Linda Perry’s Dos and Don’t For Writing Love Songs
The acclaimed songwriter breaks down the process for making the whole world sing along.
The world may be full of love songs, but those written by Linda Perry are still unique. Perry, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the former frontwoman for chart-toppers 4 Non Blondes, helped bring punk to the pop charts, penning songs filled with attitude. Her love songs, on the other hand, often look inward: In hits like Christina Aguilera's "Keeps Gettin' Better" and P!nk's "Don't Let Me Get Me," romantic love and self-love go hand-in-hand.
This is part of her philosophy: A love song, Perry says, "has to stand out somewhere along the line."
Speaking over the phone, she offered a few tips to help your songs do just that. "There's a whole world out there of kids that think songwriting is putting a beat together and singing a bunch of catchphrases," she says. "To me that's just putting a beat together and singing a bunch of catchphrases. I'm all about championing the songwriter and to really get the most that they can."
Do: Let the song be what it wants to be.
"Don't think you know more than the song," says Perry. "The song is in you, it wants you to just press record and let it play." In other words, trust the process. "You started the song, so just let it go, let it be what it wants to be. If it ends up being a dramatic song, well, hey, there's a dramatic artist out there somewhere."
"Whitney Houston's version of Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You' was a great love song,” Perry offers as an example. “Everybody knew the story behind that. It came from Dolly Parton, and then here's Whitney Houston singing it as an R&B singer."
Do: Follow the emotion.
Especially when writing a love song. "I like to talk to songwriters and producers and future managers and future business kids. They're always asking, 'What do you do when you get writer's block?' And I tell them that, blam, I don't get writers block. Writer's block only exists because you're thinking. Writer's block is a thinker's problem, it's not a feeler's problem. I don't have problems writing a song ever, because I am always in my emotions.”
For Perry, this means staying inside the song. "The first moment I jump up into my head I get writers block, because now I'm trying to think. What am I thinking about? Are we thinking about what's on the radio? Are we thinking about whose career to chase? Are we thinking about that person and how they wrote five songs in a row that were number one? These things have nothing to do with the creative process, so that's basically what I tell people to do: Stop thinking."
Don't: Worry about what other people will think.
That's the worst form of thinking. "That would be lesson number one, don't let someone else's opinion outweigh your own. They don't know you, they're not inside of your heart, they don't understand where the creativity is coming from."
Do: Know who you're writing for.
The process changes when you're asked to write for a specific artist. Then, it requires stepping outside yourself. "It's a different experience," says Perry. "If it were up to me, I would write sad, depressing, suicidal, Pink Floyd-ish type of songs. That's my style: I like being dark, I like living down a well. And that's where I feel the most."
That can make collaboration difficult, but it can also produce exciting results. "It can be tricky, because you could be dealing with someone who really doesn't have any experience of what it feels like to be really down and out or dark and suicidal. So now it's like: here's Mrs. Doom and here's sunshine and lollipops, and you gotta meet both worlds. I have to interpret the sunshine and lollipops and figure out how to make it me and how to make my doom and gloom them. It can become very interesting."
Perry is particularly fond of how this juxtaposition plays out in the love songs recorded by the Carpenters. "The songs are written by Burt Bacharach, the majority of them, and they're like, 'Why do birds suddenly appear…' The cheesiest freaking lyrics. But then you have Karen Carpenter, this very dark, very tormented woman. When she sings that line it's got this rich, soulful darkness in it, and it's like, 'Oh, my god!'"
Do: Make it stand out.
For Perry, the hardest part about writing love songs is making them fresh: There may be a lot of "guy who woke up and is walking down the street" songs, Perry says, but people don't judge them as critically as they judge love songs. That's why "you gotta come up with something clever."
Her example: "Baby Bitch" by Ween. "I just think that was so brilliant because here's this beautiful song that's telling this great story. What a great melody, and great lyrics. And then the chorus is all, 'Baby, baby, baby, bitch.'"
Don't: Share too soon.
"I would refrain from getting excited about writing a song and not really 100-percent finishing it yet, and then going to play it to other people," says Perry. "That could be very disappointing. You're just gonna have to be willing to understand that, most of the time, you're never gonna get the full reaction you want from people regarding your creativity. That's the nature of the game. That's the nature of the business. That's the nature of the talent. This is what we are blessed with and cursed with. You gotta stay strong with who you are and believe that if you love the song, that's all that matters."
Don't: Replicate what you hear on the radio.
Perry has put dozens of songs on the radio, but, she says, this only happened because she looked elsewhere for inspiration. "I would really not try to emulate or try to replicate anything that you hear on the radio, or anything that you might think is popular and what everybody else is listening to. That will just turn you into a generic writer. You won't be writing from your own experience; you'll be writing about someone else's experience. So don't duplicate. Just create your own sound."