Journey frontman Steve Perry on losing his passion and comeback
Former Journey frontman Steve Perry, known for one of rock's most iconic anthems, has just released his long-awaited third solo album, Traces. The singer-songwriter tells Lucy Mapstone about how he lost his passion for music for years, and why he was inspired to finally make a comeback
Steve Perry is as surprised as anyone that he's made a comeback with his first album in nearly a quarter of a century. After leaving legendary band Journey, best-known for rock anthem Don't Stop Believin', more than 30 years ago, he was done with music.
He still performed and even reunited with the band for a brief stint in the 1990s, but he was not feeling it.
The flame of passion for music that he'd had since childhood had died. He was burnt out.
But now, after enduring one of the most agonising things a person can go through - the death of a partner - he is back, fully armed with his deep-rooted love of music.
"It feels miraculous," Perry, now 69, says. "I had no idea in my heart that my true passion and love for music would ever return.
"I lost that passion. I was still singing, I was still doing the shows, but there was something that wasn't connecting.
"So my answer was, 'I just need to stop and I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing, but I have to just let go'.
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"I had a conviction that, if it never comes back, this passion for music - and that scared the hell out of me - then so be it. I'd already lived the dream of dreams."
Against all odds, however, Perry managed to reconnect with music.
He describes it as a "life-sustaining passion" and it has resulted in Traces, his first solo album in 24 years.
But this is not just any old comeback record. This is not just a box ticked, a 1980s rock star making another go of something and hoping for the best.
This is the record he promised his late girlfriend, Kellie Nash, he would make before she died from breast cancer in 2012.
Nash, a psychologist, and Perry met in 2011 and, despite knowing she was fighting for her life with the disease, Perry wanted to spark a relationship.
He wanted to be with her regardless.
"I met Kellie and I fell in love with her. We were inseparable and we were together for a year-and-a-half," he says.
"After I lost Kellie, I was in deep therapy and grieving for two years, and then a miraculous thing happened - instead of running from music, I was pushing into it again.
"It was just coming up from the deepest part of my heart and giving me goosebumps all over my arms again, and I felt so grateful to have that connection back.
"And from that connection came this record."
Perry also has Nash to thank for something else, as she opened his eyes to just how important Don't Stop Believin' is, but for a whole new reason.
Arguably one of the greatest rock songs of all time and a pop culture staple, the track has been used everywhere, from the finale of The Sopranos to Glee, and is perhaps one of the most-requested karaoke songs ever.
But the song, co-written by Perry, now has even more meaning. "The song has such integrity built in. For instance, when I first met Kellie, she didn't really know who I was, which was beautiful for me," he recalls.
"And then she was told who I was - she was younger. She told me that a lot of her friends used to listen to that song when they went to chemotherapy because it would help them to get through it.
"When I heard such reverent responses to what the song means to people who are fighting for their lives, obviously I'm a now bit protective to where that song does or doesn't go."
Perry faced his own battle with cancer several years ago, and has also dealt with other health issues, all of which contributed to his artistic rebirth.
"These things change everyone's outlook," he acknowledges.
"I mean, I'm not the only person who had these close calls, and I'm not the only person who lost somebody they were truly in love with."
Traces certainly sounds like the work of someone who has been through arduous times, but who has come out the other side.
An emotional and vulnerable record of original tracks, as well as a re-imagined Beatles cover, Perry sings of balancing tremendous loss with enduring hope and beauty.
His world-famous voice - once described by Queen's Brian May as "luminous, a voice in a million" - is as stand-out as ever all these years later.
But it took some effort and hard work to get back into singing and creating music after years of not wielding his talent at all.
"I didn't sing while I was gone," confesses Perry.
"I didn't write music, I didn't really go to concerts. I kind of walked away from it all."
After cutting music out of his life, Perry made his way back into it slowly, experimenting with his own equipment and writing his songs in complete privacy.
"There was just me, my demons, my voice and my songwriting in that moment alone," he notes. "I walked into that cage, so to speak, and just started. Sometimes I would sing something and I'd think, 'That's cool'. And the next thing I might think was, 'Well, that could be better'.
"So here we go, here starts the process I'd not done in years. That was a wake-up call."
Perry's willingness to talk so openly about his personal battles and his music is at odds with his younger self, who notably shied away from the spotlight.
"I would say that I'm not somebody who needs to be in the public eye," he says.
"The biggest focus for me is to put my heart and soul into the tracks, into the music, into making the decisions.
"I'm more comfortable with talking about this music and what happened than before because of the process of being gone for so long, and what it took to rediscover the passion.
"I just want people to hear the music and try to get into the emotion that has been really reached for in all layers as these tracks were built and arranged.
"That's where I am exposing myself emotionally to the world."
Traces by Steve Perry is available now