The classic saying is that musicians have their entire life to write their first albums and six months to make their second albums. The truth of that saying is one reason there is such a thing as the sophomore slump.
Rock history books are littered with second albums that paled in comparison to the first album, and having to rush to capitalize on a hit debut album is often the culprit.
Christina Perri had the exact opposite experience with her first two albums. Her 2011 debut, “Lovestrong,” had to be done in a frenzy — in 33 days ,with recording being done in two studios at the same time. Perri’s newly released follow-up, “Head or Heart,” wasn’t so rushed.
“I ended up counting,” Perri said in a late-March phone interview. “It was one year and 78 days.” The reversal of the usual story for Perri’s first two albums was a product of her one-of-a-kind breakthrough onto the music scene. Her meteoric arrival happened in 2010 after a friend e-mailed a demo of Perri’s song “Jar of Hearts” to a choreographer for “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Against all odds, Perri’s song was chosen to be played on the show and, after getting a huge response, Perri — at the time unsigned with little happening with her music — was invited a week later to perform on the show. It was the first time the soon-to-be-ex-waitress in Los Angeles had ever performed in public. “I was on television in front of 60 million people that day,” Perri said. “Yeah, I grew six gray hairs on that first performance.”
Posted hastily on iTunes, “Jar of Hearts” sold 220,000 downloads in the days that followed Perri’s performance on “So You Think You Can Dance,” and she quickly landed a deal with Atlantic Records. And that’s how Perri’s first album got put on the fastest of tracks to get recorded and released.
“Album one was insane,” Perri said of “Lovestrong.” “Thirty-three days, two studios, songs that I didn’t even have the proper time to arrange or work on. We were chasing the single. And it was just so backwards.”
Then it was on to touring for 27 months — with a break partway through to undergo vocal cord surgery. Perri finished her touring touring cycle for “Lovestrong” in October 2012. Right then, she decided she would take the necessary time with her second album.
But there were compromises to be made, too, as Perri sought to satisfy herself creatively, yet also give Atlantic songs that were suited to a mainstream pop market where breezy dance tunes with big beats are what works on radio.
One trade-off came in songwriting. Atlantic Records wanted Perri to work with outside songwriters (people like Martin Johnson, David Hodges and Jamie Scott, who have written hits for other artists, of course). Perri agreed, but wanted to write on her own first.
“I did my part, but I knew, too, (that) I’m on a major label. I’m not going to fight against what they want, because I want them on my side,” Perri said. “I compromised with them. I said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you two months (of co-writing) if you give me three months.’ ”
Another compromise for Perri came during recording. On “Lovestrong,” she had insisted on using only real instruments played by real musicians. But for “Head or Heart,” Perri opened the door to using programmed drums, synthesizers and computer-generated tones — a move that put her sound more in line with the synthetic sounds that dominate top 40 radio.
The finished album does a good job of bridging the gap between the singer-songwriter feel of the first album, while injecting more of the danceable beat-driven pop that is more suited to today’s commercial radio sweet spot.
“Head or Heart” is still mainly a singer-songwriter album, with ballads like “Trust,” “Run” (two dramatic gems), “The Words” and “Human” setting the tone for the album. But there are also uptempo tunes (“Burning Gold” and “Shot Me in the Heart”) with big, danceable choruses, while “Be My Forever” is a bouncy pop confection with guest vocals from Ed Sheeran that make it sound like a hit single in waiting.
Perri is introducing her new material on a spring tour. She feels the nine tours she did behind “Lovestrong” helped her learn a good deal about performing, and she’s now considerably more present and comfortable on stage.
The biggest improvement, though, is a result of her vocal surgery. “Without a doubt, the biggest jump in confidence I had and the difference between the first album and this album is the new voice,”
Perri said. “It’s seriously unstoppable.
“That gave me so much freedom, so much growing room to do and to like literally enjoy myself for the first time,” she said. “So this tour pretty much embodies all of that. I’m having a blast. I’m not thinking too much. And I think the audience is going to see how happy I am.”