Linda Perry didn’t originally set out to be a music producer, but the singer who was focused on writing lyrics would hear noises in her head.
She couldn’t describe it, but she knew what she wanted a song to sound like, and maybe more importantly, what she didn’t want the song to sound like.
“When 4 Non Blondes was recording that first record, all I knew is that I didn’t like the way it sounded. I couldn’t vocalize what it was because I wasn’t experienced enough,” she said of her band, which released its debut album in 1992. “Then I kept trying to tell the producer, ‘I don’t like the way my voice sounds. I don’t like the way the guitar sounds. It all sounds too clean.’ He would constantly say, ‘Can’t you just go be a singer? Don’t worry, let me do this.’”
That didn’t sit well with her.
So the ambitious musician took matters into her own hands — heading to the studio to re-work a little song called “What’s Up?” to her liking.
“We had one reel of tape,” she said. “We had no more money for budget. So I went in there with the engineer and I don’t know anything about what I’m doing. I just started dialing in sounds, moving microphones, doing drum sounds. I just was a natural. I took total charge. The engineer was like, ‘Well, I thought you’ve never done this before.’ I go, ‘I haven’t.’ But I said, ‘I hear what I want to hear.’”
That’s when Linda Perry, the producer, was born.
“I was like, ‘No one’s ever going to tell me to go be a singer ever again.’ I’m never going to allow that to ever happen,” she said.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years later, and Perry is one of the most respected creators in the music industry. “What’s Up?,” the 4 Non Blondes international hit now considered a classic, is regularly covered at concerts today; Perry has produced music for acts such as Alicia Keys, Adele, Gwen Stefani, James Blunt, Courtney Love and more; and she’s launched multiple record labels and even had a TV show focused on discovering musicians.
And the magic she created with Christina Aguilera and Pink in the early 2000s came at pivotal moments in their young careers as the bubble gum pop stars tried to expand from the sound of their debut albums. They were extremely successful, thanks in part to Perry.
Perry, 53, hit a new height this year when she earned her first-ever nomination for non-classical producer of the year at the Grammy Awards — becoming just the ninth female to earn a nomination in the category in the organization’s 61-year history, and the first woman nominated for the prize in 15 years. The last woman up for the award was Lauren Christy when the production trio The Matrix, behind hits for Avril Lavinge, was nominated at the 2004 Grammys. The last time solo females were nominated was 20 years ago when both Lauryn Hill and Sheryl Crow were producer of the year contenders at the 1999 Grammys.
“I kind of knew I would get the nom because I just did a good body of work, and why wouldn’t I? But then it crosses your mind like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, women haven’t… aren’t …it’s not really a thing for women to get nominated for this,’” Perry said. “It’s a flip-flop of emotions.”
Perry’s competition includes two-time producer of the year winner Pharrell Williams; Kanye West, who produced five albums last year including two of his own; Larry Klein, who also produced five albums last year from the jazz, pop and folk genres; and Boi-1da, who co-produced Drake’s “God’s Plan” and worked on songs for Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
If Perry wins, she would be the first woman to do so. But the Songwriter Hall of Famer isn’t concerned with making history or rectifying what happened in the past — she wants to focus on what’s happening right now, and the future.
“We’re never going to go backward from here — believe me,” she said. “It’s going to happen again next year because I’m going to be nominated next year because my body of work is f—ing awesome. …There is going to be a crime happening if I’m not nominated next year.”
“It’s not in the ‘why?’ anymore,” she added. “We’ve spent so many years in the ‘why.’ I just want to be in the now. Right now there are some f—ing amazing things going on and women are leading the way.”
Songwriter extraordinaire Diane Warren called Perry’s nomination “great; good for her,” but added: “It’s sad that there aren’t a lot more women nominated.”
Perry’s work that helped her land the nomination includes the soundtrack for Serve Like a Girl, a documentary about female veterans transitioning to regular life. Perry produced each of the 13 songs, featuring Pink, Pat Benatar, Aguilera and others, and also served as a producer on the film. Perry also produced the sophomore album from rock band Dorothy, as well as singer Willa Amai’s cover of Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” Both Dorothy and Amai are signed to Perry’s company, We Are Hear, also home to Natasha Bedingfield, Angel Haze and more.
And Perry’s already worked on material to help her earn a nomination at the 2020 Grammys: She produced about half of the Dumplin’ soundtrack, released after this year’s Grammy eligibility. She, alongside Dolly Parton, earned Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations for the film’s song “Girl in the Movies.”
When asked why there aren’t as many popular female producers in music, Perry had several theories. The base of her thoughts: “There’s a whole other stress that goes on women than men have to deal with,” she said. “Maybe women just don’t want to deal with that.”
Another theory was that some women who write songs just don’t want to produce, like Warren, a Grammy- and Golden Globe-winner. “It is not my thing. I don’t want to sit there in the studio and go over drum sounds and collect vocals,” Warren said. “I like to come in when it’s done and when it’s happening, and watch someone else do it.”
Perry also said a woman’s look can play into whether or how she navigates in the world of music producing.
“Listen, you don’t meet me and think you’re going to be able to pull one over my eyes, or boss me around or manipulate me, or try to intimidate me. It’s actually very opposite. And when you meet me, you already know that. I have a very masculine approach already. I’m pretty aggressive,” she said. “Some hot chick that wants to be a producer, she’s going to have more problems than me.”
“It’s unfortunate that women have to put up with this stuff, but it’s the truth. We do. I’m not hating on men, it’s just a fact,” she added. “And is it the girl’s fault that she’s just hot and sexy? No. It’s not. And are we supposed to tone our sexy down, because we want to be taken more serious? No. We’re not. So that’s kind of what we’re dealing with — we’re dealing with fact. This is not hating. This is just the truth.”