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1 Non Blonde who's in the pink

Linda Perry abandons performing for a behind-the-scenes role.

August 23, 2003|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Linda Perry looks every bit the rock star she always wanted to be, wearing leather pants and denim shirt and striking a haughty pose as she lays a guitar arpeggio into a majestic rock arrangement.

But Perry isn't playing to a packed arena. Leaning against the soundboard in a Burbank recording studio, she has an audience of half a dozen or so, including the members of Lillix, a Canadian band whose song "Tomorrow" Perry co-wrote and produced last year. Today she's adding this guitar part and helping the four young women redo some vocals for the track's release as a single.

This is how things figure to stay for Perry, who has pulled off one of recent pop's most remarkable career transformations by going AWOL from the front lines of the music wars. Abandoning the role of performer to become a behind-the-scenes songwriter and producer, she's achieved a prominence she hasn't enjoyed since her first band, 4 Non Blondes, sold nearly 2 million copies in the U.S. of its 1992 debut album, behind its hit "What's Up."

But Perry wasn't just a hitmaker. With her brash, open manner and dedication to the rock-star mentality of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other classic figures, she was an invaluably colorful presence and an inspirational artist -- one willing to risk leaving her successful band in order to make the less commercial music that was in her heart.

But suddenly she's no longer uncommercial. Perry has helped turn Pink from a tentative dance-pop kitten into a pop-rock force, writing and producing eight songs from the singer's breakthrough 2001 album "Missundaztood," including the title song and the ubiquitous "Get the Party Started."

Her four contributions to Christina Aguilera's "Stripped" included the self-esteem power-ballad "Beautiful," a big hit that challenged the teen star to tap undiscovered interpretive skills.

"I think every time she writes a song for someone's record it just kind of takes it to another level," observes Lauren Christy, a member of the writing-producing team the Matrix, which has also worked with Aguilera and Lillix. "When she came out with 'Beautiful' it put the seal of approval on the whole [album] and made it this credible record. That's what she brings to it. She's a real legit writer."

The irony of her current status isn't lost on Perry, who wandered in the desert of major-label hell and indie obscurity for some years.

"People come to me to write songs that will be successful for them, and they allow me the freedom to do so," says Perry, 38. "When as an artist, everybody was like, ' "What's Up"? That's the last song that's girl's gonna write.' So there's something very comforting about where I sit right now.

"Today I'll work with Lillix, and tomorrow I'll work with Gwen [Stefani], and I've worked with Angelique Kidjo, world music. I get to switch gears all the time.... You have to let go of the ego. It's not about me. The creativity and inspiration are from the artist."

By relinquishing that creative center, Perry has also overcome some of the fears that once churned beneath her bravado.

"Six years ago I was going, 'Everything's great,' but I was petrified. I was scared of failure, of being a one-hit wonder, never being able to write another song again, never being able to sing again. Maybe everything that I think I am and who I want to be never will happen.

"Today I'm not scared of anything. I've been through the ups, I've been through the downs, I know what it's like. I'm just sitting here doing my thing until I'm kicked out. And I will get kicked out, and then I'll have to claw my way back. And I will survive because I know how to do that."

The Perry brand will get a real workout in coming months, with the releases of a new Pink album and Courtney Love's solo debut, on which she co-wrote and played guitar. She also contributed songs to the upcoming movie "Prey for Rock 'n' Roll," starring Gina Gershon as the leader of a girl band, and an album by the Atlanta R&B group Blaque. Next spring comes a solo album from No Doubt's Stefani.

"I'm so much happier in this position than I think I could ever be as an artist, under a label," says Perry. "I get to do all the styles of music that I love. There's no boundaries, there's nobody holding on to me saying I can't do that."

Sitting in the studio control room that she calls her comfort zone, Perry has lost none of the old charisma. Mercurial and candid, oozing attitude and self-deprecating humor, she still seems born to be at center stage. But don't hold your breath.

"That life for me is over," she says, leaning back in a chair and smoking a cigarette "When I get the urge I'll play a random show sometime, but as far as recording anything for myself at this point in my life, I'd have to say no.... I don't feel the need to be in the spotlight whatsoever. I love being right here where I am."

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