Linda Perhacs

Linda Perhacs: God is Saying This to You

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 03.03.14 in Interviews

“The way I compose music is that I hear it, and then I have to run and write it down,” Linda Perhacs says, as we sit on the balcony of a friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills. “It’s coming this way, so it reflects the universe and God. If we’re talking about the creative process, it starts here.” She points toward the heavens, then brings her hands down toward her head.

Perhacs is about to release her second album, The Soul of All Natural Things, a collection of tender folk songs steeped in mysticism and theology, and her follow-up to Parallelograms, a record that’s been a huge inspiration to the freak-folk scene of the past few years. She made Parallelograms as a 27-year-old neophyte to recording; this year, she turns 71. For most of the past 44 years, Perhacs has been working as a dental hygienist, living in Los Angeles County’s Topanga Canyon, and largely unaware of what her music has been doing in the world.

A cheerful but penetratingly intense conversationalist, Perhacs has a knack for winning people’s trust (which must be useful in her main line of work). When she talks about her personal history, it’s often in terms of the mystical experiences she’s had throughout her life, and the divine voices that speak to her. “Through my father’s line, there’s at least 200 years of history, maybe more, of people who could hear inwardly,” she says. “I was spontaneously composing by age five. All original, with full choreography. I’d gather my little friends, and I’d say, ‘Do it this way, no, do it this way, you do this, you do that…’ Then I’d knock on the door and say to the teacher, ‘We’re here to give you a show.’ Well, they had to stop me! I was interfering with the school!” She laughs. “Where does something like that come from? I promise you: I must have done it before to do it that well at that age.”

By the late ’60s, Perhacs had moved to Topanga Canyon and started working in a dental office. She listened to some pop music — she loved Joni Mitchell’s songs, and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s harmonies — but most of all she loved Celtic music: “When I hear it, I just stand still. I can’t move. It’s like I’ve got to hear it totally.” One of her dental patients was the film composer Leonard Rosenman, who heard her songs and was impressed by them; that turned into a gig singing (and co-writing, with jazz musician Oliver Nelson) a theme song to the short-lived 1970 TV drama Matt Lincoln, called “Hey, Who Really Cares.”

Photo By Robert Kozek for WS

Photo By Robert Kozek for WS

“I had written the lyrics because they were desperate — they had one day left to pull it together,” she recalls. “So they sent me a script and the melody, and said, ‘Can you have it for us before 9 o’clock tomorrow morning?’ I managed to do it for them, and they called back and said, ‘We love it, we’ll take it. Could you sing it? Because you sound like you’re 14 years old, and that’s what we need for this piece of music.’

“So I was up there at Universal Studios, and the production manager was getting really irritated because he wasn’t getting the sound he wanted. Finally, he said, ‘It doesn’t sound right — I wanted a light sound, like a Joni Mitchell sound.’ I’m looking at 70 musicians, and I was the junior, junior, junior person; they didn’t know who I was. I raised my hand timidly, and I said, ‘If you want that kind of sound, you’ve got too many musicians.’ And I said to [drummer] Shelly Manne, ‘Shelly, we need you, but less of you. Keep it light.’ And I turned to Laurindo Almeida on guitar — a master — and I said, ‘Laurindo, we need you, and more of you. And the rest of you can go.’

“And the only reason I said that was because I heard the following message, in a loud voice, but I heard this inwardly: ‘You’ve already done this before. You know what to do. Do it!’

“I wouldn’t have thought those words.”

“Hey, Who Really Cares” subsequently appeared on Parallelograms, a full-length album recorded with Rosenman and released on the MCA subsidiary Kapp in late 1970. (“Miss Perhacs’s wide-ranged voice and fragile songs focus on the effect of words and music as sound as often as on meaning and the result is most pleasing to the ear,” read Billboard‘s review.)

It’s a gorgeous, mysterious record, an artifact of its time and place (“I’m spacing out/ I’m seeing silence between leaves,” she sings gently on its opening track, “Chimacum Rain”) that’s also curiously timeless. The hugely popular L.A. singer-songwriters of that moment — Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and the like — were clustered in Laurel Canyon. But, as Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel (who plays on The Soul of All Natural Things) puts it, “Linda was a Topanga girl, and I lived there for two years, so I really know what that means. It means someone who is very much still an urbanite, because you’re 15 minutes away from the Valley, but truly far out, making the choice to be separate from the rest of the world.”

Parallelograms was a commercial non-starter, and Perhacs went back to her dental patients. The only ripple the album made in the subsequent couple of decades was a cover of “Hey, Who Really Cares” that appeared on the first album by the R&B vocal group the Whispers in 1972. Gonzalez has a friend who found a copy of Parallelograms in a thrift store, with its title crossed out and replaced with the phrase “The Best of Big Bands”: “Obviously, some parent had taken their kid’s weird psychedelic record and turned its sleeve into the place to put their jazz records.”

Photo By Robert Kozek for WS

Photo By Robert Kozek for WS

By the late ’90s, tiny indie labels had taken to reissuing obscure psychedelic LPs; one of them, called The Wild Places, released a CD version of Parallelograms in 1998, then tracked down Perhacs, who provided her own copies of the master tapes for an upgraded and expanded version in 2003. That’s the incarnation of the album that Nite Jewel’s Gonzalez came to love.

“When I went to New York to do some press for my first record,” Gonzalez remembers, “I found a copy of the reissue. I went to a friend’s house — there was actually a party going on at her house — and I just locked myself in a room with a turntable and listened to the record. And what struck me as different from any folk music that I had ever heard is that it was a bit frightening. It was extremely beautiful but kind of otherworldly, like going through a black hole into another dimension. I really hadn’t heard that before, at least not from a woman singing so sweetly. She’s never afraid to go pretty far out into the darkness — you’re in negative space.”

For decades, Perhacs was out in that negative space herself. In 1972, she and her husband, sculptor Les Perhacs, divorced, an event that appears to have hit her very hard; she didn’t make any more music, at least for public consumption, for over 30 years. What was she doing during the decades between Parallelograms and The Soul of All Natural Things? She takes a breath. “I’ll be real honest: Love is very important to women. It’s very important to many people, but to a woman…some of us get clobbered, and the pain is very bad. I only had one experience with that, and I didn’t want it again, so I disappeared for a while to work inwardly. Those years were years of rebuilding inside. I studied The Way of Divine Love by Sister Josefa Menendez. It’s a classic, and very difficult to read, but she was allowed to see the whole, real show. And that took many days to face looking at. It’s too strong. I got through that book, and it taught me a lot about the side that’s all loving, versus its opposite. And I spent years studying Paramahansa Yogananda; that was more like reading a physician telling you how to breathe properly. I made an inner journey. I did a lot of listening, and a lot of sculpting of myself, so that I could take those kinds of blows. Only because this nice man hurt me. This guy hurt me, but it was the best gift he could have given me — that would be a better way to say it, because it propelled me to climb upward.”

As Perhacs climbed, word kept spreading about her forgotten masterpiece. Daft Punk included “If You Were My Man” in their movie Electroma; Devendra Banhart, who had gotten a copy of Parallelograms from the New Jersey radio station WFMU’s music director, invited her to sing with him on “Freely,” on his 2007 album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. (The Soul of All Natural Things includes a different song called “Freely,” written by Perhacs.) In 2010, the L.A. internet radio station Dublab put together a live performance of Parallelograms, whose participants included Perhacs herself — the first time she’d ever played those songs on stage.

Dublab asked the L.A. singer-songwriter Julia Holter to perform at that show; Holter came up with a radical rearrangement of “Delicious” (retitled “Delicious Descant”). “Linda’s vision comes from some kind of a higher place, so she is very serious about what she does, and that goes for every aspect of her life, in addition to her music,” Holter says. “She does not think about style or genre — she thinks bigger. It’s about the poetic purpose of the song, and that is conveyed through the melodies she comes up with.”

Photo By Robert Kozek for WS

Photo By Robert Kozek for WS

Afterward, Holter mentioned to Gonzalez, a longtime friend of hers, that she’d performed at the show, and that Perhacs was interested in playing more. “Julia said, ‘I’ve been hanging out with Linda Perhacs,’” Gonzalez recalls. “And I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Julia has a tendency to say things that are really deep, off the cuff, and maybe she didn’t understand the gravity of it to someone like me. So I became the dedicated synth player of the project. Which was so sick! Because I knew everything about Linda’s sound, I knew exactly what she wanted. When we were performing together, Linda would never say, ‘Sing C,’ she’d say, ‘The waves of the voices are not interlocking the way they would in a rainstorm.’ But you’d somehow know exactly what she meant.”

In 2012, Perhacs started recording The Soul of All Natural Things, produced by singer-songwriters Chris Price and Fernando Perdomo, both longtime fans. “I remember playing at CBGB in 2002 with Fernando and his project at the time,” Price says. “I’d just heard that Linda’s record had been reissued — I picked it up and played it for the group I was with, and blew everyone away. And then, a while ago, Fernando called me and said, ‘I met Linda Perhacs! And she wants to make music!’ I didn’t believe him at first!”

The group agreed that the new record shouldn’t diverge too far from the tone of Parallelograms; to make her voice sound closer to what it had sounded like four decades earlier, Perhacs recorded most of her vocals early in the morning. “That’s what I had to do to get those sounds,” she says, “because dentistry has given me some real neck issues, and during the day they tighten up.”

Arguably, the new album’s centerpiece is “River of God,” a gently rolling hymn inspired by an experience Perhacs had with hearing the divine voice 20 years ago. “It’s pretty powerful — you want me to tell?” she asks. (A lot of Perhacs’s stories are prefaced that way.) The Northridge earthquake of 1994 severely damaged the house she had just bought in Topanga Canyon, which required months of repair work. One day, she says, “I came home from my dental work, and there was a really important inspector coming the next day who would either tell us it was going to cost a whole lot more for us to dig deeper, or we could stay where we were, and I was on a tight budget at that point, because we’d already fixed the house up.”

She discovered that the workers she’d hired to repair the damage had left a huge mess — cans and debris — all over the property. “I thought: I can’t let the inspector see this! So in 110- or 112-degree heat, I got out a big push broom, and I was pushing it like crazy. Pretty soon, my blood sugar and stuff got so bad I was ready to faint, and I was just screaming inside with anger” — at the workers, at the noise, and most of all at the six lanes of traffic rushing by on the road outside the house.

“And all of a sudden I heard that quiet voice I hear at times, and that voice said ‘That is a river to me. That is a beautiful river’” — meaning, Perhacs implies, the souls rushing past on the six-lane boulevard. “He waited until I sat down and calmed for a minute, and then the voice came in again, and said, ‘They are my children, and they are beautiful to me, and this road is beautiful to me because they are there.’ And he said, ‘To you, it’s a mess, but to me’ — how did he phrase it? He said, ‘I long to speak to them and help them, but I have to wait patiently until there’s someone through whom I can speak before I can help them.’ The stature of that voice speaking to me would be the most magnificent there is in existence, as far as I’m concerned, and he’s saying, ‘I have to wait my turn’ — that kind of knocked me out. It took me a few hours to really calm down, but I never forgot what I heard. In a male voice. It would have been impossible for me to think those kind thoughts at that moment.”

Even before the release of The Soul of All Natural Things (on Sufjan Stevens’s label Asthmatic Kitty), Perhacs and her band have been playing her new music live. They’ve recently returned from a tour of Europe — her first tour and, in fact, the first time she’s ever had a passport. She played in New York to an audience of more than 700 people: “I couldn’t figure out where they came from, because there’s no parking lot! But it’s the subways, I guess.” And she’s planning to record more soon, in collaboration with Stevens.

Perhacs is very clearly invigorated by her musical renaissance — and, more than that, by the opportunity it gives her to talk about the vision behind her work. “I love the universe,” she says. “I love the shapes of the things, I love the processes. I’m medically trained, I’m scientifically trained, I express some of my love for all of that through music and lyrics, but I’m passionately in love with the universe and with the Creator. Some people are passionately in love with another human being; I’ve found that to be difficult, because they sometimes leave. And you’re hurting terribly. So the main growth in this life for me is to learn to allow any human being to do what they choose to do, and still have integrity and strength to be able to stand, because my greatest love is” — she points up again — “this direction.”