At Age 70, A Star Is Born
By Jesse Ashlock | NY Times Magazine FEBRUARY 26, 2014
More than four decades after releasing her little-heard debut album, the folk singer and lifelong dental hygienist Linda Perhacs takes another shot at greatness.
The most unlikely name on the lineup for the Brooklyn indie label Mexican Summer’s fifth anniversary festival last fall, which featured acts like Spiritualized and Ariel Pink, was Linda Perhacs, a 70-year-old folk singer from Topanga, Calif., who had never performed in New York before. Around dinnertime on a Saturday evening she mounted the stage in a pink T-shirt over a pink turtleneck sweater, walking with a slight stoop, her much younger backing band trailing behind her. A crowd of several hundred fashionable music cognoscenti, which included the singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart and the pop star Sky Ferreira, pressed toward the stage as Perhacs sat down behind a lighted music stand, put on a pair of reading glasses and began singing her wistful, gently psychedelic numbers. She concluded each with an enormous smile as the crowd burst into applause. “She was cool as a cucumber,” Banhart, a longtime friend, said later. “First show ever in New York! I remember mine. It was a disaster.”
On many Saturday evenings, Perhacs would have been finishing her shift at the dental practice in Woodland Hills, Calif., where she works. She has cleaned teeth her entire adult life, even during the time she spent making her cult 1970 album, “Parallelograms,” which Mexican Summer reissued in 2010, and she’d be back at work the following week. But during her set, she announced that she’d recorded a second album, “The Soul of All Natural Things,” and would be releasing it, 44 years after her debut, on the indie musician Sufjan Stevens’s Asthmatic Kitty label (it’s out March 4.) She was also about to embark on her first European tour (on her first passport). The grandmotherly dental hygienist was on the verge of becoming a genuine indie star. “It’s strange, because she’s the age she is,” says Keith Abrahamsson, a co-founder of Mexican Summer, “and it’s kind of like she’s stepping into the shoes of a 23-year-old.”
When Perhacs actually was in her 20s, the studios were all looking for another Joni Mitchell, which is how “Parallelograms” came to be made. She worked then for a dentist in Beverly Hills who catered to celebrities. Cary Grant, she recalls, was a “lovely man”; upon meeting Paul Newman, she was so paralyzed by the blueness of his eyes that he burst into laughter. A favorite patient was Leonard Rosenman, a film composer who’d scored “Rebel Without a Cause.” During one visit he asked if she had any hidden talents. She’d been a musical child, but had chosen dentistry for the stability. At the time, however, her marriage was in trouble and she’d been taking guitar lessons “to have something that was just my own,” she says. “I would come up into the kitchen and write these little songs.” When Rosenman came in for his next cleaning, she gave him a tape. Within weeks, he’d gotten her a deal with Universal to make a record.
SOUND AND VISION Perhacs drew this “scroll” to articulate her concept for her 1970 song “Parallelograms.”
Listeners of “Parallelograms” might assume from its mystical evocations of nature and love that Perhacs would have been an enthusiastic participant in that era’s SoCal drug culture. She looked the part of the free-spirited folk singer, with her head scarves, long hair and winsome smile. But she didn’t know any hippies, and says she barely even drank wine. She did, however, occasionally have visions that resembled drug experiences. She wrote the track “Parallelograms,” she claims, after seeing a series of colored patterns in the sky while driving home one night on Highway 101. “I couldn’t hear it,” she says, “but I knew I was looking at a composition of music.” She had no formal training, so when an idea for a song came, she made Rosenman a drawing of colored pictograms to convey the mood she wanted. Working with session musicians in a small Hollywood studio on her days off, she and Rosenman made an album that combined folk, psychedelia and blues with before-their-time electronics (Rosenman borrowed them from his space-movie soundtracks) to create a foundation for Perhacs’s startlingly intimate vocals.
Andy Freeberg WHERE IT ALL STARTED Perhacs at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where she took lessons that led her to record her first album, “Parallelograms.”
Because of her day job, Perhacs couldn’t tour. “Parallelograms” tanked. She chalked it up as “another experiment in life.” Then, more than 30 years later, an ardent fan named Michael Piper got in touch to tell her that he’d reissued the album, without permission. “Thank God he did,” she says. “He built an audience. I thought it was still on the shelf at Universal. I had no idea it was all over the world.” Because of Piper’s efforts, other fans emerged. Banhart was inspired by Perhacs to move to Topanga and record his 2008 album “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,” on which she sang. The Swedish death-metal band Opeth began covering “Parallelograms,” and invited Perhacs to come see them perform it at the House of Blues. Though she didn’t know who Daft Punk was, she was thrilled when the duo used her song “If You Were My Man” in their 2006 film “Electroma.” Young listeners like Ferreira began discovering the album on iTunes. “I actually got chills, which doesn’t happen to me very often,” Ferreira recalls of hearing it for the first time. “I pretty much listened to it every day for two years.”
But Perhacs didn’t actually begin making music again until 2009, when the Internet radio station Dublab invited her to perform — her first time ever onstage — at a tribute concert that also included young L.A. bands covering her songs. The event, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, sold out. Perhacs was floored by the performances, especially the experimental singer-songwriter Julia Holter’s rendition of her sensual love song “Delicious.” “I ran backstage,” she says. “I put my arms around her and said, ‘Who are you? That was beautiful!’” They began writing songs together, with Perhacs communicating her ideas with the same drawings she’d made for Rosenman. “What’s really cool to me,” Holter says, “is she clearly makes them with office materials at work.” Perhacs thought that one tune needed some Latin guitar, so when she got an email from a fan named Fernando Perdomo, she answered quickly. “I may be Cuban by descent,” Perdomo laughs, “but I am as gringo as it gets!” It turned out, however, that he had more to offer than guitar skills. Like Rosenman years before, he was a producer who wanted nothing more than to make an album with Perhacs.
Soon, she started driving to Perdomo’s studio in Reseda on Sunday mornings with Whole Foods cookies for Perdomo and his co-producer, Chris Price, and the three would get to work. The dreamy, cosmic folk album they made sounds astonishingly consistent with its predecessor, with Perhacs’s lilting voice little changed despite the passage of time. “It’s so unusual,” says Sufjan Stevens. “We think as we get older that our artistry faces a decline in craft and focus. Her songwriting is as strong as or stronger than it was 40 years ago.”
Perhacs’s neck, permanently damaged from decades of craning over her patients, is the biggest impediment to her new rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. She takes a muscle relaxant before going on stage and wears turtlenecks (always pink, her color) to protect her voice. She hopes to cut back on the dentistry soon, so that she can spend more time recording and performing. “Linda’s been game for everything,” Price says. “She’s so ready.” In a recent issue of Mojo magazine, Paul McCartney, born just a year before Perhacs, remarked, “I’m constantly surprised by ‘that’s me.’ I’m just in this older body now.” Perhacs mentions the comment several times. She seems to have taken it as a message that, no matter how old you are, it’s never too late to be young.