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Linda Perry

Linda PerryPhoto: Kristin Burns

It takes talent, attitude and self‑belief to succeed in the music business, and Linda Perry has plenty of all three...

One of the best‑known and most successful songwriters and producers in the industry, Linda Perry has been responsible for a string of huge international hits by the likes of Pink (‘Get The Party Started’), Christina Aguilera (‘Beautiful’) and Gwen Stefani (‘What You Waiting For?’). Perry has also worked with the likes of Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande, Courtney Love, Adele and Dolly Parton.

Before all of this, Linda Perry was an artist in her own right, most famously as the singer in San Francisco band 4 Non Blondes. She wrote their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?’, which reached number one in 10 countries. When the band broke up the following year, Perry embarked upon a solo career with her critically acclaimed, if commercially unsuccessful solo album, In Flight (1996), before she decided to instead pursue her current career on the other side of the studio glass.

Make Yourself Heard

Even in her teenage years playing in various bands, Linda Perry always had a formidable attitude. “I kept getting kicked out,” she laughs. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, she spent her teens in San Diego, before moving to San Francisco at the age of 21 where she began performing solo around clubs in the Bay Area. Spotted by 4 Non Blondes’ bassist Christa Hillhouse, she was invited to join the all‑female band, whose ranks also included guitarist Shaunna Hall and drummer Wanda Day.

“At first I didn’t want to bring my songs into the band, because I was doing my own solo stuff,” Perry remembers. “Then once I realised the band was pretty good, I started bringing my songs in, and we started getting more acknowledgement.” Up to this point, Perry had had very little experience of recording. “No, at that time, I wasn’t even understanding that process. I had a tape recorder. That was it, and then I ended up buying one of those four‑track Tascams.”

After bagging a deal with Interscope Records, 4 Non Blondes went into the studio with producer David Tickle (Split Enz, Joe Cocker) to record their debut album. It proved to be a disappointing exercise for Perry, who quickly grew frustrated that the guitar sounds she heard when standing in front of her amp weren’t being accurately represented through the monitors in the control room.

“David Tickle was an interesting character,” she says. “He was a great guy. He put these really great tones in front of me. Like, he introduced me to the Vox and Les Paul and that dry, in‑your‑face gritty sound. And I was in love with it. So, we’d be tracking these songs, and then when I’d come in and listen, I’d be like, ‘What? Where’s that tone? This tone sounds small, really distant, and kind of thin.’ And I didn’t understand at the time that it was compression and EQ’ing all the beauty out of it and putting reverb on it. I feel like David was completely off the mark of who we were as a band. And I started complaining.”

Perry felt she was being railroaded by both the producer and the record company into releasing an album she wasn’t happy with — particularly Tickle’s version of the anthemic ‘What’s Up?’, which she rightly regarded as one of her strongest songs. “We’d recorded ‘What’s Up?’, and it was just terrible. Like, I cried. I went to the label, to [Interscope’s] Tom Whalley. I said, ‘This is f**king shit. This is not the song I wrote. Sounds like crap. I don’t understand why [Tickle] made me change lyrics and put a solo and a marching drum and all this shit in it.’ And Tom Whalley at the time was like, ‘I think it sounds great.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, then, f**k you, too. It doesn’t.’

“The album was about to be mastered. Everybody’s accepting it as the end result. And I panicked. Honestly, I would have scrapped the whole album. But I knew that was going to be an impossibility. And I said, ‘If I’m going to save one song, it’s going to be this one.’”

Saving The Day

The singer took matters into her own hands, booking a day at The Plant in Sausalito, in an attempt to record ‘What’s Up?’ to her satisfaction. “We had one roll of tape,” she recalls. “So we only have three takes. We went in, we had a house engineer there [Mark Hensley], and I just started dialling in sounds with him.

4 Non Blondes’ album Bigger, Better, Faster, More was a huge hit off the back of Perry’s song ‘What’s Up?’.4 Non Blondes’ album Bigger, Better, Faster, More was a huge hit off the back of Perry’s song ‘What’s Up?’.“Now, mind you,’ she adds, “I have no idea what I’m doing. But I hear the kick drum and I’m like, ‘No, can we make it a little more warm and fatter?’ Then I would move microphones, and I just did what instinctively felt like the right thing to do. Then last thing was my guitar. He dialled in my vocal and guitar with me and we recorded the song, we got the take. I knew I’d saved the song because then I heard it, and I’m like, ‘Yes, this sounds like me. This sounds like us.’

“And then David Tickle showed up at something like 11 o’clock at night. He’d found out that I was up there doing that. We had to mix it because the album was being mastered the next day. And that’s the version everybody heard.”

Nonetheless, Perry was disgruntled when she wasn’t given even a co‑production credit on ‘What’s Up?’ “I said, ‘I produced this. I want credit.’ And everybody pretty much laughed at me and said, ‘Well, it doesn’t work that way. David’s deal’s already done.’ But I tell you, it was the greatest lesson that I got early on in my career. Because after that, that never happened again.”

Out On Your Own

It was during the sessions for 4 Non Blondes’ never‑to‑be‑released second album that Linda Perry decided to go solo. Work had begun with producer Dave Jerden (Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones) but the singer was suffering from creative disagreements with the rest of the band.

“Dave is amazing,” she says, “but I was in a different place. The 4 Non Blondes experience for me was a dark experience. So that’s where I was at. I started writing songs, and the band kept on saying, ‘Well, this sounds more like something you would do by yourself.’ They kept saying that to pretty much almost every song. Then I would disappear for like five minutes, come back with a stupid song. And they’d be like, ‘Yes, this is great.’ And then we would record that.”

It was in fact Jerden who emboldened Perry to break out on her own. “One day, I was in the studio, playing piano and Dave walked in. And he was such a kind man to me. He’s like, ‘Listen, you’re one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. Don’t let people make you second guess yourself. You know what you want. Stick to it.’

“After he said that, we went on a little break, before we were going to come back and start doing overdubs on the record. And that’s when I decided, ‘You know what? I’m leaving. I’m out.’”

Interscope Records retained Perry as a solo artist, and put her back into the studio with Bill Bottrell, who at the time had recently co‑produced hits with Michael Jackson (‘Black Or White’, ‘Who Is It’) and produced Sheryl Crow’s multi‑platinum 1993 debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club.

“Bill was so confident,” Perry says. “He was like, ‘You know, I can tell you everything I do, I can give you the same players. But you’re never going to repeat what I do because you don’t have my ears.’ So his whole concept was, ‘Yeah, sure, here, learn what you want. I’ll give you all my secrets, I’ll give you all my tricks, but you’ll never ever be me.’

“So that was really wonderful to learn, because I did have my own ear. I asked him questions all the time and he would just put me in front of the board and he just showed me, ‘This is your master volume. These are your sends. This is your EQ: high, mids, lows. This is how you cut the lows. This is how you cut the highs. Over here are compressors. These over here are EQs. These are your effects. Turn the knobs until it sounds good to your ear.’

“That’s what I’ve been doing since then. That was like the birth of being actually the engineer.”

Voyage Of Discovery

At this point, Linda Perry began amassing her own studio gear, starting off with a Neumann U67 microphone, a Fairchild 670 compressor‑limiter and a Pultec EQ. “I started buying gear and not knowing what it did,” she says. ‘I just bought it, and it sat in my warehouse. And then I just started slowly putting it all together by myself, and then had a friend come and do all the soldering. But I learned how to use it all on my own, with no teaching, no anything.

“Then I just started recording bands in San Francisco. Y’know, ‘Hey, I’ll record you if you let me record you. I need the practice.’ And so that’s kind of how I started.”

Perry moved to Los Angeles in the late ’90s and expanded her setup, having discovered the Akai MPC2000 sampler and Korg Triton workstation synth. “Well, it was not a discovery I wanted to make,” she chuckles. “It was me just simply trying to figure out what all the weird, bad sounds were on the radio that I was hearing. Because it all just sounded so... no heart, no nothing.

“I was having a hard time responding to what I was hearing. So I wanted to find out what it was. I asked a friend, ‘What are all these sounds that are on the radio right now?’ And they laughed, and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, MPCs. Those are drum samples that are put on a drive. You can make your own samples and put them on a floppy disk.’ I was like, ‘Oh, interesting.’ And then the Triton was this keyboard that had all this stuff in there. And, y’know, people were using [Tascam] DA‑88s. I wasn’t ready to go to computers yet.

“So I just bought all that stuff and started figuring out what it did. And then it was so funny, because as soon as I started hearing some of the sounds as I scrolled, I could place almost every song. Y’know, like, ‘Oh, OK. This is that track? Oh, I get it.’ It was super fun to understand.

“I got it all hooked up. And now I’m just kind of running through sounds. Then I was like, ‘All right, well, let’s just dick around!’”

Party Time

Incredibly, Perry’s first musical experiment with her new equipment produced her debut hit for another artist: Pink’s ‘Get The Party Started’, released in 2001. “I didn’t have Pro Tools or a computer, so everything was just being played live,” she stresses. “So I get a tempo... 120... that feels normal, average, and I lay a click down for four minutes. Then I started creating this beat on the MPC, played all the way down. Thank God I’m a metronome with time. And so I just play kick and snare, adding real shakers, bongos. I’m just going, ‘What the f**k, whatever. I don’t care, I’ll play bongos.’

Linda Perry’s breakthrough hit as a songwriter was ‘Get The Party Started’, written very quickly as she tested out her new Akai MPC.Linda Perry’s breakthrough hit as a songwriter was ‘Get The Party Started’, written very quickly as she tested out her new Akai MPC.“Then I couldn’t find a bass sound I liked, so I picked up my Fender, popped it through my Ampeg B‑15, and I just started playing. ‘OK, just super simple. Don’t even think... dumb it down, Linda.’ Then I lay down a wah guitar. I go to the Roland sampler, and that’s got a bunch of cool sounds. There’s a Clavinet and I put these stabby horns in.

“The track is coming along. I’m kind of laughing at this point. I had a [Shure 520DX] bullet microphone next to me because I had attempted at one point to put harmonica in there, but it didn’t work. So I grabbed the bullet microphone, and I was like, ‘OK, let’s put a vocal on here.’ And I just started thinking of every cliché I can imagine. And I just went right into it. I just pretty much made up 87 percent of the lyrics on the fly and then went back and filled in the blanks.

“All this took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. It was so quick. After I was done, I just started laughing, going, ‘Holy shit. I just wrote a f**king pop song.’”

Thrilled and surprised by what she’d spontaneously created, Perry sent the demo to Madonna’s manager, Guy Oseary. “Honestly, I don’t even know if Madonna heard it or not,” she says. “Then he reached back out to me and said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna pass on this.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, no problem.’

“Then, about a week later, that’s when I got the weird random phone call from Pink. I called her back and I said, ‘I think you have the wrong person. I’m not hip at all. And I don’t know anything about your style of music.’ Because she was doing that white girl R&B stuff. I was just like, ‘That’s not my thing.’ She’s like, ‘Are you not Linda Perry from 4 Non Blondes that sang “Dear Mr President?”’ I’m like, ‘Yep, that’s me.’ She’s like, ‘I have the right person.’”

Insecure Power Girl

Pink duly recorded ‘Get The Party Started’ and it became an enormous international hit. Linda Perry’s writing/producing career was off and running. Her next big hit was Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’, an anthemic ballad dealing with insecurity and self‑empowerment. Aguilera’s vocal on ‘Beautiful’ was in fact the demo take that she had recorded in Perry’s home studio. “During a time where everybody was getting these perfected vocals and tuning the hell out everything,” Perry says, “that song was live. That demo vocal is what I recorded at my studio with a U47 through a 1073 and LA‑2A.

“Christina was super‑nervous that day. She brought a friend and basically when the piano started, she looked at the friend, and said ‘Don’t look at me.’ And so I already knew, ‘Oh, OK. She feels the same way as I do. Y’know, she’s insecure. She’s an insecure power girl.’”

Perry took the home demo to Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood and built a simple band arrangement around it. “‘Beautiful’ was five microphones on the drums,” she says. “It was live to click, but not lined up. Bass, piano, guitar, a [string] quartet, a Mellotron and vocals. It was 16 tracks, that song, and everybody played to Christina’s vocal.”

It required all of Linda Perry’s powers of persuasion to convince Christina Aguilera to keep the original demo vocal that made ‘Beautiful’ such a powerful recording.It required all of Linda Perry’s powers of persuasion to convince Christina Aguilera to keep the original demo vocal that made ‘Beautiful’ such a powerful recording.Perhaps inevitably, once the track had taken shape, Aguilera decided that she could sing the song better. “She’s like, ‘Um, can I re‑sing it?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You’re not touching this vocal, I know exactly what you’re gonna do.’ She’s like, ‘I know it better now.’ I said, ‘I know you know it better now. And that’s why you’re going to ruin it.’

“So the record is almost done... finalising... about to start mixing. She’s like, ‘Please, can I just try to sing it one more time?’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ We go into Conway, I get her all set up. I got the gear there, the right microphone, everything. And I push record and, I mean, I’m into like, 15 seconds, I’m not kidding you, and she’s already [imitating Aguilera’s over‑emoting] ‘Heeeeeeey‑ah‑ah‑ah.’

“I just stopped: ‘What the f**k, dude? You’re ruining it.’ Then she was like, ‘You’re right. Can we at least punch in a couple of words?’ I’m like, ‘Absolutely.’ So we punched in some words that I was going to do anyways, that were out of tune, because I refuse to use Auto‑Tune as well. And then we came up with a different melody for the bridge and she re‑sang that first line in the bridge. Then that was it. That was the vocal.”

In Touch

From this point on, Linda Perry continued to build her reputation within the record industry, particularly for working with female artists. “I think that women weren’t used to, or even understanding, that was a possibility,” she points out. “I remember when Gwen Stefani came in, and she was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such a different energy working with a woman.’ And it is. It feels safer. You don’t have some douchebag dude hitting on you because they think they’re powerful.”

Describing herself as a “boutique songwriter”, Perry says she relies upon her instincts and emotions when approaching a new composition. “I don’t have big, grandiose thoughts in my head when I’m writing a song,” she stresses. “I don’t have a preconceived idea: ‘Y’know, today, I’m gonna write a big, powerful anthem.’ I don’t do that. I write from going with whatever my feelings are. It’s being in touch with your feelings and where you’re at emotionally in life. I just sit down, and I play and the song just shows up.”

Perry has a reputation for being open and honest with her various star collaborators, even if sometimes they might not want to hear her characteristically strong opinions. “What I have that is the most important to me is respect,” she says. “I’m someone that you can trust, and I’m always going to be honest. And people come to me all the time for my honesty and ask me, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’, and they’re prepared for a very raw answer. And for that, I’m so grateful.”

Beyond 9 To 5

More recently, Linda Perry had the opportunity to collaborate with country legend Dolly Parton on the soundtrack to 2018 film, Dumplin’. The album featured Perry’s reworkings of six of Parton’s previous recordings, including a string‑backed version of ‘Jolene’, alongside five new Parton/Perry co‑writes.

“To me,” Perry laughs, “walking in a room with Dolly Parton was just life calling and saying, ‘You got to up your game. You got to take it up a notch.’ Because that woman, she shines. An incredible woman and so powerful and extremely talented. So I rose to the occasion... I matched her confidence and walked into that room with her, and I cranked out six songs with her in two days. And we got along amazingly. She’s a very good friend and she’s wise beyond belief.”

Parton’s only concern prior to the sessions was that Perry would take her inherent country sound and turn it into pop. “I had a band come in, and not even a country band. When she heard it, she freaked out. She was like, ‘Oh my God, when I heard these songs, I sat in my chair and I spinned around. I couldn’t believe it. I thought you were gonna turn it into that pop stuff. And I was really ready to go there with you. But oh my God, Linda, these songs... you made me feel like I love them again.’

“We just hit it off because we have the same work ethic. There was this funny moment between her and I where we were laying down strings. We were there from eight in the morning to 10 at night and she’s like, ‘How long you going?’ I’m like, ‘How long you going?’ She’s like, ‘I’m going as long as you’re going.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m going as long as you’re going.’ So we literally sat there ’til two in the morning until all the strings were done. We just laughed because neither one of us wanted to say we were tired or call it quits when we were so close to being done.

“I mean, Dolly Parton is f**king awesome,” Perry enthuses. “It will always be the most memorable moment in my life.”

Keeping Scores

Following Dumplin’, and her soundtrack for Sean Penn’s 2020 documentary, Citizen Penn (concerning the actor’s involvement with relief efforts in Haiti after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake), Linda Perry is now focusing more on scoring, and writing fewer songs.

Linda Perry: I’ve never written another song that sounds like ‘Get The Party Started’ or ‘Beautiful’ ever again. If you want something original, I’m the person you come to. But if you want a soundalike, go somewhere else.

“It was very disappointing how many artists came in and wanted to sound like somebody else,” she admits. “I mean, even asking me for [copies of] my own songs. I’m like, ‘No, I’ve already written it. I don’t double dip.’ I’ve never written another song that sounds like ‘Get The Party Started’ or ‘Beautiful’ ever again. If you want something original, I’m the person you come to. But if you want a soundalike, go somewhere else.

“So I stopped working with people and I started scoring. I’m starting all over, you know what I mean? Like, I’m not Linda Perry, songwriter ‘legend’, when I walk into trying to get a job as a composer. They don’t give a f**k. I’m just a new person that is starting from scratch.

“Scoring is a completely different world,” she adds. “It takes a completely different type of patience, and a completely different skill set. And so, I’m learning the craft right now. I have a few things under my belt, and I’m OK with that.

“I’m used to starting over. I’ve reinvented myself so many times that this is no different [laughs]. And I will succeed. And I will be one of the best, y’know. But I have to do the work to get there.”

Looking back at her 30‑plus years as a professional musician, songwriter and producer, Linda Perry now has a clear perspective on the upsides, and downsides, of the music industry. “I’m really grateful for the incredible opportunities this business has given me,” she states. “Even though sometimes it sucks. But it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I love it. I love how sleazy and f**ked up it is, and I love how magical and beautiful it is, as well.”  

Old Mics Rule

Working with an array of female singers, Linda Perry has developed different vocal chains tailored to each performer. “Sometimes a chain that I think is gonna work great on somebody, because I love it, doesn’t work on them at all. I’ve been through so many different microphones and so many different people.

“On Gwen, on just one song, ‘What You Waiting For?’, I used a [Shure] SM7, a [Neumann] U47, an 87 and a [Telefunken ELA M] 251. I used all those microphones on her vocal to get, like, all the different characters. Because the beautiful thing about microphones and gear and all of it is it’s all different characters. Except for, honestly, and I’m not being a snob when I say this, but new microphones are just new microphones. You can put five new microphones next to each other and they all sound the same.

‘But you know, a U47 compared to an 87: completely different. An SM7 to 251: completely different. Right now I was working with this artist, and I had her on a U47 and through an API, and I was like, ‘Oh God, this technically should just sound right for her.’ But then I just took it off. And I just put up an SM7 through my Neve, with very, very little compression and then I was like, ‘Oh, there you are.’

“So I love that discovery. I’ve used [Electro‑Voice] RE20s on people. I’ve used a [RCA] 44 ribbon mic on people. It depends on the song too and what you’re doing. If you want top, you’re not going to use a 44. You’re going to use something a little crisper, like a 251 or a C12 or whatever. But if you want unique, you can go anywhere you want.”