Legendary hitmaker Linda Perry: “Singers have to earn my songs. I don’t just distribute them’ | Music
‘I have over 100 hats,” says Linda Perry, who wears an attractive western number today with a bandana brushing her cheek tattoos in the style of Captain Jack Sparrow. “I don’t really like hair. I had dreads for a long time, then a mohawk. Now I’m just like, ‘Fuck it. I’m not even going to try to have a hairstyle. This is my hairstyle. “
But the hats on his head aren’t the only ones Perry wears. As well as being the writer and producer of some of the most definitive pop songs of the 2000s – having written tracks for Christina Aguilera, Pink, Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love, Alicia Keys and Adele – she is also a manager. artists, tag head, movie soundtrack and queer icon. For a time in the new millennium, it was Perry that singers turned to when they wanted a sharp musical makeover. Many of his early forays into hitmaking leaned into rebellious hustle, with rising stars spouting sulky lines such as “kiss my ass” and “stupid ho.” Most memorable were Pink’s Get the Party Started, Stefani’s solo comeback What You Waiting For? and Love’s Mono.
Perhaps they were drawn not only to Perry’s hooks, but also to his sense of freedom amidst a rigid tag machine that churned out new artists by the second. By the start of the new millennium, she had already been part of 4 Non Blondes, the American lesbian rock band for which she wrote the 1993 mega hit What’s Up. Despite their success, they were fiercely anti-commercial and seemed ahead of their time, but Perry now rejects any such idea. “I don’t think there’s anything radical or progressive in my group,” she says. “We’ve sold 7 million records.”
Yet – during the AIDS crisis and the endemic homophobia that accompanied it, as well as the growing tensions over abortion rights in the wake of the conservative Reagan era – Perry played a guitar on which she had recorded the words “dyke” and “choice”. She says the producers of David Letterman’s chatshow once told her to take them down. “I knew it would make people uncomfortable,” she says. “I believe in being queer and I believe in having a choice because at that time – another time, in the 90s – we were fighting for the right to abortion. So that was my declaration: dyke and choice In fact, she would later say: “I don’t care what people think.
Perry, 57, is on a video call from his studio in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. It’s visibly filled with light, which helps her keep regular hours so she can spend time with Rhodes, her son with ex-wife and actress Sara Gilbert. Endless gleaming guitars circle a recording booth with giant woodwinds hanging overhead. Black-and-white photos of musical legends line the walls, not a gold record in sight. It was here, in this rock’n’roll oasis, that Dolly Parton once came to record. Perry was producing the soundtrack for the Netflix movie Dumplin’ and ambitiously rearranged some of Parton’s classic songs, as well as writing originals with the country legend – work that earned Perry his fifth Grammy nomination.
“She called me a weird girl,” Perry said fondly. “And then she said she was attracted to weird people. I took it as a big compliment.” Parton had “never worked with a woman before, writer or producer” and they became “creative soulmates” who shared a hard work ethic.” She sang something thing like seven songs in one day and nailed them.”
Perry says she needs to work with artists she likes. In the past, she has criticized singers such as Katy Perry, of whom she said, “She doesn’t reinvent the wheel, she doesn’t give substance.” To this producer, substance is of utmost importance. There was another time “with a prominent artist,” she says, “and I didn’t like it at all. All that came out of her mouth was… she was plagiarizing a song, you know, even one of mine and I’m like, ‘If you want to scam people, you’ve come across the wrong person.’ So I excused her from the studio.
Perry will receive an Inspiration Award from the Music Producers Guild this week. In 2017, it was estimated that 6% of members of the UK organization and two nominees for the awards were women. Now that percentage has more than doubled and nominations have reached 13, but the numbers are still grossly disproportionate. In America, Perry is part of EqualizeHer, an initiative to equalize gender disparities in the American music industry, which has similarly grim statistics. “There aren’t a lot of women doing what I do,” Perry says. In the United States, she adds, “2% of producers are women”.
She had to fight to be behind the mixing desk. While making 4 Non Blondes’ one and only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! of 1992, she disagreed with producer David Tickle’s over-the-top direction. So she started taking recording advice from the in-house engineer after hours. In the end, it was her version of What’s Up that did the final editing — but she didn’t get a production credit. When Perry left 4 Non Blondes to go solo, she worked with Bill Bottrell on her debut album, In Flight in 1996. He shared more studio secrets. But while its label wanted to turn her into another Sheryl Crow, Perry wanted to write her answer to Dark Side of the Moon. Without the support of the label, it sank.
She spent a few more years in San Francisco, where 4 Non Blondes had met and she had moved, at age 21, from Massachusetts. Recording local bands for free helped her perfect her technique. Then she moved to Los Angeles and, for fun, stocked up on digital gear to do the kind of pop she heard on the radio. She started racking up lyrical shots and soon had a demo for Get the Party Started. Madonna refused. But a week later, Perry got a call from a young singer named Pink, an Aerosmith stalwart whose team was trying to groom her for R&B.
Perry had thought about reviving his own solo career. But when she met Pink, she knew she had to put that on hold. She told her dismayed manager, “Listen, I have a feeling.” And it paid off. Pink took Get the Party Started to No. 4 in America, while Perry went on to co-write much of Pink’s second album, Missundaztood. Then she gave one of her comeback songs to Christina Aguilera and showed a different, deeper side. Unlike the improvised Olympics that Aguilera was known for, Perry wondered, “What does that voice do when it comes from pure emotion?”
Beautiful, Aguilera’s 2002 single, was the answer, striking in its simplicity and the poignancy of its message, with a vulnerability that Perry considered unique at the time. “It stood out because it was a time when pop was ridiculously overproduced,” says Perry. Wasn’t Pink annoyed that she gave it to Aguilera? “It wasn’t for her,” she replies. “I don’t just give people songs. They have to earn them.
During this period Perry was prolific, working with Kelly Osbourne, Lisa Marie Presley, Ashlee Simpson, Alicia Keys and – on her debut album – Solange Knowles. Perry also had a unique overview of the music industry: a rare woman in the studio at a time when countless performers, from Britney Spears to Kesha, were ruthlessly scrutinized or exploited. Perry said she had never experienced sexual harassment herself, but had heard stories from other women. Did she feel obligated to watch?
“All I can do is be mighty and strong,” she says. “I try to educate people. Christina, Gwen – I tell them what microphone they’re singing into. I give them the parameters. I just try to make sure everyone feels empowered and that I’m a responsible producer by making people feel safe when they come to my studio. During this time, I worked with many women who had never worked with a woman before. It gave them a sense of ease, knowing that I wasn’t going to flirt with them.
She continues, “In the past, women took this bait to get where they wanted to go, because those were the conditions they were taken to – ‘If you want to be famous, honey, you’re gonna have to suck some dick.’ In 2002, if they had had 10 Lindas, we would be talking about a different story.
More recently, Perry has branched out into film and TV writing the theme music with Bono for Sean Penn’s documentary Citizen Penn. And she wrote and performed her first solo track in years for 2021’s Gen-X Kid 90 doc. Rules.” She’s disappointed with the way pop songs are constructed these days. “A lot of music is just put together They have their ProTools, the guy who makes the beats, the top line writer, the friend who comes to help with the melody, there’s a circus of people writing a song.
Anyone, she says, regardless of their contribution, can be credited as a songwriter. “Even if you were stoned, you had nothing to do with the track, but you came off your high with, ‘Maybe you should say, uh, ‘It’s so good to be here now .’ And then they write that in – this guy is now a songwriter. She walks over to her piano and slides on the keys. “It’s rare that someone sits here and says, ‘I’m going to write a song today. ‘today.’ There is no quality. No, scratch that. There is a lot of quality, but it is more difficult to recognize it.
Sometimes, however, Perry will still be hit by a voice and will stop at nothing to record it, like the one she once detected in the background of a video call. “I heard Kate Hudson sing and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ I got her number and I cold called her and I was like, ‘I’ve got a song for you.’ Perry convinced the actor to sing it, then started “harassing” her to do an album. “When she was ready, we wrote 25 songs. It’s a fantastic old-school record that you’d expect from the daughter of Almost Famous.
It’s a bit like how Perry felt about Pink: determination ignited. “I’m someone who goes with my instincts on all issues,” she says. “And I never consider anything a failure. Everything is an experience, everything is a risk. When you want things, you do everything you can to make it happen. You will find a way.
Well, hats off to that.