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Linda Perry talks lack of respect, representation for female producers: 'If I were Rick Rubin, they wouldn't have done that'

Lyndsey Parker
Linda Perry performs at the Townsend on March 13 in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Lorne Thomson/Redferns)

Linda Perry started off as a ’90s rock trailblazer with 4 Non Blondes, then established herself as one of the most successful producers and songwriters in the business as she worked with fellow strong women like P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Adele, and Courtney Love. But Perry is an anomaly in the business: A famous study from 2010 claimed women accounted for less than 5 percent of music producers and engineers, and Terri Winston from Women’s Audio Mission more recently said she thinks the number is even smaller than that. Furthermore, only six women have ever received a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, and no woman has ever won that award. In the words of 4 Non Blondes’ biggest hit, what’s going on?

In Austin, Texas, this week to give a keynote address at the South By Southwest festival and support her protégés — 13-year-old singer-songwriter Willa Amai (who recently went viral after her cover of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was featured in an Intuit QuickBooks commercial) and eponymous rock band Dorothy — Perry sat down with Yahoo Entertainment for an eye-opening conversation about the plight of women in music today.

Yahoo Entertainment: There has been a lot of talk recently about the lack of female record producers out there. You’re one of the few successful ones. Why do you think that is?
Linda Perry: I really don’t know, to be quite honest. I know that I work hard. Producing is a lot of f***ing work, and I put in a lot of hours. A lot of people call me a “machine,” and I don’t think a lot of men or women operate the way I do. But then you take the normal woman: I don’t think the hunger and the drive is there as much. It’s not a “sexy” position, being the producer. You have to be very bossy. You have to be very aggressive. And I think, right there, that takes a lot of women out.

As a female producer, have you ever felt resistance or disrespect from male artists, or from male studio colleagues?
There’s been a couple times. I’ve gotten attitude from a couple guys before. I just don’t let it affect me.

What, specifically?
Well, I actually didn’t even think about it as a guy/girl thing, but this was screwed up: I had gotten a job. I wasn’t “auditioning.” I actually got the job to produce a Green Day record [21st Century Breakdown]. … Billie [Joe Armstrong] was very confused about what they wanted to do. He had saw this documentary on me and Courtney [Love] and loved the way I was with her. We sat for three hours. He’s like, “I want you to do our next album. I feel you’ll be great at directing this,” blah, blah, blah. We talked, we talked. I sent him things to focus on, whatever. And then, three weeks in, I went to Oakland to their studio, and set it up over there. They hadn’t even been playing together live … I mean, in the studio together. They didn’t record in the same room together, since Dookie. And I’m like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. You guys got to get in the room together. I would make a ’60s type of album. You obviously love the Who. Why don’t you go make that album? Let’s focus on that.”

And then, three weeks later, I didn’t hear a peep from them. They didn’t return any of my phone calls. And then, I started seeing all this internet stuff come up about, “What the f***? You guys are working with Linda Perry, the pop producer?” And then it hit me: “Oh, they totally chickened out on having me come in and do this.” And hey, I’ll take it as maybe they felt I wasn’t the right person, but what did it in was that they never called me. I got fired without a phone call, without anybody telling me. They just disappeared. And that was pretty f***ed up. If I were Rick Rubin or anybody else, they wouldn’t have done that.

Rick Rubin’s amazing, by the way. I just need to say that. … But anyway, that was probably my first and only chick/dude thing where that got in the way. But it didn’t really affect me. I just was like, “OK, all right, just keep getting better at your craft.” [Editor’s note: At the time, Green Day’s management denied rumors, sparked by Love, that the band was working with Perry. Butch Vig ended up producing 21st Century Breakdown.]

You theorize that not enough women are putting themselves out there in a production role. What did you think about that comment from Recording Academy president Neil Portnow at the Grammys this year, when he said, “Women need to step up”?
I know Neil. He is a very, very nice man, and he is all about music. … I think what he was probably trying to say was, “Hey, ladies. Great. Now it’s time to step up. You have this avenue. The window, the door, is now open. Step up and run through it!” That’s probably what he was trying to say. But he didn’t say it well. I feel sorry for him, because I know he has a lot of respect for women — but it was his time to go. That’s the way it is. Sorry, dude. In this world, in this time right now, we don’t have second chances anymore.

All the award shows this year — Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes — were really focused on #MeToo and #TimesUp. Do you feel we’re at a turning point in the entertainment industry right now?
Absolutely. We’re in a turning point in life right now. With this Trump guy, I mean, we are just in a terrible, terrible situation with just this chaotic energy and this total moron. I don’t think anybody can debate that. It’s like, at this point, even his followers know the guy is not very smart. But what he did, unknowingly, is woke everybody the f*** up. The country, the world, is now wide-awake. Everything is out in the open right now. We see the mean people, we see the racists, we see the nice people, we see the good intentions. We see the people who are workers, we see the people who are just riding the coattails. We see the f***ing murderers and the rapists. We see them all. They’re all coming to f***ing light right now. And now, what’s happening is, the world is uniting. And we haven’t had that in a very f***ing long time. And women are uniting, I think, for the very first time in a very, very long time.

Why do you say it is for the “first time in a long time”?
Women are a**holes to other women. They are. There’s a lot of jealousy: “I don’t want her opening up for me because she looks better that me.” There’s a lot of competition in the music business. I work with a lot of women, and I see it. I see the jealousy and the competitive nature. And now, it’s like we’re free of that. Women are getting together and going, “You know what? We’re far bigger, and we should be further along than we are, and maybe it’s time we f***ing get together and move this f***ing mountain together.” I think that’s what’s beautiful to see, and that is going to carry us a very, very long way. That’s what’s been needing to happen for a very, very long time.

The ’90s, when 4 Non Blondes came up, were a good time for women, though. There was Lilith Fair, and a lot of coed and female-fronted bands. I don’t know why the progress didn’t continue.
I think what happened was the pop came in, and [record labels] didn’t want to see the girls all bruised and dirty. They wanted a clean-cut girl. Britney Spears showed up. … And then bands like L7 weren’t considered valuable, because, “Well, gee, Britney Spears is making s***loads of money.”

Do you foresee a return to the rock idealism of the ’60s through the ’90s? Or music becoming more political?
Yeah, punk rock is coming back. We’re going to see a lot of that. We’re in very crucial time right now. Every time we have a bad president, great music comes from it. Incredible music is coming, and you can hear it now. And this new generation of girls, they want someone that they can actually become to represent them. Remember The Legend of Billie Jean? They want that girl. They want someone real. They want Willa. They want Dorothy. They want something strong to represent a survivor, a warrior, not a f***ing makeup queen. Those days are done. That’s over.

What is your advice to young women like Dorothy and Willa, who are new to the industry and need to be prepared for the struggle?
Well, I think in general you have to have a certain common sense in this business. If you’re not confident, people push you around. That’s it. It’s super-simple. We will always have bullies. The world will never be that amazing. It’s just never going to happen. It won’t be that evolved. But how we become evolved is by just standing our ground and being comfortable with who we are, and by being confident and moving forward.

Willa Amai and Linda Perry on the set of Intuit QuickBooks’ film for the “Backing You” campaign. (Photo: Business Wire)

Going back to you saying how there aren’t as many women who want to be record producers, do you foresee that changing as well?
Maybe. I mean, that’s the part I don’t know. I honestly don’t know why there aren’t more female producers out there. It could be also because it’s not in the DNA. Listen, I’m gay, right? In Los Angeles, there’s Santa Monica Boulevard, which has probably 100 f***ing guy bars. But there was one lesbian bar, the Palms — and the Palms went under. And everybody’s like, “Why?” And I’m like, “Because women aren’t loyal to the bar. They go out, they have fun for a moment, they meet their future wife, they get the U-Haul, buy a puppy, and they go f***ing watch movies until the breakup. And then they wonder why the bar isn’t there anymore, because ‘I want to go out and meet my next wife.’” The women bars close down because one, there’s no dedication and commitment, and two, lesbians are the worst tippers. But the [gay men] go out every f***ing day, barhop all over, and keep all those bars open.

So, how is this analogous to the producer situation we’re discussing?
Because what I’m saying is, it’s a lot of work, being a producer. It’s a lot of fighting, and you have to be very headstrong. You have to have a vision and be very opinionated, and I do not feel being a producer is at the top of women’s to-do list. It’s more, “I want to be a songwriter. I want to be a big star. I want to be an actress. I want to be a model.” You can probably sit in a room with 100 girls … and only a couple of them are going to say, “I want to be a producer.”

Back to the Grammy thing, few women have ever been nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, and no woman has ever won.
Well, I just finished this amazing project. I can’t talk about it now, but I promise you when I can, you’ll be the first one I’ll call. It’s a pretty f***ing awesome project, and a lot of [male producers] wanted this one. A lot of the big-name dudes wanted this project, and they didn’t get it. I got it, and that was a big win for me. And I will be nominated next year for the producer award — actually, probably for several.

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