Linda Perhacs: On finding her ‘God sound’ in a universe of collaborators

Linda Perhacs

During a routine teeth cleaning in the late 1960s, soundtrack composer Leonard Rosenman (“Fantastic Voyage”) met a charismatic dental hygienist named Linda Perhacs, who showed him some music she had created. Her “music” was a blueprint of sorts — colorful abstract drawings, shapes, swirls and scribbled adjectives that described a melody. In these illustrations, he could hear a psychedelic masterpiece and helped her bring it to life. Released in 1970 on Kapp Records, “Parallelograms” received no attention, suffered from a shoddy record deal and drifted into obscurity while Perhacs resumed a quiet life in Topanga.

As it goes with gems in the rough, they’re eventually discovered, and “Parallelograms” developed into a cult classic, most notably for its psychedelic title track, a window into the magical imagination of this unique songwriter who communicated her melodies using colors rather than chords.

Thirty years passed, and suddenly Perhacs began receiving interview requests. Unbeknownst to her, “Parallelograms” had even been reissued, and the music world beckoned her back. This led to her first-ever performance, in 2009 at REDCAT, and forming friendships with some special artists like Devendra Banhart and Julia Holter. In 2010, Mexican Summer re-released her 1970 album, and Perhacs started writing new music. With the help of some friends, particularly Fernando Perdomo and Chris Price, in 2013 she released her second album, “The Soul Of All Natural Things” through Asthmatic Kitty. And while this was a dream come true, as soon as it came out she felt an urgent need to get busy on a third.

She turns 75 today, the day before her new album “I’m A Harmony” will be released via Omnivore Recordings.

This time around, Perhacs wanted to try something different. She solicited musical tracks from a collection of artists, and built her words and melodies around their creations. Wilco’s Pat Sansone came on as producer, and he, Julia Holter, Perdomo and several others contributed music. There are also guest appearances from the likes of John Stirratt, Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Devendra Banhart, Mark Pritchard, John Pirrucello, James Haggerty, Leddie Garcia, Greg Wiezorek, Michelle Vidal and Durga McBroom. There’s quite a variety of styles. She enforced a strict rule that there would be no rules on what the songs should be like. For the freak-folk fans among us, there are even a couple strange, abstract ones (thanks to Holter’s involvement to an extent). Perhacs feels more than pleased with the result.

As Perhacs prepares to celebrate the album release with a show Friday night at the Hotel Café (a second 9:30 p.m. show has just been added), she talked to Buzz Bands LA about the evolution of the album, and more.

||| Stream: “Winds of the Sky”

Buzz Bands LA: So you’re very happy with “I’m A Harmony?”

Linda Perhacs: It is my best album. Musically, I would say it’s the strongest by far. When I did the first album I was such a novice. I let Leonard Rosenman guide everything. Like a child I said, “Yes sir. No sir.” I had written the songs in my kitchen and I would just stand there and say, “Wow, that sounds great!” He did an exquisite job. He surrounded me with people like Shelly Manne, and who can goof when you’ve got Shelly Manne in the room and Laurindo Almeida on guitar? The second one, we tried to be conservative and still stay in harmony with what the first one sounded like so there wouldn’t be too much shock for the fan base that hadn’t heard from me in 40 years. This one, I said to my favorite people to work with, “Just cut loose, don’t worry about anyone else’s opinion, just aim for the highest level of creativity that you can. And I don’t care what genre the song is in.” I just wanted us all as artists to totally open up and go for it. This time, no limits, and the result was wonderful.

Were you steering the ship? What was the collaborative process like?

I first told Laurel, our manager for the second album, “The next time I want it to be a collab so that we can have no limits on artistry. Do you have anyone in mind?” I knew I wanted to work with Julia Holter … and Ramona Gonzalez to come in for back-up vocals but she was too busy. I mentioned a few others, like Devendra Banhart. And she gave me a list of maybe 17 people. Many of them I didn’t know. After I contacted each person and realized who I could work with and who I couldn’t, there was one name I had forgotten. It was Pat Sansone. I called him and explained the situation. We were still formulating some of the songs. Sean Lennon had agreed to do “Eclipse Of All Love,” and then he backed out. Pat stepped in and did the solo for that and did a fantastic job. At the moment when I realized I missed a name on Laurel’s list, I didn’t realize Pat was part of that big rock group, Wilco. Then I put two and two together. So we get on the phone and he asks me how I want to approach things. I said, “I’m strong on lyrical and melody, could you send me a musical file?”

Like something he thought would suit you or did you give him some direction?

That’s the very question he asked me. He said he had tons of them he hadn’t worked on because he was slower on lyrics. And I said, “I’m fast on lyrics and the composition of the melody that holds the lyrics into a track.” Knowing that he was in a rock band, I said, “How about you send me something fast?” So he sent me a perfectly produced musical track that became “Crazy Love.” When he heard what I did he said, “That’s great, I would have never thought of that idea. I love it.” So that’s how it started. As we worked on the song I began to see his amazing skill level so I asked him if he would look at some other songs Fernando and I were working on. We sent him “We Will Live” and he transformed it. Every file we sent Pat he took it up another level. The final glaze, Pat took us there. He brought in people like Nels Cline to add to the song “Winds Of the Sky.” He did a sensationally bone-chilling thing to the song that made it great. Fernando and I produced the base, the foundation, and Pat was the decorator, who puts the final touches on the house, who came in and turned things into magic. My admiration and gratitude is huge.

How long did you work on the album?

As soon as the second album was over, because of my age, I said we need to start a third album. This would have been 2014. Both my second and third album would not have happened without Fernando Perdomo. He helped me in so many ways. With the musicians, with the internet, with the music. He opened his studio. The silent glue that held everything together is Fernando. And he is all over the album.

Was collaborating with others a way to speed up the process?

Yes, it really sped things up when I started to use the method of having people send in tracks. Instead of working three to six months on one melody around my dental schedule. So I wanted Chris, Fernando, Pat, and Julia to do what they’re speedy with. The one area I am strong at is the concept, what color to give the words and the theme and the lyrics. … Because of my age I felt like I needed to hurry up. I will be 75 the day this album comes out. My birthday is the day before. Anything can hit you at my age. So I felt an urgency to do this while I was at the peak of creativity and no illness had come yet. None of us know our timing. I had a strong sense of urgency to get things moving.

I just feel this urgency inside. … We’re not always our best when we’re in our 70s.

Was part of that urgency about needing to impart a message? What did you feel you needed to say?

Absolutely. The world is in such a state. I don’t know what words to give it. Being a dental hygienist, patients swarm around you all day and the election fever, and some of the problems that preceded the election and all the things that hit during the time we were putting this album together, I just felt a sense of “this world is having too many calamities too close together.” This is unprecedented. Also, there was such a negative direction of a lot of popular music emphasizing the dark side and negativity. That was certainly not what the hippies brought in. The hippies brought in love and peace in the midst of the Vietnam War. They brought a spirit of love and cooperation into the music. Our news feed was flooded with bad and things that were disturbing to all of us that if I put out anything I wanted it to be support and help for the people of the world. My concern is this world and being of what help I can be while I’m here. I just feel this urgency inside. Sometimes we’re not at our maximum when we get into our 80s. We’re not always our best when we’re in our 70s.

Hey, we’re not always at our best when we’re in our 30s. Age is just a number.

Ha, I like that. I just felt like I had to get on it while I felt strong. The only thing I wanted was for no label to tell me what to do. I didn’t want any sense of the business aspect curbing the creativity. Let’s use any rhythm we want to use and I will match it with a melody. “Visions” took a long time. Fernando helped me with the base melody. That one took long because I had special words I wanted to use in it. It took us a long time to figure out that puzzle. It has a centerpiece and it’s got various other parts that are more like a normal song.

That one and “I’m a Harmony” are more abstract.

Yes, those two are the more abstract. “I’m A Harmony” is way out there. “Visions” took me two years. The problem was to convey the expansiveness of my original idea in words. I wrote the words before the melody and all the stuff that went along with it.

I wanted it to remind them of the basic principle that the universe is eternal and huge.

In the past you used drawings and colors to direct your songs, did you use that method here?

I always do! With “Visions,” Fernando and I tried many approaches and I couldn’t find the feel. It took longer than any song on this album or the second album. Because I wanted it to take people out in the universe. I wanted it to remind them of the basic principle that the universe is eternal and huge. And problems we have with the election, problems with the world, problems we have now, it’s minuscule in comparison to the vastness of the universe. So it’s a very big thing to try and communicate that. We need to be reminded at times that it’s huge out there and we’re so tiny. I tried to do the best I could. I think with the problems we have in the world, we need to look at a bigger vision and how tiny this one life is in comparison to this hugeness. We need to be reminded of that once in a while.

And there’s a limit to what you can say with the words alone. That’s where music can fill out the message.

Yes, absolutely. This beautiful one at the end, “You Wash My Soul In Sound.” I love that one. Towards the end Julia puts in some of those little dabs, she takes little dips of digital sound and puts it around like a painter. She might have four hundred files to give you. These beautiful eclipses of sound. “I’m A Harmony” is one where I asked Julia to cut loose musically, I see such a creative spirit in this idea, just cut loose and do whatever you want, because that’s when we do our best. Our world has problems. I feel the nurse in me come out, because I have taken care of patients for so many years. So I have a sensation of “wellness is important.” Wellness for the earth and all its people. I’m concerned with the health and healing and love quotient, the volume of love vs the volume of hate, which tends to vary on our earth plane. Right now we’re too high on the hatred. So I’m far more concerned with sending out waves of hatred’s opposite, knowing that will heal people way after I’m gone.

That’s a tone that I work very hard to put in my songs when we’re recording. … It’s a higher love vibration.

What is this notion of love? What is a vibration of love?

I have two very strong answers for you. There’s two stories I’m going to share with you. One is about a young individual who emailed me. And the other is Yogananda’s answer to a student who asked him the question you’re asking, and his answer was sublime. A young man in England sent me an email. He told me he was there without a visa, therefore that when he got deathly ill by taking something that he shouldn’t have taken, he was on death’s bed and he couldn’t go to the hospital because he wasn’t supposed to be in the country. He spent two weeks on the verge of dying, blacking in and out, just really in bad shape. He found my album in the house where he was, put it on and played it 24 hours a day for two weeks, and then he wrote me this email. I always cry when I think about it. He said, “That sound in your voice kept me alive for two weeks until I was strong enough to walk out of here and get well. I survived it and I wouldn’t had it not been for your album.”

That’s a tone that I work very hard to put in my songs when we’re recording. Many times I have said, Fernando, turn off the mic, that sound is not with me today. And that sound is something I have to link in with. I call it the God sound. I have to link with that. It’s a higher love vibration. When somebody else is in great need of some help or relaxation, if that vibration is right, they can feel it. I always get behind the microphone knowing the importance of having that special vibration of higher love and I can’t produce it, it comes from God. It’s not my day of choice when it comes. If it’s not there, it won’t touch people the same way. It is a vibration just like you get into with meditation. There’s a higher hum that helps a sound be more pleasant to all humanity. And there’s a grating sound that comes into you through different music and gives you the opposite feeling. As the singer, I can make that choice, but all of us had to participate in providing that in the album. That was a very important issue for me. It had to have that special quality that would be of value to people’s lives when they needed something to hold onto.

And the second answer?

A student in Louisiana asked Yogananda, “Why are we having such terrible storms?” And Yogananada was very quiet for a minute and thinking inwardly. And very slowly he came out with portions of the answer. “This storm that you are talking about is not created just like a normal storm in nature. This storm is coming from a profound reason. There is a war in another part of the world. The Spanish people are fighting for their lives. There’s an enemy that’s come upon them that is very powerful and this is a severe important battle. The hatred between the two different ideologies. One, the Spanish people and, two, the Mussolini-linked ideology. There’s a vast difference between the ideologies and the people are suffering. It’s two cultures that have hated each other for centuries and that hatred was held back for so long that now it’s like two bulls who have hit in mid-crashing with their horns. The hatred from all those centuries is exploding into the universe, after being built up for so long.” And that was Mussolini attacking Spain and it was a precursor battle to WWII. “This storm is not a natural storm. This storm is produced by hatred.” Big thought, huh? I wouldn’t doubt Yogananda. He never came up with anything that wasn’t right on the mark.

The world is in trouble and could use some positives. But they need to be deeper positives than just lollipop stuff.

That’s why it’s important to send out a counter-force of love?

Yes, with everything we do. We’ve allowed ourselves to experience a lot of music that’s dark and we savor it like a new type of flavor, but it’s maximized to a point where we need to pivot. And certainly the world is in trouble and could use some positives. But they need to be deeper positives than just lollipop stuff. Positive can sometimes be namby-pamby. Positive can also be a profound truth that helps someone to straighten out there act. Having come out of the hippie era, having fathers that fought in WWII — when I was a 2-year-old toddler, I felt the impact of that war. I couldn’t figure out why the adults were so nervous around me. They were in a tizzy all the time. Your father in a uniform, and then he’s gone the next day. A two year old doesn’t understand but they perceive the tension. But we became mature young people and produced the hippie era that spoke differently about life. Let’s love one another, let’s have peace, let’s not have this crazy kind of war again, and we made a strong mark on the world with our music. Now we had a dark era, and when I get on a microphone I am concerned with the volume of love that’s needed to dilute the volume of hate. I’m allowed to say these things because of the age I have reached and the eras I have lived through.

||| Watch: The video for “The Dancer”