The Songwriting of Steve Perry Shines On Stripped Down Version Of ‘Traces’

Steve Perry the singer and Steve Perry the former member of Journey get a lot of press. But it’s probably time that Steve Perry the songwriter shares in some of those accolades.

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In an interview with American Songwriter to discuss the recently-released Traces (Alternate Versions & Sketches), featuring reimagined versions of songs from 2018’s Traces, Perry makes it clear that those other two personas couldn’t have been possible without the songwriting first. “I don’t think that people have even looked at the songwriting aspect,” he says of his career. “You can have vocal abilities, you can have a great band. But if you don’t have a song, you’re lost. What is the success of all these groups without songwriting? You gotta have a song first.”

Part of the impetus behind revisiting Traces, which was his first release in a quarter-century, was to spotlight what Perry thought was an especially sturdy set of songs. “I had finished the record and we were doing an interview in my studio,” he recalls. “At the last minute, I asked the video crew, ‘Why don’t you come in and I’ll show you what these multi-tracks sound like?’ I started soloing certain elements like the background vocal stacks of ‘No Erasin’ or the lead vocal of ‘Most Of All.’

“I was doing that, and I loved all the elements so much, separated out, that I told my engineer Thom Flowers afterwards, ‘I think at some point we should probably do these acoustically, because the songs are so sound melodically and lyrically.’ Because they’re songs, I want them to be stripped-down and naked and pass the campfire test. If you can play that song with an acoustic guitar and sing the melody and sing the lyric, and it just works, then most likely it’s a real song. I’ve always felt that about these songs, because I believe in them. And I wanted everyone else to hear them sort of stripped-down.”

Perry has always gravitated to the simple power of lyrics and melody, especially when they’re expressed in the right way. “From a songwriting standpoint, the original seeds when the song is written are the basic compass that you use to follow the song to a bigger production, like Traces was when it was first released,” he says. “But when it comes down to it, these new alt-versions and sketches show how the songs that were stripped down began, just chorded versions, melody, and vocal pockets in the phrasing and the lyrics. That’s been a challenge my whole life to try to reach for such performances that stand alone. That’s because the people I admired as a kid, vocally, they did that. I always wanted to know how they did that.”

“Sam Cooke was one of the best ever to sell a lyric, no matter what he sang. And there was the Drifters’ lyric: ‘You can almost taste the hot dogs and French fries they sell.’ If you just write those words on a piece of paper, when I was young, I thought, ‘Really? Hot dogs and French fries? That doesn’t sound like a great lyric to me.’ But then I went back and started listening to it and it was (sings the lyric.) He (Johnny Moore of the Drifters) sold it. He fucking killed me. It wasn’t what he said; it was how he said it. So I started to see this combination of melody and lyric, lyric and melody, and the songwriting dance that happens between them that can stand alone by itself.”

As he began to dive back into the songs on Traces, sometimes re-singing parts and sometimes recovering vocals that he had done in demos, Perry discovered how much the process appealed to him. “I think the original version of Traces has a different emotion in the size of the tracks, the rhythms of the drums and the phrasings, the guitars and the solos,” he explains. “Cause I’m a band guy. I came into this world of music by being a band member. I think that, subliminally, when I start to produce stuff, I always look at it like a band performance.”

“With Alt Versions & Sketches, I just wanted to strip it down to see if, emotionally, it really speaks by itself. It’s going to be a different emotion, but it’s another valid, worthy emotion when you strip it down and take all the clothes off it, and it’s just naked there with melody and lyrics. I think it has to come back down to that. I think I always want to do that from now on. After I do some project, I’m going to always want to do stripped-down versions, because the songs deserve their own stripped-down moment.”

Perry’s return to recording after so many years away had to be precipitated by a return to songwriting, a practice for which he had, for a long time, lost his motivation. “When I first joined the band, I had this wealth of intense creative energy and the band was in the same place,” he explains. “Everybody was just spewing these creative ideas together. That went on for quite some time. Along with success comes the pressures of recording and touring. You know, that band Journey did not just tour a couple of weeks here and there. I remember the first tour, we left around the 1st of February and I didn’t get back till December. We were on the road.”

“At some point, I started to get really burned out. By that I mean my creative joys in writing and coming up with ideas were becoming a bit of a parody of myself. If I’m not being honest about my experiences at the time, and, all of a sudden, I have to write songs because the label wants something to be a certain way, I’m out. I jumped and I left the group, because I was not going to do anything that I couldn’t reach into. My own personal experience at that time was that I was burned out. And I’m not going to write songs about being burned out.”

It was only when he once again found the emotional content to match what he thought was worthwhile song material that he got back to work. “What started out to be leaving for a while, turned out to be a long sabbatical,” Perry says. “Even professors in college take sabbaticals. Mine turned into a sabbatical too. Twenty-some years later, I was fortunate enough to have these juices of creativity come back. And when they came back, what I was going through in my life at the time became the honest writing of that time.”

“I was either going to stay true to the emotion of my life in the moment I’m in, or, what am I gonna do, start writing songs about pumpkins?” he laughs. “I’m writing songs about what I’m going through and what I feel is important to me.”

Perry’s latest songs were also influenced by the work of Mark Oliver Everett (E) of Eels. “I had been given that to listen to by Patty Jenkins, the great director, writer, producer of films, and she liked these guys,” he says. “What I heard in the Eels was a commitment to writing, from an honest standpoint, what’s going on right now in E’s life. It gave me the conviction that, ‘Oh yeah, I remember doing that. This is what’s going on now, here comes Traces.’”

Even as invigorating as songwriting can be for him, Perry doesn’t deny the arduous nature of the process. “Honestly, it’s not easy,” he says. “It’s just challenging at every juncture. In my opinion, the songwriting aspect of turning in music for people to hear is not done until it’s even in the mixing phase. Songwriting is not finished until the very end.”

If you don’t believe him, take another listen to what might be his most iconic songwriting credit: the evergreen Journey hit “Don’t Stop Believin” (written with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain), which benefitted from Perry’s insistence on something extra. “I remember we were in Oakland in our rehearsal space where we test drove these songs,” he recalls. “We started coming up the idea. I always wanted something with quarters on it on the piano (vocally mimics piano part). We started doing that and it started to grow. We had the verses. We had all the B-section stuff. I remember at the time that John really felt that the ‘Strangers waiting…’ part was the chorus.”

“But I said to him one time, ‘Now we need the chorus of choruses.’ That’s when, at the very end, came a challenge, from a songwriting standpoint, for all of us in that room to contribute to what became the out chorus, which is the ‘Don’t stop believin’ chorus. That means the song comes in more pieces than you had thought of to that point, and nobody had really done much of that really. This one had to have the chorus of choruses. That meant the songwriting concept had to start in one place, go to another place, and you have to write the one that lifts it all.”

That kind of perfectionism and attention to detail means that Perry’s writing, which you can hear at the top of its game on Traces (Alternate Versions & Sketches), emanates from painstaking effort. But the really good news is that he enjoyed the making of the original album and this offshoot from it so much that we likely won’t be waiting nearly as long for new product from him as we had to the last time.

“I’m already in the studio,” Perry says. “My studio is in a bunker underneath my house. Drums can be loud, guitars and amps can be loud. I’m down in there sketching more songs. I’m agonizing over the lyrics of a particular one right now. One day, I love the way the lyric is feeling. The next day I change my mind and want to go back to the original lyrics. That’s where I woke up this morning: I wanted to revisit the original lyric that I thought yesterday wasn’t right.”

“We’re talking one word,” Perry says laughing about his process. “I’ll highlight that word for now in my writing sketch, and I’ll drop in and change that one word and drop out. And I’ll listen and see if I’m OK with that word change. It can be a pothole in the road or it can be a smooth highway.”

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