Like the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster, legendary Journey vocalist Steve Perry admits he became something of an urban legend once he left his old band in 1998. Aside from an appearance with the rock supergroup at its 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, sightings of him were rare; his last solo foray in 1994 was his sophomore album “For the Love of Strange Medicine.” A few field reports filtered in over the years from collaborators including Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, E from the Eels and Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson. But he didn’t pop back up on the radar until 2018’s “Traces,” featuring one Wilson co-write, the gospel-reverent “Cryin’,” one Beatles cover (“I Need You”), and eight other soul-steeped originals. On Dec. 5, he released “Traces (Alternate Versions and Sketches),” a pared-down take on the same songs that underscore the real Stax/Motown power of his truly remarkable voice, virtually undiminished at 71. “If the song can’t survive being stripped down, then it’s not a song,” is his philosophy.
This is probably one of the highest compliments I could pay an artist, but I can never fly back into SFO or Oakland at night and not punch up Journey’s signature “Lights” before touching down.
Ah, those were some great times. I’m in the San Diego area now, but the Bay Area still to me is a very special place. When I was living there, there was nothing like it. Nothing. But I’ll tell you a quick story. I never was really into sports my whole life. But I remember when the San Francisco Giants had only had their new stadium for a year, and somebody invited me to go to a game. And I thought, “Well, I don’t like sports too much. I’m a music guy — I stay up late and write music and all that.” But they said, “No, you should go — it’ll be fun.” So I went. And I got bitten by the S.F. Giants bug, which led to whole seasons of wonderful games and World Series. Because what I did not know at the time was that they were playing “Lights” all the time at these games, and the Oakland A’s were doing it, too. I had no idea! Because I had missed out on that part in my life, that sports part. So that was a really beautiful thing, when I heard that being played across the whole stadium during the games. That was a real thrill.
You went on a self-imposed sabbatical after leaving Journey. Where did it lead?
Well, the first thing I did was, I went to my hometown of Hanford, California, hung out there with some old friends, then went to Visalia to where the Harley-Davidson dealer was and bought myself a dream — a beautiful soft-tail custom Harley Davidson — and outfitted it with pipes and put a sleeping bag on the back of it. And I drove around my hometown of Hanford and Lemoore, on the backroads to the south, and one called Coyote Road, where literally there was room for only one car. All of the streets were overgrown. Nobody goes on those roads. But that is what I did. I drove around, I drove around, reconnected with friends, and I did no music at all because I was really letting it go. I remember one time I was riding my motorcycle, and it was literally 105 degrees in the San Joaquin Valley that summer. And as I’m coming back to town, all of a sudden it was cool, like 85, 90 degrees. And I thought, “Well, what just happened?” And I looked to the left and I looked to the right, and there were alfalfa fields there. And I had forgotten. See, I had forgotten something from my childhood, which was that if you drive by an alfalfa field in summertime, the temperature drops 10, 20 degrees, because alfalfa holds this moisture and it’s cool. It just stays cool around there. And when you pull out again, you’re back to 105. So, believe it or not, reconnections like that to my upbringing — like just going to the cemetery and spending time — made me grateful for the childhood that I had with my mom, my grandfather, and my dad. And being an only child, with them all gone, and grateful they got to see an amazing dream come true for me, and ultimately for them, too? All of that had to happen again. I had to reconnect to the importance of all that. And because of that, I found the soul in my songwriting again. And that became a whole new batch of writings, and now I’ve got all this great stuff sitting there that I’ve written alone or with other people. So there’s just a lot of work to be done here, still.
The new “Alternate Traces” reveals those songs at their skeletal best, like Springsteen’s “Nebraska.”
See, that’s exactly how I feel about songwriting, in general, because otherwise you’ve just got some production-built track. So I wanted to take these “Traces” songs and strip ‘em down and show everybody their humble…nakedness, without all that studio clothing. That gives them the opportunity to exist as songs and nothing more. Like, I always loved George Harrison’s “I Need You” from the “Help!” album, and it was a bossa nova version. But that was not how I heard the song. What I heard in my head was an R&B version, like the one I just put out.
What have you learned from this surreal pandemic?
I think it’s taught me a deeper connection with the mortality of life, and I think it’s taught me maybe what’s important and what’s not. And that, to every person, is an individual assessment. And in the end, when we do climb out of this — and I’m not sure when that’s going to be — I think everybody will take a whole lot less for granted. Or at least I hope so.