When Linda Perry first played her song “Beautiful” on the piano for Christina Aguilera, Aguilera knew she wanted to record it right away — and Perry’s heart sank. “[It] fell into my stomach,” Perry told a reporter in 2003. “I was just inside myself going, ‘Wait, wait, hold on! This is my song, and there’s so much meaning in this song to me.’?”

That’s precisely why the song works — well, that and, y’know, the ineffable brilliance part. Perry, the former singer for 4 Non Blondes, had written “Beautiful” during a period when she was, more or less, an industry nonentity — unhip, as she put it. But when the singer Pink — the world’s biggest 4 Non Blondes fan — stole Perry’s phone number and showed up at her San Fernando Valley doorstep, eager to collaborate, Perry was ready. She had already written “Get the Party Started,” which would become the first single off Pink’s multiplatinum sophomore album, Missundaztood. The intense, insane creative relationship between these two women, a real meeting of kindred spirits, not only produced Pink’s brave, best album, but also began a second career for Perry: master songwriter/producer.

In the field of producing, female writer/producers are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Not surprisingly, female artists have flocked to Perry’s door, admiring (and envying!) the way Perry brings out the grown woman in former girl-stars like Pink and Aguilera (on her ’02 monster-seller, Stripped). Perry has worked with Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love, the U.K.’s the Sugababes and even Kelly Osbourne, among numerous others.

Not surprisingly, Perry is a real character, known for throwing fabulous parties and avoiding interviews — although she’s bracingly blunt when she does speak to the press. An out lesbian, Perry told Q magazine about hiring a stripper to dance in the studio — “I’m only doing what a lot of male producers do, right?… I’m terrible, I’m telling you. Don’t get into a relationship with me.” Perry’s proclamation that Pink wouldn’t be “yapping about her problems” again on her third album was vintage Perry — although she’s as critical of herself as of anyone. As she once confessed, “I’m a horrible producer when it comes to me, but for other artists, I don’t know what it is, but something happens and I’m just really good at it.” In fact, that assessment may be too harsh: Both “Beautiful,” which was nominated for a Grammy, and “Get the Party Started” were written solo.

Perry is also unusual in her songwriting method: She spends time with an artist and then attempts to somehow get inside that artist’s mind, almost channeling as she writes the lyrics specific to that person. Perry has said the process requires her to drop her ego, which is probably true, in a sense. In another sense, it’s evidence of a larger, creative super-ego so supple and vast it can embrace a wild array of styles and personalities. Linda Perry the solo artist may be a post-grunge vocal diva, but Linda Perry the songwriter/producer is just about anything she wants to be. She contains multitudes. As she once put it, “I’m able to switch gears at any moment .?.?. because I try to morph into the person’s character. Left on my own, I’d be boring and every song would sound the same, but when I’m able to take on the person’s character, this whole other side of me starts showing up.”

Despite her chameleonic skills, Perry’s best collaborations do bear a certain watermark — melodic tendencies, and an unremorseful poppy lightness combined with real emotional substance. She gets pop, and she respects pop. (And she’s got an ear for hits, good or bad: She recently signed U.K. songsmith James Blunt to her Custard label.)

Of course, Perry’s methods don’t sit right with everyone. For Gwen Stefani, who’s known for her personal lyrics and needs no channeler, thank you very much, collaborating was traumatic, and ended in tears. Nevertheless, the two ultimately created the single “What You Waiting For?” in a kind of sideways manner: They wrote it about Stefani’s creative insecurities. Linda Perry may be a tough cookie all right, but that muse of hers is one tenacious, tricky bitch.

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