With a new, highly personal album just out, and a two-year (extremely lucrative) Las Vegas residency imminent, who can blame the superstar Britney Spears for looking worried? She tells Peter Robinson about motherhood, perfectionism, heartbreak -- and why she's feeling the pressure
'This is scary," admits Britney Spears, looking mildly alarmed. In an hour, the pop superstar will climb on to a small stage, perch on a stool in front of the worldwide media and numerous record executives, and give Britney Jean, her eighth album, its first public airing. She'll be joined on stage by her producer, will.i.am, but the audience will focus on just one person, as she introduces songs, including the recent hit Work Bitch, from an album that promises to delve further than ever before into the life of this surprisingly shy icon.
"I'm eager for people to hear what I've been working on," she adds. "But I'm so nervous at the same time, because it's such a personal album for me."
It's late November and we're in a private room at a Los Angeles recording studio cum art space. Beyond a door, guests are eating sushi and drinking cocktails while a sound system pumps out her greatest hits, but, in our quiet space, a healthy-looking Spears sits politely on the edge of a sofa, her hands in her lap.
Tonight's event is not the only thing that's on her mind. Shortly after we meet, she will follow in the footsteps of Celine Dion and Elton John with a Las Vegas residency, due to run for two years at Planet Hollywood, for which she will earn a reported $300,000 (€219,000) a night. It was launched last September with a 4am event in the Mojave Desert, involving 1,000 Britney lookalikes, the star herself arriving by helicopter.
"Vegas is definitely a new challenge," she says. "But I wanted to be able to put on a different type of show. You get to do so much more when you don't have to put your stage in trucks after the show every night -- we got to build a venue specifically for my show. It's going to be more like a party than a typical concert."
Spears, who turned 32 last December 2, is in great shape, wearing a plain black vest, tight black leggings and black heels. "I need to rehearse more now than I did before," she admits. "I feel I'm more of a perfectionist these days."
This pressure isn't all self-imposed. Back in 1999, when Spears first found international fame with . . . Baby One More Time, she could gauge reactions based on the roar of arena shows or sackloads of fan mail. But that was a long time ago, before she was a mother of two, and the many ups and well-documented downs that have made her one of the most photographed and written-about celebrities of modern times, a subject of fascination across every demographic. These days, feedback comes from an internet's worth of fans and showbiz commentators who don't hesitate to express their opinions on what Spears should -- and shouldn't -- be doing.
"The increased scrutiny does make me a little harder on myself these days," she says. "There are more expectations of me now, not just in terms of what I do, but also in terms of who I am."
Part of the problem is that the ups of the past 15 years were extraordinarily high. Signature hits, such as Toxic and I'm a Slave 4 U, have helped her shift more than 100m albums, she has scooped awards at the Grammys and MTV VMAs, her tours have grossed more than $380m (€277m) and she received her star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame when she was just 21.
And she's still hitting the spot: in 2012, her will.i.am collaboration, Scream and Shout, went to number one in 24 countries. Almost 35 million people follow her on Twitter, and Forbes billed her as 2012's highest paid woman in music -- ahead of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna, with earnings of $58m (€42m).
She's come a long way from her childhood town of Kentwood, Louisiana, a place whose other claim to fame is as the dairy capital of America's South. "It's a small town where everyone knows everyone," she says. "You visit your friends and neighbours without ever telling them you're showing up."
At the age of three, Spears was attending dance lessons; by eight she was travelling to Atlanta, Georgia, with her mother, Lynne, a former teacher, to audition for the Disney television series, The Mickey Mouse Club. A spell in a performing arts school, several television advertisements and an understudy job on Broadway later, she was finally cast as a Mouseketeer, alongside Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling and her future boyfriend, Justin Timberlake. When The Mickey Mouse Club was cancelled, she returned to Kentwood, but she and her mother were not about to admit defeat.
An immaculately turned-out and friendly woman, Lynne is in Los Angeles with us today, just as she's been with her daughter since those first auditions and the meetings with Jive Records that eventually propelled Britney to international fame. (Although Lynne and Britney's father, Jamie, divorced in 2002, they were reconciled eight years later.) "My mom is a wonderful woman," says Spears. "She's always been an inspiration to me, but having kids helped me make even more sense of my relationship with her.
"My sons [Sean] Preston and Jayden are eight and seven now -- and not only do I find myself doing some of the things my mom used to do, I also understand why she did them."
Compared with many children of celebrities, Spears's boys, whose father is her ex-husband and former backing dancer Kevin Federline, have a relatively low profile, but, earlier this year, she took them to a film premiere. In footage of them outside, Jayden is having a great time posing for the cameras, but, at one point, amid the bellowing and flashing of the media, his brother has had enough, and turns to his mother for comfort. "That was Preston -- he's kind of shy," she says. "I kind of keep them in their world -- their kid world, away from the limelight. I feel that's a different side of me. 'Cos, you know, it's a lot to deal with. For a lot of people. Especially if you're shy, like my boys, it can be overwhelming."
After two decades of fame, how has she learnt to deal with this? What's the trick?
"Oh," she says with a laugh, "it's always overwhelming."
At the beginning of 2013, Britney split from her fiance, Jason Trawick, and the end of that three-year relationship, she tells me, is the reason Britney Jean is her most personal album to date.
"There are a lot of songs about heartbreak I can relate to because of the break-up I went through [last] year," she explains. "When you go through heartbreak, you just do the things that get you by. Eventually, you realise it's about making the most of life. Even on the album, when it talks about having a good time with friends and family, it's because these are the things that make you happy and get you through heartbreak."
She hopes the lyrics will inspire others. "There is definitely an element of that. I've always followed my heart and pursued my dreams, and I imagine that people find that inspiring. I hope that is the effect I have on my fans and people in general. I definitely want to project a positive energy out into the world."
That said, Perfume, a song she co-wrote with hitmaker du jour, Sia Furler, the woman behind hits including Rihanna's Diamonds, is surprisingly bleak. "I hate myself," she sings. "I feel crazy, such a classic tale." Although, right now, she is dating 27-year-old David Lucado, who works at a Los Angeles law firm, the suggestion is that Spears feels doomed to endure a succession of disappointments in her search for true love.
"You put yourself through it again and again," she agrees. "But, each time, love takes you over. It feels different every time for me. Every guy who I've been with, it's been a different kind of love. And, right now, I'm having a magical love."
Although Britney Jean may be her most personal album to date, over the years, her music has hinted at the reality of her life. As far back as 2000's Lucky, a track on her second album, she sang about a starlet who cried in cars, "Thinking if there's nothing missing in my life/Then why do these tears come at night?" In her 2002 single, I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, she sang, "All I need is time/A moment that is mine/While I'm in between." Instead, she found herself under increasing scrutiny, followed everywhere she went by hordes of paparazzi. In 2007, she released the single Piece of Me, in which she sang of paparazzi "Hoping I'll resort to some havoc/End up settlin' in court"; of being "Miss Bad Media Karma, another day, another drama". She was "Mrs Extra, Extra, This Just In/I'm Mrs She's Too Big, Now She's Too Thin".
By 2008, Spears had moved on from daily dramas; neither too big nor too thin, she was getting herself back on top and in shape, with a routine of healthy eating and early nights. "I feel like an old fart," she said at the time. I ask if 2008 was when she felt she had to grow up quickly. "Yeah, but I liked it. And believe it or not, I ended up liking going to bed early, in a weird way. At night, that's when you mess up. So, if you go to bed at 9.30, you're good."
In recent years, she's kept herself busy. "Really busy, actually," she says. "But it's been nice. I got to be more of a stay-at-home mom -- in fact, I had a whole year off when I was just doing the mom thing."
We talk about her "French country"-style house on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and about the early years of her career, such as when she and Timberlake turned up at the 2001 American Music Awards clad entirely in denim. "It was a pretty carefree time," she says. "We were just, like, 'We look great, let's go!' I have great memories of that time: there were a lot of rehearsals, but there was also a lot of clubbing and a lot of dancing. I still think the best night of my life was when I was 22 years old. It was New Year's Eve, and in Hawaii."
Her smile hints at a fun night, but also suggests that the details are not for public consumption. "It was a long time ago," is all she will say. "But it was fun."
But, she adds, "I get bored really, really easily, so I always have to feel like I'm doing something -- I have to get back to work and start working."
Is the recording studio her safe place now?
"Yes, yes. Definitely. And that feeling of safeness comes through in my music now more than it ever has before -- that's how I feel comfortable making personal music."
From talent shows as a child to tabloid headlines as an adult, Spears has spent a long time being judged, so when Simon Cowell invited her to join the American X Factor judging panel in 2012, it was not a decision she took lightly. "I did have trouble being overly critical at times, but then I'd simply remind myself to be constructive and positive versus mean," she adds.
"Being able to mentor young singers was the main plus point. I think, overall, it was a positive experience."
Not every career move is remembered so fondly. On the topic of Chaotic, the 2005 documentary that granted unprecedented access to her marriage to Federline, she says: "I would never do something like that again." She purses her lips. It looks as if this is the first time she's considered Chaotic in many years. "Actually, that was really bad," she decides. "That was probably the worst thing I've done in my career."
When I ask if that includes Crossroads -- her not-exactly-Oscar-winning 2002 film -- she looks suddenly outraged and clutches her hand to her heart. "No!" she shouts, springing to life. "I like Crossroads! Fuck you!"
And then, to my relief, she laughs.
'Britney Jean' is out now