"Iknow what's coming," says Linda Perry, the rock star turned superstar record producer who is now steeling herself, however reluctantly, for a musical comeback. "I'm afraid of people saying, 'What is she thinking she's doing? She's 40 years old, and she thinks she's an artist again? Go write a song for Christina!' "
Perry, a tiny, tightly wound bundle of nerves, energy and tattoos, is sitting in the house that Christina Aguilera built. A cavernous, dimly lit recording studio in the San Fernando Valley complete with religious iconography, dark ceilings and red-tinted glass, it looks like a brothel run by Buddhists. There's a spa, a kitchen, and pedicurists and massage therapists available around the clock -- amenities intended to ensure that her artists, a species not known for their long attention spans, don't wander off during breaks.
Perry owns the place, having recently purchased the studio solely for her use. There's a brand-new Aston Martin parked outside, also hers.
Pop music has been kind to her, though whether it's been mutual depends on whom you ask. It would be impossible to turn on the radio anywhere in the country without hearing evidence of hits Perry wrote and/or produced, including career-transforming tracks for Gwen Stefani, Aguilera and Pink, to name just a few. To her detractors, many of whom lump her in with famously maligned production teams such as the Matrix, she symbolizes everything that's formulaic and perfunctory about pop music.
To her defenders, Perry is an example of Top 40 done right. "I think she's brilliant. I don't understand why there would be anything wrong with what she does," says Caryn Ganz, associate editor of Spin magazine. "Her songs are so diverse. That's part of her gift, that she can write so many songs for so many different people."
Perry, former leader of the briefly famous band 4 Non Blondes, knows what people think of her, and usually she wouldn't care. But she is about to rerelease "In Flight," the beloved (by her, mostly, and many of the 11 or so people who heard it the first time around) album from 1996 that started -- and almost ended -- her solo career. She regards "In Flight" as unfinished business, a rare and deeply personal failure in an otherwise charmed professional life. It's only in hopes of giving it another chance that she consented to take on a few promotional chores, though she distrusts journalists ("I'm convinced that you already have your interview written") and dislikes being photographed.
Perry long ago grew disenchanted with making pop music (for herself, anyway) and with the grunt work that accompanies it. She walked away from pop stardom seven years ago and claims not to miss it. "I didn't like being out in the limelight. I love performing, but that's it," she says. "I have a very particular way I wanted to be a rock star. I just want to loaf around. I don't want to do all that [promotional] stuff."
Growing up in San Diego, Perry always knew she would be famous, though it took a while to figure out the specifics. "I was just loafing, partying all the time, and when I hit 20 [it came to me] like, 'Hello, you're supposed to be doing music right now.' Then it was like, all right, I'm gonna be a rock star."
Within a few years she was. After moving to San Francisco she joined forces with a group of local musicians. 4 Non Blondes' debut, "Bigger, Better, Faster, More?," went triple platinum and birthed one of the '90s' most ubiquitous hits, "What's Up." Perry loathes the song to this day and is embarrassed by her caterwauling lead vocals. "If I was the producer of this band I would have told that girl: 'Mellow out, you're bugging the [expletive] out of me!' "
By the time the group entered the studio to record a follow-up, Perry was ready for a change. She wanted to be a serious artist, she says, while her band mates wanted merely to replicate their debut. She quit the group, promising to find a sound-alike replacement and offering a batch of potential hits she'd already written for the next album. "They were probably gonna be hits," Perry reasons. "But they were crap to me."
She expected to be dropped from her label, but Interscope Records kept Perry and dropped her band mates instead. "I was so devastated by that. They were devastated and hate me," Perry says. "Then I make a [solo] record for it to be shelved. Karma? . . . I don't care. I made a really great record, and it put me into a near suicidal state when they didn't give it even one little push."
Darker and more intimate than anything she had previously done, "In Flight" was a grim accounting of broken relationships and childhood abuse. Perry says that Interscope, which had been hoping for something a little catchier, didn't promote the album, and the disappointing sales rattled her. "My gut feeling that I relied on failed me. . . . I was devastated. I was freaked out. I was very, very depressed," Perry says. "So I just disappeared."
Perry holed up in her San Francisco warehouse-studio for a while before eventually moving to Los Angeles. She recorded a follow-up album, "After Hours," that the label didn't like any better. According to Perry's version of events, she got on her hands and knees during a meeting with Interscope executive Tom Whalley and threatened suicide if she wasn't released from her contract. "You need to let me go," she recalls telling him. "If I had a 'What's Up' in my pocket right now, I would never give it to you." Whalley released her from the contract a few weeks later.
Perry had spent most of her 4 Non Blondes money and was contemplating a revival of her solo career when Alecia Moore, a pop singer who goes by the nom de disco Pink, left a phone message, threatening to camp outside Perry's house until the two met. Perry had no idea who Pink was until someone explained it to her. "I was so turned off. A white girl with pink hair singing R&B? So unappealing!" she recalls. "I called her and said, 'I think you have the wrong Linda Perry because there's nothing hip about me whatsoever.' "
Pink had wanted Perry only to maybe sing backup on a song or two, it turns out, but Perry ultimately co-wrote and produced much of Pink's 2001 release, "Missundaztood," including its flagship hit, "Get the Party Started."
Before her sessions with Pink, "I never wanted collaboration as an artist. I didn't talk to people nicely as an artist. I was really mean," says Perry, who blames insecurity. Working with Pink brought out a nurturing side that Perry hadn't known she possessed.
"With Alecia I learned a lot about myself," says Perry, who never, ever calls her Pink. "Here's a younger kid who could have been me at her age. It was just learning how to listen, to get a little intuitive about who you're with, and just being aware of people, aware of what they're saying. How they're walking, their speech."
After "Missundaztood," finding work wasn't difficult. Perry collaborated with Aguilera on her multi-platinum disc "Stripped," even providing her with a gritty ballad about self-acceptance, "Beautiful," which she had hoped one day to record herself.
Perry has become known for providing heft to the lightweight (Juliette Lewis), pop credibility to the obscure (Fischerspooner) and solace to the difficult (Courtney Love). What's more important, she reflects back at her artists a better version of themselves. "I'm very open. I'm very wise with people. I allow an artist to be an artist," Perry explains. "They have managers and label people telling them they don't know how to write a song. . . . I'm like, 'Why don't you play me some songs you've written?' Once they do, I'll be like, 'You don't need a writer! You're a wonderful writer.' . . . I nurture people's talents because at the end of it, that's what they're left with. They're left with themselves."
"To write a song with someone you don't know is very difficult," says Enrique Iglesias, who collaborated with Perry on tracks for his upcoming album, due early next year. "It can be embarrassing. . . . You're afraid they're going to say, what is that? That's ridiculous! . . . What I like about her is she's very passionate. There's no [BS] involved."
In person Perry radiates an aura of steely capability. She engineers her own projects, can play almost any instrument, knows how to operate everything in her studio down to the last microphone, pedal and knob. She inspires fierce devotion in many of the people she works with.
"Linda Perry helped me find the courage to say the things I could never say," says Kelly Osbourne, who collaborated with Perry on her recent album, "Sleeping in the Nothing." "She is the most talented person I have ever, and probably will ever, work with."
Perry won't take on clients she hasn't met, or doesn't connect with. "I don't want to be a whore," she says. "Lindsay Lohan's management's not gonna call me and say, 'I need something for Lindsay. It needs to be at 130 tempo and it needs to be kind of sassy.' I've had those calls. I'm not fast food."
Perry says that most prospective clients come to her and that she turns down more projects than she takes on; only rarely do artists refuse the opportunity to work with her. Perry and Stefani notoriously ran into difficulty during the early sessions for "What You Waiting For?," the inaugural single from Stefani's "Love. Angel. Music. Baby."
During their initial meeting, "I put Gwen in a headlock and said, 'You've gotta work with me.' She said, 'I want to work with Prince and dance people. You don't do dance music.' " Stefani (who couldn't be reached for comment) has implied that Perry was forced on her by her record label. Perry, who's currently readying several of Stefani's unused tracks for an upcoming leftovers disc, doesn't take this personally.
"Gwen had friction completely about everything. She had friction about making an album," Perry says. "I don't think she had friction with me. I think she had hesitation about me because she'd never worked with a woman before. Everybody I get who's a woman says they've never worked with a woman before."
After "L.A.M.B." became a hit, Jimmy Iovine, the president of Stefani and Perry's label, Interscope, agreed to give Perry ownership of "In Flight." She decided to rerelease the album. "This record makes me leery and scared and insecure and all these emotions that don't normally sit inside me," she says. "And I like that."
A seriously good, seriously difficult album, "In Flight" -- due out in early October -- has commercial prospects that are murky at best. It will be co-issued by the label Kill Rock Stars. (That one of pop's most infamous one-hit wonders found refuge with one of the nation's preeminent indie labels is an irony not lost on the label's founder, Slim Moon. "I love a good pop song," he says. "If anyone says she's plastic, they're just not listening to the words.")
Perry will tour briefly to support "In Flight" and doesn't rule out making another album one day, even if being a rock star would mean a likely reduction in status and pay. In the meantime, the next few months will bring new Perry-assisted projects from Aguilera, Iglesias and the Dixie Chicks, as well as the American debut of James Blunt, a British singer who records for Custard, a new label owned by Perry.
"My number one goal is to take over the music business and run a really great record company," Perry says. "People are gonna get tired of Linda Perry the producer, but I will always be in the music business. And I will always be successful in it."