Interview with LINDA PERRY, A&R at Custard Records for James Blunt (UK No.1) and writer for Pink, Christina Aguilera - Jan 5, 2006
ďEverybody is consumed by whatís a hit and whatís happening right nowÖ whatís popularÖ whatís on the radioÖblah blah blah. I mean, shut the f*** up! Half of those A&R guys - theyíre not artists,Ē
Ö says Linda Perry, A&R at Custard Records USA for James Blunt (UK No.1) and songwriter and producer for Pinkís multi-million selling album ďMisunderstoodĒ, 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 ďWhatís UpĒ 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, ďpaperworkĒ, and other A&Rs.
What happened after 4 Non Blondes?
I got very frustrated with 4 Non Blondes. I felt like I wasnít 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 didnít 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 Iím not educated-smart about business, but I do have an incredible instinct. Thatís whatís drives me and keeps me moving forward.
How come you started a label?
The weird thing was that Iíd 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 didnít have any success with it because I wasnít really looking for success and wasnít 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, itís 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 donít 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. Itís 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, ďIím ready to go back out there. Letís go and get me a record deal.Ē 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, ďDonít go and be an artist again, donít go and get another record dealÖ investigate this girl and find out what you can do with her.Ē My manager freaked out when I called her and said, ďCancel all the showcases!Ē She asked me why and I said, ďIíve got a gut feeling...Ē That turned into Pinkís second album, ďMisunderstood ď, 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. Sheís 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: theyíre 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. Donít 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, ďI want that guy and Iím going to get him and this is what Iím going to do to get him.Ē
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 youíve made the record. You canít plan someoneís 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 youíre at risk. Youíre going to be screwed, youíre going to have your ups and downs, and you may never recover from it. Thereís going to be a lot of shady people around, and my job is to keep focused on the big picture.
I donít want that to distract from the music. Iíve 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: ďEven if somebody had showed up, they would have taken 5Ė6 months to make a record.Ē
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 donít wait for paperwork. It's just fucking paper. People really think so much of it. Iím 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 donít 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 Iím 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 donít consume myself in crossing tís and dotting iís - 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 didnít 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 ďNo BraveryĒ, where Tom wasnít getting it. So I brought James into my studio and said, ďlet me give you a demo of what I think the song should beĒ. We recorded ďNo BraveryĒ 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 donít have any ear for what making a record entails. Everybody is consumed by whatís a hit and whatís happening right nowÖ whatís popularÖ whatís on the radioÖ blah blah blah. I mean, shut the fuck up! Half of those A&R guys - theyíre not artists. Theyíre answering telephones for a record company and donít even know about how to write a song.
Nobody knows what a hit is, and thatís the truth. The kids know what a hit is because theyíre the ones that go, ďI like thatĒ. I donít even have a clue. We decided to take it slow with James. Iíve had so much shit from the labels because theyíve 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 Iím a genius, but Iím not. Iím just someone who has good ears and a plan. Iím a risk taker. Itís 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 werenít going to throw James out there, we were going to build him up, and thatís 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 itís showing. I told everybody before we went into this, ďThis kid is going to be huge.Ē And heís just a couple of steps up the ladder right nowÖ
Are you building up new talent right now?
For some reason they all come to me. I have a few bands right now that Iím going to begin records with. I canít 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. Youíd be amazed how many incredibly talented artists are in the cds you get sent. All you have to do is listen!
Thatís what makes me a really good A&R person. I know I want to build careers; I donít want to make money. I have money. I want to make great records. I donít care if thereís 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. Iím getting handed cds even when Iím at the store. Is it all good? Absolutely not. But thereís a certain feeling I get when I hear something great.
When I was in London Sally Perryman at EMI, Jamesí publishing company, gave me a demo and wanted me to write with him. Thatís 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, ďOh my godÖ that guy doesnít 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 canít 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 donít 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!
Thereís 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 youíre writing to become hits will ruin your career. Be who you are, be risky, and donít 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. Itís a free-for-all. So go for it. If you have an idea just do it. What makes brilliant music are people who donít 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 arenít the right partner for us then. Because this is what weíre going to do, we have a great feeling about it. Weíre good at it, so weíre 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.Ē
And thenÖ you know what happens? They will go: ďWell, theyíre pretty confident! OK, letís take a shot.Ē People will take a risk on confidence. But when they go: ďYou guys should be like thisĒ, and the band obeysÖ Well, then you just set it up for them to take advantage of you the whole time. When you try to make a decision, theyíre not going to listen to you. Thatís the relationship that will have been established.
So you have to say: ďFuck you, weíre not going to sign this deal. Weíre better than that.Ē When you go, ďOh, weíll never get offered another deal, we need to take this opportunityÖď 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: ďIf 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 doĒ?
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 doesnít represent you, people will go, ďwhat the hell is this?Ē And then you have to go out and prove that thatís not who you really are. Youíre 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 doesnít work that way.
Think of all the artists, all those little pop kids out there that people make fun of and that you donít look at as credible. Now they canít get away from it. Theyíre stuck. I know itís 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 donít 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 theyíre 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 doesnít care. They will get it from you somehow. When you break even, and donít make any money, then you have to remember that itís because of the choices you made to make that $600,000 record. If youíre great and make great songs, then it doesnít cost that much money to make a record. People donít need to make those kinds of records!
Bands go off thinking theyíve got the record deal of their lives. Then thatís exactly what happens - that record deal takes over your life! Youíre 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: ďI hated my last record. The label told me I should do thisÖĒ 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. Donít listen to what the labels think, because they donít 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, ďTell me what it is that you want to do.Ē Because sometimes itís 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 donít force anything, but until we find it, we donít stop.
Iím not trying to alter them. If I wanted a girl pop singer I wouldnít go looking for a rockíníroll metal chick. Iím not going to take this rockíníroll 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, itís not necessarily that. Itís more like making sure the band has direction and know who theyíre 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 doesnít 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 arenít selling a lot right now anyway, so why do you want to be on a major label so badly? Itís not like the major labels are even selling records! Youíre 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 canít 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 theyíre 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 donít even like the music that theyíre doing. If you donít like the band and donít like the music that youíre playing, and youíre only playing it because you think youíll get a record deal, then youíre screwed. Because youíll 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 ďYouíre BeautifulĒ right away. But that would have been wrong for him, because those decisions donít build careers. Thatís more like, ďGive me a fast buck really quickĒ. 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 ďHighĒ. To me itís a relatable song, kids understand it, but itís not like itís a big hit. Just a great little introduction. We put that out there, but didnít 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. Weíre 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 ďWisemanĒ, and again with a slow build. Because we knew that it was ďYouíre BeautifulĒ that would break peopleís hearts. He has a great story, being in the army and all that stuff. He can win over anybody, heís so charming, heís funny and down to earth; a regular guy with a rock star persona. Heís 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?
Iím designing a new plan for each band. When I sign a band Iíll make the record first. Iíll put the marketing plan together with my manager. Then Iíll go to them and I know they will go for it because for some weird reason people think that I know what Iím doing right now. Maybe I do, maybe I donít; Iím not even so sure myself.
But what Iíve 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 Iím going to break them. Iím not using the plan that I used with James. I tore that up already. I canít go back to that.
Itís 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. Thatís what record companies are doing right now. My next band is going to be so completely drastically different from James itís not even going to be funny.
I donít 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 donít do that at all. I write a song and thatís it. The first thing is always the best. You shouldnít obsess over it Ė ďcan I make things better?Ē Sure you can. But is that necessarily the right thing to do, if Iím still sitting with the song 3 days or a week later? Well, in that case Iím thinking about writing a song! I donít want to think about writing a song. I just want to write it.
You donít have to polish things. Thatís when it starts sounding fake to me. Sometimes Iíve written stuff where my English isnít even proper Ė Iíve turned things backwards, and when you break it down, Iím not really saying what Iím 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. Iíve written things playing drums. Iíve 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 donít 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 youíve written, do you find yourself excluding ideas beforehand and going: ďI already know that this wonít work out in a chorus, I have to find something else?Ē
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: ďOh, I made this mistakeĒÖ but it could have just been the wrong time to do something. Like when I started the label long time ago, which wasnít 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 itís working! I canít 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 Iím doing now? Iím re-releasing that record that was a failure!
Iím not expecting that record to be successful. All Iím trying to do is to close that open room. I donít 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?
Itís just a feeling I go on. Iíve met a lot of people who I just havenít felt a connection with. There have also been people whoíve 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 donít 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: ďWow, you donít need me. Youíre a great songwriter! You just need a good producer to come in.Ē And then they just sit there and go all happy, because now they see Iím not forcing anything. A week later that personís manager is calling me and saying that they want to come write with me.
There isnít enough time in the day. Sometimes my assistant will come to me and ask if thereís anything she can do for me and I say: ďYes, give me more time.Ē I wake up, I do my little business phone calls in the morning and then I go to work at around 12 and Iím there till 2 oíclock at night. Thatís 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 Iím not even supposed to be working with, but heyÖ ďIím in the mood. Are you in the mood? Then ok, letís just write a song today!Ē
I live by today. Iím 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 thatís made out for me every month of what Iím supposed to be doing, but I havenít ever followed one of those days on there. Now itís a joke that they keep sending it to me.
But I have an idea obviously that Iím 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 Iím going to go to my studio. But as far as what the day is going to bring to meÖI donít have a clue.
But you were right on time for this interview!
Iím 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 donít 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 canít plan whatís going to happen tomorrow. I just want to be in my moment.
Photo by Aaron Rapoport
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath