Linda Perry had her first hit with “What’s Up?” in 1993, as lead singer and songwriter for 4 Non Blondes. Since then, she’s worked as a producer and songwriter for numerous artists, helping shape the sounds of P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Adele, and Dolly Parton, to name a few. In 2015, Perry was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and in 2019 she received a historic Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, one of only nine women to ever be nominated, and the first female producer unattached to a production team. It’s hard to summarize her career, but she did it well with this, “There are so many friggin’ hats that I wear. There’s the producer, songwriter, the entrepreneur, the manager, the composer, and I’m the mom. I’m also just a human being trying to figure out how to best be of service in this world.” Here’s my conversation with Linda Perry. It was a big honor. Thanks to our mutual friend, David Saw, for hooking it up.
What was your first instrument?
My first instrument was the first four strings of a nylon string guitar bought in Tijuana. It had six strings, but I could only use the four. Mind you, I would never use my left hand to hold chords. I would write songs with the first four strings: E, A, D, and G. That’s it. B and E; I didn’t find any use for those!
Do you ever take off strings now in your writing or production?
Yeah, I do that all the time. It’s funny, because all I do is weird stuff like that. I was scoring this Sean Penn film called Citizen Penn. It’s about when Sean and his organization, CORE, went to Haiti when they had that big earthquake. They asked me to score the film, and I’d been wanting to score films. It’s in Haiti, so it should be Haitian music and Haitian players. I started writing and I would take strings off. I would use my tenor guitar; my baritone. I would use weird tunings. I had no idea what those tunings were. It sounded good to my ear. I would have to say to my guy, Luis [Flores], “Write this down. I have no idea what this is.” It would be E, E, A, G, D, F – some weird tuning – then capo’d. I decided I was going to demo the songs, and then, when they approved them, I’d get Haitian singers and players. Then COVID hit. They needed the film done, and I was like, “Wait a minute!” They ended up approving everything. I’m singing in the background and playing percussion. It was the most fun thing I’ve done since the Kelly Osbourne record [Sleeping in the Nothing] I did a while back. It’s my interpretation of that style of music. That’s what I’ve always been known for; delivering my version of what a soul song is. My version of what a pop song is. This is my version of what Haitian music would sound like. In that score, I was tuning crazy, but then it didn’t sound crazy when it was all in perspective.
You wrote “Get the Party Started” [for P!nk] when you were figuring out an [Akai] MPC?
I made myself move to L.A. against my own will. By the time I got here, I called up my manager at the time and said, “I’m moving on.” I was thinking, “Well, what do I really want to do? Do I want to be an artist?” I didn’t have luck digging that. If I were an artist, I’d be killing it right now. But I didn’t want to go that route. I was hanging out with somebody and I said, “Hey, what’s that crazy bad sound that’s all over the radio right now?” “It’s a [Korg] Triton keyboard. People are using MPCs.” I asked, “What’s that?” “It’s a drum programmer. You can put drum sounds in it on a disc, and you can get different kicks and snares. You program your own beats.” I went and bought all that, plus a [Tascam] DA-88 [recorder] and put it together. I started making beats on the MPC and thought, “That’s fun!” I let that beat play for three and a half minutes. I couldn’t find a good bass sound, so I grabbed my own bass. I was just trying to figure out what all this shit did. I created the whole track of “Get the Party Started.” I was having so much fun, so I grabbed a harmonica microphone and started ad-libbing “I’m coming up, so you better get this party started.” I started thinking of every cliché thing that I could say, and that was the song. Then I started laughing, going, “Holy fuck, I wrote a dance hit!” That’s when I was trying to figure out what this shit did.
And you now just wrote a film score! You wrote songs with Dolly Parton and recreated her hits for the Dumplin’ soundtrack. Is it true that you made all those recordings on your own and then shared them with her?
Oh, yeah. That’s my vibe. That’s my style. I don’t wait for paperwork or people to say that I can do something. If I feel something, I’m going to go do it. They can decide whether they want to use it or not. I got hired to write a song with Dolly Parton. I was like, “Holy shit. Fuck yes! Give me the lowdown.”
She’s one of my idols.
I mean, give me a fucking break. I’d been calling her manager, Danny [Nozell], repeatedly, every month. “Hey, it’s me, Linda Perry, checking in.” He would laugh. You can’t do anything without Dolly’s approval. When you get a “yes” from Dolly Parton’s team, that means she thought about it and approved it. Then I realized, “Okay, you’re doing a movie? Wait a minute.” Then I started talking to the music supervisor, “Okay, what are you guys going to do?” He said, “Well, I have this idea of maybe having the composer take some of her songs and tweak them so that they fit into the movie as a score.” I said, “I’m going to do that. I’m going to record the songs. What songs?” We started putting the songs together, and then I was being told that they wanted her to do a duets album. I was like, “Fuck. A duets album with Dolly Parton? Dolly Parton doesn’t need to do a duet album. What she should do is invite some people to sing with her on this movie.” I started producing the old songs. All I really did was clean house in the songs. There’s so much production going on in those songs; I got rid of all the stuff that didn’t need to be in there, and that made it sound cool and modern. I got somebody that sounds like Dolly and had her sing. Then I sent that to Dolly and, apparently, she freaked out. By the time I got to Nashville, she was like, “Holy cow. When I heard those songs, I started spinnin’ in my chair. You made me love these songs. I had no idea I was going to like these songs again. When they told me Linda Perry was going to produce these songs, I thought you were going to make them all pop, but you didn’t. Linda, you made me love these songs. It doesn’t sound modern, but it is modern.” It was the cutest fucking thing. Then, in the next two days, we wrote six songs from scratch.
I said, “Dolly Parton needs to have an album. I’m not fucking doing one song. Are you kidding me? We’re doing six new songs, and we’re going to redo five of her songs.” That was all me. I paid for it and did it all. Then I handed it over and they were like, “Fuck, yeah.” Then all of the songs made the movie, and I helped score all the parts.
Did you choose the duet partners too?
Yeah. The only one they chose was Miranda Lambert. I went after Sia, Macy Gray, and Mavis Staples. I have an artist named Dorothy [Martin] who sang on it too.
I have another artist, Willa Amai, a 16-year-old. Dolly Parton freaked out. She’s the one singing “Here You Come Again.”
What was it like writing with Dolly? She doesn’t do a lot of co-writes, especially with women. I know she wrote a song with her aunt when she was younger, but other than that you might be the only female cowriter.
Yeah, I am. She never even imagined being in the studio with a female producer. We hit it off. Her and I couldn’t be more opposite, but we’re also very similar. I remember our first day, we were starting on “Dumb Blonde.” We were going to do her vocals, and then Miranda Lambert was coming in. Dolly was very soft-spoken at that particular moment; I think she was still testing me. Dolly was like, “So, I guess we’re going to be in the studio tomorrow, and you’re coming to my writing room and we’re going to do something. What do you plan on doing?” I said, “We need six songs.” She literally choked. She’s like, “What? You’re counting the chickens before the eggs!” She used one of her cheesy phrases that always make sense when they come out of her mouth. She said, “Let’s just try one.” I said, “Oh, yeah. And then we’re going to go to two, three, four, five, and six.” She laughed. My first day with her in her writing cabana, we were sitting there and we came up with three songs one day, and then three songs the next day. So, six songs in two days. We were taking a break after the third song, and she was looking at me like, “You’re weird!” I didn’t know how to take that. She said, “You’re a weird girl. I like weird. I mean that in a good way, but you are weird.” Then we became very close, very quickly. Dolly Parton is one of the best humans on this planet, for sure.
She’s a fairy godmother to us all.
She’s operating on a frequency that very few people reach; so kind and generous, and constantly lifting people up. Whether you’re the person who brought her coffee or the president of a label, it doesn’t matter to her. She’s so incredible to people. It’s inspiring. I learned a lot being with her.
Do you think she learned anything from you?
I don’t know! I think she saw how funny I was. I was very light about things. She would say that we’re very similar. She felt she met her creative soul mate.
Wow, what a compliment!
So, yeah; I guess I did. Her manager came to me the second day and said, “I don’t know what you did, but I haven’t seen Dolly this inspired in 16 years. You’re not going anywhere. You’re a keeper.” I guess she had not really been that inspired. She hasn’t stopped since then.
When you start working with a new artist, are there rules on your first meeting?
The only thing I ask for is for them to be open, honest, and prepared to abandon ego and whatever bullshit they carry. It’s really important. I have to meet the person first; I can’t just agree to write with somebody. I have to see if there’s some connection. I don’t need to like the person I’m being creative with. I need to know there’s some creative spark and inspiration there. I don’t like it when people come up with ideas prior to a writing session. To me, “You came up with that on your own, so finish it on your own. You and I have never met. We’ve never experienced our creative energy together. I don’t want to stagnate that by putting in a safety net. Let’s explore what we can do together before we go to your safety net.” Here’s the deal: Most people show up at a session, they sit around for hours, and nobody comes up with an idea. I get that you have to be prepared, but with Linda Perry, that just doesn’t happen. I do two songs. Sometimes I’ve done three songs in a day with somebody. If we’re not creative, and it’s not happening within an hour, I’m like, “I don’t think we’re good together. It’s not happening today.”
Yeah, exactly. Date is over. I don’t feel it. “You’re not feeling it. It was nice to meet you. You’re amazing, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.” I need them to show up open and vulnerable and be prepared to go deep, or to do something different and left field. I would probably be a richer person, and more successful, if I focused on hits and what everybody else is doing. But, unfortunately, I don’t move and operate that way. I don’t know; I have to make things fucking harder. Writing a fucking song is a success. Whether that song is a hit or not; that’s beyond my power. I’m telling you, I know a lot of songs that should not have been hits, but a lot of money [behind it] made it a hit. And I know songs that should have been a hit, but people didn’t believe in it. They didn’t put any money towards it, and it wasn’t a hit. A hit is where the money goes. “What’s Up?” is a hit. “Imagine” is a hit. “Crazy” is a hit. You know those songs. But there are a lot of songs that shouldn’t have been hits. I don’t focus on that. I’m not good at copying. In fact, any time I try to even be inspired by what other people are doing, it fucks me up.
You mentioned “What’s Up?” I know there’s a story there. Was that your first experience in a recording studio, or had you recorded prior to that?
With 4 Non Blondes, I had no experience whatsoever. I was a solo artist in San Francisco, climbing my way up. Then I joined this band because it seemed fun. I wrote that song and we went into a studio for a day. We recorded eight songs really fast with this woman, Lydia Holly. She was a great support for 4 Non Blondes. I don’t think the tape even made it out anywhere. We started getting recognition in San Francisco and labels started finding us. We signed with Interscope Records. The song I wrote was based out of frustration with what was going on in the world. I had no money. Everything seemed hard, and desperate, and challenging. I wrote this song that seemed to fit the mood, not only for myself but for the world. You don’t know that’s going to happen. You don’t know that the song is going to go blow up worldwide and some kid in Malaysia is going to be blaring it out his window. That song is why we got signed. When we were recording it, the producer at the time [David Tickle] had no sense of what the song was. He didn’t understand the simplicity and the power of it. He was coming from ego. He wanted to “produce” the song and make it fancy. He wanted to put his leg up and piss on it; I was not having that. I went to the label and said, “This song sucks. This is not the song I wrote.” They didn’t support me. They said it sounded fine. I did not agree. I grabbed the band during a break and we went to The Plant in Sausalito [California]. We had one reel of tape and they let us go in there. I didn’t have any experience, except for the experience of being in the studio with David. I realized what I didn’t like. I didn’t like any of the sounds he was getting. I didn’t like my vocal tone. There was nothing about that album that I sonically related to, but I was outvoted all the time and I didn’t want to make ripples, so I went along with it. When we were in the Plant recording this song, I started moving things around. The engineer there helped me a lot. I would tell him what I wanted, and if he didn’t get it I would move the microphone around. Then I’d go, “Yes, that’s it. That’s the sound.” I did that with everything. Then we got the tempo, and we got the recording of it, the base of it, done. I re-did my acoustics. I was in the middle of vocals when David Tickle showed up. I’d laid down three vocals. I was annoyed he showed up. We were already done with the frigging song. We comped the vocal and mixed it that night, and it made mastering the next day. That is the version that blew up all over the world.
And you never got a producer credit for that?
They said, “Can’t your credit be that you saved the song?”
But it’s all right. I did save the song. I’ve told the story enough that people know that David Tickle did not produce that song. It was me. I have a lot of gold records. I have a lot of trophies. I have a lot of awards. But you don’t see any records in my studio or house. I’ve given them out to everybody in my family, or they’re in storage. I don’t need that.
After the 4 Non Blondes album you worked with Bill Bottrell [Tape Op #59] on your first solo album, In Flight. What was that like?
That was a great experience. At first, I didn’t want to work with Bill because I didn’t really get the style. I didn’t feel like it was me. But then we met and I realized, “Okay, I dig this guy.” It was a completely different experience. With 4 Non Blondes, as much fun as it was… as an artist, I could not relate to me. Her. I call her “her.” It’s hard to even say that is me in that, because she sang at 11 the whole fucking time. It’s so annoying, that record. It’s annoying because of me. I had no understanding of what my voice could do. I only knew how to scream and be loud. When I was doing the In Flight record, I wrote these songs during the second 4 Non Blondes record that they denied. They didn’t want them, because they sounded too dark. That was an invitation to my exit. I’m like, “Okay, great. I’m outta here.” I sat down on a chair with a bottle of wine, an ashtray, a pack of cigarettes, a guitar, and a microphone in my face, and that’s how I recorded the album. It had so much depth. On a song like “Success” or “Life In A Bottle”, that was me telling a story about a person who was extremely unhappy. I could not find my flock. I was an alcoholic, and I was trying to figure out who I was, in the creative sense. I was sitting there telling my story, and it got captured on a record. Bill Bottrell was a wonderful mentor; an incredible person to work with. He educated me and taught me so much. I learned so much about production and engineering by watching him, as well as understanding how sounds can add to your tone and to who you are. That’s when it all clicked in. I was severely depressed when the label shelved the record, because I thought it was such a beautiful record. But, yeah; it wasn’t “What’s Up?” and it wasn’t 4 Non Blondes. It was very different than what was out in the world.
Do you still communicate with him? Are you guys still in touch?
Bill is a nut. He can be a total asshole. I mean, I love him and I respect him. I would welcome him anytime, but he’s a dick. He’s a bitter guy. But that’s also what makes him great. To me, he’s one of the best producers out there, still. Incredibly creative. I think he’s a genius. But he’s such a dickhead that he gets in the way of his own success.
Well, he helped inspire a love of recording in you. We can thank him for that!
Yeah, but he would say I’m horrible. He’s such a pompous little fuck. He’d think that what I’m doing is lying, because he’s the best at everything. But, again, mind you, I say this all tongue-in-cheek. I would say this to his face. Print away! He’ll laugh about it. But I do love him. I called him “the professor,” and I was his student. He taught me a lot.
Did he encourage you to buy your own gear and set up your own studio after that?
He didn’t encourage me to do that. I asked so many questions. “What is that? What did you just do? What’s that?” Finally, one day, he grabbed me by the shoulders, put me in front of the board, and sat me down in the chair. “These are EQs. These are the mic pres. This is lows. This is highs. This is mids. This is panning. This is the effects send. These are your levels. This is phase. If you know one, you know them all. Over here, this is outboard gear. This is a compressor. This is EQ.” Blah, blah, blah. That’s how he taught me. I would watch and then get on the board sometimes. Then I would look at him for acceptance, and he would say, “Why are you looking at me?” I’m like, “Am I doing it right?” He’d say, “Does it sound right to your ears?” I’d say, “Yeah.” He’d say, “Well then, that’s right.” He told me, “Linda, you’ll have to learn. Don’t look at the meters. Don’t look at me. Don’t watch anybody. If it sounds right to you, that’s what’s going to make you a unique person. I could tell you every single thing I do. I could tell you the drum set I used, at what time I used it, the temperature in the room, what drummer, what sticks. I could tell you how I asked him to play, whether it was heavy or light, and exactly the microphones, the tuning, everything. And you will never, ever mimic what I did.” I’m like, “Why?” He said, “Because you don’t have my ears. You don’t hear it like I do. And I’m never going to be able to copy what you do. That’s what will make you a unique producer. The moment you start copying people, then you’re done.” I’ve never done that. I have no idea what I’m doing in here. I know everything, but I know nothing.
Did you start setting up your own studio after that? I know you produced a Stone Fox record the next year…
After I did that record, I started putting together a studio because I had this huge warehouse. I started buying gear. Honestly, I bought gear that looked good. I didn’t know what they were.
What did you buy?
I came across this beautiful black piece of gear, and it had these big knobs. It was gorgeous. Mind you, the price was ridiculously low. Anyway, I bought two of those, because I loved them so much. Those ended up being Fairchild 670 [limiters]. I had no idea until later what they were.
I bought a bunch of Pultec [equalizers]. Again, I loved the blue color and the big knobs. If it had big knobs, I wanted it. I bought a bunch of Neves. I bought this NTI [equalizer]. I liked the way it looked, because of the colorful knobs and it said NTI. I did the same thing with microphones. Big microphones. “This is tube? Okay.” I bought a [Neumann] U 47 and U 87. I started to understand a little more and realized it was all vintage gear. I started asking questions. Then the more I asked questions, the more that started gearing me toward what I would buy. But, honestly, I bought so much cool gear and had no idea. My 670 that I bought for $7,000 at the time, I think it’s worth $70,000 now. I did the same thing with instruments. I would court instruments not knowing they were valuable. I have expensive taste, I guess! Then I figured it out. I bought a bunch of gear, and then I put it all together myself. It took a long time, but that’s the only way I can learn. I cannot read instructions. My brain... I have some kind of disorder. That’s why I failed school and only made it to eighth grade. It was so frustrating. It’s painful, but I can’t sit there and read. The other day my brother bought me this mop steamer. It’s something so simple, but I couldn’t figure it out. I was reading the instructions and I got so frustrated because I couldn’t put it together. A fucking stupid mop. I threw away the instructions and looked at it and just started putting it together. I can only do it that way. If I try to read instructions, my brain gets so tired and it all turns backwards. It all gets really fucked up in my brain. And if someone teaches me, I can’t learn.
I’m thinking of your experience in the studio with Bill. You had to ask the questions.
That’s how I learned how to be an engineer. I’m a better engineer than I am a producer. I get cool sounds. I get great drum sounds. I get unique sounds. Sounds that people don’t get. I’m that girl. If you want a cool-sounding record, I’m that person. If you want Katy Perry or something polished, I’m definitely not that person to call.
Are you messing with sounds on the way in? You’ve mentioned harmonica mics and I’ve heard that you put up eight different mic sounds for Gwen Stefani to play with in the studio.
Oh, yeah. I think those things are interesting. There was this song “What You Waiting For?” that we agreed was all different characters. To me, different characters mean different microphones. I set up six different microphones and put the names on them. When we wrote the lyrics down, I put the name of the microphone on the lyrics – that’s the microphone she would go to. I put them all on record, and she sang live that way – she would move around. I wish streaming and Instagram was happening then, because it was so incredibly fun to watch her do that. She had fun. What it did was it mentally prepared her to be different characters. She knew going in that when she went to that microphone, she had to play a different character. That’s why I did it. If you’re on the same microphone, it’s hard to be different characters. It’s also hard to capture a different character when you’re using the same chain. That was super fun to do.
Do you have a preferred vocal chain? You get such vulnerable vocal performances out of singers. There’s the story of Christina Aguilera singing “Beautiful” the first time. How do you know what chain to use if she’s going to get the perfect take the first time?
I don’t. Listen, the vocal chain is not the important part. What’s important is the emotion. You can be singing in GarageBand and grab a great vocal because the emotion is great. If you don’t get an emotional vocal, the vocal sounds like crap. You can be in a Tascam 8-track and capture incredible takes if you’re capturing a vibe. That’s what’s important. That’s the part that people are missing right now. They don’t realize it’s not the fucking gear. It’s not Pro Tools vs. tape. It’s the song. It’s the performance. It’s the artist’s relationship with the producer, as well as if the artist feels safe to be that vulnerable. Are you even recording a fucking good song? Those are the things that are important. Everybody else gets bogged down with, “Oh, I’m going to use this or that. And look at this new thing I got! Here’s this new trick. I’m going to fucking splice my bass three times and flip the third, take the sub and flip it backwards.” They’re doing all this production, but there’s no song yet. My go-to chain to have up isn’t necessarily going to be the chain that I use for that artist. Again, different voices need different vocal chains. Christina [Aguilera] sounds great on a U 47 through a Neve 1073 and a [Teletronix] LA-2A. That’s a great chain for her. But Alicia Keys sounds better on a [Telefunken Ela M] 251 going through an API [preamp] and a [Empirical Labs] Distressor or an 1176. Willa Amai sounds awesome with a [Neumann U] 87, 1073 [preamp], and the LA-2A, and then I might put a Distressor on the back-end. It depends on the voice.
Do you get to experiment with each singer?
My standard is the U 47, 1073, and LA-2A. That’s my mic that’s up. But then I’ll put up four different ones. I’ll put up a [Shure] SM7. I love SM7s through a Distressor and a 1073. Fucking love that sound. I also love it through an 1176 as well. The SM7 to me, if you don’t have a lot of money, that is the microphone to buy, because it’s a drum microphone, a guitar microphone, and a vocal microphone. It’s a lot of microphones [in one]. You can put it on everything. It’s $400, but it’s worth it because it’ll be the only microphone you need if you’re working on a budget. If you can get a Distressor, I believe that is an incredible compressor. Again, for everything; drums, guitars, and vocals. It’s a great compressor to fuck things up. Anyway, I’ll put up four choices, and then I’ll have them sing along to the track. I’ll record them singing and then listen back. I’ll go between microphones, and I’ll close my eyes. I ask my assistant to play it back to me and tell them, “Don’t say what it is.” I listen for the microphone that is telling me the story. Then I go, “That’s the one!” Then I go on the hunt even more. I never use Pro Tools to manipulate. I always get the sound that I want to hear first. After the fact I will go and tweak a little bit, if I need to. But I do all the tweaking on the microphone, moving microphones around, tuning drums, changing guitars, changing amps, and changing vocal mics. Everything. I do all of that.
Do you ever re-amp or sing through an amp going in?
No, not really. I try to get the sound that I want and commit to it. For instance, if I want the bass to have distortion, I’m going to get the sub and keep that guy fat and low, and put that through a Distressor. Then I want my [AKG C]414 to be the main tone, so that’s going to be my clean tone. Let’s put up an [Electro-Voice] RE20, and I want that to be the fuzz. Then I’ll crank the pre on that. Then I will EQ it to get all the crack out, but I’ll fucking fuzz the shit out of that on the mic pre. Don’t get me wrong; there are great plug-ins, but I try not to rely on plug-ins. I want to believe that this is it. I record everything as if it’s going live and this is all we’ve got. Then it’s a bonus after that.
Is there one thing that you know now that you wish you would have known when you were getting started as a producer?
I’m one of those people who have convinced myself that I have no regrets. I don’t want to operate that way. I don’t even want my brain or heart to know that’s an option, to be able to look at how Linda today could have affected Linda yesterday. It would be too painful. That’s why I pretend I have no regrets. I feel that it’s too painful to look back at the mistakes that I’ve made that I can see now. As I’m saying this, it’s the very first time this is actually coming out of my mouth. That’s how real I’ll be. I’m very transparent, and for some reason that question is sparking a different answer that I’ve never given before. It’s too painful to think of things like that for me.
Do you put together bands for artists? Or do you have a group of musicians you always use?
In the early days with P!nk, I helped put that band together. I helped put Christina’s band together. I can’t just stop with the production in the studio or the album. I have to follow it out of the studio. I get very involved with the live shows. I’m making sure everybody’s playing the songs right and capturing the vibe and all that. It’s very important. But not many people want that anymore.
That’s amazing. Most people are like, “See ya. Record’s done!”
I’m a control freak. I’m a weirdo.