Interview with LINDA PERRY, A&R at Custard Records for James Blunt (UK No.1) and writer for Pink, Christina Aguilera - Jan 5, 2006
“Everybody is consumed by what’s a hit and what’s happening right now… what’s popular… what’s on the radio…blah blah blah. I mean, shut the f*** up! Half of those A&R guys - they’re not artists,”
… says Linda Perry, A&R at Custard Records USA for James Blunt (UK No.1) and songwriter and producer for Pink’s multi-million selling album “Misunderstood”, as well as for Christina Aguilera and Kelly Osbourne.
She started her successful ventures in the music business as the singer in 4 Non Blondes - known for the international mega-hit “What’s Up” in 1993 - and went on to release a solo record and launch her own label, Rockstar Records. It was a huge failure.
Now she is one of the most wanted producers in the world, becoming the 3rd woman ever to be No.1 in the World Top 20 A&R Chart with the success of her new label, Custard Records, which signed and worked with James Blunt, the biggest selling debut European artist in 2005.
Read the extensive and unique interview with Linda, with views about the ups and downs of the music business from a person who has the experience of being both a successful and unsuccessful artist and A&R. Read about her extraordinary thoughts on dealing with new artists, “paperwork”, and other A&Rs.
What happened after 4 Non Blondes?
I got very frustrated with 4 Non Blondes. I felt like I wasn’t growing, and was unhappy about the whole situation. So I left to make my first solo record, which was shelved by the record company because it was so drastically different. They were a little shocked by the change that I made. That put me in a very, very depressed state of mind. I felt like I was a big failure and I took it as if the whole world didn’t like the record.
But when nobody got the chance to hear it, I just started getting my chops up on business. I always had a business-side of me. I really suck at it, and I’m not educated-smart about business, but I do have an incredible instinct. That’s what’s drives me and keeps me moving forward.
How come you started a label?
The weird thing was that I’d already had a label 10 years ago, called Rock Star Records. I started it because I wanted to be able to put out other artists with the help of the 4 Non Blondes hype. I didn’t have any success with it because I wasn’t really looking for success and wasn’t capable of running a label. I wanted to spend my money on helping other people, and giving bands my opinion and a platform to work from.
Now, it’s like coming full circle. I have the business sense to run a label and have the money and the respect as well. It is a very beautiful situation to be in. With the songwriting thing, I don’t know how I got involved in that. I guess people just like my style. I just love writing and producing songs. Producing is my favourite thing to do. It’s such a great thing to help somebody with his or her vision. The label is just an extension of that, where I have a big, big part of the vision.
Have there been any specific events that have led you forward in your career?
Dude, it was just being at the right place at the right time. I left my record company Interscope. I said to my manager, “I’m ready to go back out there. Let’s go and get me a record deal.” She spent a couple of months putting showcases together, and to my surprise a lot of labels were really interested in me coming back.
So I was getting ready for that when I got this weird phone call from this girl, Pink, who wanted to write with me, and possibly have me sing on her new record. I had no idea who she was. She was this white girl singing R&B music, and it made absolutely no sense to me why she would call me.
So when I got together with her I just had a feeling. My instinct said, “Don’t go and be an artist again, don’t go and get another record deal… investigate this girl and find out what you can do with her.” My manager freaked out when I called her and said, “Cancel all the showcases!” She asked me why and I said, “I’ve got a gut feeling...” That turned into Pink’s second album, “Misunderstood “, which was a major hit. And here I am now.
Who helps you with the business side?
My manager Katrina Sirdofsky. She is definitely the brains behind a lot of stuff. I admire her business sense. She’s a strong woman, with so much knowledge about the music business. And then there is my lawyer Brian, an old school lawyer who has worked with so many legends.
What I love about the people around me is: they’re business people, but they are trying to approach the business differently, not use the same old-fashioned tools and handbooks that a lot of these record companies run with. Don’t you guys think you should change it up a little bit, maybe rewrite your book on how to break an artist?
I go on my instinct as an artist, like with James Blunt for instance: there is no reason to wait for paperwork, negotiations, and all that bullshit that record companies go through when they go to sign an artist. It should be more like, “I want that guy and I’m going to get him and this is what I’m going to do to get him.”
I made James an offer the night I saw him play. I sat down with his manager that night and said that if they agreed with me, they would have a cheque in the mail the next day. Nobody would do that. But I made a decision based on my knowledge of how I think the business should be. It should get to the point - right to it. Find good artists and then make a record and then discuss what you need to do after you’ve made the record. You can’t plan someone’s future before a record is even recorded.
How much does the business side of things affect the music or creative side?
The most important thing for me is that I used to be an artist. So I treat my artists the way I would have wanted to be treated. When it comes to business like paperwork and all that stuff, I know that being in the music business means you’re at risk. You’re going to be screwed, you’re going to have your ups and downs, and you may never recover from it. There’s going to be a lot of shady people around, and my job is to keep focused on the big picture.
I don’t want that to distract from the music. I’ve seen bands break up over contracts. It can take quite a long time. Everybody passed on James first of all. Can you believe that? But after that initial phase I said: “Even if somebody had showed up, they would have taken 5–6 months to make a record.”
I signed James and within the next week we had his producer. Then in the following weeks after that he was in the studio making a record. And this was while all the paperwork was still being handed out. I don’t wait for paperwork. It's just fucking paper. People really think so much of it. I’m not going to let my fears get in the way of what is really important: making music and finding artists to make that music.
How did you find the right people?
My manager Katrina was actually the manager that managed 4 Non Blondes. Then we fired her, and then I re-hired her back when I moved to L.A. I have my 2 lawyers. I have accumulated new people, obviously, but I don’t have a big team of people.
I have 4 people I can completely trust. I trust my perception of people. We have a way we work with our team. They know that I’m the one that makes things happen. Their job is to do all the work and follow behind me and make sure that everything they want to happen happens. I give them good direction. I read over the paperwork after they do it and give the OK. But I don’t consume myself in crossing t’s and dotting i’s - I focus on what our next move is going to be, our next creative step.
How do you find the other people involved with the label?
When I started Custard, I didn’t want to affiliate myself to one particular label. So Custard records is completely independent. With James I made the record first and then we teamed up with other partners. James and I sat down with all the songs, just the two of us, and picked the songs we loved the best. Then I met with his producer, Tom Rothrock, loved him, and we started making the record.
They would be recording and I would give my opinion of where the direction was going. For instance with the song “No Bravery”, where Tom wasn’t getting it. So I brought James into my studio and said, “let me give you a demo of what I think the song should be”. We recorded “No Bravery” within a few hours, but I never meant to produce anything on the record, it just happened that way. So nobody had any involvement in the record and that was probably the best decision I made.
People, as in industry people, have their stupid opinions. If they start trying to interfere with the records - forget about it. You might as well end your career right there! Because they don’t have any ear for what making a record entails. Everybody is consumed by what’s a hit and what’s happening right now… what’s popular… what’s on the radio… blah blah blah. I mean, shut the fuck up! Half of those A&R guys - they’re not artists. They’re answering telephones for a record company and don’t even know about how to write a song.
Nobody knows what a hit is, and that’s the truth. The kids know what a hit is because they’re the ones that go, “I like that”. I don’t even have a clue. We decided to take it slow with James. I’ve had so much shit from the labels because they’ve heard about the deal I made with James. It was so unheard of, what I did. And everybody right now is coming to me clapping his or her hands at me.
I come out like I’m a genius, but I’m not. I’m just someone who has good ears and a plan. I’m a risk taker. It’s a fact that when you take a risk something great happens. It can be greatly bad or greatly good, but something great happens - something alters your life. We weren’t going to throw James out there, we were going to build him up, and that’s just what we did. We finished the record and went to Atlantic Records with it at first over in the UK & Europe, because they loved James and I love them.
Then Atlantic US joined up. So it seemed to be the perfect fit. Atlantic and Custard are doing an awesome job together for James, and it’s showing. I told everybody before we went into this, “This kid is going to be huge.” And he’s just a couple of steps up the ladder right now…
Are you building up new talent right now?
For some reason they all come to me. I have a few bands right now that I’m going to begin records with. I can’t tell you the names, because they are tied up in other deals, which they are trying to get out of in order to join Custard. A friend gave me a cd and instead of taking the cd and throwing it on my desk, I listened to it. You’d be amazed how many incredibly talented artists are in the cds you get sent. All you have to do is listen!
That’s what makes me a really good A&R person. I know I want to build careers; I don’t want to make money. I have money. I want to make great records. I don’t care if there’s a hit on there. I want to make a great body of work, a record, an album, 11 or 12 songs that are incredible, not just one or two that are ok. Then get it out there, and trust the artist.
Do you listen to unsolicited material?
Of course I do. I’m getting handed cds even when I’m at the store. Is it all good? Absolutely not. But there’s a certain feeling I get when I hear something great.
When I was in London Sally Perryman at EMI, James’ publishing company, gave me a demo and wanted me to write with him. That’s how I was introduced to James.
After all these people passed on him they felt like he needed help with the songwriting. So they showed me that really crappy demo and I went, “Oh my god… that guy doesn’t need a fucking writer, he needs a record deal! So I signed him. It was that easy.
What advice would you give to unsigned acts building their careers?
You can’t wait for something to happen. You have to make things happen. A lot of bands wait around and put so much on getting a record deal. If you don’t care about all that stuff and all you do is focus on making good music, going out and playing shows and having a good time doing it, you will be amazed how many people will start caring!
There’s something about the energy that is put out there. But I would encourage everybody to be as quirky as he or she wants to be. If you start writing songs thinking about what a hit is, you might as well just end your career right now. Because those horrible songs that you’re writing to become hits will ruin your career. Be who you are, be risky, and don’t give a fuck, because there are no rules in the music business.
For some reason record labels run around and act like there is this golden rule, but there is none. It’s a free-for-all. So go for it. If you have an idea just do it. What makes brilliant music are people who don’t give a fuck about what other people are going to think.
If the industry people around a band are pretending to know what is best for the band, then it's very important for the band to go, "You know what? You aren’t the right partner for us then. Because this is what we’re going to do, we have a great feeling about it. We’re good at it, so we’re going to have success with or without you. Either you can jump on board with us and do it our way or forget about it.”
And then… you know what happens? They will go: “Well, they’re pretty confident! OK, let’s take a shot.” People will take a risk on confidence. But when they go: “You guys should be like this”, and the band obeys… Well, then you just set it up for them to take advantage of you the whole time. When you try to make a decision, they’re not going to listen to you. That’s the relationship that will have been established.
So you have to say: “Fuck you, we’re not going to sign this deal. We’re better than that.” When you go, “Oh, we’ll never get offered another deal, we need to take this opportunity…“ Right there is what screws you: fear. Having no faith. You know what, if these guys showed up, somebody else will show up, too. Fear is the mother of them all.
But what about artists who think: “If I have one foot in the door and have some success, then I can change it around afterwards and do what I really want to do”?
Do you know how many people have said that who are now trying to rebuild their credibility? When you put a record out in the world that doesn’t represent you, people will go, “what the hell is this?” And then you have to go out and prove that that’s not who you really are. You’re just making it to take so much longer before you can be who you really are. This happens all the time. In most cases it doesn’t work that way.
Think of all the artists, all those little pop kids out there that people make fun of and that you don’t look at as credible. Now they can’t get away from it. They’re stuck. I know it’s hard to say no, when all you want is to make records.
What mistakes are artists making over and over that should be thought about more?
I think mistakes are made drastically on contracts. A lot of bands get screwed because they are starving and don’t have any money and life is floating by, and they have this dream of being rock stars. So when a big fancy label comes and starts waving this big contract around and it seems as if they’re offering a lot of money, a lot of bands go just for the money up front.
I say take less money, because you have to pay it back at the end of the day. Everybody needs to remember that if they make a million dollar video and take a $750.000 contract or take a year to produce the record; they have to pay that money back! Every little dime that is spent is coming out of your pocket. The label is not paying for anything. They are just fronting you the money.
When you make the right record and everything fails, the label doesn’t care. They will get it from you somehow. When you break even, and don’t make any money, then you have to remember that it’s because of the choices you made to make that $600,000 record. If you’re great and make great songs, then it doesn’t cost that much money to make a record. People don’t need to make those kinds of records!
Bands go off thinking they’ve got the record deal of their lives. Then that’s exactly what happens - that record deal takes over your life! You’re stuck on that label for 6 records, 10 years, sweating, trying to pay back every dime and working really hard unless you get very successful. In order to be very successful the band has to be in charge.
I work with a lot of people that come to me and say: “I hated my last record. The label told me I should do this…” And now they have to rebuild their credibility, without even having sold a lot of records. You lose a lot of credibility on your first records when you start doing doing what the label tells you to do. That ruins bands. Don’t listen to what the labels think, because they don’t know. They just make you sound like Lindsay Lohan or whatever the hip boy-rock band is that day.
When you see talent, an artist who can develop from an initial idea to the finished product, how do you go about helping them?
I have a great understanding of what somebody is trying to accomplish and I can help him or her get to that place and to the next level. I ask them, “Tell me what it is that you want to do.” Because sometimes it’s very hard for an artist to express exactly what they want to do. I ask them to play me everything they have and then I help them arrange songs and find a sound. I don’t force anything, but until we find it, we don’t stop.
I’m not trying to alter them. If I wanted a girl pop singer I wouldn’t go looking for a rock’n’roll metal chick. I’m not going to take this rock’n’roll metal chick and turn her into a pop singer. I see who they are and who they want to be and help them to go to the next level with that.
Should a band release an independent record, do a lot of live shows and focus on getting known locally?
No, it’s not necessarily that. It’s more like making sure the band has direction and know who they’re going to be and what they want. Because if not, it makes it very easy for the labels to step in and persuade them to be something else. All of a sudden they trust this label to make these artist decisions for them and then they end up with that record that doesn’t sound like them at all.
Playing live is always a good thing. It boosts your confidence, it helps you with your show, and to be quite honest, records aren’t selling a lot right now anyway, so why do you want to be on a major label so badly? It’s not like the major labels are even selling records! You’re better off selling 5000 records on your own and making all that money than selling 50.000 records on a record label and make the same amount of money. You can’t wait around for someone to show up and sweep you away from these horribly dusty clubs and bring you into a fabulous studio, where you become the next Bob Dylan. If they’re not there, just keep moving up the steps. Just keep going forward, keep writing, keep playing, and keep building your craft.
Some artists are in the wrong bands together. They might be 4 people on the band and 2 of them don’t even like the music that they’re doing. If you don’t like the band and don’t like the music that you’re playing, and you’re only playing it because you think you’ll get a record deal, then you’re screwed. Because you’ll end up getting fired along the line. People do things for all the wrong reasons.
As the head of a label, when you have the finished product, how do you build strategies to go into the market?
You have to look at the big picture. With James we could have thrown him out there, put a big push behind him and just started with “You’re Beautiful” right away. But that would have been wrong for him, because those decisions don’t build careers. That’s more like, “Give me a fast buck really quick”. So we had him touring on his own first, then we got some shows with Elton John around the UK.
We made a very low budget video, so we could get the media people a visual showing how he is for press. Then we started with a song called “High”. To me it’s a relatable song, kids understand it, but it’s not like it’s a big hit. Just a great little introduction. We put that out there, but didn’t push it. Then we went after light press like Q magazine and NME.
It was like, let them have this and let them see what they think. But not forcing our opinion. Do you think that guy is incredible? Then tell us. Let us know. I really wanted to take the approach where we could get people to help us out. We’re all new at this right now, can you give us some advice? People felt involved. And once that happens, they get involved. Q magazine started writing about James left and right. The radio started picking up on it.
More and more people were showing up at his shows. Then we released the track “Wiseman”, and again with a slow build. Because we knew that it was “You’re Beautiful” that would break people’s hearts. He has a great story, being in the army and all that stuff. He can win over anybody, he’s so charming, he’s funny and down to earth; a regular guy with a rock star persona. He’s our secret weapon. We just sent him in to go meet people.
Would you try to do it the same way with a new band?
I’m designing a new plan for each band. When I sign a band I’ll make the record first. I’ll put the marketing plan together with my manager. Then I’ll go to them and I know they will go for it because for some weird reason people think that I know what I’m doing right now. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t; I’m not even so sure myself.
But what I’ve got going for me is a good track record. I have more successes than failures right now, so whatever band I take on, I have to come up with a whole other concept of how I’m going to break them. I’m not using the plan that I used with James. I tore that up already. I can’t go back to that.
It’s impossible to replicate, because then I would be one of those labels out there right now trying to find James Blunt No.2, setting out to market him in exactly the same way. That’s what record companies are doing right now. My next band is going to be so completely drastically different from James it’s not even going to be funny.
I don’t think the same plan is possible for another artist. Bur maybe it is? If you want to make money, it is. But I want to make great music. I want Custard to be a great label.
How often do you rewrite song ideas, do you let an idea sit for a while and then go back to it and change it?
No, I don’t do that at all. I write a song and that’s it. The first thing is always the best. You shouldn’t obsess over it – “can I make things better?” Sure you can. But is that necessarily the right thing to do, if I’m still sitting with the song 3 days or a week later? Well, in that case I’m thinking about writing a song! I don’t want to think about writing a song. I just want to write it.
You don’t have to polish things. That’s when it starts sounding fake to me. Sometimes I’ve written stuff where my English isn’t even proper – I’ve turned things backwards, and when you break it down, I’m not really saying what I’m supposed to. But there is something about the way I said it that was so wrong that it just sounds so right. I love mistakes!
Which instrument do you use for songwriting?
It depends. I write a lot on piano and on guitar. I’ve written things playing drums. I’ve written song on a bass or a programmed drumbeat with synthesizers too. I can spend a whole week without one song coming to me. I don’t force things to happen. They just show up. It can be in the weirdest places. I can be playing the weirdest instruments. When it's time to write a song, it's time to write it.
After all the songs you’ve written, do you find yourself excluding ideas beforehand and going: “I already know that this won’t work out in a chorus, I have to find something else?”
No, the only thing that I do know is to follow my gut instinct even more. My mind fucks me over every single time. You can keep looking at life like: “Oh, I made this mistake”… but it could have just been the wrong time to do something. Like when I started the label long time ago, which wasn’t successful. I lost a lot of money. Everybody considered me to be a total idiot. But I do it again the same way now and this time it’s working! I can’t let fear drive my life.
Were there times where fear was driving it?
Yeah, when I was in 4 Non Blondes. I stayed in it a lot longer than I should have, because I was afraid to leave. My fears actually came true: my solo record was a total flop and I was really down. But you know what? I love that! And you know what I’m doing now? I’m re-releasing that record that was a failure!
I’m not expecting that record to be successful. All I’m trying to do is to close that open room. I don’t want to reinvent my career as an artist again, I just want people to have the opportunity to hear the record.
You have 24 hours in a day - how do you prioritize who to co-write with?
It’s just a feeling I go on. I’ve met a lot of people who I just haven’t felt a connection with. There have also been people who’ve said their label feels they need to work with me. They drag their feet when they come in. They feel their songs are fine. They don’t need someone to help them. You know what ends up happening? We end up sitting, talking, smoking cigarettes, and they play me their songs and I go: “Wow, you don’t need me. You’re a great songwriter! You just need a good producer to come in.” And then they just sit there and go all happy, because now they see I’m not forcing anything. A week later that person’s manager is calling me and saying that they want to come write with me.
There isn’t enough time in the day. Sometimes my assistant will come to me and ask if there’s anything she can do for me and I say: “Yes, give me more time.” I wake up, I do my little business phone calls in the morning and then I go to work at around 12 and I’m there till 2 o’clock at night. That’s every single day except for Sunday. Sunday is my day off, where I just chill and whatever. I love being in my studio. I have people drop by that I’m not even supposed to be working with, but hey… “I’m in the mood. Are you in the mood? Then ok, let’s just write a song today!”
I live by today. I’m only as good as what I did yesterday - today I have to see if I can top it. I have a sense of where I like to be in my life. I have this calendar that’s made out for me every month of what I’m supposed to be doing, but I haven’t ever followed one of those days on there. Now it’s a joke that they keep sending it to me.
But I have an idea obviously that I’m going to be working with Christina Aguilera for the next week. I know that I have to wake up and eat sometime today. I know I’m going to go to my studio. But as far as what the day is going to bring to me…I don’t have a clue.
But you were right on time for this interview!
I’m a very prompt person. That has nothing to do with living on a schedule. I want people to show up on my studio right on time, because I don’t have any time to waste. Anything can happen today so I just want to make sure that I have as much time as I possibly can for it to happen. I have to have a certain work effect, where I have to be on time. But at the same time I can’t plan what’s going to happen tomorrow. I just want to be in my moment.
Photo by Aaron Rapoport
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath