Blending the tried-and-true and the unorthodox is her hit-making secret

By Michael Gallant

“If you want to make music that’s safe, something that’s been done before, I’m not that person,” says Linda Perry. “If you want to go edgier, get heavier and dig deeper, I’m your guy.”

After gaining recognition as the charismatic lead singer and chief songwriter for ’90s rock band 4 Non Blondes, Perry has built a singular hit-making career by digging deeper with Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Celine Dion, Pink, Courtney Love, Alicia Keys and many more. As an entrepreneur and label executive, Perry signed U.K. artist James Blunt. Most recently, Perry’s mentoring skills have been on display in VH1’s Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project.

“The show is about how I am in the studio,” says Perry, who works with a group of young artists, putting them through a variety of challenging tasks, and signing one or more to her label at the series’ end. “I like having an experience when I work with people,” she says, “and I work by digging into people’s emotions.” Perry’s quest for emotional depth laid the groundwork for the show. “I guess people have heard from artists I’ve worked with how interesting our process together can be, how it can feel like a therapy session. I opened my mouth and didn’t shut it for 18 days. They filmed every single thing that happened.”

Though Perry may come across as an unorthodox master of the studio, she describes her production philosophy as old-school. She’s a sonic craftsperson who draws inspiration from the works of T Bone Burnett and Bob Ezrin, and will spend hours chasing the perfect snare sound for any given song.

“I engineer all my projects but I’m not a meter-reader,” the Grammy winner says with a laugh. “I turn knobs until it sounds good. Bill Bottrell was a mentor in that area. He taught me that even if something’s in the red, if it sounds good to you, go with it. Those sorts of choices are what make you a unique producer—and I’ve carried that idea with me in everything I do.”

What do you look for in artists?

If I’m going to work with you, I have to meet you and be with you. You don’t just call me and order up a song. What I look for is integrity and good intention. I’m looking for people who I can believe when they’re sitting in front of a piano or playing acoustic guitar. You better be prepared to sing and play a song from start to finish. It’s a silly thing to have to say, but a lot of the biggest artists can’t actually play their songs top to bottom, or break their songs down to acoustic. The song is what makes everything, so focus on writing a great song, and worry about the production after that.

So the song dictates the production.

Production is the last thing I think about. A lot of times, people come in with production on their minds and already know what kind of drum sounds they want, what mics to use, that they want a Telecaster with a slight reverb and light compression—all this stuff, but there’s no material actually written. How can you have a record mixed and mastered when there’s no song to begin with? I need to write a song first before I can even contemplate production.


Christina Aguilera wanted to sing “Beautiful,” which I’d written, but I didn’t know if she was the right person for the song. I’d recorded the piano part really quickly. I put a Neumann U 47 up for Christina, since that’s my microphone and I love it, and made sure that I was dialed in. Especially when you’re working on new songs, you have to get every vocal take. You may never get back that emotional intensity your first time through. I always record vocals like they’re going to be the vocals.

How’d it go?

We were both in the same room and she had a friend come in with her. I hit record and she looked at her friend and whispered, “Don’t look at me,” because she was nervous. There was something about it that was so vulnerable. It showed me this girl who I thought was so confident and on top of the world had a dark side. I knew right there that the song was going to be hers. Sure enough, she nailed that vocal.

That’s her rough vocal?

You can hear paper with the lyrics rustling in her hands. The only thing I rerecorded was the bridge. Everything else was straight from the demo recording. It was so magical and vulnerable. She wanted to redo it, and for seven months she fought me on it. One day, I let her take a stab at re-singing the verse, but by the third line, I just stopped. We were nowhere close to the power of what we already had.

Do you always write when you produce?

I have produced some songs that I haven’t written, but that’s not really the experience most want to have—everybody wants the songwriting and production together. Sometimes I’m just asked to write, but then the demo I produce often ends up being used on the final release.

When did that happen?

The song “What You Waiting For?” with Gwen Stefani is one. The producer who worked on it added some sounds, but I think 70 percent of the song came from my demo. We recorded her vocals in such a cool, unique way. They couldn’t beat that.

How did you do her vocals?

Gwen wanted to have all different types of vocal melodies, and we wanted each melody to have a different character, so I put four different microphones in front of her. She sang the song live, switching from mic to mic as we went, and each one was going through a different compressor, so they all had completely different sounds. She sang the different parts into each microphone in one take. It gave the song this great sonic character, but it still had a flow because we didn’t lose energy by having to punch-in or stop and start.

Productions you’re especially proud of?

Sleeping in the Nothing by Kelly Osbourne. I was supposed to begin an album with her but I got a call saying, “Kelly is in rehab. You’re going to have to start the album without her. When she can, she’ll show up.” (laughs) How do I start an album without the artist? I was perplexed.

What did you do?

I came up with the idea of a cool ’80s album. I bought a Jackson guitar with black-and-orange tiger stripes, a Framus amp, a Roland Juno-60 synth, and Roland V-Drums, because I wanted to get an authentic sound and play the part full-on. I started writing and recording, one song after another, playing everything. Three weeks later, I had this whole album, all done. Then I get the call that Kelly’s ready to come and listen. I thought, “What if she hates everything?”

Did she?

She said it was exactly what she wanted, which was a big relief. I loved having her in the studio. We changed some lyrics, she sang the songs and just nailed it. One of the songs hit No. 1 on the dance charts and I thought it was going to be huge—and just when they were getting ready to do the big push, Kelly went back to rehab. I was so bummed. The record just fell off the planet. I still love that project and I love Kelly. It’ll always be one of my favorites to listen to, because the intention was so pure and sweet.

What was it like producing Celine?

Never in a million years did I think I would work with Celine Dion, but I was approached about writing a song for her. I went to Vegas to see her show, and it was exactly what you would expect—Celine Dion singing in Las Vegas. But that woman has so much passion. I was fascinated through the whole thing. She gave every note 100 percent. When I went backstage to meet her, she was pumped. She’s a true entertainer. But it was weird—the whole time she was talking, I kept seeing this other story.

How so?

I ended up writing a song called “My Love” about this person who doesn’t know if the people around her actually see her and care about her. If you are in Celine’s presence, you feel gifted to be around such energy, so the idea of the song was to ask, “If I’m giving everything I have to you, will you do the same for me?” It’s a sad song but it’s really beautiful. I produced it using Bigelf, a prog rock band that I signed to my label. I knew that if I got typical bubblehead session players, it was going to come out with no edge and sound like a generic ballad. I’m cheesy, but I have to put some hot sauce on my cheese.

How did she react?

She was so moved by the song. My whole goal was to get her in touch with her real emotion. She’s such a giving, honest, beautiful and talented woman. She’s never going to do a Patti Smith song—but that’s not where her gift lies. She does it because she believes in it. That’s what makes her a success.

Advice for aspiring producers?

Start from scratch. Go to a club, discover a band, and offer to produce a couple demos for free. You have to be open to working on your craft. There’s always learning and sacrifice involved. You can’t just go into Pro Tools, cut and paste something so it sounds like what’s on the radio, and say, “This is what everybody else is doing!” You have to explore and think about what’s going to be happening five years from now.


comment closed

Copyright © 2015 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·