The Healing Power of Music: A Conversation with Linda Perhacs

Photo: Rachael Pony Cassells

At 75, Linda Perhacs shows no signs of slowing down creatively, returning for her third album a mere three years after a more than 40-year absence.

Linda Perhacs

I'm a Harmony

Label: Omnivore
US Release Date: 2017-09-22

As far as Hollywood origin stories go, Linda Perhacs' is right up there with the likes of Lana Turner. Swapping the Top Hat Malt Shop -- not Schwab's Pharmacy as those preferring the legend would have it -- for a dental hygienist's chair and the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter for an avant-garde Hollywood composer, you've got yet another improbable story of an artist's discovery almost entirely by chance. But does anything ever really come about as the result of pure happenstance? In a world of far too many coincidences and instances of perfecting time, this chaotic form of logic fails to hold water.

Spending her days cleaning the teeth of everyone from Cary Grant to Paul Newman to Dinah Shore and her evenings and weekends immersed in nature, Perhacs essentially lived in two worlds: the glitz and glamour of her Hollywood clientele and the burgeoning Laurel Canyon hippie scene. "I would have to say thank God for the hippie influence on me -- they were throughout the Canyon and when I would visit Mendocino -- and they were very free-flowing in their creative level," she tells PopMatters. "They were very kind and loving people and I adored them. They accepted me because they knew I understood and so we were harmonious."

Having picked up the guitar only recently in the wake of marital strife (she saw it as a creative outlet that was all her own after having been indoctrinated into the art world by her husband at the time, an artist himself) she had little to no knowledge of the instrument at her disposal when she began writing songs.

"Being married to a very highly creative artist, I began to be introduced to Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Picasso," recalls Perhacs, "things I'd never been exposed to before. He opened me to the art world and then when the marriage became very uncomfortable to me, I said, 'Go take some guitar lessons, Linda, have something that's your very own.' And within just weeks or a couple of months, I got this comment from [Leonard Rosenman] in my dental office, 'Let me hear your songs.' I could probably only play four chords at the time."

Of course this immersion into songwriting was nothing new; she'd begun writing songs and producing what she calls "mini Broadway plays" around the age of five, serving as writer, director, producer and stage manager to her kindergarten peers. Given the disposition for which she has largely become known and the restorative properties of the music she creates, it's hard to picture even a young Perhacs as the creative taskmaster she claims to have been.

"I was writing songs at four, five, and six -- and they were good," she says. "In fact, I was putting on whole productions and the school, which would've been kindergarten to first grade, told my mother I was interrupting curriculum. Well, what I was doing was putting on Broadway shows that I created with all my little gang of kids. How can I do that at four and five if I have not done it already before? I feel that I have been manifesting a skill level that may have been in a prior time. It came so fast at me each time it would show through and I always knew just what to do, I never was taught anything. I had a few piano lessons, that's all. When I'm creating music, I'm channeling it in. I'm not just exercising memory and music lessons on the piano or the guitar, I'm channeling it in."

Because of this, she maintains that music is not necessarily a learned skilled but rather something inherent within individuals, often passed through bloodlines, and indicative of previous lives spent immersed in a culture far removed from her own. When asked about the more English folk elements of her melodic construction, Perhacs is quick to point out her familial origins as having played an indelible role in her fascination with and love of these often medieval modes. "The chords and tones that I've chosen since childhood have all really come from the British Isles," she says. "It's in the blood, it's in the soul."

Yet as with any natural gift, such raw skill and talent requires a spirit guide of sorts to help navigate and make sense of these newfound gifts. For Perhacs, this came in the form of Hollywood composer Leonard Rosenman. As one of her favorite patients, Rosenman, along with his wife, Kay, sensed there had to be something more to Perhacs that mere dental hygiene. When asked, she admitted to having written little songs after immersing herself in the natural world. Given the tenor of the times and with the flourishing hippie movement becoming more and more mainstream every day, this fact struck a chord with Rosenman. Finding himself tasked with creating music within the vein of the counterculture for numerous projects and unsatisfied with his results, Perhacs' disclosure seemed potentially a perfect solution to his particular problem.

And then he heard her tapes. So blown away was Rosenman by what he heard that he immediately began setting up studio time with some of the best musicians in Los Angeles at the time, including legendary jazz drummer Shelley Manne and soon-to-be longtime Neil Diamond bassist, Reinie Press. Herself a synethesiast, Perhacs' compositional approach relied on pictures and colors to help illustrate the often three-dimensional feel she was looking for. This can be heard most evidently in what would become the album's title track and centerpiece, "Parallelograms", a multi-layered tone poem complete with unique harmonies, circular melodies, and a sound and feel unlike virtually anything else coming out of Laurel Canyon at the time.

Having secured Perhacs a record deal, he rightly advised her that, should the studio executives show up while they were recording "Parallelograms", she was to stop immediately and move on to something more commercially viable. "Leonard protected me very much," she recalls. "He would not allow [the record executives] to squash the innate beauty with too much commercial stuff. He fought with them in the executive tower over those very issues. And he would not let them disturb the natural beauty of the hippie era and the young people and what we were trying to express."

These stuffed shirts, he reasoned, would not see the beauty and brilliance in what Perhacs was creating, instead looking for the quickest way to make a buck on a young woman they hoped would be their very own Joni Mitchell. "Universal was looking for competition for Joni Mitchell, who was on Warner Bros. And Joni Mitchell had opened the field to women. Women weren't really that much in popular music at that time unless it was country & western or soul. [She] opened the door for us to just come pouring through, she was the opener. And she was the reason I got the contract at Universal as they wanted competition for her success over at Warners."

But unlike Mitchell, Perhacs stuck to her day job. "I was born in World War II," she explains, "and deeply ingrained in me [is the feeling of] 'Get your act together!' Adults in those days were very nervous because maybe their husband wouldn't come home from the war, maybe there wouldn't be a job for the women. So ingrained in me is the memory of the tension and concern surrounding things I had no understanding of. As I grew up I kept feeling that same sense of 'Get your act together, you never know what might hit you!'

"So I always did well in school," she continues, "I always aimed for a scholarship knowing the family wouldn't be able to afford anything really high, so I'd better do it on my own. And I got a scholarship to USC and then I said, 'Okay, there are only two careers open at this university for women right now. It's going to change in the future, but right now it's nursing, dental hygiene, and teaching.' I went with dental hygiene because they pay more."

Exploring the possibilities afforded by both worlds, she continued cleaning the teeth of the stars while working with Rosenman in the studio to capture her singular creative vision. "To have [Leonard] guide me through that first album," she says, "was like being taken to Mars every time I entered that Universal studio lot and work. He'd bring in Shelley Manne and it was just awesome."

Ultimately, the suits would get their hands on Perhacs' creative vision, bending and reshaping it into something almost wholly sonically unrecognizable. "When they sent me my first album, I humbly admit that I played it and hated it," she says, the regret still palpable in her voice. "They had taken all the magnificent sound spectrum off and rendered it down into that teeny little sound from the old-fashioned 45s. I was so upset that the full fidelity of that hard work we had put in and all the exquisite sensitivities that he helped me build, especially on 'Parallelograms', that album centerpiece which is quite three-dimensional, I threw my first album in the trash. I just said, 'I will never listen to that again!' They had just ruined it. So I walked away from the whole thing, went up to Mendocino and just got with my friends and said, 'I will never listen to that again!' and I was horrified."

"That's why I pulled out of music," she continues. "It just made me so mad that they did that to all this work." It was a sadly unceremonious end to what appeared to have the makings of a truly unique recording career.

Of course, as they say, one (wo)man's trash is another (wo)man's treasure and, over the years, Parallelograms had become a prized possession for a select few who in turn sought to spread the gospel of Perhacs. "[The success of] Parallelograms was a total surprise to me," she marvels more than a decade after its cultural resurgence.

As has been well documented in the wake of her unlikely return to the music industry, she was contacted by The Wild Places label founder Michael Piper in the early 2000s, told of the beloved following her perceived failure of an album had garnered, and essentially returned from the wilderness of legend to become a very real and living legend.

When asked, Perhacs revealed she had squirreled away copies of the original tapes, having taken them home after each session to get the proper feel for what was and wasn't working. This in and of itself was something of a minor miracle, with the original masters long since deleted by the label. Not only did these tapes that had spent the last several decades in her closet allow for a proper reissue of the beloved album, it also afforded Perhacs the chance to issue the album as she and Rosenman had originally intended, remixed to include all the sonic highs and lows her label had seen fit to quash.

"Every time I would practice or record over at Universal," she recalled, "I would take a second generation copy and I would go home and study it. And I still had that eight-track and Michael Piper almost fainted. He said, 'Let me see if I can get it to work.' It had stuck together after all those years because I didn't put it in a refrigerator, it was in my bedroom. He was able to get it to play and from that he started making the original sound again, which I hadn't heard since 1970 when we were in the recording studio."

This renewed interest led to a standing-room-only performance in Los Angeles put together by Dublab that not only brought her face-to-face with her audience for the first time, it also resulted in her first encounter with Julia Holter. "That began a friendship where we worked together on a number of projects. So I finally said it's time to do a second album and I brought Julia in and Ramona Gonzalez -- who is a very good friend of Julia's -- and a few other people. I got a phone call one day from a Fernando Perdomo and I took the message and said that, of the 10 people I was told had called me that day, the name pulling on me was an unknown name to me, Fernando Perdomo."

With both Holter and Perdomo by her side, Perhacs was ready to begin working on new music for the first time in nearly 40 years. "I tried to dabble in music a little bit starting in about 2010 with Michael Piper's encouragement," she says. "I did a lot of inner growth [between 1970 and 2014]. There were a lot of painful years, and finally, I just came to a point where I felt I needed to go on with the music, to bring it out again. It was my decision. But there were some times where I was working on inner growth and some pain, things you've got to work out of your being, and so I was very private during those years."

Fast forward to 2014 and the release of her long-awaited second album, The Soul of All Natural Things, on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label (himself beholden to the spell cast by Parallelograms). Suddenly, the next generation of so-called freak folk luminaries were not only singing Perhacs' praises but also singing alongside this living legend. Not since the 1960s folk and blues revivalists had a group of young musicians shown such reverence and respect for their predecessors, going to great lengths to return their heroes to public prominence. Along with the likes of Vashti Bunyan, Perhacs found herself an unlikely septuagenarian cause célèbre amongst the young, hip enclaves of 21st-century folkies in the re-gentrifying Brooklyn and Silver Lake neighborhoods.

But what she also found was the next generation of sympathetic artists and producers, individuals who perceived of and experienced music in a similar manner. From Holter to Devendra Banhart to members of Wilco and more, Perhacs found herself surrounded by like-minded creative types who helped facilitate and execute her return to recording in a manner true to her original creative vision. Here, too, she found her 21st century Leonard Rosenman in producer Fernando Perdomo.

Together, they would endeavor to recapture the inherent magic and healing qualities lying within the grooves of Parallelograms. "At times [Fernando] will just do an improvisation on the guitar and he'll make me a copy of it and I'll take it home and start seeing what should be placed inside that melody. And then I'll come back and I'll show him what we need to do in order to get some lyrics and a melody inside the guitar riff that he gave me." Herein lies the secret to translating the abstract into a concept that has proven highly affecting.

According to Perhacs, this intangible has helped many people through oppressively dark times. "I've had people tell me that [the record] really helped me during a really tragic moment," she says. "And I know what they're saying, they're saying that essence really helped me to pull together to my stronger self so I could survive something."

One story in particular still stands out:

"A young man from England sent me an email saying he'd taken something he shouldn't have, he was in the country illegally and so he couldn't ask for help in a hospital and was at death's door for about two weeks. And he said, 'I knew I was dying, but I had no help.' So he said the only thing that helped was, he put Parallelograms on, played it 24 hours a day for two weeks and said that if it weren't for that album he wouldn't have lived. And I knew when he said that he didn't mean 'Linda,' he meant that essence in the voice. And that essence is that beauty that we channel in at times. When we channel that in, we're channeling a universal energy that effects people for the positive so that even if they don't understand why they're clinging to that song, they're there because they need the oxygen that it's giving them to survive."

Building on this, she explains her creative process and approach to capturing such sensitivity on record. "When we channel something in, we know how precious it is. And translating that to other people is not easy," she admits. "So I have to explain to each of these people I've worked with, to help them understand how precious that information is. At times I'll get behind the mic, I usually record about nine in the morning on a Sunday when I'm more rested and the vocal cords are looser, and there are times when I've said, 'Fernando, turn off the mic. The right sound is not there today,' and that means I'm not channeling it properly, it's not coming through. The difference between an ordinary physical voice and a voice where the channeling of a higher level of what I call the God part of us coming through, is enormous, especially in the sensitivity of the microphone and especially in the receptivity of the listener."

Sensing the encroaching darkness of these troubled times in which we are currently living and the myriad reported instances of her music's healing and restorative properties, she wasted no time on crafting a follow-up. Where before fans were forced to wait more than 40 years to hear more from Perhacs, her third album would arrive in less than four.

One of the primary guiding principles of I'm A Harmony's recording process was that there could not be any creative restrictions or parameters; Perhacs and her multiple collaborators were to be free to create based on what they felt, not what they necessarily perceived to be a "Perhacs sound." "I just wanted this album to be highly creative, as creative as possible," she says. "I didn't want to curb anybody, I just encouraged everyone to cut loose." This unrestricted, free-form stylistic approach resulted in what Perhacs calls her best album yet.

"On this third one, I absolutely insisted that we have no limits. I just wanted to tell everybody to create to the max, don't worry about a record company and what they're going to say. We'll make the record first and then we'll find the record company once it's done. Don't worry about style, don't worry about textures, just go for it. And I wanted to make it a collaborative project so we could all just enjoy creating together. I feel it's my best of the three."

It's an assessment that certainly holds up, I'm a Harmony radiating a delicate beauty and creative vitality that is clearly the result of like-minded individuals coming together for nothing more than to create art for art's sake. According to Perhacs, the title track in particular proved to be one of the best examples of this musical and collective creativity.

"["I'm a Harmony" is] an unusual piece," she says. "[My collaborators] were going to forget about it because it was all disjointed with different sections and nobody quite knew how to put it together. I said, 'No, there are such unusual textures in all of that, I want to see us pull it together.' So we did what we could, but the lead master that pulled that one together is Julia; the interesting musical changes, because she's phenomenal at her keyboard and her hearing harmonies. I created the lyrics and the way to pull it together as a song, but her mastery of unusual harmonics on her keyboard, my ear tells me it's sensational. So I just encouraged her to create to the max, no limits. And when she brought it back to us it was gorgeous."

Now, at age 75, her day job as a dental hygienist taking up less of her time than before, she is entertaining the idea of heading out on the road with co-producer and fellow Omnivore Recordings artist Chris Price. It's a life she knows she was never really cut out to live, but the nursing instincts deep within her being are driving her to bring her message of peace and love to an increasingly troubling world.

"The driving force in me is that the world is in trouble, big trouble. And anything we can do to infuse the world with goodness and love and harmonics and drama and artistry that affects people in a way of increasing their growth and their strength, anything we can do in that category is so positive. We need to do it while we're here. Why would I be silent when that medicine is so needed?"

It seems that her entire life has been directed by a divine hand, bringing in the necessary creative partners and opening the proper opportunities where and when they were most needed. Not necessarily by Perhacs, per se, but by those of us living in a world being overrun by darkness and hatred. At the center of it all is the brilliantly soothing, guiding light emanating from Perhacs and her impossibly beautiful music.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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