Imagine riding a motorcycle down an open road in the country, with alfalfa fields on both sides as far as the eye can see ― with a warm wind blowing in your hair and the sun beating down on your face.
That’s a lot of what singer Steve Perry has done since playing his last show with Journey in 1987. At the top of his game, he decided to walk away, leaving one of the biggest bands around. This after scoring hit after hit with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Faithfully,” “Open Arms” and “Separate Ways” ― on top of solo singles “Oh Sherrie” and “Foolish Heart.”
“I wasn’t going to walk away through the back door,” Perry told HuffPost. “That’s not walking away. That’s not returning to my hometown, my farm community and smelling the alfalfa again and going to my favorite ice cream parlor that my grandfather took his son ― my dad ― and my dad took me. And having delicious chocolate chip ice cream in Hanford [California]. I had to walk away.”
Though he has made a couple of appearances with Journey (most recently at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2017) and reunited for the 1996 Journey album, “Trial by Fire,” Perry has stayed largely quiet on the music front.
But now he’s finally ready to walk into the spotlight again. After more than two decades, Perry will unveil a full-length solo album. Called “Traces,” the set ― due Oct. 5 ― finds the former Journey singer performing his own material with that signature voice that has long been missing from music. For the first time in a long time, Perry found his passion for writing and recording again. The result is a new 10-track album with five bonus songs.
“They all have a special place in my heart … They are like children to me,” Perry said of his new songs. “We gave them the best that they needed before I let them go because once you send them out into the world, there’s not much you can do. … You got to kiss it goodbye and hope that it’s charged with the honest sincerity that you hope other people will experience.”
We caught up with Perry about his new music and what he’s been up to since leaving Journey.
How are you feeling in the lead-up to this release?
You know what? That is so kind of you to ask you how I’m feeling. Most people don’t do that. I’m all over the map emotionally. It’s so strange. I’m exhilarated. I’m anxious and excited. And I’m just pensive. There are just so many feelings coming out at the same time because it’s been so many years — I would say over 31 — that I’ve really gotten into this with the passion I have now. So I didn’t know that the passion for music would return. When I left the group, I left because the passion had left my heart and I felt like I was sort of singing by numbers, emotionally. I don’t think anybody noticed, but toward the end there, I was not connecting, and my passion for music that I had found when I was 5 or 6 years old that I brought with me into my life, and I just started to lose that, and it scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t connect with my foundation, which I was pulling my singing from and my passion for writing music too. So it has so excitedly returned to me, and I’m really, really excited about it.
I think the fans — based on chatter online — are just as excited to hear from you. So I imagine that’s a good feeling too.
It is a very good feeling. It was not a popular thing to do. I had to walk away, but I knew in my heart that ... all I had left, really, as an option was to walk into the abyss of not knowing where I’m going, and I just knew I couldn’t stay where I was. And so I just threw my fate to the wind and went back to my hometown, which was a farm community in the central San Joaquin Valley in Hanford, California, where I was raised. It’s always been an agricultural town. It’s always been the cornucopia of the world, they used to call it back in those days, because it’s just amazing what grows there, from almonds to peaches to grapes to cotton and alfalfa. I tried to reconnect and though my family was all deceased, I needed to go home and reconnect to some of the feelings and the environment. I really emotionally needed that ― really bad. So I bought a Harley-Davidson and a storage unit, and I drove my Harley through the country roads of that area.
The album kicks off with the lyric “I know it’s been a long time comin’ since I saw your face.” It’s been so long since we’ve seen your face. You’ve said you’ve been invisible for 30 years. I know you had a girlfriend, Kellie Nash, who passed away and she was among the influences who got you back into music. Why did now feel like the right time to release “Traces”?
Well, Kellie and I found each other through [writer-director] Patty Jenkins, and we were together for a year and a half. And she had already been fighting stage 4 breast cancer, but you would never know it. We were living in Manhattan, and she was getting some treatment there that was actually working for her. We lived there for almost 10 months. But she knew something had changed, just before the time Hurricane Sandy hit. We came back to the West Coast. And then about two months later, I lost her on Dec. 12, 2012. So that was the big change in my life that … a heart isn’t really broken until it’s completely broken, and that was when it got completely broken. And I thought I had a pretty good heart, but it took me two, almost three years of grieving. And slowly I got the passion back for music that I had lost when I left the group years before. I just found this songwriting thing came back. You gotta understand how much that meant to me emotionally. And I started writing these songs. Some are happy. Some are sexy. Some are rock ’n’ roll. Some are about loss, but the record has all sorts of tones to it.
How did the writing and recording process come to be?
Once I built the studio in my house and I got an engineer ... named Thom Flowers, he and I got together and started putting together all these sketches I had written. We just started accumulating and recording songs and reaching, I think, for the sincerity that I remember was the most important element of music that touched me when I was 5 years old. I remember when I was in Journey, there was a sincerity in the music, with my solo projects … and so we worked hard to reach that believable sincerity in the drum performance, in the guitar performance, with the bass, the background vocals, the lead vocals and the lyrics.
When you decided to take that break, did you ever imagine that it was going to be this long of a break?
I walked away with a sincere commitment to not ever come back. That’s the only real honest walk away that had to happen … I had to walk away. And yes, I buzzed my head. And yes, I gained 60 pounds. [Laughs.] I was walking into the wind as much as possible, and if, in fact, I was ever going to experience anything ― love and passion for music — again, then I’ll figure it out. And if not, I’m OK, because we could not have done what we did any better than we already did it in the time that was right to do it.
At the time, though, even though you were away, the music you created with Journey and your solo projects from earlier in your career lived on. What was that like, watching from afar?
That’s a great question, because they did have a life. They did have something in them that continued to touch people while the music business went into boy-band land and electronic drums. I must admit, though, I was slowly opening my heart to music, because in the beginning, all I could listen to was ambient music. I couldn’t listen to anything with vocals or melodies or singers. I was kind of PTSD for music when I quit. So slowly all this stuff started to change. And here comes this era of boy band and electronic music, and I really liked the songwriting of some of it. They were well-crafted, sweet songs. One that comes to mind is [singing the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me”] “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as long as you love me.” It was this whole other landscape with garage, alternative, boy bands, and somewhere on other channels, Journey stuff was still going on. I don’t know what to say about that except that I was doing the best I could to keep walking and not feel too bad about taking care of myself, because I needed to get out. It wasn’t easy to keep walking.
Would you consider that one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life ― to walk away?
I think “risk” would be the wrong word. I would say the biggest necessity. I think that emotionally and foundationally I needed to throw myself into my hometown ― see friends, go to the fair in the summertime. At that time, my aunt was still alive. I used to take her to lunch in the ice cream parlor. … I was doing family stuff.
When you look at your life, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want people to know about you?
Wow, I never thought about [that]. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know. I am getting older — I should start thinking about that, perhaps. Uncle Steve is no spring chicken, that’s for sure. … Well, I think it’s just ― Steve Perry was someone who was touched by music when he was 4 or 5 years old. His father was a singer, and I think in his DNA something resonated with him too. And from that point on, I was never the same. I started listening to radio at an early age. I started buying music at an early, early age. And when I got into the double digits — 10, 12, 13 years old — I was into 45s. Through some of my friends of color, I discovered R&B music. And I wanted to know why it felt the way it did, why it made me feel the way it did. And I wanted to know why Sam Cooke killed me the way he did. And why Jackie Wilson was slaying it like he did. And why Aretha [Franklin], what is she doing? And Nancy Wilson. What is going on with the Four Tops? What do you mean, ‘Baby, I need your lovin’”? ... Do you know how hard it is to this day to write a lyric that rhymes one into the next, into the next ― to where it strings together like a golden thread and you’re just along for the ride? That’s tough! So those kinds of moments changed my life. They were life-sustaining. Especially when my parents got a divorce when I was 7. So my legacy is that music saved my life. And it continues to now.
“Traces” will be released on Oct. 5.