Katy Perry wasn't always Katy Perry.
Back before she was kissing girls and liking it or feeling like a teenage dream—that is to say well before Super Bowl halftime and American Idol stages were even a remote possibility—she was merely Katy Hudson, a girl with her guitar.
You'd be forgiven, though, for thinking Katy arrived on the scene in 2007 with the (unfortunate) debut single "Ur So Gay" as a fresh-faced newcomer with no musical history behind her. There's very little evidence left in the world that would argue otherwise, after all. But the album that put her on the map, 2008's One of the Boys, wasn't her first.
That distinction belongs to a contemporary Christian LP self-titled by a teenage artist still using her father's last name, released two decades ago on Mar. 6 before fading away into obscurity. Katy's first collection of songs isn't available anywhere to stream legally, destined to remain merely a footnote in the superstar's biography, perhaps both out of legal necessity (the label folded just after releasing the album) and by design. After all, it is easier to create the mystique of a global pop star if their earlier failed attempts on stardom aren't quite so accessible.
Though we may not have access to the album as it marks 20 years of existence to inform us about Katy's artistry before hitting it big, we can turn to those who knew her when for some insight. With that in mind, E! News spoke exclusively with some of Katy's earliest collaborators about the girl they knew way back when. And what they had to say just might surprise you.
Raised by Pentecostal pastor parents Mary Christine (née Perry) and Maurice Keith Hudson, Katy spent her childhood immersed in the world of gospel music, as secular sounds weren't entirely welcome in the house. By 9, she was singing in her parents' ministry. At 13, she received her first guitar. Two years later, during her first year of high school, she received her GED and began pursuing a music career of her own.
After making her way to Nashville, where she began recording demos and learning to write songs, she caught the attention of Red Hill Records, an youth market-focused imprint of Pamplin Music. They signed her to a deal and she got to work on what would become her first album.
One of the writers Katy was paired with was Tommy Collier, who co-wrote and produced two of the album's 10 tracks. "I met her and her mom in a meeting and listened to a little bit of stuff that she had been working on," he recalled. "And eventually I ended up getting with her and writing some. Katy knew about three or four guitar chords. She had a great voice. It was just kind of like a jazzy vocal, you know, with good sound and everything like that."
As Tommy described her, Katy was both "motivated" and a "quick picker-upper" whom he taught a lot of her guitar skills, including a certain chord voice that not many people play. "Whenever I see her playing guitar and doing that, I know that I showed her how to do that," he said. What struck Tommy most about Katy was her "mature" voice that belied her 16 years.
"It was raw, you know? Kinda like Alanis Morrissette at that time 'cause she was listening to that kind of music a lot," he explained, adding, "She could break her voice up a lot. She can go into falsetto and have a real gentle voice and then have, like, a real strong voice, which is kind of hard to do."
According to Tommy, not everyone at the label shared his impression of Katy's talent. "They just didn't get it," he admitted. "I was like, 'Dude, that girl's probably going to be a big star.'"
Dan Michaels was poached from another label to serve as Red Hill's marketing director just as Katy was signed, putting her on his roster of talent. He recalled Katy being a "bright light" around the office when she visited. "She just had no fear, she was so friendly and kind," he added. "I just remember her feeling like she was older than the teenager she was. She just had great work ethic. She put in the hours and gave it all her energy."
She was also, as he believes, failed a bit by the music she was made to sing. "Her voice was bigger and more interesting than the material she was paired with," Dan said. "I just felt like she was ahead of her time for the Christian genre that was in its place at that time."
He recalled a particular radio conference in Atlanta where Katy "blew them away" with her vocals during her showcase. "I just don't think the material was there for her at the time," Dan continued, "which just didn't lead to the kind of success that there was potential for her at the time."
By the time Katy's album was released, Pamplin Music—and Red Hill Records, by extension—was in financial jeopardy, having already filed for bankruptcy. Dan jumped ship after only 10 months of employment. Tommy got out of his deal amid what he referred to as "internal corrupt stuff." And so Katy Hudson was released into the world with almost no marketing or promotion, only selling hundreds of physical copies before the whole thing went kaput.
Tommy recalled a moment shared with Katy after he'd ran into her at the offices, where he'd returned to collect some of his belongings. "She was sitting in a room playing acoustic guitar and she was very frustrated and upset," he said." And I was talking to her about it, just telling her to hold her chin up, that's not the only label in America, you're just getting started."
And get started she did.
After the album's collapse, Katy linked up with producer Glen Ballard—who'd previously worked with Alanis, among others—adopted her mother's maiden name, recorded a rock album that never saw the light of day, had a song land on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack, and eventually signed with Capital Records in 2007 after some label hopping. And the rest is, well, pop music history.
Speaking with MTV in 2008, Katy recalled her early days in a "very pseudo-strict religious household where the only thing on the menu was [gospel standards like] 'Oh Happy Day,' 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow' and 'Amazing Grace'—all eight verses of it," adding, "That led to me being 14 or 15, when I started going to Nashville to record some gospel songs, and to be around amazing country-music vets and learn how to craft a song and play guitar. I'd actually have to Superglue the tips of my fingers because they hurt so much from playing guitar all day, you know? And from that, I made the best record I could make as a gospel singer at 15." (Katy was unavailable to speak to E! News for this story.)
She called her path to Capital Records and "I Kissed a Girl" a "long and winding road" that finally ended when the label "picked me up and decided they wanted to make a Pretty Woman story out of me, without the prostitution."
The segue into secular pop didn't totally surprise Dan. "I was so happy for her. I thought she was a good person, an excellent person with talent. I'm glad she didn't fall by the wayside," he explained. "I'm glad she was able to find her voice and do something with it. I was pleasantly surprised, but I was not shocked because she had that thing. She had it even as a 16-year-old in a now-defunct label with a marketing director that was there for 10 months...I was glad that her voice got put to good use."
As Tommy succinctly put it, "I just felt like she landed where she was supposed to land."