Linda Perhacs, a dental hygienist living in southern California’s Topanga Canyon, recently had to bow out of a party at the last minute as a result of a flu bug going around her office. But it wasn’t a typical function that she missed out on — it was an invite to Daft Punk’s after-party following the French electronic duo’s victorious night at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
Had she been able to go, Perhacs would have told them: “‘Thank you for introducing to the entire world of music business how effective collaborating is,” she says. “They proved to the whole world how powerful they are with what they do.”
How Perhacs, who was also a singer back in the early ’70s, is connected to one of the biggest pop acts in the world is pretty straightforward: Daft Punk used an old song of hers, “If You Were My Man,” in their 2006 movie Electroma.
What’s unconventional, however, is Perhacs’ path from obscure folk singer-songwriter, who recorded only one album in 1970 when she was 25, to a cult artist with a fanatical following among a new generation of musicians including Daft Punk, Devendra Banhart, Julia Holter and Swedish heavy metal band Opeth. On March 4, Perhacs will release her second album, The Soul of All Natural Things – her first new record in 44 years.
“Just like the first album [Parallelograms, from 1970], it came about by circumstances that, I think, were driven from a higher level than me,” she tells TIME one morning from her car en route to her job at the dental office. “I had wanted to do it, but I have a very busy clinical life and family members that count on me.”
Her sound is psychedelic-sounding folk music with spiritual and ethereal overtones, a bit different from her more popular California-based peers back in the early ’70s like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Crosby Stills and Nash. Perhacs admits that she didn’t set out for a career in music. “I went to USC on a full tuition scholarship and needed to choose a career that would help me to be self-supporting within four years,” she explains. “I learned to do dental hygiene. Music is a gift — it came to me even as a tiny child. It has just always been there.”
One person who recognized her talents was a patient of hers, Leonard Rosenman, the famed composer who scored the James Dean films East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. He once asked her if dental work was the only thing she did. “I answered him honestly, ‘No, I have a very interesting life.’ He said, ‘You’re in the middle of the hippie world [in Topanga Canyon]. My wife and I have assignments, we need that flavor for certain TV shows — maybe you can liaison with us and help us.’”
Perhacs showed Rosenman some of her songs; in turn, he and his wife Kay introduced Perhacs to music from all over the world, played through massive speakers at a home in Brentwood for eight hours. As she was driving back on the freeway to Topanga Canyon that night, Perhacs saw a panorama of light in the sky. “I said, ‘That’s music, but you’re not hearing any sound.’ So I pulled off the freeway and [wrote] on little pieces of paper. I got home, put the pieces of paper in order, and tried to remember what I saw.” She then wrote music based what she had just observed. “I showed it Leonard and he flipped out. He said, ‘We have got to do an album.’”
The record turned out to be Parallelograms, which Kapp Records released in 1970. Showcasing Perhacs’ gentle voice, Parallelograms contained some very poetic songs that was a hybrid of hippie folk (“Chicamum Rain”) and avant garde music (the title song).
But it didn’t make Perhacs a star; the record was pressed so badly that she threw out her own copy. “I knew the depth of sound that [Leonard and I] had created. I couldn’t stand that wooden sound that I was hearing. It just tore me up. I called Universal [Kapp’s parent company] and said, ‘We need to repress the thing over again.’ And they said they [were] not going to do it until they sell every single copy. And even then, they didn’t do it. So I had my own master and I said, ‘Darn it, I can’t even listen to that other thing.’”
Frustrated by that experience, Perhacs continued on with her dental career and went on a long hiatus from music; she kept the master tape of Parallelograms in her bedroom. Perhacs says that her soul was hurting. “I took those years off to go inward and to work on strengthening the inner part of me,” she says now. “I would have to say it took a spiritual journey. Yes, I was physically working — people do need income. But I was creating something inside that was enormously helpful to me in this physical life. I really got on top of the issues that needed to be addressed.”
By the Internet era of the early ’00s, other people started to take notice of the music from Parallelograms, which has since became a cult item. One listener, Michael Piper of the Wild Places label, wanted to reissue the album and sought Perhacs out through a dental society. Perhacs was recovering from an almost fatal bout of pneumonia during that time. She recalls that Piper said to her: “‘I need to come to talk to you, people like this album.’ I said, ‘Michael, I’m exhausted having people listen to that wooden form of it. Leonard and I have a much more beautiful sound that is hidden all these years… if you help the people hear the real sound, I will let you take this master that I have.’”
Following the reissue of Parallelograms in 2003, Perhacs gradually returned to music. Folk singer Devendra Banhart invited her to sing backing vocals for a track on his 2007 album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. Three years later, Perhacs performed a few songs from Parallelograms for the first time on stage as part of an event held by an Internet radio station. It was there she met another singer-songwriter, Julia Holter, which led to a collaboration. The reaction Perhacs was receiving from people, albeit belatedly, surprised her. “What touched me the most is when they say, ‘This is healing me,’” Perhacs says. “When I heard those words or saw them on paper, I said, ‘I need to address this. I can’t ignore this.’ To be a rock star was never an ambition, but when people say, ‘This is healing me,’ I’m gonna step forward.”
The impetus behind the new album The Soul of All Natural Things — which is being released on the indie label Asthmatic Kitty, co-founded by the musician Sufjan Stevens — could be traced to Perhacs witnessing a solar eclipse two years ago. “I was watching the lighting on the trees outside my bedroom window. It was just overwhelming, it was beautiful. And this song came flowing out. I tried to put it together around my big schedule, and it was really hard to do. Finally, I just sent out a prayer to the universe. I said, ‘God, this is not gonna happen unless we have five things: a studio 10 minutes from me, [and] some producers and musicians to work with me that won’t require a long drive.’”
She got what she wished for, through producers Fernando Perdomo and Chris Price, both of who were fans of her previous work. With their help, as well as assists from Holter and Nite Jewel’s Ramona Gonzalez, Perhacs created a worthy follow-up in The Soul of All Natural Things — it’s almost as if there was never a 44-year gap between albums. While the new record benefits from modern technology and production, it retains the lush atmosphere of its predecessor with spiritual overtones such as on the title song, “River of God” and “Freely.” Meanwhile, Perhacs’ vocals have matured gracefully.
“When I first started doing my work with clinical patients, I knew it was critical that I keep them calm,” she says. “I’m already a prayerful person and a meditative person. I have a history of that since childhood. But I learned a methodology of sending my patients good energy when I was working on them. As I began to do more and more music, naturally I would go to the same source for inspiration there. I always received inspiration from above, from a higher-wavelength energy level.”
Perhacs is making up for lost time in her music career. In addition to the release of the record, she’s scheduled to do a few dates on the West Coast; she’ll also be performing at the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona in late May, on a lineup that will include Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, Arcade Fire and Queens of the Stone Age.
“Being on the stage now is no challenge,” she says. “I just sit back and enjoy the audience as I enjoy talking with my patients. I have a wonderful time with it now, it’s a happy experience. And for a good reason. It’s not for me, it’s because the world needs help. It’s a really good reason to get out now.”