Not only is Steve Perry's vibrant, quivering soprano a veritable definition of arena rock, transforming Journey from a bad trip into an extended vacation in Top 40 paradise, but the songs he's collaborated on (with guitarist Neal Schon and keyboard player Jonathan Cain) form the anthemic core of that genre, from the soaring "Don't Stop Believin'" to his first solo hit, the plaintive "Oh Sherrie." Journey's first hit single was written by Perry ("Lovin', Touchin,' Squeezin"). Their biggest hit, "Open Arms," was a Perry and Cain production.
If you have a good voice you're halfway there. I play the bass guitar enough to where I can get a groove and play some changes along with another instrument, like keyboard or guitar. I was a drummer for years. I used to be a drummer/singer until I joined Journey. I can play drums better than I can play bass. Playing bass helps my singing. I can sing better with a bass in my hand. It'll freeze my memory from thinking about singing and occupy me.
I'm real fortunate. I don't profess to be a trained writer. I have a lot of friends who can score music and whip off the most incredible licks and chord inversions that would make you run for the hills. I'm the kind of guy who goes on the gut level, the emotional level, on melodies, on feel and changes. I come up with melodies and some of the groove ideas and arrangements and then I end up finishing things with other people, because I like to get some insight on my lyrics from someone else. Sometimes my lyrics can be too one dimensional.
Capturing The Moment
I don't get middle-of-the-night ideas. I'm a shower person. I hear things in the shower. I don't even have an echoey shower, but there's just something about the sound of running water. The car is another place where I get ideas. It must be the motion. I do have a little 4-track machine in my house next to the piano, probably the oldest Teac ever made. That's just in case I want to lay down some sort of memory demo with lyrics I can just forget about. I would never have a studio in my house.
Ideally, I like nothing more than to write a song, grab the band, go in the studio and rehearse it up and then record it immediately. Because sometimes you can make a demo for yourself and it sounds so good and so honest and then you'll go in the studio with professional machines and try to recreate that honesty and it's too difficult. That first premise, the first idea, the first seed is the most honest and most charged part of the song and I think it should never be ignored 'cause it can be worked right away from itself. I really believe that.
Insight From Other Writers
I think it's better for a singer to write songs for himself. It's like you get to make your own shoes. Although there are songs I can take into me and wear and sing that I haven't written, I haven't done that in a long time.
I feel an insight into what I'm lacking. I'm sure there's an insight into what I'm offering as a compromise. I try to find people who need what I have to offer and offer them what they really need. Let's say someone's laying a lick down and they want someone to come up with a tune. Then I will try and pull that into light, whether it's a verse or a chorus. That's my gig. It all depends on the song.
In "Captured by the Moment" [from his first solo album, Street Talk, 1984] I had the lyric but I had no idea what it meant. Finally, Randy Goodrum and I were sitting there one day and we just started talking pal to pal. It was a great moment in time. Something was captured in that moment that meant more to me even than the finished song.
When I was trying to write lyrics to "Run Alone" I knew exactly what the song needed. I wanted a very street kind of vision of a guy up on top of a hill in Los Angeles, looking down. It's dark and he's seeing the light and he's thinking about his life and reflecting on how hard he's trying to succeed. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about, but I really couldn't capture an overview of the whole thing. So, I got John Bettis to come in and John and I sat down and it took about four days to write. The lyrics to that song are a very personal statement to me. Maybe one of the reasons I couldn't pull it off was that I needed a little more of a session, so to speak, to bring it out. I needed some therapy sessions with other lyricists to bring out what I wanted to say.
I wrote with a lot of different people on that album. It was, "come on over at twelve or one in the afternoon and show me a couple of your ideas." You don't need that much of a fantastic chord change to start off an idea. Just lay a couple of chords on me and let's go. I think optimism is about 80-90% of it. If you just have optimism, something will come up and it'll work out OK.
When Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 (17 years after they were eligible - this band was not beloved by critics who make up much of the voting block), Perry spoke, but didn't perform. The group played three songs with their current frontman, Arnel Pineda.
Perry emerged with a new album, Traces, in 2018. "I just wasn't feeling it anymore," he explained about his long absence. "I stopped singing, and I started living life on its own terms."
For the "Oh Sherrie" story, check out our interview with Randy Goodrum
More from Bruce Pollack in his column, They're Playing My Song
More Songwriter Interviews