While many music industry experts advise aspiring artists to devise long term plans that specify their goals, sometimes it's better to follow your inner muse and intuition than stick with a strategy. That unstructured modus operandi has worked quite well for Linda Perry, whose career has shifted in many unpredictable directions yet almost always delivered successful results. Entering the music industry as a member of the band 4 Non Blondes, Perry has followed a fascinating career path as a solo artist, record label founder, songwriter, and producer.
Perry's career got off to an auspicious start with 4 Non Blondes. The band's 1992 debut album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! included the single "What's Up?" written by Perry, which became a hit in the US, Europe, Israel, and Brazil. However, when the band set out to record its follow-up, Perry felt reluctant to follow their previous formula, despite her record company and bandmates' urging.
"The label and my band wanted us to do the same thing again," says Perry. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something that was like Dark Side of the Moon. The band freaked out, so I left and looked for other things to do. I felt like I didn't earn my success. I felt like I needed to give something back to the community. I started collecting equipment, and then I would find bands that I liked and provide them funds to go in the studio and make demos. I really loved a great band called Stone Fox, and I offered to pay for their record if they would let me produce it. That was my first real production. I loved tweaking sounds and getting people to see their music in a different way and take a different approach."
"We've been Guitar Center diehards since Day One," adds Farrell. "Every day young kids walk out of here with new equipment. You never know which one of those kids is going to make music for the rest of the world to love, remember, get married to, have children to, and party in the summer to. There may be some kid out there watching us today who is going to be putting his hands in cement 20 years from now. It's really great to have a place like Guitar Center that gives back to the artists and does so much for bands."
Perry didn't have any previous experience as a producer, but she says that having the door shut on her curiosity during previous recording projects provided her with the ambition and motivation to assume that role.
"I asked (producer) David Tickle a lot of questions when we were making the 4 Non Blondes record," she recalls. "He looked at me and said, ‘Can't you just be a singer? You don't need to know any of this stuff.' I understand that producers need performers to focus on the task at hand—I have to get people to focus all the time—but he just shut me out. I was never just a singer. I've always been more than that, and when he said that to me all he did was fuel me."
As impressive as Perry's achievements already were so early in her career (she also started her own record label, Rockstar Records, during this period), she feels that the true pivotal moment occurred while she was recording her 1996 solo album, In Flight. Producer Bill Botrell allowed Perry to explore greater depth as a songwriter and performer on the album, but more importantly he gave Perry the education she had always wanted about engineering and producing music.
"Bill Botrell gave me so much information that I had to sit and process it all," she says. "We'd be recording and I'd point at the compressor and ask, ‘Bill, what's that?' I'd ask him what things do, why things sound certain ways, and why he used particular microphones for my voice. It got to the point where he plopped me in front of the board and explained everything to me. He was so generous with sharing his knowledge. I made an incredible record, and I learned so much through him. The experience—what I went in with and what I came out with—was like college. I went in an imbecile or idiot, and then I came out very poetic and educated. I learned a lot."
Although In Flight was more of a critical success than a commercial one, it gave Perry the confidence to continue to pursue her ambitions both as a performer and producer. She released a second solo album, After Hours, in 1999 and toured in support of the record, but her big breakthrough occurred a few years later in 2001 when she produced and wrote songs for P!nk's M!ssundaztood album.
"P!nk had gotten my phone number," says Perry. "She left me this really long message about how I needed to write a song with her on her new album. I didn't know who she was until I saw her on MTV. I thought she had reached the wrong Linda Perry because I didn't know anything about her style of music. I called her back and told her that, and she asked, ‘is this the Linda Perry that sings "Dear Mr. President" and "What's Up?"' I said yes, and she said that she had the right person. We met up and instantly connected. I had a showcase lined up but I cancelled it so I could work on P!nk's album. I had a good feeling about it, and when I have a feeling it's usually right."
Perry was indeed right, as M!ssundaztood went on to sell 13 million copies worldwide. She produced and composed eight of the album's 14 songs, including the first single "Get The Party Started." The album's phenomenal success finally landed Perry solidly in the producer's chair, and offers to work with Christina Aguilera, Sugababes, and Gwen Stefani soon followed.
"When I first worked as a producer with Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and P!nk, I did the same thing with them that Bill Botrell did with me," Perry explains. "When I tried different microphones with them I'd label the mic so they knew what I was using. Then I'd write out the signal chain, like ‘U47 through a Neve 1073 or 1076 into an LA2A' along with the settings. They wondered why I was doing that, and I told them that I wanted them to know how I captured their vocal tones in case somebody else wanted to know. I would have loved to have that information when I was starting out."
Perry's most successful composition to date, "Beautiful," first appeared on Christina Aguilera's Stripped album released in 2002, but Perry was initially reluctant to give the song, which she considered very personal, to another artist. "That was my song," she says. "I did not write that song for Christina. I thought it was a great song, and I felt that there was something special about it that would be of interest to other people, so I was saving it in case I wanted to make another solo record again."
When Aguilera first came over to Perry's house to discuss working on an album together, Perry played "Beautiful" for her to break the ice. Aguilera asked Perry to write out the lyrics and record a demo for her, but Perry refused. Perry later told her manager about her decision, but her manager convinced her to let Aguilera try the song just to see how it sounded.
"Christina came over and I handed her the words," says Perry. "She had brought a friend along with her and she was really nervous. She sang along with a piano track that I had laid down. When she said, ‘Don't look at me,' I knew the song was hers. She was so vulnerable, and that moment was so real. That's why I kept it on the beginning of the song. What everybody heard on the album was her demo take. You can even hear her flipping though the pages of lyrics. After she recorded her vocals, we laid down the music and went back and punched in a few words she messed up. That was it."
Perry's songwriting process is essentially similar to her career path—she prefers to let things happen naturally instead of trying to force them. "I'm in the moment," she explains. "Sometimes I've written a song by producing it first. I might try out a new bass, guitar, or amp and come up with a cool line accidentally. I'll put a beat to it and all of a sudden I'll record a melody, and there's a song. New gear really inspires me. That's why I have so much of it.
"But normally I sit at the piano or guitar and turn on the microphone," she elaborates. "I put on the headphones and channel my muse. I'll stop and listen and usually the song shows up in the structure. That's why I write better on my own. When I work with someone else the process is more labored and feels like work. That's not why I became a musician in the first place—I don't want my job to feel like work. That's why I don't try to write hits. My intention is just to write a great song. I don't want to know how I wrote a song like ‘Beautiful.' If I knew that it wouldn't be fun to me. A song should just happen. If you're working on a song and it feels like it's not working after five hours, walk away and come back to it another time."
Because Perry doesn't like to analyze her own creative process in detail, she's also reluctant to offer too much advice to contestants of singer or songwriter competitions.
"I don't believe in musical competitions, so I think people just need to go into it without the intention of actually winning," she says. "Just do the best that you can and don't assume or become too obsessed with writing something that you think somebody else would want you to do. You have to stay strong and do what you want to do, even if that means just grabbing some bongos and singing if you think that's the best way to present your song. Stick to your gut feeling. Your own opinion is as valid as anyone else's.
"I could write a song and ask people what they thought of it," she continues, "and they may say that they didn't think it was great because they didn't feel the same emotion. I could have been crying my eyes out the whole time I wrote it, but another person may not feel the same way. But why should I listen to that person when they have no idea what's going on with me? When you enter a contest like this you're already a winner just for having the guts to actually get up there and do it."
The immortal words of Shakespeare—"to thine own self be true"—written for Hamlet more than 500 years ago, still remain sage advice, especially when using Perry's successful career as an example. Whether writing songs, producing artists, or developing new talent (like James Blunt, who she discovered in 2003) she has always listened to her inner voice. And with her label, Custard, and new album, 8 Songs About a Girl, recorded with her band, Deep Dark Robot, that voice is obviously being heard.
"What matters more than anything is what is in your heart," she says. "If you're really going to make it you will find a way to make success happen. You need to be willing to work at it, but if you're meant to make it, you will make it.