She’s the world’s top pop star, she’s a judge on American Idol, and she wore the most talked-about outfit at the recent Met Costume Institute Gala, but Katy Perry’s heart belongs to the place where she grew up, Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Independent chatted with Perry by phone as she was preparing for this Saturday’s benefit concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, and this is what the superstar had to say about changing the world, recording her last two records here, and waiting on the tiled steps above California Pizza Kitchen for her parents to pick her up after hanging out at Paseo Nuevo when she was 13.
The Witness: Coming Home benefit concert on Saturday went off without a hitch. Perry romped through her extensive catalog of hits and a dozen or so costume changes for an enraptured, sold-out Bowl audience. Parents and children, teens and adults alike grooved to the eyeball-themed show, and some were even lucky enough to make off with one of the eye beach balls that were launched from the stage. Perry was in an expansive mood, reminiscing about her teenage days in Santa Barbara and expressing her love for the victims and survivors of the Montecito disasters. Her mischievous side came out when she announced from the stage that “beers are on me!” prompting some consternation among the concessionaires, but nothing too rowdy from the well-behaved crowd.
How important is coming home after you’ve been on a world tour like the one you just did? It’s overwhelming how important. My heart is always full of gratitude when I get back to Santa Barbara. I know it’s only an hour and a half from Los Angeles, but I can feel my body change when the ocean appears alongside the 101. My shoulders drop on that drive, and I breathe easier whenever I am here.
Are your parents coming to the concert? Yes, and I have actually reconnected to a whole group of people in town, some of whom I haven’t seen since I started my music career. It’s exciting to be part of this community right now because so many people are coming together after what happened.
How were you affected by the fire and the mudslides? Fortunately, I was not directly involved, but my family had to evacuate twice, and I was following the whole thing on television and social media as it happened. The mudslides in particular were perplexing; I didn’t even know that such things were possible! I love going on tour, and I like the idea of spreading hope and joy all over the world, but this has made me realize that it doesn’t mean a thing if I can’t also come back and do that right here. I want to change the world, but I know that to do that I’ve got to take care of what’s in my own backyard. I wanted so much to do this concert because I hope to tie some of those broken heart strings back together.
Have you visited any of the scenes of destruction in Montecito? Yes, I just came from the Secret Garden, which is the studio I used to record my last two albums. It’s on a hill in Montecito, and fortunately it was spared, but there was debris flow all around it, and you can see that houses right nearby were completely destroyed. It’s one of only two houses left on that street. I’ve spent thousands of hours in that studio over the last five years. It’s so wild that this could even happen. It’s like a nightmare come to life, a fever dream where the walls are moving in. I can’t imagine the trauma and devastation it must have caused for the people who experienced it.
What are you trying to accomplish with this benefit concert? All I want to do personally is to continue to bring light with my performances, but the organizations that the concert will benefit are doing all kinds of great things. For example, the  UndocuFund was created to address the needs of undocumented people who have lost their homes or their income because of the disasters. They can’t apply to the government for aid, so this organization was created to reach out to them. There are all kinds of ripple effects that have a terrible impact beyond those who were in harm’s way at first. I want to play my part as a member of the team that’s working to undo that damage to the community and its economy.
How has your team come together to support you in this project? It definitely takes a village. My whole team will be here on Saturday for the show. I conceive of the artistic side of things, and they crunch the numbers and form the alliances. I give them very specific instructions on a lot of things, but they also understand me implicitly, and one of the things that they get about me is that I am all about reconnecting with Santa Barbara.
What’s that been like, to see the local people that you grew up with again? It’s been amazing. Some of the people I’ve been meeting with I haven’t seen in years, and we have all changed so much. We were children, and now some of us have children. There’s no more waiting on the steps next to CPK at the Paseo Nuevo waiting for our parents to come and pick us up.
Do you have special feelings for the Santa Barbara Bowl? Absolutely. It’s a magical place, a true vortex. It just goes with the whole town so well. We built these adobes on hilltops, and then in the middle of a neighborhood there’s this incredible outdoor venue. All the elements are present there — the mountains, the sky, the ocean are all part of the vibe. It’s got so much flow, the Bowl.
Will you be bringing those amazing Versace wings that you wore to the Met Gala to the show? Ha! No, those are back in the domain of Donatella Versace. You know those were inspired by Gabriel, the messenger angel, and I relate to that role. I’m in love with Pope Francis. I admire his compassion and discipline. I feel like I have a newfound understanding these days. I know that change is on our doorstep.
That’s great, because the young people who admire you need to hear that. Thanks; that means a lot to me because I was one of those 13-year-olds once, and I know how it is to feel like you are alone at that age. That’s what I’d like to be, this messenger to them who says, “Hey, babe, you’re not alone. Here’s a life. There’s something to aspire to. You can have it, too.”
Katy Perry’s Witness: Coming Home benefit concert takes place at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, May 19, at 7 p.m. Visit sbbowl.com.