Videos by American Songwriter
Linda Perhacs is hiding out in the patio room adjacent to a Los Angeles dental office, choking back tears to the unforgiving hum of a Coke machine. While many have cried during a root canal, Perhacs’ emotions are rooted in joy, not pain. She’s reading me an email from Sufjan Stevens, who wrote upon hearing her new LP, The Soul Of All Natural Things, and it touches her so much it’s difficult to keep composed.
“The reason I am sharing is not for what he says about me, but what he says about our world,” Perhacs says, reciting snippets of the letter, sniffling. Stevens, singer-songwriter and owner of Asthmatic Kitty, her new label, is raving about discovering “new life, new language and new meaning” in her music, and how “in our world often consumed by fashion,” Perhacs’ songs defy trends.
And they sure do. Perhacs is 70 years old. She loves pink and talks a lot about the universe, vibrations and energies. And she’s calling from a dental office because she works there, not because she’s a sprightly starlet polishing off a new pair of veneers. In fact, I have to check twice to make sure I had the interview time correct: 7 a.m. PT, before her first patient. If other musicians are up then, it’s because they haven’t yet gone to sleep.
“It was never my ambition to be center stage,” she says in a voice that mirrors the dreamy softness in her songs. “That’s not something I ever wanted to do. I decided the most important thing in life was to build inwardly.”
It’s been 44 years since Perhacs released her first album, Parallelograms, in 1970, and until 2009 she was more focused on spiritual growth, self-discovery and the day-to-day work of dentistry than making a follow-up. Music had always been part of her life, but a technical career seemed a more reliable way to make a living – particularly if you didn’t want to depend on a man. Eventually, Perhacs connected with Leonard Rosenmann, a famous film composer (and patient) who was stunned at the beauty of some demos. They worked together on an album that transcends folk boundaries with its stunning complexity, living in both haunting hypnosis and psychedelia: layers upon layers of harmonies, ambient melodies, ethereal lyrics and compositions that toy with space and time, in all definitions of the words.
But it was pressed poorly by Universal – mixed for AM radio – and it petered out. Perhacs stashed the original master away in her bedroom, and decades passed. Little did she know that while recovering from 30 days on life support due to a particularly brutal case of pneumonia (doctors assumed she would not recover), New York-based label The Wild Places had begun to reissue Parallelograms, giving the LP a new fanbase, particularly amongst the burgeoning freak-folk enclaves of Los Angeles, led by the likes of Devendra Banhart. Daft Punk used her song “If You Were My Man” in their film Electroma, and Swedish death metal outfit Opeth covered her. Both Perhacs and her music had come miraculously back to life.
One particular fan – Mark “Frosty” McNeill of radio station Dublab – wanted to recruit Perhacs to perform “Parallelograms” at his anniversary party. “I said ‘Frosty, that’s 24 layers of harmony, I don’t know how I’m going to do that all by myself.’” The answer was recruiting a huge cast of Silverlake and Echo Park luminaries, including singer/composer Julia Holter and Ramona Gonzalez (who records as Nite Jewel). It was the first time Perhacs had ever performed live, and she was energized by the collaborative spirit – particularly from these young artists who reminded her of bohemian ’60s culture in its heyday. “I said to some of the creative people there, ‘Why don’t we get together?’” Holter and Gonzalez became fixtures in Perhacs’ creative world, despite a multi-decade age gap.
Inspiration for a new LP came in 2012, when Perhacs watched a solar eclipse form her bedroom, and a song (“River Of God”) was born. “That’s how I receive the major inspiration – it comes from the top of my head and pours through me like fast rain,” she says, “and I have to run to get a pen and paper before my own human brain forgets. I keep papers and pens around me, even in the dental chair.”
Along with producers Fernando Perdomo and Chris Price, she created The Soul Of All Natural Things mostly on weekends, tending to patients during the week and recording in the early hours when her voice was most fresh. The result captures the experimental spirit of her debut, combining New Age, folk and jazz orchestration into something ageless. A follow-up featuring Stevens, Banhart and more is already planned. “I didn’t even have to argue with my label. They immediately opened the doors,” she says.
Back in the dental office, Perhacs has to tend to a patient. She’s comfortable juggling these two worlds – after all, she’s able to find splendor and soul not only in art, but in every-day things. Even a medical center. “I have a huge window with a beautiful view,” she says. “It’s with me all the time. The connectedness to the universe is very, very powerful.” And she feels it, whether or not her soundtrack is a humming Coke machine or a 24-part harmony.