. 14 on the Hot 100.] And a lot of the reason was because everybody wanted to play "Dark Horse," because I put it out as like a preview track and it just never stopped. It's still got a lot of heat on it, even though we're launching another single ["Birthday"].

Musgraves: I wish I had that problem.

Perry: Well, soon enough, Sweetie. I've been doing this for a few more years than you.

It must have been a relief, after tying a record on your last album for the biggest number of No. 1 singles off one album, and then seeing "Unconditionally" struggle.

Perry: But also it was a ballad, and sometimes if you don't get a ballad right. … But it's not like I'm trying to beat my last streak. I think I'm doing OK with all of the different songs and choices. This time around it's really important for me to showcase me as an artist rather than just see if we can beat our own record, which would probably kill me. I think we're showing off the different flavors inside this record.

Kacey, could you imagine yourself working with Dr. Luke or Benny Blanco or Max Martin or any of the people Katy works with?

Musgraves: Me? I feel like I could probably work with anybody. But I love the fact that I have Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, the two guys who produced the record with me. They've never produced anything before we got together, and it was just born out of just writing songs together. There was no ego involved. It was three friends getting to create a project together that was totally different. And I feel like a lot of times, not only in Nashville but probably everywhere, the label is sticking you with a producer that's already had success and they kind of put their stamp on you. So I don't want to fix it. I really like what I have going, in that department.

Katy, since you're the closer thing to an elder statesman here, do you have any advice for Kacey on the next record and where you would like it to go?

Perry: I think her second record will be very important as far as making sure she's going to stick around. And if you can do a third record, that's important, too. Do that. And if you can shine for three records strong, then you can kind of self-sabotage on the fourth if you really want to, if you need to do polka music for some odd reason, and still come back. But I think the best thing to do, which is hard to do, is to keep yourself grounded and keep really incredible people around you. And don't believe in your hype. And do not Google yourself.

Twitter: @chriswillman; @shirleyhalperin

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