MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to Linda Perry – one of the most talented pop/rock songwriters in living memory, and a woman who is not afraid of a curse word. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
Linda Perry believes that if you ask the universe for something, it will deliver. If she’s right, and she gets what she’s currently asking for, a significant proportion of you should probably watch out.
Because what she wants, what she believes is essential (with something approaching righteous fury) is nothing sort of a revolution – creative and commercial.
She says: “We need people to step up and start being fucking punk rock. We need to show the way, because right now we need our Carole Kings, we need our Patti Smiths, we need our Velvet Undergrounds.
“We need our revolution right the fuck now. It’s time to wake up and stop following the game plan based around what you’re hearing on the radio and seeing on YouTube, or wherever you’re getting your shit from, and start asking for more.
“Start being your true self. Until then, we don’t stand a fucking chance.”
Perry gives two examples of having previously asked and received from the universe: first, to become a rock star… and then to become a different kind of rock star.
You can argue she has some evidence for her cosmic claim – i.e. the results. You can also argue it’s more about talent, tenacity and Perry herself than some sort of ethereal Amazon. Either way, they both happened.
First time round, the ‘becoming a rock star bit’, after an unconventional adolescence informed by punk rock and acid, Perry was the lead singer and main writer for 4 Non Blondes. The group burned bright and briefly in the early ‘90s with their only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More (worldwide sales of over six million) – and most memorably with the global hit single, What’s Up. (1993)
Then, having quit the band (“I knew very early on I needed to jump off that path “), she became a spotlight-swerving songwriter and producer behind career defining songs and albums for artists including Pink and Christina Aguilera, who recorded one of the great pop ballads of the last two decades, Beautiful . (Perry has also written for and with artists including Adele, Alicia Keys and Courtney Love.)
More recently, whilst still writing and producing, Perry has become more involved with the business side of music, creating publisher/label/management company, We Are Hear, and last month announced a global publishing deal with peermusic.
This is all part of a process which Perry sees more as assembling the troops than forging alliances. Because battle is about to commence.
“Listen, there’s a fucking train coming and it’s gonna have Linda Perry written all the fuck over it,” she says. “I’m going to show up in 2019 in many, many forms. You’re going to have to read the credits because you’re going to see me all over the place; me and my partner [Kerry Brown], we’re going to fucking shake some shit up in this business, because it’s due; it’s time for a wake up call.”
This high speed and fully armed locomotive on a collision course with 2019 (and, quite possibly, with you), started slowly, though, way back in the ‘70s, with a young Perry charmed by Disney and Julie Andrews…
What music do you first remember hearing and loving?
I really loved musicals: The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, all those Disney films, Jungle Book, things like that.
My sister was into Elvis Presley and The Beach Boys, my brothers loved The Beatles and The Turtles, and I listened to that growing up. But if I was going to choose anything myself at that time, I would always gravitate towards musicals.
When did your rebellious period kick in?
When I was maybe 14/15 I started discovering… life. I’m a very ‘street’ person. I didn’t make it through High School. I grew up pretty rough and was heavily into the whole punk rock scene. But, at the same time as I had a safety pin in my face, I listened to The Carpenters. So my friends would make fun of me a little bit.
I loved a lot of [punk] music, but, emotionally and lyrically, it was one-dimensional. When you’re slam-dancing in the mosh-pit, there’s only one emotion going through your mind: you’re angry, you’re full of adrenalin.
“I dropped so much acid.”
I come from San Diego and we had a very heavy-duty punk scene down there.
We took over an area of a park, we would sleep down there, there were all the drugs we wanted. I dropped so much acid.
What was going on in your life at that point, and did it involve music?
As much as I loved music, I didn’t think it would be what I would do, because it was like brushing my teeth, or getting dressed, it was something that was part of daily life. I didn’t think a musician was something you grew up to become, it was just something you were.
We were on welfare. I’d left home when I was 15, I’d go back, I’d leave again. I didn’t like relying on my mom. I was very independent.
I lived in the park, I hung out with my punk friends, we squatted, I slept in cars. I really lived life. And I had fun!
“My bottom lip was practically detached from my face.”
At 18, I fell off this building when I was on acid. It was pretty bad. I broke my collarbone, my bottom lip was practically detached from my face. And, right then and there, I changed everything.
I stopped doing drugs, I cut my mohawk off, it was a whole life change. I said, Okay, I’m going to become a responsible person now.
But it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco, when I was 21, that I realised – Oh, I’m gonna be a rock star.
I had been in punk bands when I was a teenager, but no-one thought I could sing, they thought my voice was too weird, so I kept getting kicked out of bands.
But at 21, in San Francisco, it just hit me: Oh yeah, right, I’m gonna be a rock star. And at 25, I became a rock star.
What was it, at 21, in San Francisco that made you think that way?
I wrote this song called Down On Your Face – and one day I should re-visit it, because it’s such a powerful song. I wrote it for a brother who I didn’t really know, who was abusive to me.
He kind of showed up later, he was from Brazil, we didn’t really know him, but he was my mom’s son from Brazil – and he wasn’t a nice brother at all. So I wrote a song that basically said, Fuck you, you screwed me up.
Also, my voice was almost like French pop, very whispery, very Charlotte Gainsbourg, but when I moved to San Francisco and wrote this song, all of a sudden my big voice showed up.
That was the pivotal point: writing that song and finding my voice. It was like, Holy shit, where the fuck did this come from?! And then the stories and the songs started showing up.
So, you’ve decided you’re going to be a rock star; how did you set about making that happen?
It was 1987 when I moved to San Francisco, then in 1991 we got signed and 1992 I had a hit on the radio. So it was pretty fast.
Listen man, I believe in the universe, I believe in the energy that’s rightfully ours, I believe what we ask for, the universe will give us. So I made a conscious decision to ask to be a rock star and the universe gave it to me.
When you say ‘we’, you mean 4 Non Blondes, of course. Can you explain how that came together?
Yeah, so I started writing a bunch of songs, showing up at clubs and asking if I could play between sets. People just laughed at me. But, finally, I’d left my number at this club called The Night Break in Upper Haight Street, and this guy called me and said he had a situation: a band had cancelled and he needed someone up on stage in the next 45 minutes. I’m there! I’m your girl!
I got there, I got up on stage and I blew everybody away, they loved me. So he started calling me regularly and started passing my name around. So I’m playing more and more clubs – but with just an acoustic, I was everybody’s dream. I started getting kind of a big name in the city.
“I got up on stage and I blew everybody away.”
Then this band came to me and said, We love the way you sing, will you come and check us out and join our band? I said, Well, I’m doing pretty good on my own, y’know. But I checked them out, and I thought it was fun, so I said, I tell you what, I’ll sing with you guys for fun, but I’m not bringing in any of my material, that’s for my solo career. So that’s kind of what I did, I sang their songs. And they were okay, like country punk, it was kind of interesting. I got drunk and had fun.
Then one day I decided to merge the two halves, I brought my songs in, including What’s Up, we had rehearsals, we started playing shows and pretty quickly we got signed [by Interscope] in 1991, and in 1992 we blew up.
Was there any tension when you brought your songs into the mix and it became clear that these were the songs that were going to be on that first record?
I think the guitar player [Shaunna Hall] was kind of bummed out, because she had been writing all the songs, but the bass player and the drummer [Christa Hillhouse and Wanda Day] didn’t really care.
We lost Wanda, because she was a total heroin addict, and replaced her with Dawn Richardson. And then the guitarist started pulling shit in the studio and we got rid of her, because she was being very difficult.
We were just trying to make a record and she wasn’t going along with it. So we finished the record [Bigger, Better, Faster, More! ] without her and brought a session guitarist, Roger Rocha, who played some of the lead stuff that I couldn’t do, and that was the band that ended up touring that record.
Was that an enjoyable time?
Shit happens, man. I’ll tell you something, 4 Non Blondes was great, it was a wonderful experience to have, but I was on a different journey and I feel like I should never have joined, because I was going to make it with or without 4 Non Blondes. I was already destined; I was already starting to blow up.
I don’t live in regret, I never have, but I knew very early on that I needed to jump off that path. I’m a girl who finds solutions to problems. I don’t stay in problems.
I didn’t like the way the band treated me, because I was talented and writing songs, but they were making me feel bad about that.
They wanted credit on songs that I was writing. I said, Hey guys, listen, I’m gonna give you guys some money from the royalties, but there is no fucking way are you getting credits for songs that I’m writing. That’s not going to happen, get that out of your thoughts, because when all this fails, when all this goes down the shithole, these songs are going to be my legacy, and there’s no fucking way I’m sharing that shit with you.
“These songs are going to be my legacy, and there’s no fucking way I’m sharing that shit with you.”
They weren’t happy with that, and they came at me again when we were making the second record, and so then I left. I also didn’t want to take the safe route, and write another album that was going to ride the coattails of our first album.
Interscope kept me, and that was a bummer, because I thought if I left [the group] they’d let me go – but that didn’t happen. So I got stuck with this label that wanted me to write What’s Up parts 2, 3 and 4.
I said, Fuck you, I’m not going to do that and I’m never going to do that. Let’s be clear, you’re never going to get a song like that from me ever again. And then they dropped me. And I was like, Fuck yeah!
And honestly, I’m still that way, I still piss people off, I still hold true to my beliefs.
When I was free [of a label], I decided I didn’t want to be that type of rock star, I wanted to be behind the scenes, where I can do what the fuck I want. If I want to write a country song, I’ll write a country song. If I want to write a disco song, a soul song, a polka song, whatever fucking song I wanna write, I’ll write it and I’ll find an outlet. And what that meant was becoming a producer and a songwriter.
Was there any part of you that found it hard to let go of being the person out front, in the spotlight?
Never. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like it.
You know what I like? I like respect. I like you talking to me about how awesome I am. I like when I’m going to be 72-74, somewhere around there, I’m going to get a lifetime achievement award and I’m gonna have a lot of fucking respect. And I’m going to have respect because I did what I said I was going to do and I kept my integrity. That is what I want.
I want a group of people to sit in a room and applaud me for staying true to my beliefs.
You talk about doing what you say you’re going to do, which you did when you said you were going to be a rock star. So how did you go about doing it again when you said you were going to be a different kind of rock star?
Well, again, I put it out there in the universe and it came to me. I started listening to the radio – and I never listen to the radio – listening to what was going on, and we’re talking about 2000 now. I asked a friend of mine, what’s the sound at the moment, and he starts talking about MPC drum machines, Trident keyboards, blah blah blah. So, having previously always been analogue, I go out and buy all this digital equipment and I start having fun with it, exploring what it can do. I’m creating beats, I’m writing bass lines, I’m putting some real guitar in there, some fake horns in there.
And then I sit there and say, Okay, I’m going to think of every cliché out there and I’m going to sing it. And Get The Party Started is what I wrote.
“She reminded me of me.”
It just came out of nowhere. I call up my manager, I play it to her and she says, What’s that? I say, well I just wrote a fucking dance hit, and now we need to go and find someone who can sing it, because it sure fucking ain’t gonna be me.
Two weeks later I get this crazy phone call from some girl named P!nk. In fact she left a voicemail: Linda Perry, I’m looking for you, I’m gonna come find you, I want you to write a song with me.
I look her up, I see this girl with pink hair singing R&B music so I call her back and say, I think you got the wrong Linda Perry.
Anyway, we meet and she and I instantly click. She reminded me of me. I sent her Get The Party Started, she loved it and we started writing together. We wrote like 15 songs in eight days and that became the bulk of her album [M!ssundaztood, 2001, 13m+ sales to date].
After that success with P!nk, was the phone ringing pretty much constantly?
Well, before the record was even out, I met Christina Aguilera. I’d actually met her a couple of times, but then I was out one night, at a club – which I never do – and she was sitting there all by herself.
So I walked up to her, past the bodyguard, and she had just heard the stuff I’d been doing with P!nk, because Dallas Austin [co-producer of M!ssundaztood and co-writer of four tracks] had been playing her the record and showing off. But his big mistake was, he played her my stuff too. And she says, Wow, who’s that? He’s like, Oh, Linda Perry did that. Who did that one? Linda Perry. That one? Linda Perry. All the songs she liked were the ones I did.
“What did you say to Christina? she’s still watching you and her mouth has dropped on the floor.”
When I ran into her, she said she’d heard some of the P!nk stuff and she really loved it. I said, Cool, thanks, and I asked her if she was making a record. She said she was, and then all I said to her before I walked off was, If I were you, I would use that darkness that you have, that depression. Because, listen, the world knows that Christina Aguilera can sing; the problem is, no-one believes what you’re singing. Have a great night.
When I got back, my friend asked me, What did you say to Christina? I said, Nothing much, why? He said, Because she’s still watching you and her mouth has dropped on the floor.
A week later, I got a phone call from her people and she wanted to meet with me.
Had you already written Beautiful by then?
I had just written it. And what happened was, she came to my house and she wanted me to break the ice by singing something, so I played her Beautiful. And she instantly asked me to demo it and write out the lyrics.
I was shocked and thrown off, because I didn’t think someone like her could sing that song. I believed that song because that’s how I truly felt, like an ugly person trying to find my beauty. But she is a beautiful person, and then it made sense to me: she doesn’t feel beautiful inside.
It’s interesting, my biggest successes were songs that I wrote [alone] without the artist. There were many years when I didn’t write many big songs, because I was writing with people, and I found that really hard.
I had a long dry spell of not having hits, because I was trying to explore what it was to write a song with people and still keep the emotion. Because my emotions are true, but most people’s are not. They’re trying to write songs to be emotional; I write songs because I am emotional.
How do you feel now about the pros and cons of writing alone vs collaboration – and about that ‘dry spell’?
I have a whole slew of fucking hits, it’s just the artist and the label didn’t think so.
I actually one day want to release all these songs, because they are hits, and I knew they were hits, they were just risky hits, not the obvious ones. And one day I’ll get permission from everyone, I’ll release them and I’ll call them the Shoulda Beens.
The music business is fucking scared, it runs on fear, and you can’t run anything on fear, that’s why we are where we are right now: you’ve got a bunch of scared artists who are making dumb albums and singing stupid songs. Are they getting streams? Sure, but that doesn’t mean jack shit. I don’t give a fuck about your goddam stupid numbers, because that is fake news. That is not real, but for some reason labels run around thinking it is.
“I don’t give a fuck about your goddam stupid streaming numbers, because that is fake news.”
Labels are like a bunch of Trumps, sitting on their made-up bullshit, thinking this is the way it is because they say so. But it’s not. And one day the artists are going to wake up and realise they got Trumped. They didn’t do what the label told them to do, so the label takes it out on them, and holds them in captivity until they do what they tell them to do.
Listen, there’s a fucking train coming and it’s gonna have Linda Perry written all the fuck over it. And it’s going to come in many forms. I’m going to show up in 2019 in many, many forms. You’re going to have to read the credits because you’re going to see me all over the place; me and my partner [Kerry Brown], we’re going to fucking shake some shit up in this business, because it’s due, it’s time for a wake up call.
It’s about songwriters stepping up and raising the goddam bar; it’s about artists taking the power and saying, Fuck you to the fucking labels. It’s about all of us joining together and putting this business back to where it’s supposed to be, because it’s about songwriting, it’s about empowering and it’s about listening to everybody.
Is the main vehicle for that your company, We Are Hear?
Yes, we’ve been together for two years now, working on some really great stuff, and by 2019 everybody will know about it. We’ve been planting the seeds, getting everything ready, but by next year it will be really clear what we’re doing.
We Are Hear is a publisher, a record label and a management company – and a bunch of other things.
We’ve just done a JV with peermusic, and we love peer because peer is all about the songs, all about the songwriters, all about family and all about putting out good quality. They’re a big independent and we feel that with them we can start a rumble.
“The airwaves are crowded with crap, the digital space is full of shit as well.”
I’ve said to them, If you have songwriters that you believe in, but they’re not quite getting there, call me. I’ll go in, I’ll sit with them and I’ll help get them there. Because sometimes it’s hard, it’s hard to understand what you’re supposed to do.
The airwaves are crowded with crap, the digital space is full of shit as well. It’s hard when you have people saying, This is what you should be doing, because this is what’s popular on the radio and this is what’s getting big streaming numbers. You get confused.
And when something is hard for you, it’s because you’re not doing the right thing, you’re not doing what you’re truly meant to do. You’ve got a bunch of kids who really want to be writing like Carole King, but instead they’re writing like Ariana Grande.
So what’s the answer?
The job right now is to get everybody on the same team. We’ve got to get the publishing companies on the same team, we’ve got to get the industry on the same team, and the artists on the same team. We’ve got to create an environment that allows these kids to grow up as their true selves.
It’s gonna be hostile takeover. Remember when Warrant and Poison and Ratt were like No.1, all over the place, taking over MTV with their really bad, cheesy music?
What happened was that Billboard stopped letting record companies buy their acts into the charts – they were paying $100k to put Warrant at number one. And then everyone said, No more, you can’t buy SoundScan anymore.
“All those [famous] girls are buying their 20 or 30 million fucking followers [on social media], that stuff’s all bought, it’s not even true.”
And who showed up at No.1? Garth Brooks. And everyone was going, Who the fuck is Garth Brooks? It wasn’t Nirvana, it was Garth Brooks, this country artist who was selling millions of records and had millions of fans, and he was No.1 because he was really selling records. And then Nirvana showed up and blew everything out of the water, and it became all about indie labels and anti-establishment.
This is what’s about to happen. Because all those [famous] girls are buying their 20 or 30 million fucking followers [on social media], that stuff’s all bought, it’s not even true. And the Spotify streams, that is not true; that is people putting campaigns together and buying their way onto those playlists.
There are great things that Spotify are doing and there are great things that Apple Music are doing, and there are real numbers are out there to get, but they’re not the ones that people are exploiting.
Where do the major labels fit into this post-revolution landscape?
Well, as always, what will probably happen is that there will be a slew of my type of companies coming out, doing it all, and some will stay true to themselves, and then you’ll get the handful that can’t stay true to themselves. And the labels, after scratching their balls, trying to figure out what they can do – which is what they’re doing right now – they’ll go and buy up those ‘cool indies’ who want to sell out, and the whole cycle starts again.
Now, I can tell you, hands down, that that will never happen on my watch. Our label will always stay true. I feel confident to say this and that it will never come back to bite me in the ass, because I know who I am and I know who my partner is. That will never happen. We’re going to be fine. We’re not gonna need anyone else’s money to carry on.
“It’s time to wake up and stop following the game plan based around what you’re hearing on the radio and seeing on YouTube, or wherever you’re getting your shit from, and start doing more and asking for more.”
All the stuff I’m talking about, all the bullshit that’s saying nothing, it’s happening in a time when we need people to step up and start being fucking punk rock. We need to show the way, because right now we need our Carole Kings, we need our Patti Smiths, we need our Velvet Undergrounds. We need our revolution right the fuck now.
It’s time to wake up and stop following the game plan based around what you’re hearing on the radio and seeing on YouTube, or wherever you’re getting your shit from, and start doing more and asking for more. Start being your true self. Until then, we don’t stand a fucking chance.
Be confident, step into your power; that’s all I’ve got to say.
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