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“Sometimes I’ll look back at old pictures where I’m a little heavy and dressed funny and think, ‘How did I get chicks all the time?’”
Linda Perry is not sharing this personal insight over coffee with a close friend. Rather, she’s addressing a Beverly Hills ballroom full of entertainers — actresses Evan Rachel Wood, Teri Polo, Whitney Cummings and Milla Jovovich, comedian Margaret Cho and fellow songwriter Sia among them — at the “An Evening With Women” gala on May 10 to benefit the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, an event she has curated for the past six years (which would raise $600,000 that night). Her teardrop-tattooed eyes, however, are fixed on one woman in particular: her wife of five weeks, Sara Gilbert, whom she met in 2011 through a yoga instructor, seated front and center.
“I had a whole nother life before you, baby,” Perry, 49, coos into the microphone. Cue her past life: She’s about to take the stage with the band that put her on the map — the band she left in an inexplicable hurry — for the first time in nearly two decades. Despite days of rigidly scheduled rehearsals, the cobwebs, and perhaps some skeletons, are still there. Indeed, the group is only a couple of songs into their set before Perry cracks, “That sounded so much better at sound check.”
Between 1992 and 1994, 4 Non Blondes sold 1.5 million albums (according to Nielsen SoundScan), notched a top 10 hit — the ubiquitous sing-along “What’s Up” — and toured the world. Their moment was short-lived; Perry, unhappy with the role and responsibilities of being a frontwoman, quit in 1995, and the band plunged back into oblivion. (A reunion was never discussed until it served a greater purpose for Perry: charity.)
But the success of 4 Non Blondes acted as a launchpad for Perry the songwriter, who saw her first hit as a co-writer, Pink’s “Get the Party Started,” go to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2001. Indeed, it’s Perry’s pedigree (along with her unpredictable potty mouth) that got her a VH1 series, Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project, which she hopes will help discover the next Bob Dylan or Patti Smith.
Launched July 16, Perry’s answer to American Idol is a boot camp that brings eight individuals to their breaking points — in this case, aspiring musicians, songwriters and studio wizards competing for a chance at a production deal with Perry by proving their music-making might in a high-stress environment. “I’m looking for someone to take over this legacy of music,” says the songwriter-producer, who, according to sources, charges in the vicinity of $30,000 per song. “There’s a bunch of kids out there that are hungry. There’s a Sia out there; there’s a Linda Perry. … But there is no Bob Dylan to teach someone how to be like Bob Dylan.” The show’s goal: to find one.
Sitting at her North Hollywood studio a month after the Beverly Hilton concert, Perry explains the genesis of her TV show. “Artists that I’ve worked with, whether it’s Christina [Aguilera] or Pink [have said], ‘She’s balls to the walls, she’s aggressive, she goes right for the f—ing jugular … I became emotional, I cried.’ And VH1 were like, ‘Would you be interested in doing a show about that?'”
She learned the ins and outs of recording on 4 Non Blondes’ 1992 debut, Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, mostly from fighting with producer David Tickle. “I hated that record,” she says. “Not because the album was bad. It was just that our heart wasn’t in it. Or mine wasn’t.” For “What’s Up,” Tickle originally inserted a marching band snare as an accent. “It was ridiculous,” says Perry. “He made me change words … I cried to Interscope and said, ‘I am not allowing this to be put out there.’ They were like, ‘Why can’t you just be a singer, Linda?'” (Tickle did not respond to a request for comment.)
By quitting the band, Perry was going against the advice of her label, Interscope Records, and its outspoken founder, Jimmy Iovine, who had taken the reins on 4 Non Blondes’ debut. Abandoning her multi-platinum act for a nebulous future on her own was risky, to say the least.
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The millions she made from the album, which spent 59 weeks on the Billboard 200? “Tainted money,” says Perry, recalling the day she drained her bank account of the last $10,000 of her “What’s Up” payoff. “My accountant said, ‘Well, you’ve spent it all!’ I had no money. Then, literally, a week later, Pink called. And my whole life changed.”
Her sexuality also played a part in her decision to go it alone. Although Perry says she has never personally struggled with being gay, her bandmates, two of whom were lesbians, weren’t ready to be out quite as loudly in the early ’90s. Things came to a head when Interscope sent a plant to interview the band and test their responses to touchy personal questions. Perry remembers her answer: “Why would me liking pussy play into our music?” But bassist Christa Hillhouse and drummer Dawn Richardson were less willing to go there. Perry thought their uneasiness was absurd. “I was like, ‘I’m gay. I have no problem about it. So I’m going to be gay, and you guys can be in the closet,’” she recalls.
Perry released several well-received solo albums. But then her father, Alfred, an engineer with whom she had had a strained relationship (a music hobbyist, “he wanted to be hanging out with Frank Sinatra but didn’t choose that lifestyle,” says Perry), got sick toward the end of the ’90s and she “went into this tailspin,” says Perry. (Her mother, Marluce Lucena Martin, is still alive.) “I didn’t have the greatest relationship and I was always beating him up for it. I never thought he saw me until I became famous. When he was in and out of hospitals and I started to get closer to him, it was hard. I was drinking like crazy. I wasn’t sleeping. I had massive panic attacks where I thought I was dying.”
Through it all, the hits kept coming — Aguilera’s “Beautiful” in 2001, which landed Perry a Grammy nomination, and Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For” in 2004. Then, in 2005, Perry’s father died. She still tears up at the memory. “When something dies, something is born, and I was like a whole new Linda,” she says of her decision to give up alcohol, coffee and cigarettes, and go vegan. “Now, I am the clearest, the most focused. I look the best, I feel the best, I’m writing the best.”
Perry hopes to share the wisdom she painfully gained, which makes her new show’s title, Make or Break, even more apt. Taping at her 10,000-square-foot recording studio took just three weeks, during which, Perry says, “I opened my mouth and didn’t shut it for 18 days. I don’t know what the f— I said, but I know real shit happened.”
Coming to terms with the needs of reality TV was a real eye-opener — for both VH1 and its new host. Perry, who grew up in San Diego and calls Los Angeles home, describes the first day of shooting: “I did something, and they missed it, so they came to me, like, ‘Can you do that again? That was such a great moment.’ And I go, ‘Um, let’s get this clear: If you didn’t get it, you didn’t get it. You missed it. I’m not repeating anything.’ I told the artists, ‘If anybody asks you to redo something or puts words in your mouth, you call me up.’”
VH1 says it is precisely that attitude that made the show an attractive addition to its prime-time programming slate, which has had an uptick in viewers thanks to recent hits like Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and Hollywood Exes. “What really engages VH1 viewers is authentic storytelling,” VH1 president Tom Calderone tells Billboard. “Our viewers are incredibly sharp. If they sense an artist or celebrity isn’t being genuine or that a storyline just doesn’t ring true, they’ll tune out.”
Perry thinks she may have what they’re looking for. “They want more viewers of credibility,” she says. “It’s not because of my good looks. It’s because they know I have a credible career. I haven’t whored myself out.”
This story originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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