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Ready for Takeoff

Unhappy with the band despite its huge debut, former 4 Non Blondes leader Linda Perry sets out on a solo flight to do the 'rock star' thing.

September 08, 1996|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

With her tattoos and exotic jewelry, her raspy, raucous laugh and her admitted taste for the bottle, her salty language and San Francisco address, Linda Perry carries on some of the spirit of Janis Joplin.

It's no accident. Perry, 31, adores the late singer and what she represented.

"I believe in the rock-star mentality," says Perry, whose first solo album, "In Flight," comes out Tuesday.

"Remember a long time ago when rock stars meant something? Like Janis Joplin was a rock star. Jimi Hendrix was a rock star. They earned that title. Because they lived a rock-star mentality, I believe in that word. . . . I want to grow up to be a rock star."

The funny thing is, the former leader of 4 Non Blondes was a rock star, and she walked away from it.

"We all are blessed and also cursed with this thing that sits inside our gut," she says, smoking a Camel and ignoring her order of eggs and potatoes as she sits at a sidewalk table at a Silver Lake diner.

"I consider it a little person with a little spear and it knows what I'm supposed to do, and when I'm not doing it it goes poke poke poke poke and starts stabbing me in the gut, and I have to follow that feeling."

As the singer and chief songwriter with 4 Non Blondes, Perry was a radio and video fixture in 1993, wailing the plaintive anthem "What's Up" and sparking the debut album "Bigger, Better, Faster, More!" on Interscope Records to worldwide sales of more than 5 million.

But when the band started recording its follow-up, Perry wasn't eager to revisit its format of bluesy, hook-filled crunch-rock. That created an impasse with her three bandmates, who had little interest in the more introspective music Perry was pushing.

"For some reason somebody said a long time ago that when you make your debut album, that's your sound for the rest of your [expletive] career," says Perry, working herself up. "Everybody in the [expletive] music business follows that rule like it's [expletive] one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt make the record sound the same for the rest of your career. And I don't get that at all."

Perry didn't expect Interscope to indulge her--she figured she'd either be sued or dropped from the label. But her artists and repertoire representative Tom Whalley, who had repeatedly counseled her to stick it out with the band, finally gave her a reluctant go-ahead.

"It would have been good for the label to have another 4 Non Blondes album," he says in a separate interview. "You sell 5 million records with a band and have them break up before you put out another record is certainly not your first choice.

"But she was the writer and the musical force of the band, and if she wasn't happy and didn't feel like she could take the band to the next level, I couldn't force her to do a 4 Non Blondes record. It wasn't going to achieve anything. . . . It wasn't going anywhere, so I figured the best thing was to let her follow her instincts and follow her heart and support that and see where we go."

If nothing else, "In Flight" represents one of the most radical redefinitions of an artist in recent memory, replacing 4 Non Blondes' rawness and aggression with acoustic textures and contemplative tempos (see accompanying review).

"I'm a fast learner and I believe in change and I believe in growing and I believe in moving forward and not staying in the same place," she says. "I just didn't want to make a pop record again. I wanted to make a very personal, atmospheric, mellow, moody record that was more musical, that had more space."

Perry, the daughter of a Portuguese father and a Brazilian-Italian-German-Moroccan mother, has never stood for convention. She got her first music jobs by walking into San Francisco clubs, with no sample tape or credentials, and asking to sing between bands' sets. She was a latecomer to music, taking to it after a turbulent, lonely childhood in San Diego that saw her attempting suicide at 16 and later living as a street kid in the city's Balboa Park.

"One day it hit me that music is my calling," she says. "I just started playing and writing music. How I don't know. I just started doing it, and then this big voice came out of my mouth. And it felt like I was releasing something."

Perry was 21 then, and had moved to San Francisco. Eventually her persistence paid off and she found herself opening shows at rock clubs for such headliners as Exene Cervenka, Sam Phillips and Debora Iyall.

The members of 4 Non Blondes heard her and invited her to join, and the band clicked when it began concentrating on Perry's quirky compositions. Interscope signed the group, whose strange trajectory began with a full year of public indifference to the 1992 album. When radio finally started playing "What's Up," it came about through another unconventional move--the band members decided to personally call every key radio station in the country and push for airplay.

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