I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time: Jonathan Cain. In addition to having written or co-written more than 100 songs for Journey, he has penned numerous hits for The Babys and Bad English, while also maintaining a prolific career as a solo artist. In other words, the quantity, and most importantly, the quality of Jonathan Cain’s musical output is astounding.
This summer Journey is on the road with the Steve Miller Band and the Tower of Power, performing for sold-out crowds across North America. I saw them live in Holmdel, NJ and I plan on seeing them again this year. Check out the tour dates on the band’s official website to see when they’re in your area. The current lineup puts on a phenomenal show that shouldn’t be missed.
Below is part two of my interview with Jonathan Cain. Part one can be read here.
Just like a great singer conveys the meaning of a lyric by the way he or she sings it, I can always feel the emotion of a song when you play the piano. Is this done consciously or does it happen organically because you’re as wrapped up in the songs when you play them as the fans are when they listen to them?
The piano has a voice all its own and I resonate with it. The first time I heard a Burt Bacharach song, back in the ’60s, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I heard his music – and Paul Williams’ music – and I was like, “Man, I wanna’ do that.” Those are two guys that made me want to be songwriters. They had the classic hits. How do you write a song that’s gonna’ last a lifetime? How do those guys do it?
So, I had pretty high standards…and I learned a lot of standards. The piano, to me, just has a very classical, powerful voice that can accompany…or be the orchestra, if you will. I always look at a piano like an orchestra. You play it passionately and it will serve you well. And that’s how I approach my playing. I also did a little time at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and I was blessed to have some good teaching there.
One of my favorite songs on your 2009 solo album, Where I Live, is “Letting Me Down.” It’s beautiful and sad all at once. How did it feel to write about such a personal issue and share it with the world?
My buddy had had that experience. He was at a crossroads in his relationship and it seemed like it just had to come out – the urgent part again. The “let’s get this before we lose it” feeling. And as songwriters, it’s like catching a butterfly…a rare butterfly. You’ve got a net, you’re out in the forest and you’ve got this time out there to get that butterfly. And then that butterfly is gone. And that’s kind of what that song was like. It was an exotic butterfly, and I’m lucky to get a lot of the songs like that. They need to be written on the spot because of the moment. There’s this moment that might never be there again.
I was sitting there with him in my studio and he was getting emotional. I just started playing. He started writing lyrics and he goes, “Jon, that’s beautiful. What is it?” I said, “I’m just reacting to the story you’re telling me.” And that’s what we do, we put soundtracks out there.
“Open Arms” was written as a wedding present (laughs) for my first wife.
I always teach, when I do my songwriting classes, that you write songs about crossroads in your life. That’s really important. You have to seize the moment.
It’s been a while since you’ve released a solo album. Is a new one in the works?
I’ve been writing a lot of country songs. God, I’ve got some really cool songs. I’m writing for Nashville and I have half a mind (laughs), I know this is going to sound crazy – to put out an album of my own (laughs), a country album. Country rock.
The music I’ve got is really, really good. I think it’s a hoot. So, if I can get a little more twang going on, I’ve got a whole album full of killer songs. And I may just put it out myself because I haven’t been able to get many cuts (laughs) in Nashville. I’ve been threatening (laughs) the musical community to release a country album (laughs).
I started in Nashville in 1969, when I was 19-years-old. And I live here now. I’ve got a whole studio.
I was gonna’ do a rock record. I don’t know. I was gonna’ do a Christian record. I don’t know (laughs). So I said, “What If I pick the best country songs I’ve written and put that out?” Sure, why not?
In the end I figure, do something for the fans…and call it Country Comfort with Jonathan Cain (laughs).
It’s been stated online that Kevin Chalfant of The Storm – a now defunct group that featured former Journey members Ross Valory, Gregg Rolie and Steve Smith – was going to be the lead singer of Journey prior to you guys reuniting in 1995 with Steve Perry. Is this true?
No, it’s not true. We looked at him for a second. When Steve Perry left…from ’87 to ’96, we left Journey alone. We never talked about Chalfant or anybody. We just walked away from it realizing that we had come to an impasse.
Then we did Trial By Fire and two years went by and we were going into ’98. That’s when Neal said, “I want my band back. I started the damn thing. Would you help me?” I said, “Hell yeah. We wrote two thirds of the catalog.” So, we called Perry and he declined doing another album. He declined doing touring. He didn’t want to do anything. That’s when we started looking and said, “Maybe we can get somebody else to do this.”
So, Chalfant had done a record, a tribute record I think, and played it for us. And we were mildly interested, so we did have a sit-down with him. We talked about it and declined him being the guy. We just decided, “Nah, we’ve gotta’ keep looking.”
And then Steve Augeri showed up and he was a natural fit for us at that time. He really was.
I thought Arrival was an excellent album – just a fantastic collection of music that had wonderful piano work throughout, especially the outro on “To Be Alive Again,” which is only on the Japanese version of the album. What are your thoughts on Arrival?
A really strong group of songs. Probably the most Journey-sounding legacy stuff that we did. A couple of things happened. Steve had this vocal thing, this infection, right in the middle of it. We were rehearsing, everything was going great and then – bam – it knocked him out. He lost his voice for a long time, for a couple weeks. Then he came back, but not firing on all cylinders, and he wasn’t himself. So, vocally, I don’t think he was as comfortable as he had been.
And I don’t think the mix on the record…when I listen to it today, I don’t like the way it’s mixed. Part of me wants to go back with Arnel and redo that whole thing. I want to do the best of it and add a couple new songs. We’ve been talking about taking Arrival with Arnel, who loves the songs by the way, and doing something cool with it. So, we’ll see.
Speaking of Arrival, you worked with several outside writers, including one of my favorite rockers, Jack Blades. What was it like working with Jack to write material for this album?
It was great. Jack’s really good. I enjoyed it. He’s a very good rock and roll songwriter. He gets what’s supposed to happen and has good ideas. It was a very strong, pleasant experience for me.
Revelation was your first studio album with Arnel Pineda as the lead singer of Journey and it was a huge success. His energetic presence rejuvenated the band both on and off the stage. How did it feel to perform with him live the first time?
It was great. We needed it. We needed somebody like that. We didn’t want the obvious, we wanted to go for…what isn’t obvious? An Asian Filipino singing for ya, that’s what’s not obvious. All of a sudden we become a global band, instead of just an American band. We could have gotten a number of guys…tribute guys or someone else, an older dude, to try to be Steve Perry. But we already had a Steve Perry, so we wanted something new. And he adds a lot of fire up there. He really adds a lot to the mix for us, and he’s got a great heart. He makes us a better band.
I had even more respect for Arnel after watching the documentary, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, about him joining the band. And the documentary has received great reviews from fans and critics. What made you guys want to document this process?
We didn’t, that’s the thing. One of his Filipino friends came to us while we were rehearsing and said, “I want to make a movie of him working his way into the band. Are you guys cool with it?” So, we said, “We won’t give you any money, but we’ll let you follow us around with your cameras.” And the cameras did follow us around, for three years. We just smiled when they were shooting stuff.
Eclipse was your second album with Arnel and it was markedly different from the classic-yet-modern Journey sound that was featured on Revelation. Why do you think it didn’t’ resonate as well with fans?
We strayed from the formula. We strayed from classic Journey. It was really Neal’s concept album. It was all guitars. That’s pretty much a guitar-driven album and Neal’s concept. He wanted an album his way, so we did it. And I don’t think it was necessarily what the fans…sure, it was good because it was rock and they loved it in Europe.
I knew the American public wasn’t going to get it because it’s not pop enough. The secret to Journey was always that blues, pop and rock gumbo of all that stuff. And it was done gracefully and soulfully. It wasn’t about heavy, hard-hitting guitars. “Any Way You Want It” was probably the (laughs) hardest hitting…or “Wheel In The Sky.” But if you think about it, there’s nothing heavy about any of that stuff…but if you put on Eclipse, it’s totally different.
I thought it sounded cool but it wasn’t what we’re used to doing. He wanted to do it because we hadn’t done it. “Let’s just make a rock record.” OK. On one hand, the experiment was successful and on the other hand, nobody really received it that well. Like I said, maybe they liked it in Germany or the UK (laughs) but…there you go.
But Arnel sounded great and we’re playing a couple songs from it in our current set. They’re good tunes.
Is Journey working on new music?
I don’t know. Right now, it doesn’t seem like…it’s a lot of money to make a CD. Unless we’re able to go back in and give people what they want, it doesn’t make sense. And they want the old stuff…and they already have the old stuff.
For me, you put the symphony in there and do a symphonic record. Do the hits with a symphony. That’s what I’d do because that’s what they want. But I don’t know if Neal wants to write that stuff. He’s sort of resistant to going back and writing that kind of material.
You have to really embrace it, who you are, and look at it square in the eye and say, “This is what Journey is, like it or not.” He feels like, “I wanna’ rock!” And I say, “Well, there’s a certain pop sensibility that’s missing that you’ve got to admit we have.” And that’s Perry’s kind of thing.
Perry had that pop sensibility. I followed his lead, he followed mine…and Neal added the rock edge to it. With Perry missing from the mix, do you ever get back to it? I don’t know. I think I know how to start, but everybody has to be willing to get on the same page and make classic Journey music. So, that’s where I’m at. If everybody is willing to make a legacy album like Arrival, I’m in. If you’re not, I’m not.
Recently Steve Perry returned to the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years. Some people have said that he doesn’t sound like he did in the ’70s or ’80s but, frankly, what singer does? I think Steve Perry still sounds amazing. What are your thoughts on his return to music?
I think it’s great that he broke the ice and went out with the Eels and performed. I think it needed to happen. You get a monkey off your back. You get out in front of the people and feel what that feels like. I’m very happen for him that he has embraced this concept of, “This is who I am today and I don’t sing like I used to sing.” I think he’ll enjoy it and embrace it.
He deserves to be out there on stage. I think it’s wonderful. I could never understand why he seemed to be in recluse mode, hiding away somewhere. When you’re Steve Perry, one of the greatest voices of all time, you should be on a stage where you belong. So, good for him. I’m happy he’s out there flexing his chops.