Linda Perry on the Grammys, working with Dolly Parton, and the secret to being a great producer
Linda Perry is a little frustrated. On Sunday, she’ll be up for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, at the 2019 Grammy Awards — an honor long overdue for the mastermind behind so many iconic songs from P!nk, Christina Aguilera, and Gwen Stefani, as well as her own band, 4 Non Blondes — but all anyone wants to talk about is her gender. “We are wasting a lot of time giving historical lessons,” Perry tells EW, who was recognized this year for her work with Dorothy, among other standout projects under the umbrella of her We Are Hear label, management, and publishing house. She’s the first woman to be nominated in that category in 15 years, and no woman has ever taken the trophy. Still, “all we can do is focus on the right now,” she says.
And for Perry, the right now is rich with iconic moments: a collaboration with Dolly Parton on the soundtrack for Netflix’s Dumplin’, a project in the works with Natasha Bedingfield, and a new workspace for We Are Hear in Los Angeles. Perry’s also been active on the Recording Academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, and is particularly invested in bringing women producers to the forefront — and correcting the common misconception that they simply don’t exist. “It’s not, ‘Why aren’t there any women producers or engineers,'” she says. “It’s, ‘Why aren’t they being presented?'”
We spoke to Perry about what makes a producer great, her love of albums, and why she thinks she deserves to take home that Grammy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you’re talking to a woman nominated for producer of the year — a rare occurrence — you’re faced with a conundrum: on one hand, you want to acknowledge the achievement and the progress that got us here. On the other hand, it’s vitally important to show that this isn’t some sort of “token moment.” You’re a producer, not a “female producer.”
LINDA PERRY: You are absolutely right. If I were Pharrell, we’d be talking about my songs and the music I have done. There is not enough time spent on what women are doing, because we are always busy catching up. We haven’t been focused on why we deserve to be here. I deserve it, because I did a great record with Dorothy [28 Days in the Valley]: I took an artist other people have heard and turned it into something way better. It’s fresh, it’s cool, it’s done live. And there are not a lot of producers doing albums right now. They’re doing a song here, a song there. But at We Are Hear, we are signing artists, not people who need to be put together. That’s why this nomination is so important to me.
So let’s just do that — focus on the now, and talk about the art. What makes a successful producer, in your eyes?
What we are supposed to do is create an environment where the artist feels safe, so they write songs that are more vulnerable and real. Artists get thrown in with hit makers, and they drop a song and another song, so what happens is we are not getting full stories. We are getting collages that don’t seem to quite fit together. My job as a producer is to make the story cohesive and fit. But I like doing albums. I get approached all the time to do one song for somebody but I don’t do that anymore.
It definitely seems like the single is valued over the album these days. Great albums — like Adele’s, or Chris Stapleton’s — sell, and sell well. But it feels like we’re moving away from that.
It’s all about the playlist. But whatever happened to the good old-fashioned album? It got cheated. Labels say, “Let’s record a song and get fancy players, and release that.” Because it costs a lot of money to make and promote an album.
Speaking of great, what happens when you and Dolly Parton get in a room together?
It still is the highlight of my career being able to stand next to Dolly and match her. This is a woman who has written hundreds of songs. Who has been in this business and gives 100 percent, all the way. I have never met anyone with a work ethic like mine, and we matched there. Time or breaks or food were never discussed. I just don’t stop and it was really refreshing to see someone who is like that, who isn’t me.
How did you approach putting together the Dumplin’ project? Getting started with someone like Dolly seems daunting.
In Dolly’s production [in general], there is a lot going on. So I cleaned it up, hired a band. I recorded five songs and sent them over, and I hadn’t met Dolly yet, but everyone freaked out and said, “This is amazing.” Mind you, I was only asked to do one or two songs. So I go in there with Dolly and she’s like, “Oh my god!” She grabbed me and hugged me, and said, “What you did to these songs, I can’t believe it! They are still me but they have an edgy, a more modern raw thing.” And I’m in heaven now; Dolly Parton has just approved these songs. I worship her. I talk to her every day.
Will you do more projects together?
We will write again and record again. It was truly an honor to be walking in her world and consider her a friend and a creative partner. I told her, she is never working with anybody, ever again, besides me. I told her I am her in-house songwriter and producer and I will be extremely jealous if I ever see anyone else with her.
And you’ve produced the next Natasha Bedingfield album. She’s been out of the scene for far too long. What’s in store?
What’s great about Natasha is it’s not that nobody wanted her, it’s that she pulled herself out because she knew her team wasn’t right anymore. She had all those hits, and is huge in Europe and very well respected in America, but she purposefully pulled herself out of the game, because it was far too important for her to have the right team. We immediately signed her, because I know what she is capable of doing. Everyone else wanted her to do “Pocketful of Sunshine.” But we want to do what Natasha is now. The record is so f—ing good. People are going to go, “What the f–k, how did that happen?”
And though it’s been well over two decades since the 4 Non Blondes released Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, those songs still resonate. “Dr. Mr. President” could have been written today.
What’s wonderful about songwriting is that, if you are not thinking too hard or trying to be something, you’re going to find your message is going to last decades. And that’s how I like to write music. Mind you, not every song is “Dear Mr. President” or “What’s Up?,” but when I do write that song it’s forever imprinted in the soundtrack of life. And that’s the only thing I can hope for, for all songwriters.
Do you think you’ll release more solo records?
Well, where I need work right now is, I have been alive for 53 years and I have done a lot and experienced a lot, but the artist in me sometimes gets lost in all the artists that I help. I start adapting other people’s personalities, and their emotions and visions. I need a retreat, and I need to be wiped clean. I need to go into a cave with a shaman and be smoked out and let my demons show up in the fire and get rid of the years and years of other peoples’ clothing I’ve been trying on. Because I’m just beginning. When I turned 50, I literally felt like my career just started. And if I’m just starting, you better watch out, because there is a freight train coming through.