Q: So is Katy Perry, as she claims in her recent number-one hit, really a California gurl?

A: Indeed she is: Perry was born in 1984 in Santa Barbara, not far from her current home base of Los Angeles. That tune, by the way, was conceived as a West Coast response to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Bonus record-nerd fun fact: The spelling of its title refers to the song “September Gurls” by Big Star.

Q: Supposedly Perry used to be a Christian singer, which seems hard to believe, given her love of trash-talking, girl-kissing and banana-riding. Is it true?

A: Yep. As Katy Hudson, the name her pastor parents gave her, Perry released a self-titled CD in 2001 full of songs like “Faith Won’t Fail” and “Trust in Me.” (A used copy on Amazon will currently run you nearly 40 bucks.) The album was the artistic result of growing up in a religious-based environment the singer described to Blender as “kind of an island”: Christian school, Christian camp, church several times a week. Needless to say, Perry soon changed her tune.

Q: What’d she change it to?

A: Unabashedly sexed-up electro-pop with a dash of singer-songwriter sensitivity. Perry’s first big hit, 2008’s “I Kissed a Girl,” pretty much tells you everything you need to know about her appetite for titillation. (She didn’t just kiss a girl, you see—she also liked it.) That said, the surface flash of Perry’s music sometimes works to conceal her other gifts, including a remarkably expressive singing voice that puts some of her fellow Top 40 divas to shame. Check out her overlooked MTV Unplugged EP—which features a Fountains of Wayne cover, of all things—for proof.

Q: Wait, what about this singer-songwriter sensitivity?

A: Before “I Kissed a Girl” sent her star sky-high, Perry was a regular at L.A.’s Hotel Café, where young folkies clutching acoustic guitars strum their pain with their fingers on a nightly basis. And though she rarely goes the chick-sitting-on-a-stool route these days, you can still hear traces of that phase in her current stuff. Take, for instance, the glorious title track from her sophomore set, Teenage Dream: “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on,” Perry sings tenderly at the top of the tune, setting you up for some kind of Sixpence None the Richer-style mush-a-thon. Then the whooshing arena-glam beat revs up and she’s suddenly offering to “let you put your hands on me in my skintight jeans.” The song works because it goes somewhere and takes you with it.

Q: Did Perry’s stardom happen overnight?

A: Far from it, actually: Before Capitol Records signed her and released One of the Boys, her platinum-selling debut album, Perry scored (and lost) deals with two other major labels. You can actually hear one of the songs she recorded during those pre-Capitol days on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack, from 2005; it’s called “Simple” and kind of sounds like so-so Alanis Morissette.

Q: Who writes her music?

A: She writes or cowrites much of it herself. That said, most of her best songs—“I Kissed a Girl,” “Hot N Cold,” “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream”—have come from her collaborations with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, whose hard-and-shiny production sound privileges hooks above all else. On Teenage Dream Perry expands her realm a bit, enlisting Tricky Stewart and The-Dream along with Stargate and Greg Wells.

Q: Romantically speaking, she seems to have a thing for scruffy guys.

A: That does appear to be true. Perry dated Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes for several years and is now engaged to Russell Brand, the louche English comedian best known to American audiences for his role as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Fans wondering what ended Perry’s relationship with McCoy might do well to consult “Circle the Drain,” a scorchingly outspoken number from Teenage Dream in which the singer tells a pill-popping ex, “You had the world in the palm of your hand, but you fucking choked.” Speaking to Billboard, Perry compared the song to Morissette’s grunge-pop kiss-off “You Oughta Know.”

Q: Perry’s an attractive young woman. Is an eventual crossover into acting as inevitable for her as it is for so many of her peers?

A: As a matter of fact, the wheels are already in motion: Perry is slated to provide the voice of Smurfette in 2011’s The Smurfs Movie. (Something about this casting seems inspired.) She also appeared as herself on The Young and the Restless in 2008.