Nowadays, Linda Perry is focused on her film and television scoring work and mentoring her 17-year-old protégé, Willa Amai. But she will of course always be associated with one of the greatest and most enduring protest anthems of the alt-rock ‘90s, “What’s Up” with 4 Non Blondes — even though that band only released one album. This week, Perry revisits that decade with her original score for Soleil Moon Frye’s Kid 90 documentary, which features “The Letter,” Perry’s first solo song in 15 years. But the Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy Producer of the Year nominee tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that doing that song — and particularly its video, which features extreme closeups of Perry’s warpainted face as she sings lyrics inspired by Frye’s most emotional scene – tapped into her personal ‘90s angst, dredging up insecurities from her bittersweet 4 Non Blondes days.
“When I was in a band, one of my biggest struggles was having to do videos and be seen and taking pictures,” Perry says — a surprising confession, given her famously steely exterior and take-no-crap attitude. “I didn't like the criticism — and it was very hard criticism. It's very hard on me. When it's me personally, like if I write a song, it hurts too much. I can be onstage and see 80,000 people out there, and if there's one person that's not paying attention to me, it crushes me. I don't see all the other people; I just see the one person that looks bored. So, when I was going to do the video, it was already emotional and vulnerable for me to even release the song.”
However, when Perry reluctantly enlisted Don Hardy — director of the upcoming Sean Penn documentary Citizen Penn, for which Perry composed the score — to shoot “The Letter’s” stark video, she decided to face her fears, literally. “I told him, ‘Just get on my face. I don't care. Just put the friggin’ camera on my face. I want to see the lines, see everything. I don't care. I'm so vulnerable already. I don't even want to do this video,’’” she recalls. It was only after two hours of shooting that Perry impulsively swiped that mask-like stripe of blue makeup across her eyes — but then she second-guessed herself all over again.
“I said, ‘I just need to get out of myself right now, so I'm going do one last shot, one last take, but I'm going to paint this blue thing on my face, because maybe it'll make me feel more heroic, more powerful, maybe more Mighty Mouse.’ I thought maybe I won't be so vulnerable and I could do the ‘hero version’ of the song. But the friggin’ mask made me feel even more vulnerable! Now I was aware of that, like: ‘What did I do? I just painted this blue streak over my face! Oh God, I gotta own it now. I have no idea why I'm doing that.’ But, there it is.”
As for those 30-year-old insecurities, Perry never really liked the 4 Non Blondes’ one studio album Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, despite it selling a whopping 6 million copies worldwide. “I had an issue with the band itself. I felt silly in it. I felt, ‘This doesn't feel like me.’ I didn't like the look of the band; I couldn't stand the sound of the record,” she admits. “I felt like I was constantly defending something, and I couldn't even really stand by it. People would say, ‘You guys turned into a pop band,’ because before [getting signed to Interscope in 1991], we were punk-rock… I mean, I was sloshing all over the place like a little fat little whale, just drunk, just crazy. And then… you listen to the record.
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“Everybody got me to stop smoking and drinking six weeks prior to the record, so then when I started singing, all my high notes were way up there, and my rich and gravelly voice was gone. I was so annoyed,” Perry continues. “And then we got bad reviews; people thought I was annoying, saying, ‘What is this look? Who's this girl in the top hat and dreads?’ They thought we were put-together [by a record company executive] but actually, that was just the way I looked. It was no gimmick. I was a weird-looking person with dreadlocks and hats. But I remember reading reviews and thinking, ‘Oh God, why did I do that?’”
Perry still isn’t thrilled with Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, with the exception of one track: “What’s Up,” of course. But she’s not a fan of that song just because it was a huge hit, topping the charts in 10 countries. It’s because, as she notes, “You can tell it sounds different than the rest of the record. It’s more raw. It's simpler. It's just more heartfelt.” And that’s because Perry stealthily took matters into her own hands, after hearing the original studio version of “What’s Up” and hating it.
“The producer [David Tickle] messed it up,” she explains. “Like, it had solos, it had a marching drum, and he made me change lyrics. And I cried. I was like, ‘What is this? This is not the song I wrote!’ So I took the band, when we were done with the record before mastering, and rerecorded the song. This was me just going into the studio. The engineer guy that worked there and I just started dialing in sound. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm just pretending like I know what I'm doing — I'm moving microphones, saying, ‘OK, his sounds good. Yeah, that sounds great!’ We got our take, and then that ended up showing up on the album. At 2 in the morning we mixed the song, and it made mastering that next day. So the song ‘What's Up’ — that I produced. That I’m happy with. I feel like my guitar was a little tinny, but hey, I was in a hurry.”
By the time 4 Non Blondes re-entered the studio in 1994 to record their never-released second album, Perry recalls she was understandably “really second-guessing everything. ... And I backed out of it, because I just felt like I would come in and I'd write something deep, and the band would say, ‘That doesn't sound like us. That sounds like something you would do solo.’ I heard that over and over. And then I'd go away and I'd come back and write some stupid song, and they would be like, ‘Oh, it's perfect!’ So then, while we were on a break, I went to the label and I said, ‘I can't do this anymore. I'm going to literally kill myself if I have to be in this band again, because I don't like the music. I don't like where we're going.’”
Perry then embarked on her own path, eventually writing and producing even bigger hits for P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Alicia Keys, and many others, and now she's enjoying a third career act as an in-demand film composer. But “What’s Up” continues to connects with listeners who weren’t even alive when Soleil Moon Frye’s raw camcorder footage from Kid 90was shot, with the song most recently going viral on TikTok. “What’s Up” was originally a snapshot of what was going on during the George Bush administration, including the AIDS epidemic, the Gulf War, and a growing drug crisis in Perry’s home city at the time, San Francisco. But the fact that it still rings true in 2021 proves that future super-producer Perry’s instincts to retool Tickle’s fussy production were spot-on.
“It was a big moment for reflection and looking in the world and politics and being defiant and being a punk rocker and standing up. A lot of protests were happening in the ‘90s, a lot of them for gay people, and so that's where the song came from: just 25 years of my life and still wondering what the hell is going on. The music was just there to support the message, and I think those are the best productions. Those are the best songs, when you're just letting the message carry and not all the bells and whistles get in the way,” says Perry. “That lasts decades. Those become classics. And ‘What's Up’ is a classic for that very reason. Whether you heard it 25 years ago or you're hearing it now, anybody that listens to it is taking on their own interpretation of what this song means. And it resonates through millions right now because of the events of past four years that have taken place in this country. So, I don't expect to that song to go away any time soon.”
The above interview is taken from Linda Perry appearance with Willa Amai on the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West” and from Perry’s virtual panel for the SCAD ATVfest. Full audio of the Volume West conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.
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