During the pandemic lockdowns, artists seemed better equipped with coping skills than most. To cathartically document the sadness and the strangeness, photographers had their cameras, novelists had their notebooks and computers, and painters had their brushes, palettes and canvases.
To express how he was feeling, day to ominous day, Neal Schon had his guitars. So many, in fact, that the Journey anchor practically had one to reflect every conflicting COVID-era mood of the past two tumultuous years. Cumulatively, those instruments did a lot of talking — enough to comprise an entire 15-track Journey album, called “Freedom,” the band’s first collection of new material in 11 years, which releases Friday.
Starting in March 2020, Schon found himself rising before sunup in his San Anselmo digs and following the same routine: a small but potent dose of the daily news, breakfast, a few shots of espresso — and then a descent into his downstairs studio no later than 11:00 a.m.
“I’m just very productive in the morning, and I don’t like doing late-night sessions,” said Schon, 68. “Musically, I find the best stuff comes out then when I’m not too awake and not really thinking. When I’m thinking too much? It’s like the old blues saying goes — ‘If you’re thinking, you’re stinking.’”
For music communications, this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has a veritable arsenal of axes, including his own signature model Les Paul.
“In my studio, there’s barely any room to move,” he said, proudly. “I have to be very careful when I’m walking, so that I don’t knock any guitars over, because they’re literally stacked on top of each other, in double rows, all packed in with more guitars leaning up against those. But I like to move through them — I pick up different ones every day, and they make me play differently.”
And as each selection mirrors his shifting moods, he said his notes can sound angry and aggressive, other times ethereal and melodic. It just depends on what’s occurring around him at the time.
Make no mistake, though — “Freedom” opens a brand-new, tech-savvy chapter for Journey. To capture his bottomless flow of chord ideas, Schon implements the Voice Memo function on his iPhone, which he affectionately terms “his new cassette recorder.” During lockdown, he also taught himself to play keyboards — a job once helmed by original band member Gregg Rolie and now helmed by Jonathan Cain (as well as the latest looping programs). Courtesy of co-producer (and stand-in drummer) Narada Michael Walden, working from his San Rafael studio, he also discovered Zoom methods of creating coherent mixes when cohorts are worlds away: Cain contributed his parts from his home in Florida, Arnel Pineda cut vocals in his native Philippines and acting bassist Randy Jackson punched in from Los Angeles.
Yet somehow, “Freedom” sounds just as fluid as “Infinity,” “Evolution” and “Escape,” Journey catalog classics from its halcyon pre-Pineda era with original frontman Steve Perry.
One Pineda vocal, in fact, had to be aborted for being too real — his sensitive Manila microphone was picking up every raindrop hitting his roof during a tropical thunderstorm. “But everybody was working in real time, and it was amazing,” marveled Schon, who co-produced.
From across the Pacific, Schon was able to take another initial chorus-and-verse vocal concept, multilayer it with Walden, add an upbeat tempo, lay down a guide bass-line track for Jackson to later record, and arrange a symphonic backdrop to inspire Cain. Then the mix boomeranged from Walden back to Pineda for final tweaks.
“Narada is known for getting the best vocals out of everyone, so Arnel loved working with him, and I left them alone to get acquainted,” Schon said.
That number, the bright, galloping anthem “Don’t Go,” is one of the new album’s most arresting.
Other notable album moments: The bluesy “Let it Rain,” a swaggering power-chord rocker called “All Day and All Night” and the orchestral folk ballad “Life Rolls On.” As with much material in Journey’s five-decade career, “Freedom” lyrics remain light, apolitical and nondivisive, while letting Schon’s reactionary guitar work do most of the conversing.
The album’s choices follow his basic artistic credo, he explained, “that music is really a healer for the world, and the only international language that we all understand.”
Does he find it ironic to have titled a disc “Freedom” just as the rights of women — and many other Americans — are being taken away? He thinks about it for a minute, but has a reasonable reply.
“So ‘Freedom’ is all about hope, but it has many different connotations,” he said, noting he and his wife, Michaele, recently assumed more of an authoritative role in Journey’s previously messy business affairs.
“For me, it’s about getting away from ex-management, cleaning up everything and handling management myself. But it’s also about musical expression — I still have the freedom to do that, and the freedom to say whatever I want, even if the world is going down like this. So let’s hope that something good happens in the future for the whole world, because it really is a mess.”