Miss understood

The strange trajectory of Linda Perry – from the top of the pop charts with 4 Non Blondes, to pennilessness, back up to the top once again.

By Kimberly Chun

ONE MORNING A few years ago, former Jackson Saints guitarist Erik Meade finally got the call he had long been expecting. It was Linda Perry, and she was finally broke.

The former singer of 4 Non Blondes had managed to blitz through all the money she had made during her band's 15 minutes of fame.

Meade, who was playing guitar in Perry's post-Blondes band, remembers: "She said, 'Hey, come over to my house. Let's go get some beer and get drunk, because I just talked to my accountant and I'm completely broke. I'm penniless.' So I went over to her house and we got a couple quarts of Olde English 800, like just the cheapest beer, and sat out by her pool and drank."

Meade had his own sneaking reason to celebrate: He was looking forward to a little parity in their friendship. Though Perry was as close as a big sister and generous to a fault – tossing him the door keys to her house when he was left homeless after a breakup and offering him the ignition keys to her vintage Corvette, for keeps, another time – he still felt like something of a poor relation; the dynamic had definitely shifted since the late-'80s, early-'90s days when Jackson Saints and 4 Non Blondes were the most popular bands in SF.

"And then the craziest thing happened," Meade continues. "She was broke for three weeks, and then this girl named Pink calls her up out of the blue, who she'd never heard of, and says, 'Hey, I'm a huge fan of yours! Can I come over and meet you?' and she says, 'Yeah,' and just by coincidence, Linda had just written and recorded this song, 'Get The Party Started.' She had just written it, actually, for herself."

"Get The Party Started" didn't sound like anything else Perry had ever written – although its mixture of anthemic empowerment, hooky infectiousness, and euphoric ballsiness should now be familiar to pop fans who can trace the line from 4 Non Blondes' 1992 international smash, "What's Up," and hits penned or cowritten by Perry, like Christina Aguilera's Grammy-winning "Beautiful" and Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For?" And "Get The Party Started" itself had that then-unknown dance-pop singer Pink's name on it – it would become the centerpiece track that would get her album M!ssundaztood (Arista), and her career, started.

Now clearly one of the hottest songwriters and producers in the industry, Perry is in close personal touch with her gut, intuition, muse, or whatever you choose to call it – as well as her drive, ambition, and ability to charm the powers-that-be and work the system. That power of persuasion has led to the rerelease of her 1996 solo debut, In Flight, on Kill Rock Stars, and the short tour she'll embark on to promote it. Perry has also ghosted, produced, or performed for Courtney Love, Angelique Kidjo, Melissa Etheridge, Sugababes, Korn, Susanna Hoffs, Gordon Gano, Lillix, Kelly Osbourne, and Fischerspooner – with a heavy emphasis on the ladies and a knack for hitting a rich, dark-chocolate vein of white-girl soul, though the songwriter-producer resists definition.

"I don't have a genre," once-longtime SF resident Perry says from LA, where she's lived since 1997. "I don't even have a gender in my mind. I'm not man; I'm not woman; I'm not rock; I'm not folk. I don't know what the hell I am, but all I know is, I can be everything." Provided listeners follow her across genres, next year should prove that, as her work appears on new releases by Aguilera, Stefani, Dixie Chicks, Ziggy Marley, Cheap Trick, and Enrique Iglesias.

So what's her secret to melding her indomitable personality with others' and turning them into the stuff of ringtones and singles charts? A little understanding of what it's like to go through the pop machine. "I hear the same story over and over again," Perry explains, taking a break from working on Aguilera's next album at her own North Hollywood studio. "And the story goes like this: 'That last record is not who I am. That's what the label wanted me to be. I was young. I didn't know what I wanted to be at the time. Now all I know is I don't want to do that, but I'm not 100 percent sure of what it is I'm supposed to do.' "

Best in the West

The 40-year-old Perry could be the model for those confused pop stars hoping to stretch their wings: She has managed to transform herself from the full-throated belter in combat boots – whom the songwriter now refers to in the third person and says "annoys the hell" out of her – into a highly coveted secret weapon behind the scenes, where she now says she's most happy. Then and now, Perry stands out – a lone wolf who combines commercial acumen and artistic ambition with an almost magical sense of intuition, and who has emerged from a late-'80s, early-'90s SF scene that's universally viewed as filled with easy camaraderie. It was a time when bands would hang in Murio's Trophy Room on any given day and pack upper-Haight clubs like the I-Beam and Nightbreak, where 4 Non Blondes founder Christa Hillhouse first met Perry, playing solo. Hillhouse and guitarist Shauna Hall were looking for a new vocalist for their band, JJ Noir and the Lesbian Snake Charmers.

A familiar face to anyone who gets past the door at Bottom of the Hill, Charm School Dropouts' Mr. Nancy Kravitz remembers Perry fronting the band Blood Lox at her weekly lesbian DJ and live rock night, Female Trouble, at Nightbreak. "Linda was riding up and down Market Street on he r motorcycle, in bright orange lipstick and big bushy eyebrows," Kravitz recalls. "She was an amazing force of nature. The sound of her voice made the hair on your arms stand up."

Hillhouse says once 4 Non Blondes formed, in Oct. 1989 ("Our first rehearsal was the day of the earthquake"), things happened fast – the band worked hard and played hard. "We were really close," says Hillhouse. "Linda was waitressing at Spaghetti Western in Lower Haight, and she kept getting fired for giving food and beer away." Linda dug in at Hillhouse's Glen Park apartment at one point and wrote "What's Up." "I could say she was living with me because she basically didn't have anywhere to live," Hillhouse explains with a chuckle. "So you could say we were roommates, but it was kind of like I had a job, and she was homeless!"

Hillhouse recently listened to a cassette recording made by late 4 Non Blondes drummer Wanda Day of a massive fight between band members: "One of the things we were fighting about was our manager didn't want us to appear too gay. This was 15 years ago, and really we weren't popular in the United States; we sold a lot of records, but they never knew what to do with us, they always tried to say we were from Seattle, and it's, like, that flannel is because we're a bunch of big dykes, man!" Hillhouse says with a hoot. "Ellen wasn't out; Rosie wasn't out; k.d. lang wasn't frigging out – and we were out but they would never print it."

"It's funny too because Linda is like, 'I don't care what it takes – I'll put my hair in a fucking bun if I have to. I'm gonna get signed!' " Hillhouse continues, chuckling. "Yeah, Linda always looked like Linda, but at the same time, it speaks volumes in a way because of the amount of success she's accomplished in the music industry – it takes a lot of work and a lot of focus and being very deliberate."

Others noticed. Promoter Ian Brennan still remembers seeing the band play to a small clutch of 50 at DNA Lounge before they were signed. "Suddenly they play 'What's Up' – I haven't had that experience very often, but I was just like, 'OK, all right. These guys are gonna be huge.' That song stood out like a sore thumb."

The band signed with the budding Interscope label in '91 following a Gavin Convention show opening for Primus and began to make their 1992 debut, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! Cracks, however, were appearing in the camaraderie.

Fired up and fired

The once-merry band's lineup changed. Hillhouse says Day was fired because of drug use shortly before the making of the album (the drummer died of an overdose in 1997), and Dawn Richardson joined the band, introduced by mutual friend Cherie Lovedog. But as the recording of the album progressed, Richardson says, producer David Tickle "basically told us the record is not happening with your guitar player," and eventually Hall was replaced by Roger Rocha.

After a Las Vegas DJ began playing "What's Up," the song took hold on MTV, and Bigger went on to sell more than three million copies.

Meanwhile, before the royalty checks were issued, the band was still taking the bus home from the studio after label shows. "Linda knew any day now that she was gonna be a millionaire, but meanwhile she was starving, living on Top Ramen, literally scrounging for change for the bus," Meade says. "And the next day checks arrived for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So overnight she went from dirt poor to being completely wealthy." He helped her move to a warehouse on Fifth Street. "Her entire possessions consisted of a few garbage bags filled with clothes and three pairs of shoes."

Yet money did nothing to alleviate pressure on Perry to produce another pop hit, another "What's Up." And that voice was chafing against its source. "Omigod, the girl that's singing – she annoys the hell out of me. I won't refer to her as me because I just can't ..." Perry says now, her voice low-down, earthy, and emotional over the phone line, the aural equivalent of bourbon, leather, and long nights spent screaming "What's Up." "It was annoying to me the first time I ever heard it. Mind you, I had to go perform that all the time, and it was miserable for me because I didn't know how to use my voice properly. All I knew was how to be on 100."

Perry says the band, their manager, and the label begged her to stick it out through a second album, though she was longing to fly. "So out of obligation, mainly to the band, I said OK. And so we started, and everything I heard was crap. I would write something really heartfelt and emotional because, mind you, I'm already in this state of 'I just need to be calm,' and they're still in 4 Non Blondes Bigger, Better, Faster, More! mode, and I'm writing these melancholy songs – basically, some of the songs on In Flight. They would just look at me like, 'What's this? Well, this doesn't really fit us. C'mon, don't you have a "Superfly"?' "

By 1994, 4 Non Blondes was no more.

The free way

Perry rerecorded songs like "Freeway," "In My Dreams," and "Knock Me Out" for In Flight, which she describes as her attempt to make her Dark Side of the Moon.

"I just wanted to be floaty and melancholy and questionable and use this low register in my voice, and I wanted to be calming because I felt so the opposite of that in the band I was in," she explains. "I felt stressed out all the time, hyper, really on the edge, and I was tired of feeling that way, and so I made the record that I can only describe as one long breath. You know, finally you're sitting somewhere where you're comfortable."

Grammy-winning northern California producer Bill Bottrell – who has worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Sheryl Crow – produced and mixed the album and cowrote a few songs. "She later said she was impressed because I dressed like such a dork," he writes in an e-mail. They became friends, and Perry says Bottrell eventually taught her everything she knows about production.

But the quiet, moody, surprisingly rangy record didn't set the world afire, and Perry began to feel like a failure for the first time. "I came from a band that sold 7 million records, to selling 18,000, I think, records of In Flight," she says. "So it was pretty devastating to my ego, on top of my emotional state, and just my heart as well. So I quickly kind of went into this dark little depressed thing."

She spent her 4 Non Blondes earnings like they were drenched in blood, or guilt. Meade remembers a time several years after the band broke up when Perry got up one morning at her Fifth Street "weird mansion loft," went out for coffee, and came back in two hours dragging rare instruments from Black Market Guitars. "She came back with a 1952 Les Paul, some old Marshall, a 1968 Gibson guitar, and it had basically run up to about $10,000. She had just bought on a whim, and she had gone out to buy a cup of coffee for a dollar," he says. "So finally I said, 'God, Linda, you gotta really think about budgeting your money, the way you're spending your money, even millions of dollars won't last forever.' And she goes, 'No, that's my plan, I'm gonna spend all my money and then I'm gonna make another million.' "

Gun, and shoulder, for hire

After her 1999 solo album, After Hours (on her own Custard label), and a release from her Interscope agreement (Perry says she told her A&R rep Tom Wholley, "I will kill myself if you do not let me off this label. I am so unhappy with you guys. I will never write you another 'What's Up' ... so why would you hold onto me?"), Perry began again, behind the scenes, with Pink. "I should never have been an artist, because I sucked at bein g an artist," she says with a hearty chuckle. "I just don't like it."

Perry says she'll work with anyone, regardless of whether or not she liked their previous album, if there's a connection. "Kids come in and they think I have some rack of already prewritten songs, and if they fit the measurements, that's how I pick the songs for them," she explains. "I wait to meet the artist, and we write together, and in some situations, after the artist leaves, I'm so inspired by their presence, I'll continue to write on my own."

That was the case with Stefani. "What was fun about it is she was just sooo not into working with me. We're friends, and I saw her at a party, and I was like, 'Dude, are you working on a solo album?' She was like, 'Well, I haven't started it yet, but they want me to do one.' I was like, 'Ahhh! That is great. You gotta call me!' And she was like, 'Linda, I'm gonna make an '80s dance record.' And I was like, 'I'm totally '80s dance!' Totally lying through my teeth, and she's looking at me like, 'You're not on my list.' " Perry breaks out into throaty chuckles. "And I told her, 'Gwen, I'm not kidding you when I tell you this, just come hang out with me. I have a feeling about you and I working together.' And she's like, 'Whatever.' I guess [Interscope head] Jimmy [Iovine] said go work with Linda Perry, and she's like, 'Jimmy, she's not on my list.'

"So she comes dragging her feet into the studio. I mean, I've never seen anybody so not wanting to be somewhere, and she just sits down and she said, 'Linda, I'm just really nervous because I've only worked with No Doubt. I can't write anything. I'm so uninspired. I just want to be with my husband. I just want to eat pizza and watch TV.' "

After Stefani left, Perry says: "I just sat there, and this is probably 11 o'clock at night, and I was still taking her in after she was gone." She decided to work all night on an idea for a song, recording the melody and chorus. When Stefani returned the next day, Perry played her "What You Waiting For?" "After it was done, she's like, 'Oh. My. God. Linda. That is fuckin' sick. What the fuck is that?' And I'm like, 'This is how inspiring I think you are. This is what you left me with. I didn't do this on my own. To me you were very inspiring yesterday, even though you think you weren't, and this is the idea that came to me because all I could think of the whole time she was leaving was, what are you waiting for? You're prime. Your life couldn't be set up more perfectly for a solo album.

"That night Jimmy Iovine and everybody from Interscope showed up, and we played them the song, and Jimmy said, 'The record has begun. We have our first single.' "

Digging for hurt

There's a bit of the voodoo priestess, a bit of the psychoanalyst, to Perry's process. "All I can do is sit there and talk with them for a couple hours. Try to feel them out to see what it is they want to do and, more so, what they don't want to do," she explains. "I'm very sensitive to people's energy, and I'm really good at tapping into what's really going on with somebody. When I get that sensation that someone's hiding something or they're not fully expressing what's really going on, I start digging. And it can be annoying, but I do it anyway. And, finally, all this stuff will start pouring out of them. And voilà! There's the beginning of a writing session right there. I like to consider that I just don't want to be in people's happy place. I don't go that way. I'm attracted to that dark place because there's so much grit to be found there, and you can turn all that negativity into something positive."

Of course therapy doesn't work all the time, as when she was convinced by Love to work on her solo album from 3 to 8 a.m., while she was working on Aguilera's Stripped from 3 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. "That record [America's Sweetheart (Virgin, 2004)] sucked," Perry says. "Me and her wrote some really great songs, but you wouldn't be able to tell because the production and delivery of that record is so atrocious.

"I love Courtney," she continues. "My best description of her is, she's a beautiful train wreck. She's always on the rail, ready to go off. But what a beautiful, fast train she is, very powerful. So when I got the end result of that record, I was just so disappointed because so many hours went into it. It was pretty shocking – how you can take the most rock 'n' roll person and make her sound like a wimp on a record. You know, I was disappointed for her because Courtney doesn't have that many chances. She's got one more shot. Courtney hasn't done her masterpiece record yet, and she deserves one, and she has one in her. It's a tricky situation because you really have to nurture this craziness about her but also know when to put your foot down. I told her if she wants me to get involved in this next record, this time I want to produce it because I know what she needs to do. If she can just focus on staying out of the tabloids and.... She just needs to be quiet. She needs to shut up!"

Perry seems to have found her calling – pouring the power and authority she once channeled into her vocals into other people's albums, finding new artists through which to express herself, and latching onto their dreams and making a little of her own theirs. And it was those efforts that brought her dream record back into her hands: Last year, when Iovine was praising her work on Stefani's record, she decided to grab the opportunity to ask for the In Flight masters. "He just picks up the phone and calls whoever takes care of that stuff and says, 'We're releasing the masters of In Flight to Linda Perry, make it happen as soon as possible.' And I was shocked," she says, still sounding amazed.

With the second coming of In Flight, Perry says she confronts her own darkest corners. Certainly songs like "Uninvited" seem designed for this moment, as she sings, "Can you hear me / I've got a lot of things to tell you / Inside my heart I feel like something is wrong with me ... Are you ready / Ready for it all / Maybe I'm not ready." Relaxed, subdued, yet infused with that Perry drama, In Flight does sound "like a breath of fresh air," as In Flight producer Bottrell writes. "It went against everything we've come to expect from this decade: cynicism, reduced expectations, fashion. Most importantly, it sounded nothing like 1995."

"I'm scared of the interviews," Perry says, as disarming, and charming, as ever. "I'm scared of having to get up onstage again. I'm scared of the critique. I'm scared right now of doing this again. But that's why I have to do it, I think."

Linda Perry plays with Sierra Swan, Oct. 14, 9 p.m., Slim's, 333 11th St., SF. $16-$18. (415) 255-0333.