Nothing in this room gives warning that Linda Perry is about to hurt you. Candles flicker over the familiar Neve 8058 board in her sprawling, newly acquired Toluca Lake studio, Kung Fu Gardens. Perry’s big laugh flashes in the half-moon darkness like an invitation, an enormous charisma piercing the smoke curling off her cigarette. Somehow, the deep introspection common to all studios feels different here, more buoyant, carrying a whiff of affirmation.
But, like just about everything else concerning Linda Perry, this comfortable feeling is a strategy. Because, if she likes you — if you click — she’s going to tear your world apart. She’s not going to scrimshaw her signature on your music like the Neptunes or Timbaland or Glen Ballard. Hell, she’s not even going to listen to your last album. Instead, she’s going to do something terrible: She’s going to become you. And like a body snatcher, she’s going straight into unfamiliar territory to strip out songs you didn’t know you wanted to write, working lightning fast, ‘round the clock if you can do it, and then spit you out the other side, spent, wondering what just happened, probably with a DAT in your hands with a hit song on it.
At least, that’s the way it worked for Pink and the out-of-nowhere hit off Missundaztood that made both her and Perry household names, “Get This Party Started.” And with Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love, and Gwen Stefani — bringing on a flash flood of recent acts aimed her way, from Unwritten Law’s “Save Me” to Kelly Osbourne to Fischerspooner to Sierra Swan to Cheap Trick.
“I’m not a songwriter,” Perry says, in her sharp, impatient purr. “I think my biggest problem with where I’m sitting right now is this ‘songdoctor’ title that I get. I hate it. I don’t like writing songs for people. People have a misconception that’s what I do. That’s just what happens. If you and I are connecting, something is going to happen.”
She reached into Stefani’s head, for instance, and pulled out the hit first single for her eclectic, dance solo album, Love Angel Music Baby. The No Doubt style-kitten was a reluctant partner — Stefani was skittish about Perry’s penchant for mid-tempo ballads and quirky pop with her former band, 4 Non Blondes. When the two did finally get together at Enterprise Studio in Burbank, Stefani was hesitant and uninspired. As the singer gave up that first day, frustrated, Perry was left with a question: What are you waiting for?
By daybreak, Perry had built a song around it. Stefani walked in and pounced. They ad-libbed lyrics for a few hours, then listened to what they had and wrote a new melody. Channeling Stefani as a character gave Perry an idea: She immediately built four different microphone set-ups to produce four distinct sonic personalities, reflecting the singer’s schizoid swings between self-confidence and collapse without the band that had made her famous.
“I put the mics right in a row: the U47, the 251, a 67, and a C12. I labeled them all for her. I said, ‘What you’re going to do is, after every line you’re going to switch to the next mic. So I had all the tracks up, and she’s like: ‘Like a cat in heat, stuck in a moving car’ — switch — ‘A scary conversation, shut my eyes, can’t find the brake.’ She sang the vocal down like that. That’s the exact vocal that’s on the radio, that take.”
This illustrates two points about Perry: 1) she gets the sound through the gear, not by fixing it in ProTools or on the board; and 2) she doesn’t have any standard way of working. She’s the first to admit she doesn’t even know what some of her gear is supposed to do. She doesn’t want to know. She wants to be surprised.
She ran the Telefunken U47 through the Neve 1073 mic preamp and the Teletronics LA2A Compressor/Limiter. The Neumann U67 also went through the 1073, her favorite pre, and through a Fairchild 670 compressor (she owns three of these, plus a couple 666s). The AKG C12 mic went through the 1073 and then through the light touch of the E.A.R. 660 compressor/limiter (“Because it’s such a nicer, pristine little mic, and the E.A.R. is best when you have a real pretty singer,” Perry says). Finally, the Telefunken ELAM-251 ran though an Avalon EQ and an Avalon AD-2044 compressor. She tweaked them, driving the U67’s compression hotter than the U47’s, making them all distinct.
The rest of the song was built around that vocal. Perry did most of it herself, programming the beat on a LinnDrum with a snare sample from her archives, and playing the bass line (she considers herself better on bass than on any other instrument) on the Juno 60 synth. The guitar was her own ’53 gold top Les Paul through an overdriven Fender tube, miked with a Neumann U57, again through the Neve 1073 pre and then through the compressors on Enterprise’s SSL 9000 board. (“I absolutely love the compressors on that 9000,” she says. “I’m trying to find a set pulled out of an old 9000 that I can get in here.”)
Stefani left the studio with not just a demo — but with the actual tracks. Perry wanted Gwen to have them when she worked with Nellee Hooper putting the songs together. Hooper, she says, went on to use most of her material, and gave her no co-production credit. They are still wrangling about this now.
“I’m bitter about that,” she snarls. “Welcome to the production business; you get screwed over here, as well. That’s the first time I let someone have my tracks, and the last. It came down to asking: What did you use of Linda’s? He went, ‘Oh, I used the guitar and a keyboard.’ I listened to the track, and I was like, ‘You’re using my lead vocal, all my background vocals, my rhythm guitar, my keyboards, all my little fluff. You used 75 percent of my tracks, Nellee, what the hell are you talkin’ about?’ So I know better now.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d used the shock of near-telepathic empathy and awe of weird science to get results. When working with Christina Aguilera on the 2002 album, Stripped, she was agonizing over whether or not to give Aguilera one of her most personal songs, “Beautiful.” While putting together a demo, she let Aguilera read the lyrics, memorize the melody, and then gave her one vocal take.
“I just got this feeling, that shiver, and I’m like: This is my take. This is my vocal take,” she recalls. “I had her on the U47 through my 666 Fairchild, through the Pultec EQ.” She called in session players and built the rest of the song around that one take. Aguilera didn’t like the idea, saying she could do it better. After arguing about it for seven months, Aguilera agreed it was gripping and put it on the album. “And if you solo the vocal, you can hear the pages turning!” Perry laughs. The two of them are currently working on new material.
The point is: imperfections and happy accidents rule. Perry’s job, the way she sees it, is to make them happen. To push artists out of their comfort zones, even if it takes a posh, deeply contemplative studio to do it. And this goes for herself, too: At one point, she was writing with Aguilera from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day and then moving to another studio, and from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. unleashing loud, raw rock’n’roll as the self-appointed new guitarist on Courtney Love’s album, America’s Sweetheart.
“We were drunk, we were tired, we were delusional. The demos sound better than the album — sloppy, really rock, like the Faces,” she says.
And yes, despite her protests, Perry does write for other artists. She co-wrote the entire new album for Kelly Osbourne, Sleeping In The Nothing, while the famous “daughter of darkness” was in rehab. Looking for a breakthrough, Perry convinced Osbourne that her pop rock debut, Shut Up, was weak, and this time wed her highly emotional recovery lyrics to a deep ‘80s electro pulse done mostly on electronics. Osbourne was only let out long enough to nail her vocal tracks.
“That’s my job: to make sure that it’s not another Linda Perry production,” Perry affirms. “People are going to start hearing a lot of stuff coming out right now. And you’ll be very shocked, because it’s all so different.”
Okay, but it’s still nice to know some things are sacred. She didn’t mess with Cheap Trick. They came to Kung Fu Gardens, plugged in, and played two songs like they know how to play. “I was so intimidated!” she laughs. “I used to get stoned to Budokan every day!” She couldn’t abandon herself to wild experimentation. “In my mind, I didn’t write something better than ‘Surrender,’” she says wistfully. “How could you write something better than ‘Surrender’?”
LINDA PERRY POST-FACTO
“I tend to favor the older stuff, and not because it’s cooler — it’s just better. It is. That Marshall [a 1971 Marshall JCM 800] sounds way better than that brand new Mesa Boogie, and that’s 1971 and that’s 2005 or 2004. That’s just a great-sounding friggin’ amp. And not because it’s old. They just hand-built these things, and these are manufactured. The Mesa/Boogie — I just don’t get it. I bought one because I wanted to find out what that sound was that I kept hearing on the radio [laughs]. So I bought a Mesa/Boogie, and I went, like, ‘I think it’s a Mesa/Boogie with a Paul Reed Smith.’ And so I put it in there, and I went, ‘There’s that friggin’ sound’ [laughs]! Kids don’t know the difference between a 1971 Marshall and a Line6 Pod. No, they don’t. I use Line6 for, like vocals. I throw vocals through it. Because, when you want that wacked out sound, that’s what I use that for.”
ON 4 NON BLONDES & THE HATRED THEREOF
“I hated the 4 Non Blonde record. And David Tickle would never tell me anything. I’d ask him, ‘Why is the guitar sound so thin?’ ‘Linda, can’t you just go be an artist? I’ll worry about this stuff in here.’ ‘I really don’t like the way that sounds. I feel like there’s just too much — what is that sound? It’s all over the place?’ I didn’t know it was just reverb. I didn’t know. I knew nothing when I made that first record with the band. And he was so unhelpful. And when we got the record, I hated it. It’s like, ‘Ewww. I hate these sounds.’ It sounds too glossy, and that’s not who I was.”
ON THE GENIUS BILL BOTTRELL
“When I got together with Bill, I asked so many friggin’ questions, he finally just grabbed me, sat me down — he had the same board, the 8058 — threw me in front of the board, and said, ‘This is the 1176, this is what I’m putting on the guitars. The Pultech I have in on the bass and on your vocal. The Fairchild, I’m running the stereo bus. You know, the whole mix through. Okay. Here’s your effects sends. Here’s your channel, obviously, here’s your volume. These are your lows. These are your low mids. These are your high mids. And these are your highs. You don’t like a sound? Push this in here, and tweak those until you like it.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, isn’t that wrong? DO you go too far?’ And he’s like, ‘Linda, you tweak it until you hear it. Don’t watch the meters. Don’t listen to the speakers. Just listen to your ear. And if it sounds good to you, then that’s the right way. There’s no right or wrong way about it.’ And from that moment on, I thank him for why I’m here now.”
ON MICS & THE SUPER SLIDE INTO RANDOMNESS
“The fun part, for me, is moving the mics around and changing the mics out. ‘Okay, my kick doesn’t sound right.’ I don’t go and make it sound right on the board. I go out there and move the mic around. And maybe I’m using the wrong mic. So what else can I do? Well, I’ll go into the mic vault, ‘This guy looks kind of sexy.’ So I’ll tell the guys — ‘Go play random microphones.’ And they’re like, ‘Random microphones?’ ‘Just grab two random microphones, reach in there, and stick ‘em in front of the guitar.’ And either it’ll work or it’ll be the most miserable sound I’ve ever heard in my life.”