WTF Is Up With Linda Perry?
After nearly two decades as a one-hit wonder and a behind-the-scenes hitmaker, the ex-4 Non Blondes leader wants to get back in the spotlight as an unapologetic guru. Is TV ready?
Linda Perry’s career — 4 Non Blondes frontwoman, songwriter of hits like Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and Pink’s “Get the Party Started,” discoverer of artists like James Blunt — has now entered what you might call the fuck-you phase, an often paradoxical phase characterized by having enough money and enough hits and enough power that you can officially, publicly Not Give A Shit about what anyone thinks about you, while also constantly taking steps to ensure that your Legacy™ is exactly what you want it to be.
Hence my sitting on a very comfortable orange velour sectional in Perry’s perfectly temperature-controlled San Fernando Valley studio on a sweltering July day, surrounded by her very expensive collections of guitars, amps, and drums; a floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcase of color-coded books; three pianos; a Japanese samurai mural; several candles; and burning incense, so we can discuss her upcoming episode of VH1’s Behind the Music and, debuting the same night, her new eight-episode reality series, Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project, a Making the Band-esque show in which Perry produces seven unsigned musical acts (some solo, some band) and, at the end, signs one of them to her independent label, Custard Records.
“I woke up one morning and I was like, It’s time for you to go to TV,” she says, sipping a cup of hot tea. I am drinking filtered water out of a recycled glass bottle, a supply of which is kept by Perry’s studio manager Laura Wilson in the refrigerator. Perry’s voice is low and matter-of-fact, which sort of belies the fact that Perry is tiny — she can’t be more than 5 feet 2 inches in chunky platform clog-boots, and I would be shocked if she weighed more than 95 pounds. She’s got a distinct look: scraggly dark brown hair, today pulled back in a ponytail under a fedora; a striped long-sleeve T-shirt; a bandana tucked into the back pocket of bell-bottom jeans; heavy eyeliner; lots of tattoos, including a teardrop underneath her left eye; and lots of jewelry: hoop earrings, bracelets, necklaces. The overall effect is sort of witchy Dave Navarro.
“So I called up my manager, and she knows this voice of mine, and I get flustered because it’s so random. All of a sudden. There’s no premeditated thoughts, it just shows up. She’s all, what’s wrong? And I’m all, we’re supposed to go to TV now. And she’s all, what? And I’m like, it’s time to go to TV. And she’s like, OK, where’s this coming from? I go, just my gut feeling, it’s time to do it. And so I did it.”
To hear her tell it, everything in Perry’s life has gone this way — she makes a decision based on a sign, or a feeling, and everything that follows from there brings her success, fame, love, money. That’s not to say there hasn’t been hardship, or struggle, but that, as she puts it, “I’m just in tune to myself and what I need from the universe.” And yet, for the last 20 years, she’s been more of a behind-the-scenes player in the music industry than the frontwoman, as she started out.
But when the universe wants her to do things she hadn’t considered before, she’s not going to ignore the signs: “I’m bored in the studio. There’s only so much I can do in here and I’m an Aries. I need to be constantly doing different things. So the idea of TV — it’s not really my thing, but fuck, yeah, sure, I’ll do it. But you know what? If someone said I’m supposed to own a shoe store, or open a restaurant, I’d welcome that as well. And I’d be great at it.”
Perry, who is 49 and in April married The Talk host (and former Roseanne child star) Sara Gilbert, has a Behind the Music-ready narrative: Sexually abused by an older male relative and then physically and psychologically abused by her mother, she escaped to San Francisco in her early twenties and quickly joined the alt-rock band 4 Non Blondes as lead singer and guitarist. Perry then wrote the band’s huge 1993 hit, “What’s Up?,” which has been a staple of karaoke nights and one-hit wonder shows for the last 20 years.
But then, just as the money from “What’s Up?” ran out and Perry was near broke, she got a call from the then-unknown Pink — and it just so happened that Perry had recently written “Get the Party Started.” In the last decade-plus, she’s become one of the music industry’s most influential rock songwriters and producers, writing songs for everyone from Christina Aguilera, Adam Lambert, and Gwen Stefani to Alicia Keys and KT Tunstall — particularly noteworthy in an industry where female songwriters are common but producers are rare. At the same time, her post-4 Non Blondes performing career never really got off the ground; a 1996 solo album, In Flight, tanked, and a more recent collaboration with drummer Tony Tornay called Deep Dark Robot, which released an album in 2011, also failed to make waves. But there was drama behind the scenes: Her friendship and working relationship with Pink dissolved once she started working with Aguilera, whom Pink hated and considered a rival. (Today, Perry says, her friendship with Pink is “a work in progress.”)
And so in that way, Make or Break could be seen — universe or not — as a deliberate move to put herself back in the spotlight. “I’m great at producing people. I’m great at working with people and collaborating. And if my biggest gift of all is that I’m really good at pulling things from people and helping them become better at what they’re doing, I’m here, as I believe all of us are, to be of service,” she says.
She had 18 days to work with the artists, whom she handpicked — “I saw something in all of them that needed someone like me to make me help them” — and who include rock trio Hunter Valentine, emo solo artist Noah Hunt, and sister R&B duo Vanjess — guiding them through the process of writing, recording, and performing songs.
Susan Levison, VH1’s executive vice president of original programming and production, says that Perry was “extremely involved” in the entire process, including casting. “She personally called all her friends — record executives, musicians — and said, ‘I’m looking for musicians to go on my label. Who do you have who might be ready to work with me?’”
Says Perry: “I feel that this show is me being of service to the girl sitting on her couch that’s suicidal and has no other outlet and doesn’t know what to do, and she sees this woman get up there on TV and start talking in a way that’s so honest it starts giving her hope that maybe she can be an artist too, because she doesn’t believe in herself and neither does anybody else. And if that girl gets touched, then I was of service. And if I saved that life or I helped create the next Patti Smith, fuck yeah.”
VH1, says Perry, was great to work with, and she’s characteristically unsubtle about how she feels her show will impact the network. “I’m looking at the bigger picture. This is not about Linda Perry. It’s about music. It’s about other people, other artists, other forms. It’s about fucking rebooting VH1 and getting their fucking asses to play fucking music again. They don’t want to be playing fucking reality shows and that’s it. But that’s what they got locked into because that’s what’s making money.” (Levison: “I think there’s a perception that music has gone away from VH1. That’s an incredibly important aspect of our brand.”) “My goal here is not to have a hit show. It’s to have a hit channel.”
“I would love for Linda to have a bigger role in our music programming,” says Levison. “We’ll have to let it happen. We have a really great relationship with her and respect her from a musical perspective 100%.”
That’s not to say that she never again wants to create something for herself, but the idea does seem a bit overwhelming. “I need a Linda to do to me what I’m doing to those kids in the show,” she says. “I need me to do that to myself. I want to be so giving and collaborative, but my best songs were written on my own. And I haven’t allowed myself that alone time. And when I have a moment, through all this, I would love to write an album, but it would have to be better than [Carole King’s] Tapestry.” She says this completely seriously and without irony.
“That’s a high bar,” I say.
“Extremely. I know,” she says. “Trust me, I fucking know. But it can’t be any less than that, because I just couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t bear it.”
When we talked, Perry said she hadn’t yet watched either Behind the Music or the first episode of Make or Break, and yet she admitted that she knew she had come across as “almost mean” in her reality show. “I want to be perceived, or maybe I perceive myself, as this really easygoing, honest person that’s just giving — realistically, I have those qualities, but I’m very aggressive. I can be very harsh. It comes off almost mean, you know? That was a big one for me to chew.”
And yet, a few minutes later: “I just peel that shit off. The other day I told a girl, before you go out, I would pluck your chin hairs. And she was like, GOD! And I’m like, what? No one’s told you to pluck your chin hairs? Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t see that? It’s not attractive! Pull ‘em!” She seems to love to play the provocateur, the no-bullshit artist who tells it like it is, and yet there’s an element to her — as when she admitted that she didn’t realize she was so “harsh” — that seems almost willfully un-self-aware of how she comes across. I ask her whether she thinks that she gets called out for being direct because of her gender, which leads to a discussion about how men and women relate to each other.
“I am not the kind of person you’re gonna come fuck with, I’m not that girl,” she says. “When I’m walking down the street, you better think twice. I’m the girl that I’m walking down the street in the middle of the night, that fucking guy that’s ready to pounce is gonna think twice about it. Now, unfortunately there’s that girl that’s walking down the street that you know you can fuck with her. Now, that’s not a horrible thing for me to say, that’s an honest thing for me to say. Like when a lot of women have this, like” — here she affects a high-pitched voice — “ohheeeehehahahaohoooo, like attitude, like this like, they play the girl game. Like, ‘I’m just gonna play girly.’ Or they’re kinda naive. Or they’re using their own body to get to the next level. Which, come on. So many women do. I’m tired of that fucking — what are you saying, women can’t be women and get ahead in life? Sure. Women can be women all the time, but check your fucking intention. You’re using those things. So these people, those women, those are the ones that get attacked. Those are the ones that get the job and all of a sudden they’re not getting where they want to go. They get up to this certain level, and then you know, you have this whole thing, in order to get to another level, maybe you’ll have to do a little more. Men wouldn’t fucking know how to do that if women weren’t doing that. Do you understand? Do you understand?”
I don’t quite understand, so I ask: “So this idea — you think women should be more responsible for their actions, for their —” But she cuts me off and says, “Nobody deserves to be beaten, raped, any of that stuff. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just talking about women that go, that use being a woman, as a tool of using what men are being men. You know what I mean? It’s like, yeah. Be responsible.”
She looks me in the eye, as though challenging me to respond. And as we’re sitting there in her studio, which I am suddenly very aware is perfectly soundproof and silent, I almost feel like I can hear her thoughts, and so I can’t help but think that Perry has been playing this game for years, and she knows exactly what she’s saying, she knows that I’m going to quote her saying these things that people might be shocked about and tweet about and even ask her about, in follow-up interviews — “Are you saying…” “Did you mean…” And once again, for however long it lasts, people will be talking about Linda Perry again.
Behind the Music: Linda Perry airs Wednesday, July 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on VH1. Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project airs Wednesday, July 16, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on VH1, with new episodes every week.