Linda Perry: My Life in 15 Songs
No one is more surprised than Linda Perry when one of the hit pop songs she’s written, whether it’s Pink’s “Get the Party Started” or Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” roars out of a radio or in a club. “I’m not pop,” she says. “I don’t even know how I got in there, because my true self is dark rock & roll. I love the Velvet Underground. I love Zeppelin. I’m in that area. It’s super funny that I got into this whole pop world, because it’s not where I live. But maybe that’s why it makes me interesting.”
Pop tunesmith is only one of Perry’s many careers. Since becoming famous as a member of 4 Non Blondes in the late Eighties, Perry not only survived one-hit-wonder status in the ’90s with “What’s Up” but went on to remake herself as an A-list songwriter and producer, working with a diverse group of acts from Miley Cyrus to Weezer. This year, Perry is up for a Grammy in the Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) category for her work on albums by teenaged singer Willa Amai and rocker Dorothy, as well as for the soundtrack to Served Like A Girl, a documentary about female military veterans that includes Perry-helmed songs by Pink, Aguilera and others.
Perry, 53, is currently wrapping up an album with Natasha Bedingfield. She’s also been curating charity events for Haitian relief and victims of last year’s California wildfires. She took a break in a relentlessly crammed schedule to look back at the 15 songs and productions that shaped her career and life.
4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up” (1992)
I moved to San Francisco and was writing songs by myself. Then this band 4 Non Blondes asked me if I wanted to be in it. They weren’t called 4 Non Blondes yet. I started living with Christa [Hillhouse], the bass player, and one day she was in her room having sex with her girlfriend and I had just gotten a puppy. It was right after the Reagan years, and I felt the politics were just insane, what was going on. I’m hearing all these sexual sounds happening down the hallway, and my dog is jumping up and down barking, fleas all over the place. And I’m in this band that I didn’t honestly 100 percent like.
I guess with all the emotions I grabbed my guitar and just wrote this song. It came out as a complete song. I heard Christa’s feet run down the hallway and she was all, “What was that?” And I’m like, “It’s a song I’m writing.” She’s like, “Bring that into practice. That’s amazing.” I’d written a lot of songs prior to that, but it was probably my first real song. It was all together. I sang “What’s going on,” but I always called it “What’s Up.”
I had a problem when we started recording it in the studio because I felt like I wrote a song that was perfect, even with its flaws and the repeating, “And oh my God I try,” or “I pray, every day I pray,” all that. Then when we got into the recording process, the producer kept trying to fix all those imperfections and make it like a formatted song. I played what he produced for my company and they’re like, “What’s wrong with it?” I go, “What’s wrong with it? It’s got a marching drum, it’s got a solo, and he got me to change all the words.” They’re like, “Well, Linda, it sounds great to us.” But I asked for money to go do [another] recording. We had one reel of tape. If you listen to the record, it sounds like an amateur did that. It’s not perfect at all. It’s like a really high-end. I hear it and laugh. But it was that feeling, that emotion, that the song needed.
I don’t mean to sound like a dick, but I knew it was going to be huge. At a meeting with the label, I had presented the idea of us leaving “What’s Up” off the album. I said, “We’re new. The album is going to be buried under this song and we’re not going to have a chance with anything else.” Everybody looked at me and thought I was crazy. The label was like, “Why would we do that?” I said, “To give us a chance. We’re new. We need to build.” I just knew that we were not going to survive if we just put this album out with “What’s Up.” I said, “This is a classic song. It’s going to be good next year on the next album, too. It’ll be big any album we put it on.”
They didn’t push another song after that, and they didn’t invest any money after that. But that song was a stone thrown into a lake and it created a ripple. It’s turned my life into a wave.
Linda Perry, “Fill Me Up” (1996)
We recorded a second 4 Non Blondes album, but I hated it. I kept writing songs and the band would turn them down and it just became sad to me. I remember [producer] Dave Jerden coming up to me in the studio one day and saying, “You’re really talented. You have an instinct. Don’t let what everybody says get to you, because that’s what happens to people like you. You’re very sensitive.”
We would have had a hit second album, no doubt. But I just couldn’t do it because one thing I’m not is a liar. I can only be 100 percent truthful in everything I do, because the littlest lie feels so rotten in my core. I hated touring. I hated people telling me what to do. I hated taking pictures. It all felt rotten to me. I went to the label and I said, “I gotta get off. I need to stop. I can’t do this and I’m very unhappy. I wanna do, like, Dark Side of the Moon. I want people sitting down listening to me. I don’t want drunk kids bashing back and forth. I want something else.” They looked at me like, “Are you crazy?” They dropped the band and kept me.
“Fill Me Up” is about a drunk who’s lost her way. That’s how I felt. I felt like I really got lost. It put me in a dark place that I completely disappointed these people who were relying on me. To me, In Flight is a concept album and “Fill Me Up” was, “Let me just slip into ‘Hey, what happened to me last night?’ And ‘As I take my drink, I’m going to tell you right now, I’m so sorry for anything that’s about to happen, anything I’m about to say and anything I’m about to forget.’” It was the last song I wrote for the album, because I was missing an element of a person who was blacking out. But the label didn’t push that album. They wanted to turn me into Sheryl Crow. Sheryl Crow is great as Sheryl Crow. But I was no Sheryl Crow, and that’s what they were hoping. There was a lot of disappointment around that album.
Pink, “Get the Party Started” (2001)
That was kind of a joke, to be quite honest. When I moved to Los Angeles, I called up a friend and said, “Hey, what’s that sound on the radio right now that’s going on? What’s that on MTV? What’s this hip thing going on?” To me it was godawful, just ridiculous.
He said, “Oh, it’s pretty much what everybody’s using.” So I got ProTools and set it all up. “Get the Party Started” was just me figuring out what all this stuff does. I came up with that beat, laid it down, found all these weird chords and sounds and put the horns. Then I went back to my guitar for the wah-wahs. I was just having fun. I picked up a microphone and said, “I’m just going to say every clichéd line I can think of.” And I came up with, “Get the party started on a Saturday night” and wrote a bunch of stuff down. I called up my manager afterwards and said, “I just wrote a damn hit.” It was too easy.
I sent it to Madonna and she passed, but a week later, Alecia [a.k.a. Pink] called. She left me this really crazy message how she would come find me if I didn’t call her back. I saw what she looked like — she was a bling-bling girl — and I said, “I think you have the wrong Linda Perry.” She’s like, “Is this the Linda Perry who sang ‘Dear Mister President’ in 4 Non Blondes?” I’m like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “Well, I have the right person.” I had just written “Get the Party Started” and I go, “Well, I’ve got something I wrote last week,” and sent it to her. I guess she sent it to LA Reid and they said, “Okay we have our first single.”
Alecia’s awesome. She’s so sassy. We were sitting one day and I said, “This album’s going to be huge.” She laughed at me. But I was like, “It’s going to be a groundbreaking record and change things for you.” She didn’t believe me. But we completely changed her format and it worked. And my life took a complete turn. That song put me on everybody’s Blackberry at the time. All the boy bands were reaching out.
But I just was not interested. I’m an artist. I’m not a hit-maker. My intention is never to go write a hit. I don’t even understand how to do that. I just can only stay as true as possible, and either one’s going to happen or it’s not. My main focus is always to write a great song. That’s what I do. I don’t write bad songs. I write great songs. Some of them are hits, some of them are not.
But with that song, it became clear to me that helping artists with their vision is kind of cool. I got the bug. It’s not me and my drab emotions. I was putting on Alecia’s clothes every day as she came in. It was an escape from myself.
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” (2002)
I started writing it when I was working with Alecia, but it just wasn’t done. For some reason, I kept putting it off. There was something about the lyric that was troubling to me, because it was so not what I felt. When the words “I am beautiful” came out, it was so shocking to me to say that because I don’t feel that way. I was still in denial about this positive message that I could possibly be saying. That’s why I changed the second one to “You are beautiful” and the third one to “We are beautiful” — because I couldn’t bear to keep saying “I am beautiful.”
Alecia never recorded it. She may have heard it when I was writing it. I can slightly remember her asking for it and I said, “No, it’s not the right song for you.” I’m not sure. I knew it wasn’t finished. After it was finished, Christina showed up. I said, “No management and no entourages allowed in my studio.” She was very vulnerable, and said, “Can you play me something to break the ice?” I decided to play “Beautiful” for her because that was the song I had been working on. I could hear her getting closer and closer to the piano. When I was done, she said, “Can you write the words to that and give me a demo of it? I want that for my album.”
I decided to let her sing it, so she’s standing there in my studio with the lyrics in her hands and then said to this friend she brought along, “Don’t look at me,” in that little whispery voice. I knew I was going to keep that on the record, and I knew she was the right person for the song. I realized, “Oh, she’s insecure. She’s one of those beautiful people who’s got everything but is super insecure. Okay, this song is hers.”
She wanted to re-record it and said, “No, you’re going to over-sing. I wanted to keep it really basic, really simple.” She was like, “Oh, I can sing this so much better. Please, can I just have one shot at it?” I literally let it play for maybe 30 seconds and she comes in and she just goes for it. I just turned it off. She’s like, “What?” And I said, “It’s not happening. You’re already ruining the song. This [original] vocal is perfect because it’s flawed. You gotta understand that flaws are great. This is a beautiful song because no one has ever heard you like this.” It proved to be exactly that. She grew fans from that song.
Gwen Stefani, “What You Waiting For?” (2004)
I started getting a reputation through my work with Christina and everybody. The word started getting around that I was very therapeutic in my process. You don’t come work with me and I pull out a song. The song gets written after we hang. I have to understand who you are and what you’re about. I feel like people really enjoyed it, especially the girls. A lot of these women, like Gwen, had never worked with a woman producer before.
Jimmy [Iovine] really wanted Gwen to go solo. He thinks everything I touch turns to gold. From my take of it, Gwen was very reluctant — she was not ready to go be Gwen Stefani. When she showed up, you could just tell she was, “Oh, I don’t know if I wanna be here.” She was literally a kid with their foot halfway out the door and halfway in. I felt agonized for her. We talked for a while and then I said, “Why don’t you go? Let’s come back tomorrow and let’s see how you feel. Don’t worry about it.” She left, and I was up all night long. I wanted her to show up the next day and be inspired.
Gwen is the nicest, funniest, dorkiest person. Stunning, totally talented, has great ideas. She can’t just write a song. She has to have the full vision — what the video is, what the look is, what the story is. It all has to come together. For “What You Waiting For?” I had the chorus but I didn’t have the verse yet. She walked in the next day and I said, “Well, I came up with this.” I played it and she just lit on fire. She’s like, “What the fuck, dude?”
We took turns coming up with ideas for the verses. She wanted to do something where there was a bunch of different characters, so I set up six microphones and labeled them, and at every line I told her which microphone to go to. Different microphones give you different sounds and they make you be a different character. We did the whole song like that. It was really fun. Jimmy Iovine showed up later and said, “Well, there’s our first single.”
Dixie Chicks, “Voice Inside My Head” (2006)
At that time, I really was trying to take over Nashville. I don’t know why, but I have a Nashville bug in me. I was just way too early. I was respectful of who they are, but they weren’t ready for my changes.
Rick Rubin encouraged this. He’s another just beautiful soul to me — very inspirational, very supportive, very respectful. He wanted me to work with the Dixie Chicks. You think they’re these sweet little country girls, and they’re actually not. They’re very edgy and have foul mouths and want to push against the system. That’s what I really loved about ’em. I love Natalie [Maines]. There’s an underrated artist there I really wanted to explore more.
We were sitting around and I may have just come up with the chorus. Rick loved it and asked Dan Wilson to come in and readdress some lyrical content. I was like, “Of course, fine.” That was pretty much it. Do you want me to be completely transparent? We had a couple other songs that I thought were actually cooler. I didn’t like the production of this song. I don’t feel like Rick captured it. I think there was a better song that needed to be worked out. I think it missed.
Alicia Keys, “Superwoman” (2007)
Alicia is a very strong individual, and we hit it off. I would just start singing. She would make me play piano and just want to absorb. I record everything that happens, when I’m at any instrument, so she’d go, “Hey, can you roll that back?” Then she’d write the words down.
“Superwoman” was that experience. She had a chorus but no verse and no bridge. But she had the “Superwoman” theme. It was probably coming from the area of women’s empowerment and that we are superwomen. I feel like I’m a Super-Mom. I can fly around the world and get right back and be right on time to make burgers and fries for 30 kids in fifth grade. That song was just acknowledging the vulnerability — but just because you’re vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re not powerful.
Most of the words in the verses are just me ad-libbing and she just wrote them down. It was a great hook and she would’ve figured it out on her own, with or without me. But to be generous and invite me to be a part of that process was awesome.
I did learn one thing. She has this incredible engineer that works with her, Ann Mincieli. Ann would record Alicia’s vocals and it would make me jealous. I wanted to be the only woman engineer she was working with. When I would have those feelings of jealousy, I would be like, “Why are you being so jealous?” That made me very aware that I could be jealous about coveting this woman’s position. From that day on, I completely went the opposite direction and started embracing all the girls.
Weezer, “Brave New World” (2010)
Rivers [Cuomo] showed up, and the whole time, he was talking about how he didn’t want to be in Weezer anymore. He didn’t know if there’s going to be another album. It felt like a therapy session, like he was hanging out with me to get all this stuff out that was on his mind. It sounded like he wanted to make a solo album, but the band would be too angry at him if he did. It all sounded like he was just venting.
I came up with “Brave New World” because I thought there was something interesting about what he was saying. He wants to make this major change and not be with Weezer — but is he just bullshitting? Will he be too afraid not to do Weezer? What a brave new world it would be. I wasn’t even thinking of the book. I was just thinking this would be a brave decision on his part to do that.
The only part I wrote was the chorus. Then he took it home, wrote the lyrics, and came back the next day, and we did a quick demo of it. It felt random, but we had a good time, and I think we wrote a really good song. He’s a funny bird, that guy. Very talented man, awkward and quirky. We got along and we wrote a song. Not everything has to be a deep connection. It ended up on a Weezer album [2010’s Hurley], which was even funnier.
Hole, “Letter to God” (2010)
The whole reason I wanted to work with Courtney is that, in my ridiculous head, I thought I could save her and have this moment with this very incredibly talented artist who’s just fucked up. It was always very chaotic with Courtney, and I really wanted to try to be a sober creative space for her.
For America’s Sweetheart, I was writing songs with her, and let me just tell you, it was insane. We’d be playing the music and waiting for Courtney hours and hours. We’re talking about 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. Finally one night at like 4:00, I said, “Give me a call when you want to do some music. But I’m outta here.” And that was it, I just walked out. I didn’t have time for that.
It was funny because I had been working with Christina across the street. Courtney would tell me to come on over, and I’m like, “Well, I’m with Christina.” And then Christina’s like, “Courtney Love?” She was very intrigued by Courtney. I’d bring Christina over there and it was super funny because Courtney is really tall and boisterous, and has aggressive energy. Christina could not handle it. She was just like, “Wow.” It was a lot of energy for her.
Then Courtney went to rehab. I brought her an acoustic guitar and a little recorder and said, “Use this time to write.” And she did and got out of rehab and had a bunch of songs that sounded like country songs. I was like, “Okay. Let’s do this.” I had a sober Courtney, and so we started the beginnings of this incredible album. It was like the Velvet Underground meets Fleetwood Mac, and it was a very calm Courtney — like Courtney sitting down in front of a fireplace and telling you a story about her life. It was a beautiful record, very melodic. We all were freaking out about it.
I wrote “Letter to God” [from Nobody’s Daughter] before Courtney. She was scrolling through my computer filled with songs and heard it and said, “I want to do this song.” The lyrical content totally made sense for her. But it’s not her type of song. It was more cinematic and more dramatic. It wasn’t guitar-driven. It was more vulnerable, so it took me by surprise that she gravitated towards that. When she started singing, it goose-bumped me. It was like, “Yeah, she’s fucked up.”
Then Courtney disappeared and came back fucked-up again. And they re-recorded these songs badly and a beautiful record got ruined and sounded like shit. I love Courtney. She’s a fabulous disaster, but she really is a genius and one of the smartest people I have ever met. I wish her well. I wish she would just do one more really serious, great record. One day I’m going to mix that [unreleased] album and fucking leak it out there. If it’s ever leaked, just know that it was me who did it.
Adele, “Can’t Let Go” (2015)
Sometimes things happen so fast for me I don’t really know how things are created. Adele was in L.A. writing with other people and they reached out to me. She came in one day to my studio and we hung out. We had met before when she played me her demos for 21. When we met again for 25, we talked about her family. You can tell she’s definitely a mom first. The other stuff is what she does, but it’s not who she is. Her family comes first.
I sat at the piano and came up with the music, and she said, “I love that, can you keep going?” I just played the verse over and over, and she came up with lyrics. The line “Can’t let go” was just something one of us may have said, and then it stuck. I could be wrong, but I think I came up with some part in the chorus, and I may have said “I can’t let go” or something close to it. When you’re writing, you kind of spin off of each other. We wrote it in an hour and then she was on her way.
They apparently tried to produce the track, but she didn’t like what they were doing, so she wanted to stick with the demo of it. She loved the song but it didn’t go on the main album, which was a bummer. [The song is a bonus track on the deluxe edition of 25.] It hurt my feelings a bit. I had emotions like, “Oh, shit, man. What a big miss.” You get the opportunity to write with an artist like that and it doesn’t get on the main album. It’s like being on the second stage at Coachella.
Pink, “Halfway Gone” (2017)
Alecia and I lost our relationship because of “Beautiful.” She thought she could keep me all to herself and not have me work with anybody else. Because I worked with Christina, she got really pissed off. Obviously, on top of it, she didn’t like Christina at the time. Alecia was fighting everybody. I get her point — she wanted to be the anti-those-girls.
Then Alecia was at a diner and I was walking by and saw her. We hadn’t seen each other in years. I sat down and said, “Why don’t you come by my studio and hang out with me?” And she did. We caught up and it’s like, “Do you want to write a song?” “Yeah. Let’s write a song.” And then I just kind of came up with this song out of nowhere. She was looking at me with those eyes like, “I missed her.” We didn’t think much about it, and we just wrote the lyrics. And she at the time was struggling with Carey [Hart], so we wrote that song.
When Served Like A Girl came to me, I thought, “Oh shit, I got all these songs that never were released by artists. We’ll let 100 percent of the proceeds go to the female vets.” We wanted to do something special for them. I started looking through my songs, and I asked everybody if I could use the songs, and Alecia said yes. And we parted ways again. She and I, maybe it’s not going to be tomorrow, but there will be another time for us, because we’re way too creative together. You can just feel it.
Christina Aguilera, “America” (2017)
Christina was coming out of The Voice and really wanted to change things up. So she came over, and I was like, “Come fucking back down to earth. And just focus on music and what your voice does. Get rid of all the other shit. Get off the fucking chair.”
She wanted to make a real organic, cool record, and we came up with that song. The lines about “old man” and “heart of gold” — I did those on purpose. That was me nodding to Neil Young. Again, her singing made it more believable. It just seemed so not Christina, and it felt like this is what we should do. I said, “Let’s do it really cool, like a limited-edition live album.” So that was the plan to make this lo-fi Americana record. And then it was, “Christina’s going to go make her version of Lemonade.” She didn’t want to release that song because it didn’t represent who she was.
We came up with that song on the cusp of Trump, and I think it would’ve been a fucking huge hit. If we would’ve released that fucking song during that time, it would’ve skyrocketed to number one all the over the fucking place. So I asked, if it’s not going to see the light of day anywhere else, can I at least have this song to put out on Served Like a Girl? And they said yes.
Dorothy, “Flawless” (2018)
Dorothy Martin is my artist. I manage her. And that is a record I loved, her whole album 20 Days in the Valley. There are no girls singing like her. She’s got a growl. She’s like Grace Slick or Courtney or Stevie Nicks. She’s a rock star. She’s the whole package. She’s been on tour with Greta Van Fleet, and people are starting to know who she is. There’s been a big void for a type of girl. And people are loving the rock aspect: Here’s this rock chick that’s got a very ’60s feel and is a badass on stage.
“Flawless” is a great train-wreck song. It’s someone who’s talking about a relationship where this guy just threw all your shit out on the fucking street. Like you were garbage. And she’s basically trying to say, “I’m not flawless. But I’m going to treat myself like I am.” You’re just trying to empower yourself in a situation where someone’s not treating you with the respect you deserve. This song gets a huge reaction. It got to number eight on the rock charts, which a girl hasn’t done in years.
Dolly Parton, “Girl in the Movies” (2018)
Dolly is the best human on the planet. Oh my fucking God, what a light. I got called to maybe produce one of the songs [for the soundtrack of Dumplin’]. And I’m like, “I don’t give a fuck. I’ll fucking tap-dance for her while she’s eating lunch. Don’t you fucking call anybody else. I will fucking do it for free. I don’t care. Please do not call anybody else.”
When I listen to Dolly records, I hear everything and the kitchen sink. I hear a lot of twang, I hear a lot of this, I hear a lot of that. What I wanted to do was simplify. I just wanted her voice to be more in front. I wanted to give her more of a raw edge.
We had a writing session the next day. Prior to that, her manager said, “Dolly has not written with anybody in a very long time.” Everybody’s prepping me to be okay if we don’t get a song. I’m sitting with her putting the microphone up, changing the microphone for another song. And she’s like, “So what are we gonna do tomorrow?” And I said, “Well, we’re going to write about five or six songs.” She looked at me like, “Oh, slow down. Let’s see if we even have one in us.” I think she just instantly liked my ego, my confidence.
In the studio she looked just like Dolly. The whole thing. To a tee, doesn’t miss a beat. I said, “I have an idea.” I played her the melody and the chorus, and I had “Girl in the Movies” as a line. She was like, “Oh I love that. That’s like the girl in the movie.” In one day she wrote all the lyrics. It was like I met my creative soul mate. It was so easy and so free and effortless. And she’s so talented with her storytelling. I’ve never met somebody who has the stamina I do, and she’s 73 years old.
I’m a little boisterous, a little edgy, a little loud. I’m aggressive. I want things the way I want them. And I learned with her to calm my spirit down a little bit. Dolly would be all, “There’s a reason all this is happening. If we didn’t do this, then maybe this would’ve happened.” You just let the chips fall where they fall. And as cheesy as it sounds, I actually started doing that and it does feel better to let the chips fall where they’re gonna fall. She softened me.
Willa Amai, “Here You Come Again” (2018)
She’s an artist of mine. She’s 14 years old. Willa had heard I was working with Dolly, and she sent me that arrangement of “Here You Come Again” and I’m like going, “Holy fuck — what is this?” Then I completely forgot about it, and we were talking about “Here You Come Again” because they really wanted it in the movie. And I was like, “I forgot I had something to play you.” I played them Willa’s version. At the time Willa was 13, and they were like, “Oh, my God. We need to use that.”
Now I’m going, “How the fuck am I going to get Dolly Parton to do a duet with this 13-year-old no one’s ever heard before?” So I get to Nashville and I’m talking to Dolly and go, “Hey, did you hear my 13-year-old Willa do ‘Here You Come Again?’” She’s like, “No I didn’t. Who’s Willa?” I said, “She is like a little Carole King. And a total dork, little nerdy kid. She’s a savant. And she did this version of your song where she took a completely different approach.” And she’s like, “Let me hear it.”
So I played it to her. It was Dolly’s idea [to duet with Willa]. She said, “It would be sweet that she’s singing and I come in. And I’m like passing the torch over to her.” Then she’s like, “Oh my God. It’s the same name. Willa.” Willa is the character in the movie. I’m inside freaking out.
The message to hear is that ambition is the most important part of making it. You can be talented all you want, but this goes out to all those little 12- and 13-year-old kids right now. Talent is one part of it, but it’s our ambition, our motivation, our drive to be successful. Fucking don’t give up on your creative vision. If you stand by it, you can fucking become Adele.
FloydFest 2023, to Be Headlined by Black Crowes and My Morning Jacket, Is in Limbo
- Festival in Jeopardy