“Streetlights. People. Living just to find emotion.”
If those words immediately caused Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ to play in the vast, invisible Spotify of your brain, it was Steve Perry’s voice you heard.
He had, and still has, one of the most-recognisable larynxes in rock. Capable of trouser-tightening high notes, yet full of soul and gravel and drama at the same time.
“Other than Robert Plant, there’s no singer in rock that even came close,” American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who played bass with Perry in Journey, once said.
“The power, the range, the tone – he created his own style.”
But while his voice blasted out on radio, at wedding discos and on TV shows, Perry himself went silent for 25 years.
He walked away from Journey and went into near-seclusion, unable to locate the love of music that had sustained him since childhood.
It took mega-fan Mark Everett of the indie band Eels, to coax him back on stage. And now he’s returned with a solo album, Traces, made in part to fulfil a promise to his partner Kellie Nash, who succumbed to breast cancer in 2012.
Although he never gave interviews during his time with Journey (“I arrogantly felt that if the music wasn’t doing the talking I wasn’t going to clean it up with more talking.”) Perry turns out to be an entertaining raconteur.
He even admits that friends call him “chainsaw” because every time a Journey song comes on the radio, his neighbour starts trimming the hedges.
Here are some highlights from his conversation with the BBC.
On falling in love with music
“I found music as a life-sustaining thing when I was about six years old. My parents were about to split up and I discovered Sam Cooke and 45rpm records.
“I could turn what was happening around me off and live there. And it saved my life.”
Why he quit Journey
“I was wrung out like a sponge. There was just no juice in my heart for music and it really scared the hell out of me. But I knew intuitively that if I kept doing what I was doing, I’d have a hole in my soul that would get bigger and bigger. And I’d fill it with bad behaviours, if you know what I mean. So I had to stop.
“I went back to my hometown, which is an agricultural community in the San Joaquin Valley of California. I would go out to the cemetery and visit my grandparents and my mum. And I bought myself a Harley-Davidson Softail custom and I’d jump on it and drive out into the country roads of my youth with the wind in my face. No helmets back in those days, only sunglasses.”
On losing his love of music
“After Journey, I never sang, never wrote music, never sang in the shower even – because it was just too much of a temptation to just run back into it again.
“The only thing I could listen to was ambient music – Liquid Mind was my favourite. There’s no drums, no voices, no lead singer, no lyrics; just ethereal, gorgeous [synths] in the most horizontal, ambient way that let me feel safe.
“It took years before I could finally listen to music again. The breakthrough was that Luther Vandross album Give Me The Reason. He sings so beautifully. I would listen to it with my headphones and just go for walks. I love that album, the whole album.”
On his love, Kellie Nash
“One of my favourite times we used to have together was we would give each other a smooch and turn the light off and lay in bed; and one of us would talk the other to sleep.
“One night she said, ‘I need you to make me a promise. I want you to promise me that if something was to ever happen to me that you would not go back into isolation.’
“So I said, ‘I promise.’
“It wasn’t like we weren’t living our lives. We were travelling and going to the fair and things like that. But she knew I hadn’t been singing and I hadn’t been writing music. So this album is me keeping the promise. Going back to music.”
How he wrote a song for Kellie before he met her
“In The Rain was written about two years before I met Kellie [the couple got together in 2011, when she had already been diagnosed with cancer] and it’s one of just two songs I never played for her. It’s the only secret I ever kept from her because it’s about such a profound loss.
“I sing about ‘Your face in a photograph staring back in silence,’ After I lost Kellie I was doing exactly that, sitting alone in my house, looking at photographs, going, ‘Oh God,’ and crying.
“So that song was written before I met her and I never played it for her because I didn’t want to bring that energy into that struggle she was in to save her life.”
On how he hooked up with The Eels
“Patty Jenkins [Wonder Woman director] is a friend of mine. We got to meet each other when she did the movie Monster with Charlize Theron, because she wanted the song Don’t Stop Believin’ for a scene.
“She introduced me to The Eels’ album Daisies Of The Galaxy and I just fell in love with it. Patty and I went to some of their shows, and then she introduced me to Mark [Everett, bandleader] and we hung out with him. He had a group of people he’d play croquet with in the back yard of his studio. They were brutal. They played for money and they were really good at it.
“Then they started asking, ‘Well, are you going to sing a song with us?’
“Next thing I know, I showed up in Minneapolis at the Fitzgerald Theatre; and that was the first night I had walked out on stage in 25 years.”
Taking his first steps back on stage
“It all came back to me. Meaning I only eat at 12 o’clock, and no more food for the rest of the day. I have to have an empty stomach when I’m singing because the diaphragm needs somewhere to go. Otherwise you’d be burping in front of everyone!
“About 10 o’clock, Eels did their first encore. Mark goes out there and he says, ‘There’s a guy here tonight, maybe you know him, maybe you don’t. But he’s backstage and we thought we would bring him out. Here’s Steve Perry!’
“But I sat in the back and I waited – just to mess with him, to make him look stupid. And he’s looking at me going, ‘What’s going on?’
“Then I stuck my head out and went, ‘Now? Should I come out now?’
“I’d had no expectations because it was an indie crowd, a different generation, a different time. But the audience reacted like they knew me. So it was amazing.”
On how he nearly ruined the last episode of The Sopranos
“The Sopranos wanted Don’t Stop Believin’ for the last sequence of the whole series – but I said, ‘I won’t approve it until I know how it’s used.’
“What I didn’t want to see was the family getting whacked. Scorsese would do that. He would play something beautiful while people were getting gunned down. So I held out.
“I was still holding out on the Thursday – and it aired on the Sunday. Finally, they called and said, ‘OK, we’ll tell you the ending under one condition – that you can’t tell anybody else.’
“You can see that they wrote the whole end sequence to the song. When I sing, ‘Just a city boy,’ the son comes in; and on the line, ‘Street lights, people,’ the daughter’s trying to park underneath a street light. So they’re really correlating the visuals to the moments of the song.
“If I hadn’t given approval they’d have been screwed!”
Steve Perry’s new album, Traces, is out now.