Linda Perhacs's talent, long unnoted, is finally in full bloom, writes Bernard Zuel.
"Dental technician makes a record" is not newsworthy now and wasn't any more so in 1970. "Dental technician's album stiffs, sending her back to the surgery and obscurity" is the hardly surprising sequel. This isn't sounding like an Australian Idol story, is it?
But how about "dental technician's album becomes for a tiny cognoscenti a mythologised album available only on rare, poor-quality reproductions before dental technician resurfaces more than 30 years later with a high-quality studio tape which is then turned into a CD that sails around the world collecting rapturous reviews and abundant fans for a fifty something singer who has never performed live"?
Bizarre but true, this is Linda Perhacs's story. And it's a story that keeps getting better. She's writing again and finding "floods of new material" coming forth. There's a new album to come later this year, 35 years after her first, Parallelograms, and among the contributors will be Devendra Banhart, one of the much-celebrated young alternative folkies who claim Perhacs as inspiration and have been singing her praises in interviews for several years.
"Oh, I can't wait, I'm so excited," says a softly spoken and utterly polite Perhacs from her California home. "The possibilities are without limits. I don't know how to stop the ideas. The main problem is finding the time and the energy to do these projects because they're not just simple songs."
How different it was in 1970 when Perhacs, a closet singer-songwriter in Los Angeles's Topanga Canyon, played a few of her songs for a friend who worked in the music industry. So impressed was he that he immediately recorded her and released her album.
A collection of folk-based songs with a strong psychedelic edge (in one song she sings "I'm spacing out/ I'm seeing silences between leaves ... I'm seeing silences that are his") and featuring a crystalline voice that could swoop and soar but also threaten, it had similarities to the work of contemporaries such as Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley and Sandy Denny. Unlike them, it attracted no interest, hardly any sales and was out of print almost before Perhacs returned to the world of teeth, having given up any thought of music as a career.
The kind of spiritually aware person who might still be called a hippie - she talks about God, "the highest energy" - Perhacs says philosophically that in her early 20s she probably wasn't equipped to handle the kind of success she's having today. But making music was something she had to do.
"Clinical work and work on healing and helping other patients, which was the career I had chosen, you're giving energy every moment to other people, you become their dream," she says. "I felt the need to pull energy in and though I didn't understand how in those days, I reached for a guitar and said, 'I need to learn how to play this, how to write songs'. It came so quickly and naturally that other people were amazed and I thought it was just normal; it came naturally, like breathing.
"But I had done fairly complex compositions, now that I look back, when I was five, six and seven, but I was reprimanded by the teachers and adults around me for 'disrupting' their pleasures for the day. I know those were the best parts of me but I was told to be quiet. It takes a lot of years to understand that parents don't always know. If it's going to pop out even at age eight it can't be held back, it will come out."
It's not hard to see in that tale a parallel with her adult career, of initial indifference followed by a late flowering.
"I had the gift of music popping up now and then in my life, but I'm a deeply practical person and I knew I needed bread and butter-type circumstances," Perhacs says. "Now I realize that each feed and fuel each other. The energy that you receive when you do something you're passionately in love with not only fills you but fills others with energy, and it recycles and lifts everyone."