September 01, 2003

Linda Perry, High Priestess of Pop

By Jin Moon

PerryHow many songwriters have experienced Courtney Love pounding on their door in the middle of the night? That's just what happened to award-winning songwriter and producer Linda Perry.

"There's nothing more surreal than to have Courtney Love pounding on your door at 2:30 in the morning when you've never met the woman before," Perry says. Love showed up on Perry's doorstep with former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, Perry's friend. Before she knew it, Perry was making plans to work on Love's next album.

Perry has become one of the hottest, most sought-after songwriters and collaborators in pop music today. You literally can't walk down the street without hearing a song she's written or co-written. She worked on many tracks on Pink's acclaimed sophomore album, M!ssundaztood, shaping the pop star's more rocking, introspective and edgier music. She also penned Pink's hugely successful comeback single, "Get the Party Started," marking the first time since her 1992 hit "What's Up?" with 4 Non Blondes that her songs have entered the Billboard charts. Then Perry widened the scope of Christina Aguilera's CD, Stripped, helping the young singer tap into darker recesses with intensely personal, raw songs like "I'm OK" and "Beautiful."

To acknowledge her achievements, Perry was honored at the 2003 ASCAP Pop Awards for writing "Get the Party Started," where she also made a rare live performance of "Beautiful" on piano.

She just wrapped up work on Pink's third album, and is currently collaborating with No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani on a solo effort, as well as lending her songwriting skills to some up-and-coming artists like Sierra Swan, Lillix and Angélique Kidjo.

Perry recently took some time out of her busy studio schedule to talk about her transition from a popular alt-rock frontwoman to a behind-the-scenes collaborator with incredible pop sensibilities.

How did you first get interested in music?

I've been touching instruments since the day I was born. My mother is Brazilian, and she listens to Brazilian music. My father was a musician, and I've seen pictures of him when he was in a band playing guitar and piano. He loved country music, Frank Sinatra and stuff like that. My sister was really into Elvis Presley.

When my brother John started playing guitar, I wanted to be him. I thought, "When I grow up, I want to be like my big brother." So I followed him around a lot. I would go in the garage after his band was done rehearsing and try to mimic what I heard. I played everything by ear. If I heard it, I could play it. So it wasn't like, "Oh, one day I'm gonna be a rock star." Music has always just been there for me. It wasn't that far-fetched for me to think that music was gonna be my life.

Do you remember how old you were when you wrote your first song?

I might have been 16 or 15 when I wrote a real song. I actually had these two particular songs that I remember very well and as a joke sometimes I'll play them just for laughs. One song was called "Pity Girls," and it was about this little gang of girls -- very Go-Go's-inspired. The other song was called "Desperate," and it was about how men treat women like hookers. That's where my head was at when I was 15.

How do you think you've grown as a songwriter and musician over the years?

It's my age and my experiences that make my songs grow. I can't write "Pity Girls" today because I'm 38 years old. Now I'm thinking about world events, love, suicide and other deeper emotions that come through my heart.

I've also become a better musician. The more I play piano, the better I get. The more I play guitar, the better I get. I'm a better programmer. I can come up with beats all day long. I'm a great bass player. In fact, I think I'm best at playing bass. My big fantasy goal right now is to learn the cello. As a musician, I constantly grow because I have to. I can't be stagnant so I try to educate myself to a point -- but not over educate myself. I don't read music. I refuse to learn how to do that. I barely know half the chords I'm playing. I like being naive when it comes to that.

When you're writing music, do the words or the melody come to you first?

In no way am I a spiritual person. I'm not some guru geek. So let me just put that in your head first. When I write a song, it all comes -- the melody, the music and the lyrics -- as a finished song. It's really weird because sometimes I can't touch a piano or guitar or anything for a week. It doesn't want me. And then all of a sudden, I just get that feeling like I have to go to the piano. It's like some little person inside my brain pushed play, and the song is just kind of coming through me. I can't explain it, and I can't believe it. Every single time it happens, it freaks me out.

Some people think I'm crazy for having this logic, but if it takes me more than 15 minutes to come up with a song, I walk away from it. That's the way I work.

What did you first think when Pink asked you to work on her album?

I thought she was nuts to call me up, and I thought that she was calling the wrong person. I'd never heard of her before. So when I called her back, I asked her if she was sure she's got the right number and whether she knew I wasn't hip whatsoever. She was like, "Yes, I've got the right number. I've been looking for you for a long time. And I love that you're not hip and that's why I'm calling you."

I had been doing these rehearsals because I was gonna do a showcase for all these labels. I had written songs that I was really proud of. "Beautiful" was one of them -- it was gonna be my comeback song.

So on one hand, here are the labels waiting for me to show up to do the showcase. And on the other hand, here's this girl who asked me to either write a song with her or sing on her album. I called up my manager and said, "Cancel the showcase. I'm gonna go investigate this girl." There's something here. I have a gut feeling. That gut feeling put me where I am right now.

Do you ever think that you will pursue a solo career yourself in the future?

No. That's the choice I made that day when I was looking at the labels and looking at Pink. I made a conscious decision right then and there that that part of my life was over. So when I need to perform, I'll play my piano by myself. I don't need the same things as I used to. I don't need a bunch of people clapping for me.

Tell me about your collaboration with Courtney Love on her upcoming album.

When Courtney came to me to work with her, I was a bit hesitant. It just seemed like a big job. I felt that the best way to handle the Courtney situation was to enter it as a band member -- play guitar and write songs. So I basically just joined her band for three months, did my job and now I'm not involved anymore.

What was it like working in the studio with Love?

I think at the end of the day, what Courtney wanted to accomplish was a pop album -- a cool one. And so I definitely bring in that element. When I was getting too poppy, she would bring me down, and when she was getting too grungy garage rock, I'd bring her back.

What's it like to work with Gwen Stefani?

Gwen's just fun. We laugh all day long. We're both kind of nerds. We're geeks. We're stupid. And so we get along well in that way. I don't want to talk about the music part because I want her to be able to explain that stuff when she feels it's time to do so. We have a really good time. I'm very inspired by her, and it's just very light, which is nice.

You've now written songs for Pink, Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani and a host of other performers. Is it difficult to give away your songs to other artists?

It is because maybe there's a tiny bit of me that's still hanging onto the possibility that I could make an album. Artists have to prove to me that they are the rightful owner of that song. "Beautiful" was a little hard because that was my comeback song. So when Christina came over to my house to start working, she asked me to play some songs to break the ice. I played "Beautiful" for her, and she comes over by the piano, and she's like, "Can you demo that for me and write the lyrics out? Because I want it." And my heart fell into my stomach. I was just inside myself going, "Wait, wait, hold on! This is my song, and there's so much meaning in this song to me."

I had a long conversation with my manager about it. We both decided to hear Christina sing it. We demoed the song with her singing it, and I was like, "Wow." That rough vocal is what is out there on radio. It was that vocal that got her the song.

What is it like working with young artists like Pink and Christina and watching them grow?

It's definitely emotional. Alecia (Pink) and I have a strong connection, and we ended up being really good friends through this. When you write music and spend so much time with somebody, you develop a relationship with that person and there's a closeness, a bond, a connection -- so I get attached. As an artist, I look out for the artists that I work for. I tend to get very nurturing and motherly with some of the artists. I give them a quick little lesson and some advice.

How did it feel to be recognized by your peers at the ASCAP Pop Awards?

It's definitely a wonderful feeling when you're acknowledged for what you do, and especially because people wrote me off a long time ago as a one hit wonder. That's what you think of somebody who writes a massive hit like "What's Up?" and then they disappear. But I disappeared on purpose. I didn't disappear because I couldn't write a song. I wanted to write underground music and make it dark. I wanted to write Pink Floyd songs. I just wanted to be out of the spotlight. The only thing I could think of is to leave the band that sold six million records and completely change my whole style. I tried to make myself disappear. Ironically, I didn't want to write another pop song again 10 years ago, and look what I'm doing today! I write pop songs for a living right now.

"Get the Party Started" was one of the biggest dance tracks of the year. How did you write it?

It's so unlike me. I went through this weird phase where I just wanted to learn how to program drums. So that's where "Get the Party Started" came from -- because I programmed my first beat, grabbed the bass, and did what the beat was asking me to do. I decided I was gonna put every wrong instrument in this song. I went and got a horn sample. And as I was doing the music, the melody was already coming to me in what I wanted the song to be. I pulled every catch phrase you possibly could imagine. And then I was done with the song, and I just laughed so hard because I couldn't believe I wrote a hit -- a pop electronic song -- and my first dance song.

You create something in your bedroom or your house, and it's just a fun thing that you're doing. Then all of a sudden, you hear that song that you started in your house, and it's on the radio. And people are now acknowledging it. It's just trippy. What a life. What a gift. What a wonderful thing. I wish everybody could experience that because it's pretty fantastic.