DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know the sophomore curse, when someone has trouble following up on his or her first work? Well, singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs might have found a way to beat it - just wait years to take that second try. She released her first album, "Parallelograms," in 1970. Her second, "The Soul of All Natural Things," is just out this week.
Perhacs is now 70 years old. It might not surprise you to hear that she never quit her day job.
LINDA PERHACS: I worked five and six days a week as a dental hygienist. And I do my music - all recordings were made on a Sunday morning about 8 or 9 o'clock, for the new album. Every spare moment I have, I run to do the music.
GREENE: So dental hygienist six days a week or so, and Sunday mornings making music.
PERHACS: Well, I get half a Saturday off, too, and alternate Saturdays. (Laughter)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
PERHACS: (Singing) And no one ever said that this life would be easy...
GREENE: When she came in to chat with us, I asked Linda about her life back in 1970. She was commuting from her home in a bohemian enclave in California's Topanga Canyon, to a dentist's office in Beverly Hills.
PERHACS: I lived in two different worlds. My professor from USC asked me to work for him, and he was a periodontist. So I drove to the address, and it was almost on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. I was suddenly, overnight, in the midst of all of Hollywood: Cary Grant...
PERHACS: ...Paul Newman, Henry Fonda and his family...
GREENE: This list is amazing.
PERHACS: Dinah Shore. Oh, yeah.
GREENE: All those people whose teeth you became very familiar with.
PERHACS: Daily. Yeah, daily. But I had another life, and that was in Topanga Canyon, surrounded by the hippie culture - in that environment. I began to pay attention to these little Volkswagens driving by with little painted flowers on them, and tried to figure out: What's going on out here? It's like an explosion of activity; new clothing, new food, new music, new spiritual ideas.
GREENE: There was an important moment when you are working as a dental hygienist. One of your famous patients is Leonard Rosenman.
GREENE: He was an Academy Award-winning film composer. I'm sort of imagining him lying down in the chair, and you worked on his teeth - or what was going on?
PERHACS: He was. He was. He was there one day for his appointment, and I said, how's everything going? What project are you working on today? And he just looked up out of the blue and he said, Linda, I cannot believe this is all you do. And I said, no. And I painted the picture out in Topanga and said, my other life is - and he said, you're in your mid-20s. You're living in Topanga Canyon. The hippie element is all over the place out there. And you say you're writing little songs? Can I hear these songs? He said, we're getting assignments where we have to have that flavor, and yet we're about 20 years too old to have the flavor naturally in us. Could you help us? I said sure.
GREENE: And so they started working together. Driving home one night, Perhacs had a powerful experience. She says she has a condition called synesthesia, where the brain mixes sensory perceptions. People with it might have the sensation of seeing music or hearing colors.
PERHACS: All of a sudden, in the sky, I saw beautiful lights - hard to describe, but they were so magnificent. And I said, Linda, you're seeing music. You're just not hearing it. Go stop and draw what you're seeing before you forget what you're seeing.
GREENE: And this would become the song "Parallelograms," right...
GREENE: ...which is the title track of this album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARALLELOGRAMS")
PERHACS: (Singing) Parallelograms...
And I showed Leonard the idea about two weeks later, when we got together again. I held my breath. I thought he'd laugh at me. He said, I love it. I'm going to march into Universal Studios and demand a budget to do an album.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PERHACS: But he said, Linda, when we record this piece, if the executives walk in, stop doing that song immediately, and switch instead to something simpler. The executive-level mind, which is looking for a Top 40 hit, will never understand this magnificent idea.
GREENE: Did that moment ever come? Did any executives walk in?
PERHACS: They walked in. I saw five or six walk in with business suits and stand there, like, what are you doing? I switched immediately to the little song called "Sandy Toes."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANDY TOES")
PERHACS: (Singing) As the sand is to my toes...
GREENE: Now, here is where her story takes a surprising turn. This album, in 1970, was a total flop.
PERHACS: When I heard my first vinyl, I threw it in the trash. It bothered me. It was wooden. It had no depth. They pressed it and they mixed it, you know, for AM radio, and took away the magnificent highs and lows that we had recorded.
GREENE: So Linda Perhacs went on with her life for three decades; working in dentists' offices, quietly continuing to write songs in her kitchen, until one day in 2000, when she learned that some people had discovered that old album. She had something of a cult following. She found out by opening her mailbox.
PERHACS: The little, handwritten note said: If this is the right Linda, I've been searching for you. Do you know people want this album? And if so, would you please call me?
GREENE: Were you surprised to find out that people had been emailing and...
PERHACS: Very. People said this has healed me. I need to hear more of your music. I said, well, if people need more, I'd better do some more.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: And so she did, with help with some prominent younger musicians in the indie music scene. Linda re-released her old album the way she wanted it. And now, in 2014, she's put out a new one, and she's performing.
PERHACS: What really turned the tide was meeting the beautiful, bohemian group of people and artists in Echo Park and Silverlake of downtown LA; just loving people who help one another, many, many times for free. It's just done for the joy of sharing.
PERHACS: (Singing) Take some time for me. Can you take some time today?
GREENE: What was your emotion? I mean, I could see even a little bit of resentment, feeling like if they had just made the album in the way that I wanted them to make it, I could have been a music star for all these years.
PERHACS: No, David, I'll have to give you a strong no on that one.
PERHACS: It was never my ambition to be a rock star. It was never my ambition to be center stage. That was a little frightening for me, just the thought of it. But it was my ambition to compose the music that would pour through me, that I knew was coming from a higher level; to listen interiorly and learn more about love, about peace. And even now, with all this attention coming to our new album, "The Soul of All Natural Things," I most like the tweets that say something like: She is a most unlikely rock star or - I mean, I agree; this is all most unlikely. (Laughter) But it has happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
PERHACS: (Singing) High as a bird that flies...
GREENE: Well, Linda Perhacs, this has been a real pleasure talking to you. We thank you for coming in.
PERHACS: Thank you so much.
GREENE: That's Linda Perhacs. You can stream her new album at our website, NPR.org.