When ex-Journey frontman Steve Perry was a kid growing up in Central California, he remembers seeing sunny possibility where others saw only dark obstruction. Staring up the huge sky-squelching pine tree in his grandfather’s front yard, next door to his family’s house, he simply sensed that there magical sights for the beholding available at its summit. “And I was pretty industrious—I cut down all these other old trees in his back yard, drilled holes in the pieces, and used rope to make a rope ladder,” recalls the sleek-throated singer, who just released a companion volume to his 2018 Traces solo comeback, aptly dubbed Traces (Alternate Versions and Sketches). He then attached a heavy rock to his contraption, lofted it over the tallest limb, and shinnied up to an acme rook, where he nestled in to survey his surroundings.
“And I could see straight down the Main Street of Hanford, Calif., and back then, it was a neon street, with neon lighting up an old town in a real American Graffiti kind of way, and you know, that vision never left me,” he swears. It would pop up on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s definitive monster hit in 1981 “Don’t Stop Believin’” (“Just a small-town girl/ Living in a lonely world/ She took the midnight train going anywhere”). And the whimsical vision reappears on new Traces and Alternate tracks like “We’re Still Here” (with its tales of “City boys and city girls running wild”), he adds. “It’s in there and a lot of the other songs, too.”
Point being: You can run from your past—or even your fated artistic destiny that’s irrevocably connected to it—only so far before it catches up to you. As it finally did with Prodigal Son Perry after he walked away from his stadium-level supergroup Journey after nine albums, first in 1987, and then permanently in 1996 after suffering a reunion-tour-nixing hip injury in Hawaii. He wandered so long in the wilderness, with only Bigfoot-random sightings, he acquired an almost mythical stature; Why was one of rock’s most incredible voices remaining silent? Where had he disappeared to, and when would he finally cut his third solo set, the followup to his sophomore For the Love of Strange Medicine from 1994? The confident often Gospel-chorded Traces was the first confirmed sighting, all self-penned (excepting a peppier up date of The Beatles’ “I Need You” ballad) or co-written originals like the pounding ”No Erasin’,” a skeletal “Most of All,” the swaying “You Belong to Me,” and a soulful collaboration with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson “No More Cryin’.” All with traditional Journey apostrophes firmly in place. Alternate acoustic takes are even scrappier, and firmly underscore the Stax/Motown-evocative capabilities of Perry at 71, which he’d only occasionally clarified, as in a 1989 concert duet with Bon Jovi on the Four Tops classic “Reach Out” and Sam Cooke’s signature “Bring it on Home to Me.” What’s been going on in the man’s life in the interim? He sets the record straight for all curious, concerned fans below.
Paste: Periodically over the last few years, field reports of you would come in from various songwriters who were surprised to find themselves working with you—Dan Wilson, E from The Eels, Rob Dickinson from Catherine Wheel. It was like you’d become some sort of urban legend.
Steve Perry: Rob! Yeah—I like him! And that’s exactly what happened. I was writing with him and others and—as I built my studio, and I had demos of all the songs we’d written together—I started recording. And one thing led to another, and my studio got more gear-oriented, and larger and larger, the next thing I know, I’m bringing in musicians and I’m tracking, and I end up making a record called Traces. And that record came out two years ago this October, and then during the interviews I was doing for that record for the first time in 25 years of releasing one, I started showing some of the video people who were doing the interviews some of the tracks. So I went looking for them, and started opening up the multi-tracks, and I started showing them what the backgrounds looked like by themselves, like the lead vocal by itself and maybe an acoustic guitar part by itself. And I forgot just how much work, individually, we had put in on that record. Because you get so close to it when you’re building a song, production-wise, that you forget the pieces on their own and how much they mean. So from that came this feeling that I didn’t forget that somewhere down the line I’d like to do an acoustic version of Traces, do acoustic guitar versions and strip some songs down and just leave the piano and the voice. So that’s how this particular Alternate Versions came about, because the sketches were also some of the original ideas that became background vocals, that were actually one single-voice ideas.
Paste: And this album puts your voice right up front in the mix.
Perry: Yeah. And the reason that you feel that it’s up front is because it’s naked. You’ve taken all the clothes off of it and just let it sit there by itself. So if the vocal performance is good enough, it should stand alone. And of course, that’s the thing to reach for when you’re trying to get a vocal—that it should stand alone. And I felt that, after listening to all these, they do stand alone. And I wanted people to hear the original song’s meaning, with the lyric, the original song’s emotion in the performance, and the original song’s melodies without the counter melodies of the earlier production.
Paste: One thing it makes clear, though—at the root of it all, you’ve got a really great soul voice, like your first childhood influence, Sam Cooke.
Perry: That’s interesting. I love that. And I think I’ve always had that in me. It’s always been in the background, behind the curtain of whatever I was doing. And whether it was anything I sang with Journey or anything I sang on my own, there has always been this love for the blues and R&B, that foundation of music that is certainly American.
Paste: On Traces, your soul style was underscored by some great Hammond organ.
Perry: I know! And that’s Booker T, who’s a genius. He played on “No More Cryin’,” and he came into my studio and I have a Hammond B-3 sitting in a corner, and this guy got sounds of that organ that nobody else had ever gotten before. Same organ, same everything, but Booker T sits down and pulls a few draw-bar choices and pushes a few buttons, and that organ went into a whole different place. And that kind of musical, emotional knowledge? It can only come from a guy like that.
Paste: Well, one of the later field reports from the urban-legend front was you showing up at an Eels concert in the Midwest, with your own microphone, and joining them onstage for an encore. People couldn’t believe it.
Perry: It was Minneapolis, yeah. With that microphone. Patty Jenkins is a friend of mine, who’s a wonderful lover of music, and she introduced me to the Eels a long time ago. And she’s done the movies Monster and Wonder Woman—she’s done some amazing writing and directing—and we’ve stayed friends over the years. But she first introduced me to the Eels, and all of a sudden I started buying everything, and then they were playing in town and I got to meet ’em. And one thing led to another, and they used to have these great, but secretive, croquet games, in E’s back yard, so I was also invited to those. And while I was trying to play croquet, they would always have a local radio station on, playing music. And—oddly enough—whenever one of my songs would come on, this guy next door would be trimming his tree with a chainsaw, and so my nickname became ‘Chainsaw’ from that point ion. So E and I became friends. And I always loved his song “It’s a Motherfucker”—I always thought it was the most beautiful song. And because the Alternate package is ultimately about songwriting, about stripping the songs down and then letting them stand alone, well, E’s version of “It’s a Motherfucker” did that. It stands alone. So I was going to their rehearsals before they would go on tour for many years, but I wasn’t interested in the music or singing—I was just on a deep, deep sabbatical, not sure whether that was going to go in any way that I needed. But one day, E just said, “Are you ever gonna go out and sing an encore with us? Or is this another year you’re not gonna do it?” And I said, “Well, what do ya wanna do?” And they started playing something, and I think it was “Lovin,’ Touchin’, Squeezin’,” and then we started doing some of their other songs, like “I’m Gonna Stop Pretending I Didn’t Break Your Heart,” and then we did “It’s a Motherfucker.” And one thing led to another, and we rehearsed some things. And then I just showed up with my mic in Minneapolis when they were playing there, and that’s when we first did it.
Paste: Tell me more of this self-imposed sabbatical.
Perry: It was legally over in May of ’98. But it was over before that. I’d…I’d just…again, it’s about songwriting, you know? It’s always been about melody and lyrics for me, and I’ve never given up on that being as important as… as rain. And the people that I’ve always loved, that I admired and tried to reach for in quality, always concentrated on lyrics. And so I just stopped because I was so burnt out. I mean, seriously burnt out. From our success, which was wonderful. But I was burnt out, I was toast. There were days of doing gig after gig, blistering songs at blistering vocal levels, blistering vocal ranges, where I would just go, go, go. And so I had to just stop. And once I stopped, I realized that I needed to stay stopped a little longer, and that turned into a sabbatical because musically, I was not going to become a parody of myself. I wanted to stay true to new material, but at the time I was so burnt out and no new material was coming my way, in my heart. So I was pretty sure that I had to just let it all go, and if it never came back—if songwriting never came back into my heart—then I’d had the most amazing ride of my life, you know? So it took some time. But with the most heartfelt honesty, I let it all go. A true sabbatical, with no intention of returning. Because if I was going to ever replenish my songwriting abilities, I had to really let go with no intention of ever coming back. That was my thinking. And that has to be a real let-go. Not an ‘I’ll go for six months or a year, and then we’ll see.’ No, I had to walk away, and so I did. But the, ah, ‘Walk away’ went longer than I anticipated. But then the music came back, and now I’ve got more music in my life than I have time to finish.
Paste: How did you spend your days during such a sabbatical?
Perry: Well, the first thing I did was, I went back to my hometown of Hanford, Calif., and hung out there with some old friends. Then I went to Visalia, Calif., to where the Harley Davidson dealer was, and I bought myself a dream—a beautiful soft-tail custom Harley Davidson and outfitted it with pipes and put a sleeping bag on the back of it, and I drove around my hometown of Hanford, Calif., and Lemore, Calif., on the backroads to the south, and one called Coyote Road, where there literally was room for only one car. And all of the streets were overgrown—nobody goes on those roads. But that is what I did. I just drove around, drove around and reconnected with friends, and I did no music at all. Because I was really letting it go. And I remember one time I was riding my motorcycle, and it was literally 105 degrees in the San Joaquin Valley that summer, and as I’m coming back to town, all of a sudden it was cool, like 85, 90 degrees. And I thought, “Well, what just happened?” And I looked to the left, and I looked to the right, and there were alfalfa fields there. And I had forgotten. See, I had forgotten that something from my childhood, that if you drive by an alfalfa field in summer time, the temperature drops 10, 20 degrees because alfalfa holds the moisture and they’re cool — it just always stays cool around there. And when you pull out again, it’s back to 105. So, believe it or not, reconnections like that to my upbringing—like just going to the cemetery and spending time made me really grateful for the childhood that I’d had there with my mom and my grandmother and my dad.
And being an only child, with them all gone, I was grateful that they got to see an amazing dream come true for me. But all that had to happen again—I had to reconnect to the importance of all that. And because of that, I found the soul in my songwriting again. And then that became a whole new batch of writings, and now I’ve got all this great stuff sitting there that I’v written either alone or with other people. So there’s a lot of work to be done, still.
Paste: Is that where the Traces bonus-track-edition track “Blue Jays Fly” came from?
Perry: That was my back yard. And it certainly was one of those things I saw as a kid, walking in my back yard. Around seven or eight years old, when the divorce happened, I was thrown into a sort of singularity kind of existence, just staring out the back and being captivated by the Blue Jays flying. Flying in the blue sky. That song was like a letter to my father, about being firmly in the moment in my surroundings.
Paste: And now everyone is enjoying local fine-feathered friends during the pandemic.
Perry: Oh, the birds are everywhere now. The’s more birds than we’ve ever had before! And Yes, I put food out for them. Yes, I do. But they like to drink out of my pool, and I don’t think that’s good for them. But they’re so into it that I don’t know what to say. They just keep coming back and coming back, until I’m like, “Okay—the fact that you’re not dying from the chlorine? I guess it’s okay…”
Paste: Have you developed any new hobbies? Are you a collector of anything?
Perry: You know, that’s an interesting question. Because I collect certain things that mean something me at the time. I could be walking on the beach and see some rock, and for some reason it will mean something to me and I’ll collect it. Or a piece of driftwood. You’re gonna laugh, but just this Thanksgiving weekend, I made a mobile out of driftwood and shells that I’d found. And I hung it and tried to make it balance, but when you start using fishing line and drilling tiny holes and hanging things, it’s not that easy to balance the stuff and make things clear out of the way of the other spinning ones. So I had an enjoyable two, three hours of just focusing on how to do that. And then I do collect things online, too—I try to find unreleased stuff that maybe nobody else has heard. But I certainly love hearing it.
Paste: Supposedly, there are rare recordings of Back in Black tracks, with the late Bon Scott actually singing early versions.
Perry: Oh, really? Now that’s intriguing as hell, isn’t it? And they cut those before he passed? But I’ve got a great Bon Scott story for ya. We were on our first big tour, after Van Halen had left the tour as our opener and cleaned our clock really good—they taught us some really good lessons, taught us how to step up our act. But then we got this new band from Australia to come and replace them called AC/DC, and their first record had just come out in America. Sh we were playing in Corpus Christo, TX, and there they are opening, when I come in in the middle of their set. And I’m going back to start doing my vocal warm-ups, because we were gonna be going on as soon as they were done. And I’m hearing this band, and I’m saying to myself, “Criminy! That sounds like a cat! Who is that?” And I walked to stage left and looked over, and there was Bon Scott, with a bottle of Jack, no shirt on, Levi’s, and cowboy boots, singing “I’m a Problem Child!” And I just went, “Holy shit! We’re really gonna have to step it up tonight!” It was unbelievable. It was another kind of energy that we had never experienced before. And yes, they certainly showed us how to become a better band, too. And we got to hang out, as well. There were a couple of days off that we had in the South, and everybody kind of got together at the hotel. And by the way, nothing was different—Bon was there in Levi’s, boots, and again with a bottle of Jack, by the pool.
Paste: What have you learned from the pandemic, all told?
Perry: I think it’s taught me a deeper connection with the mortality of life, and I think that it’s taught me maybe what’s important and what’s not. And that, to every person, will be an individual assessment. But in the end, when we do climb out of this, I think everybody will take a whole lot less for granted. Or at least I hope so. And I now understand that music comes from a bigger, more pure, more wonderful place. Speaking as someone who once lost his passion for music—and had to leave a band that was a dream come true, in order to go on a sabbatical with no hopes of ever finding the songwriting again—and then found the muse again and it all came back? Oh my gosh. That it is something that I will never take for granted.