Legendary hit-maker Linda Perry: ‘Singers have to earn my songs. I don’t just give them out’

She turned Pink into a global sensation, found Christina Aguilera’s sensitive side – and hit Grammy territory with Dolly Parton. As her extraordinary achievements are finally properly recognised, the ex-Non Blonde relives her battles with a toxic industry that is 98% male

‘I have over 100 hats,” says Linda Perry, who is today wearing a fetching western number with a bandana skimming her cheek tattoos in the style of Captain Jack Sparrow. “I don’t really like hair. I had dreads for a long time, then a mohawk. Now I’m just like, ‘Fuck it. I’m not even gonna attempt to have a hairstyle. This is my hairstyle.’”

But the hats on her head are not the only ones Perry wears. As well as being the writer and producer behind some of the most definitive pop songs of the 2000s – having penned tracks for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Pink, Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love, Alicia Keys and Adele – she is also an artist manager, label head, film soundtracker and queer icon. For a time during the new millennium, it was Perry who singers turned to when they wanted a spiky musical makeover. Many of her early forays into hit-making leaned into rebellious rabble-rousing, with rising stars spouting such pouty lines as “kissing my ass” and “stupid ho”. Most memorable were Pink’s Get the Party Started, Stefani’s solo comeback What You Waiting For? and Love’s Mono.

Musical makeovers … Pink, Courtney Love and Solange Knowles.
Spiky musical makeovers … Pink, Courtney Love and Solange Knowles. Composite: Reuters/Getty Images/Rex

Perhaps they gravitated not just to Perry’s hooks but to her sense of freedom amid a rigid label machine that was manufacturing new artists by the second. By the new millennium, she’d already been in 4 Non Blondes, the all-out lesbian US rock band for whom she wrote the 1993 megahit What’s Up. Despite their success, they were vehemently anti-commercial and seemed ahead of their time, but Perry dismisses any such notion now. “I don’t think there’s anything radical or progressive about my band,” she says. “We sold 7m records.”

Still – during the Aids crisis and the rampant homophobia that came with it, as well as flaring tensions over abortion rights in the wake of the conservative Reagan era – Perry played a guitar on which she had taped the words “dyke” and “choice”. She says the producers of David Letterman’s chatshow once told her to remove them. “I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable,” she says. “I believe in being queer and I believe in us having choice because at that time – another time, in the 90s – we were fighting for abortion rights. So that was my statement: dyke and choice.” Besides, she says later, “I don’t give a fuck what people think.”

Perry, 57, is on a video call from her studio in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. It’s noticeably light-filled, which helps her to keep regular hours so she can spend time with Rhodes, her son with ex-wife and actor Sara Gilbert. Endless gleaming guitars encircle a recording booth with giant antlers hanging above it. Black and white photos of musical legends line the walls, not a gold disc in sight. It’s here, in this rock’n’roll oasis, that Dolly Parton turned up one day to record. Perry was producing the soundtrack for the Netflix film Dumplin’ and ambitiously rearranged some of Parton’s classic songs, as well as writing originals with the country legend – work that earned Perry her fifth Grammy nomination.

“She called me a weird gal,” says Perry fondly. “And then she said she’s attracted to weird people. I took it as a big compliment.” Parton had “never worked with a woman before, writer or producer” and they became “creative soulmates” who shared a hard-working ethic. “She sang something like seven songs in one day and nailed them.”

Creative soulmates … with Dolly Parton.
‘She nailed seven songs in one day’ … with Dolly Parton. Photograph: Amy Sussman/FilmMagic

Perry says she has to work with artists she likes. She has in the past been critical of singers such as Katy Perry, of whose music she said: “She’s not reinventing the wheel, she’s not giving substance.” To this producer, substance is of the utmost importance. There was another time “with a prominent artist,” she says, “and I did not like her at all. Everything that came out of her mouth was ... she was plagiarising some song, you know, even one of my own and I’m like, ‘If you’re wanting to rip people off, you came to the wrong person.’ So I excused her from the studio.”

Perry will this week be presented with an Inspiration Award from the Music Producers Guild. Back in 2017, an estimated 6% of the UK organisation’s membership, and two awards nominees, were women. Now that percentage has more than doubled, and nominations have reached 13, but the numbers are still glaringly disproportionate. In America, Perry is part of EqualizeHer, an initiative to even out gender disparity across the US music industry, which has similarly grim statistics. “There’s not very many women do what I do,” says Perry. In the US, she adds, “2% of producers are women”.

She had to fight to get behind the mixing desk. During the making of 4 Non Blondes’ one and only album, 1992’s Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, she disagreed with producer David Tickle’s overblown direction. So she started picking up recording tips from the in-house engineer after hours. In the end, it was her version of What’s Up that made the final cut – but she wasn’t allowed a production credit. When Perry quit 4 Non Blondes to go solo, she worked with Bill Bottrell on her debut, 1996’s In Flight. He shared more secrets of the studio. But while her label was keen to shape her into another Sheryl Crow, Perry wanted to write her answer to Dark Side of the Moon. Without the label’s support, it sank.

She spent a few more years in San Francisco, where 4 Non Blondes had met and she had moved to, aged 21, from Massachusetts. Recording local bands for free helped her hone her technique. Then she relocated to LA and, for the hell of it, stocked up on digital equipment to make the sort of pop she was hearing on the radio. She began amassing lyrical cliches and soon had a demo for Get the Party Started. Madonna turned it down. But a week later, Perry got a call from a young singer called Pink, an Aerosmith faithful whose team were trying to prime her for R&B.

Megahit … Perry and her son Rhodes perform What’s? Up during Rock ‘N’ Relief in Los Angeles in March 2021.
Megahit … Perry and her son Rhodes perform What’s? Up during Rock ‘N’ Relief in Los Angeles in March 2021. Photograph: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Perry had thought about relaunching her own solo career. But when she met Pink, she knew she had to put it on hold. She told her aghast manager: “Listen, I got a feeling.” And it paid off. Pink took Get the Party Started to No 4 in America, while Perry went on to co-write a large part of Pink’s second album, Missundaztood. Then she gave one of her intended comeback songs to Christina Aguilera and showed off a different, deeper side. As opposed to the ad-lib olympics Aguilera was known for, Perry wondered: “What does that voice do when it’s coming from pure emotion?”

Beautiful, Aguilera’s 2002 single, was the answer, striking in its simplicity and the poignancy of its message, with a vulnerability that Perry felt was unique for the era. “It stood out because it was a time when pop was ridiculously over-produced,” says Perry. Wasn’t Pink annoyed she’d given it to Aguilera? “It wasn’t for her,” she shoots back. “I don’t just give songs to people. They have to earn them.”

During this period, Perry was prolific, working with Kelly Osbourne, Lisa Marie Presley, Ashlee Simpson, Alicia Keys and – on her debut album – Solange Knowles. Perry also had a unique bird’s eye view of the music industry: a rare woman in the studio at a time when countless performers, from Britney Spears to Kesha, were mercilessly scrutinised or taken advantage of. Perry has said she never experienced sexual harassment herself, but she heard stories from other women. Did she feel a duty of care?

“All I can do is be powerful and strong,” she says. “I try to educate people. Christina, Gwen – I tell them what microphone they’re singing into. I give them the settings. I just try to make sure everybody feels empowered, and that I’m being a responsible producer by making people feel safe when they come to my studio. During that time I worked with a lot of women who had never worked with a woman before. It gave them a sense of ease, knowing I wasn’t going to be hitting on them.”

She continues: “In the past, women have taken that bait to get to where they want to go, because that’s the conditions they were brought into – ‘If you want to be famous, honey, you’re gonna have to suck off some dick.’ In 2002, if they’d had 10 Lindas, we’d be talking a different story.”

More recently, Perry has moved towards film and TV – writing theme music with Bono for Sean Penn’s documentary Citizen Penn. And she wrote and performed her first solo track in years for 2021’s Gen-X doc Kid 90. “In scoring,” she says, “you don’t have to make hits for the radio and you don’t have to follow that many rules.” She is disappointed with the way pop songs are constructed these days. “A lot of music is just put together. They’ve got their ProTools, the guy who does the beats, the topline writer, the friend that comes in to help with melody. There’s a circus of people writing a song.”

Anyone, she says, no matter what their contribution, can be credited as a songwriter. “Even if you were stoned out of your mind, had nothing to do with the track, but came out of your high with, ‘Maybe you should say, uh, “Feels so good to be here now.”’ And then they write that in – that guy is now a songwriter.” She moves over to her piano and glides over the keys. “Rarely is someone sitting down here and going, ‘I’m gonna write a song today.’ There’s no quality. No, scratch that. There’s a lot of quality, but it’s harder to recognise it.”

Occasionally, though, Perry will still be struck by a voice and will stop at nothing to record it, such as the one she once detected in the background of a video call. “I heard Kate Hudson singing and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ I got her number and cold-called her and I’m like, ‘I have a song for you.’” Perry convinced the actor to sing it then started “pestering her” to make an album. “When she was ready, we wrote 25 songs. It’s a fantastic old-school record you would expect the girl from Almost Famous to do.”

It’s a bit like how Perry felt about Pink: determination ignited. “I’m somebody who goes with my gut on all matters,” she says. “And I never look at anything as a failure. Everything is an experience, everything is a risk. When you want things, you’ll do whatever you can to get there. You’ll find a way.”

Well, hats off to that.


Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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