Two decades ago, Linda Perry’s voice permeated the airwaves with 4 Non Blondes’ massive hit, “What’s Going On?” But penning one of Gen X’s anthems was just the tip of the iceberg for Perry, who went on to compose and produce hits for Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful”), Gwen Stefani (“What You Waiting For?”) and Pink (“Get the Party Started”). She also founded two record labels and collaborated with everyone from Celine Dion to Ziggy Marley to Cheap Trick. Earlier this year, the GRAMMY winner was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Despite such an eclectic resume, Perry’s latest collaboration charts new territory, even for such an adventurous artist. She teamed up with her wife, producer and actor Sara Gilbert (The Talk, The Big Bang Theory, Roseanne), on Deer Sounds, their first album of children’s music. We caught up with Perry and Gilbert, who explained how Deer Sounds came to fruition with a little help from their family, including their infant son Rhodes.
BMI: Did either of you listen to children’s music when you were kids? Anyone in particular who inspired Deer Sounds?
Sara Gilbert: I’ve always avoided children’s music (laughs). As a parent, and as a child, pretty much. You just want your kids to listen to the classics, like Bowie or the Beatles or whatever. But the truth is, there’s something in kids’ music that they do like, so this is like the perfect marriage of both. I know that Linda, when she was a kid, Jungle Book was her favorite. That was her first inspiration of a children’s album, and growing up, that was her first musical inspiration.
BMI: I understand that Deer Sounds was quite the family affair; you had help from multiple family and friends. What was it like working together?
Gilbert: Linda’s always been talking about making a children’s album. She felt that, when she had a kid, she would write a whole album. And that’s what happened. Rhodes was born, and she had these ideas and started to play songs around the house. And then because we were home; she wasn’t working because she was taking time off to be with him and me and the family [Gilbert has two children, Levi and Sawyer, from a previous relationship], we were all here. My kids were here, and everybody started throwing ideas around, throwing lyrics around. It just became a family project.
BMI: How did you come up with song ideas?
Linda Perry: I started “He + She,” and when I played it for Sara, she said it reminded her of the kids, and so we just kind of wrote it based on them. Which was super easy, because, you know, when you are full-on going into writing mode … I’ve been in Nashville, I know what it’s like. You go in there, you go in these rooms, you clock in your time and you write your song. You’re coming out with a song, no matter what. You’ll labor at it. The difference here was, there’s no laboring involved. It was fun for the family, and maybe other families will like it, too. No big deal, we’re not looking, you know, to win the critics over or anything. We just made an album that I think sounds really great because I think it sounds so free. An idea would come, and I would record it on my iPhone, and then I would start turning the little idea into a song, and then the other kids would say, ‘maybe make it about this,’ or ‘maybe make it about that.’ We just started writing lyrics. There’s some songs where the kids write, there’s some songs where it’s just me, a couple of songs where it’s just me and Sara. Rhodes does one all on his own called “Rhodes’ Piano Concerto #9.”
BMI: I read that you recorded the album in just three weeks and mixed it in four days, and that it was a very pure, free project. Do you think that perhaps you were tapping into a part of you that created the music you wanted to hear, no matter what anyone else might think or say, like a child would?
Perry: Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m saying. I recommend that every songwriter do a project like this, because you’re just coming at it with not one thought like, ‘oh I want this to be a hit,’ or ‘who can I get to sing this,’ or ‘I need this to sound like this.’ There’s none of that, there’s none of those intentions involved, so when the making of this album came up, it was, ‘here’s the songs, here’s the lyrics, here’s the production, move on.’ It was like, I’ve said several times, and this is the truth, my closest friends who know me really well, that are extremely critical of music, said that it was their favorite music I’d ever done, the favorite project I’ve ever done, the favorite songs I’ve ever done, the favorite production I’ve ever done, because it sounds the closest to me that they’ve ever heard. Because I’m pretty wacky. It’s fine to figure out a balance that makes me not 100% me, but in this album, I was.
I think I was recording the vocals to “He + She” when “Pirate Ghosts” showed up. That one just came out of nowhere because Sawyer loves pirates, so I was just thinking about her, and all of a sudden, this song came up in my head, and I was like, wait a minute! Sara texted me, when are you going to be home, and I said, ‘I don’t know, a monster just showed up.’ I got all animated and took on this whole other character. And I laughed the whole time of writing it, recording the vocal, everything. It was so funny to me that I was so out there, that the laughter was just pure joy. That’s the way music should be. That’s all I’ve always wanted it to be. This is a bigger picture, a bigger project than just, we recorded a children’s album, you know? This very album has helped me through many lost roads, should I say, and now I feel like it really helped me get back on the right track.
BMI: Sara, what was it like for you, doing a project like this for the first time? How was it different from approaching a role as an actor, or a producer? Was this your first musical project?
Gilbert: Well, for me, it’s actually a performance thing. Linda made me perform at the GRAMMY offices with her and made me play guitar, and I’m not a very good guitar player, like, I learned when I was a teenager and haven’t played since then. Even though I’ve been scared, there’s something about just being creative, even if you’re scared, that’s great. Even if it’s not your best thing. I’m such a perfectionist. I feel like I always try to make things perfect, or be the best, or do the most prep work, and Linda’s not like that. I can barely get her to rehearse a song with me. It’s good to get out there and be creative, no matter what the form, is what I’m learning.
BMI: And Linda has years of experience as a songwriter, producer and a performer. Do you think it was different for her to work with you and the kids compared to, say, Gwen Stefani?
Gilbert: I think that she’s such an in the moment person, that Linda works differently with everything. Even if she’s going to have a conversation with somebody, if I say, ‘what are you going to say,’ she’d be like, ‘well, I don’t know, I’m not in the conversation yet,’ you know? She’s very much an energy person, so whatever energy comes in is what she’s going to work with. I think the similarity would be, she’s not going to plan too much for anybody. She always says, when people come in and they have ideas, that they’re trying to write the song, she says, ‘just let the song show up.’ So I think that’s the same, but other than that, every experience would be individual for her.
BMI: Your website has great info for parents, like storytelling prompts inspired by the album, which would actually be just as fun for adults. Linda, many of the artists you’ve collaborated with — Christina Aguilera, Pink, Alicia Keys, Gwen Stefani — are moms. Did you send the album their way for feedback?
Gilbert: She sent it to her friends and musicians and definitely heard positive things. Christina (Aguilera) tweeted about how good it was.
BMI: It was a big year for both of you. In addition to having Rhodes, Linda was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Gilbert: She was so moved by it, and that was the award that everybody wants to get in the industry. It’s the one where you feel like you’ve been approved of by your colleagues. I know that she felt like, ‘this is great, but I’m just beginning.’ She said that this is her inspiration to do more in her life. She feels like the best is yet to come.
BMI: Linda, you have a long history with BMI. Tell us about that relationship.
Perry: I love the dedication, the musicality. BMI is filled with music people who truly love music. They are there to protect you and what you have created. With BMI, I feel like I’m in a prestigious club for real musicians, songwriters and artists.
BMI: Linda, you’ll be participating in a Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session at the USC Thornton School of Music on November 6 – tell us about your growing role as a mentor in the industry, as well as to students looking to go into the profession of songwriting.
Perry: I love music, it’s my passion, I wake up with it and go to sleep with it. Kids today need to love it for that reason only. Stop chasing hits and acceptance. Be you, because you are what’s left when the ride is over.