The Non Blonde

07.16.14

Can Linda Perry Save Music?

A long, unfiltered conversation with the prolific songwriter about the depressing state of the music industry and her bold new VH1 talent search, ‘The Linda Perry Project.’

Turn on the radio right now. It’s likely you’ll hear the current No. 1 song, in which Australian rapper Iggy Azalea spits verses about being “Fancy.” Or maybe you’re tuning in just in time to hear, as they kids say, the “beat drop” on DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.”

If you’re really lucky, though, you’ll be treated to the poetry of Jason Derulo’s current summer hit: “You know what to do with that big fat butt: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.”

So when, in the opening moments of her new VH1 reality series Make or Break:The Linda Perry Project, esteemed songwriter Linda Perry erupts in a mad-as-hell wail, “There’s no emotion in music anymore!,” you don’t just understand, you feel her pain.

Now Perry—famous for fronting the ’90s band 4 Non Blondes and more famous for resuscitating the careers of Christina Aguilera, P!nk, and a slew of other artists from behind the scenes—is not going to take anymore. She’s hell-bent on saving the music, to bring the feeling back to it. And she’s desperate enough to do it through the last medium anyone who has followed her career might have expected: on a reality TV show.

The Linda Perry Project, which premieres Wednesday night on VH1, is both Perry’s middle finger and love letter to the music industry. A talent search for undiscovered artists with a passion for creating honest-to-god, pierce-the-heart, emotional music, the series chronicles her sessions with these unknowns as she decides which of them, if any, she will sign to her record label. She’s searching for the opposite of what’s selling today, because she believes deep down—and has proven time and again herself with her own music—that it actually could.

“I worry. I haven’t written a ‘Beautiful’ in a long time. When are people going to catch on to that? You’re a loser. You lost. And I have to snap out of it. You’re fine, Linda.”

“I want to show people my interpretation of what creating music is, and this is where it comes from, the heart,” Perry tells me over lunch in Manhattan. “I’ve been trying to show that with my music, but I wasn’t getting through.” Fed up with how the most popular reality shows commercialized and commoditized the creation of music, she decided it was time for her to put her money where her mouth was and slap her own process on screen.

“I’m going to join the fucking factory,” she says. “But I’m going to do it Linda Perry-style.”

“Linda Perry-style,” of course, carries with it a history and a very specific connotation.

She’s rarely seen without her cropped leather jacket, fedora hat, and weathered—but always confident—swagger. It’s an image that, when combined with her notorious lack of filter, is both liberating and stress-inducing. The same conviction to keeping emotions accessible and at the surface that is responsible for the creation of “Beautiful,” her Grammy-nominated hit with Christina Aguilera; Missundaztood, the album that turned P!nk into a respected artist; and “What You Waiting For?,” the song that launched Gwen Stefani’s solo career, is the same quality that pushes so many buttons, scares so many people, and, quite frankly, pisses a lot of people off. 

“Linda Perry is raw, she’s real and she intimidates a lot of grown men,” Christina Aguilera once said about her. “For your childhood idol to be in front of you making you feel understood for the first time in your life, I can’t even explain how that feels,” said Pink, discussing her collaboration with Linda in her Behind the Music episode.

So, for example, on The Linda Perry Project, in one scene she can be seen berating a terrified young artist until they finally buck up and have the emotional breakthrough she demands, and in another she’s weeping because she wonders if she was too hard on someone. She may be tough, but she has a giant heart.

She also has a lot of opinions on the state of music today, what needs to change about it, and what she can do to fix it. So when given the opportunity to pick her brain about it, you’re wise to seize it.

In the first episode of the show, one of your first lines is that, “There’s no emotion in music anymore.” That’s a bold statement.

I feel that when I listen to music—not that it’s bad—it’s not emotional. It has a gimmick to it. It’s selling something: the artist, the producer, something. The emotional capacity is very small, for the listener as well. We, the listeners, aren’t asking for a lot. We have really lowered the bar. Could you imagine not asking emotion of Neil Young? Or Fleetwood Mac, or Patti Smith? But the reality is that they’re not here. Patti Smith doesn’t exist in this generation, so the bar has been lowered. When people are listening, they don’t know what they’re missing until they actually hear it from Patti Smith and Zeppelin or The Beatles. That’s why those artists are still relevant today. Because an audience, whether 5 years old or 50, can hear the difference when they tune in to the radio, to the artists that are out there right now.

Is there anyone out there now who’s an exception to that?

But now there is a surge. Lorde, I like that girl. She’s got an edge. There’s a lot I’m hearing that are starting to come up who I’m excited to hear. For me, I’m just going from my experience and what I’m going through. When I have an artist in my studio, I can’t even do it anymore. It’s like, give me a fucking break. I’m not here to help you sell your brand. I’m here to help you sell music.

So artists don’t seem to have interest in emotion either?

This is what I get a lot: “My label made me do that. I don’t have any connection to my craft. I want to explore more as a musician and an artist. I want to go deeper.” And then when I take them there, they’re like, “Oh, this is so left field. It’s a little too much.” It’s like, then I’m not the right person for you.

What’s the difference between artists like Christina Aguilera, P!nk, and Gwen Stefani, who were willing to “go there,” and those artists you were just talking about?

I think security inside themselves. P!nk is an extremely secure person. She knows who she is. When she’s going to make a change, she’s going to make the change. She just needs someone to help her with the vision. Same with Christina, same with Gwen. They want to have a different experience. They want to evolve as an artist. Then there’s artists who don’t want to, because they’re afraid to lose what they have. But you have to risk in order to gain. In order to go to another level, to evolve, you have to be willing to lose. People aren’t interested in losing their 500,000 Twitter followers to gain 10 million.

The artists you’re working with on The Linda Perry Project come from all different areas of music. There’s reggae, there’s R&B, there’s rap—genres we may not expect from you.

Music comes from inside. It’s not a style. It’s just passion. So I can write an R&B song. There was one week that I went from Dixie Chicks to Ziggy Marley to Alicia Keys. I was like, “Who can do this? It’s amazing.” It’s because I have so much passion for music, and I live through you. When a country artist comes in, I’m not selling me to you. I want to put your clothes on. I’m not giving you my leather jacket and my hat to become me, I want to become you. Then I start searching for what I feel is missing in you. Mind you, I don’t think I’m the greatest songwriter. I’m not the greatest producer. I don’t think I’m good at anything. But what I’m good at it is helping people to find their emotions.

Do you ever feel like you’re too harsh on the kids on the show?

I’m a human. I have feelings, and I can see when I hurt someone. You know? Sometimes my mouth just starts going and I get so headstrong about what I want and I want to do. I’m passionate, but I don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings. I want to make them better at what they’re doing. If you’re in there and you’re dicking around and you don’t want to have a breakthrough or an emotional, then fuck you! Get out of here.

Is it different working with female artists than male artists? Your success, I feel like, is associated heavily with female artists.

I think the chicks dig me because I’m a girl, and there’s not many women doing what I do. Producer, engineer, songwriter, artist. I do a lot. I think when they find out about that they’re so tired of dealing with men and their egos. Men have a lot of fucking ego in the studio, and I’m not like that. You don’t have to like everything I do. I wish I had more men in the studio. I’ve turned down a lot of men because I don’t like their attitudes about how they want to create. But I’ve turned down a lot of women, too.

You said earlier that music relies too much on gimmicks. Do you think music that goes against that can survive?

It’s the way things are now. They never sell the music first. They sell the gimmick. Or the lifestyle. But if that’s the way everything should be, then how come this weird girl Adele shows up, sells out everywhere and wrote an incredible album. I don’t know, call me cuckoo, but how come that isn’t the format? But we keep going back to the sinking ship.

So with Adele’s success, why doesn’t that become the norm? Why are we still listening to songs like “Wiggle” on the radio?

I can only imagine it like this. You’re on this boat that everybody says “This is the best boat. It was the most expensive boat in the world to build. It’s got the best shops, the best food. Every time you go out on it it’s amazing. Everybody loves this boat.” And you go on this boat because of all the hype and the commotion around it, and the boat is sinking. And a new boat that no one’s ever heard about that’s brand new is driving by and says, “Come over here, we can save you!” And instead everyone’s like “We’re going to stay here. This boat is solid, we know this boat.” But your boat is sinking! Why not get on the fresh, new one? But really, the fresh new one is really the old one! The old reliable, the one that didn’t come with all the bells and whistles and all the fancy shops. Because that’s what brought that boat down! Too many shops. Too many people are in it. Too much is going on in that boat. But the new one has just got all the basics, the solid foundation, it stays afloat. It’s got all the things we need. It’s solid. But no one wants to get on that one because it’s not the one that’s talked about.

How different is the situation now from when you were coming up with 4 Non Blondes?

It’s hugely different. There was no social media. There was no digital. You went out on the streets and you flyered. You showed up in radio stations and you had to know how to play. There wasn’t all this sampling and playing to tracks. And the funny thing about it all was that after Milli Vanilli got outed as this band that didn’t sing on their album or whatever, you know what that started? It started with what’s going on now. Because labels went, “Oh shit, we can get away with that!” And that’s what’s going on now. How many concerts do you go to where the artist is singing live? How many artists can break their shit down and go into a VH1 conference room and just play their hit?

Would you have been able to hang in today’s climate?

I would be where I am at any time, because I have drive and motivation. I believe in myself. And if I were shoe salesman, you would know me. I would be famous for selling shoes. I think I would be exactly where I am still.

When artists come to work with you, how often do they just say, “Write me my ‘Beautiful?’”

All the time. And I don’t know what to say to that. Because that was me. All of my best songs were written by myself, with nobody asking me to do anything. That’s the place I struggle to get back to. Because in this whole thing I lose myself all the time. I lose confidence. I forget who I am and where I came from. I worry. I haven’t written a “Beautiful” in a long time. When are people going to catch on to that? You’re a loser. You lost. And I have to snap out of it. You’re fine, Linda. I have way more to lose now, because I’m afraid.

This show will only give you a higher profile, you know?

I know that. I go into the VH1 offices and I’m panicking, like, what have I done? I’m doing a reality show and my whole credibility could be swept right out the door after it. But I have to believe that I’m OK that I made the right decision. I lose myself all the time. Everything I’ve been doing musically lately I’m so happy about. It might not go anywhere, but I can’t care about that. I don’t know if another “Beautiful” is going to show up. I don’t know if this show will be a hit. I don’t know whether you like me or not. It doesn’t matter. All I can do is be me and hope that you see a moment of truth in there somewhere and know that I’m coming from a good place.

But don’t you think that’s the reason why you’re still around, because people see that?

You’d think I’d remember that. Sara [Gilbert, Perry’s wife] has to talk me off the ledge all the time. I’m a depressed person. I wallow. I’m like, “I don’t think I’m good enough.” And Sara’s like, “Are you kidding me? You’re one of the most talented people I ever met.” Our brain, we’d rather live in darkness. We choose darkness and negativity over positivity and light. It’s easier to believe that you’re a loser than you’re a winner. I have to go, “OK, no. She’s right.”

Well, a happy personal life. A show about to debut. A label in the works. You’re doing pretty well.  

Life feels good. Honestly, I feel the best I ever felt. Everything is coming together, and I’m waiting. There’s a piece of me waiting for my self-destructive behavior. Like, “When are you going to fuck this up, Linda?” I don’t know. I’m just edgy that way. I live on the edge of things. I don’t like things to always be smooth sailing. That’s how I grew up, waiting for something shitty to happen. But if I can maintain this, all this goodness, maybe I can start training myself to live there. But right now I have a show coming out, a great relationship, a great family, amazing talent around me, and I’m doing awesome things. I’m good right now. In this moment. But who knows when I walk out that door what’s going to hit me. For me it’s one minute at a fucking time.