Steve Perry believes that any great song should be able to withstand a campfire test. “You take any song and sit near a campfire with an acoustic guitar and sing it, the song should be able to survive,” says the former Journey frontman. “It should work just as a melody with lyrics. If the vocal is strong enough to stand on its own, you’ll know it right away.”
About six months ago, Perry began thinking that the songs from his 2018 comeback LP Traces could survive such a test. He loved the arrangements on the finished album, but many of the songs began as simple demos and he wanted fans to hear them in this raw form. “I love rock & roll and I love the production of rock & roll,” he says. “But there’s something to be said for ultimate simplicity.”
There are 19 songs on Traces, but Perry wound up focusing on just seven of them for his new album Traces (Alternate Versions and Sketches). (“Most of All” appears in two incarnations.) These new versions of the songs combine elements from the original recordings with new vocal parts and instrumentation that he laid down earlier this year.
“This is a goodbye to the Traces record,” he says. “That’s because I have so much other material sitting around and new stuff I’ve written. I haven’t put any drums on [the new songs] and I have no idea when they’ll come out. They’re just sketches now in the seed position, just like what you hear on Traces (Alternate Versions and Sketches).“
Might fans have to wait another 22 years to hear these new songs? “Oh, no!” he says. “Uncle Steve doesn’t have that much time!”
As we wait for Uncle Steve to finish his next album, he walked us through every single track on Traces (Alternate Versions and Sketches).
“Most of All” (Radio Mix)
I’ve always believed in this song. I wrote it before I met [my girlfriend] Kellie Nash and had it sitting there. I met Kellie Nash and then she passed away. And then two years later, I built this studio and made this record and remembered I had this song. Oddly enough, it was about losing somebody. I had not lost anyone like Kellie, though I had lost my mother and father. All of a sudden, this song became very personal to me even though I wrote it before.
This version was remixed with a different sort of approach. I took some parts out and changed some basic mix levels. And I just did a different approach to it from a mix standpoint. I remastered it with Bob Ludwig.
“No Erasin’” (Acoustic)
This is a song I really believed in when I first started writing for this record. For me, it was an emotional fantasy about standing in front of an audience again, although it could be a woman because of the line “backseat of your car.” There could be double meanings all the way through this.
It was also inspired by the idea of my youth, my first time being in a backseat of a car, and going to a class reunion and seeing somebody you hadn’t seen in a long time, jumping in a car with her and parking somewhere you used to park and sitting in the backseat like you used to when you were in high school. It’s about reunion. Originally it was inspired by a class reunion, but it became something bigger than that.
The song began with just an acoustic guitar. I think Thom [Flowers] played it. Dallas [Kruse] played some some harpsichord. The bass by Devin [Hoffman] is really great. This new version became more of an acoustic Bee Gees–type song, not so heavy.
“I Need You” (Acoustic)
I always loved this song. I was a kid when I first heard it. It was one of the most obscure tracks on the Beatles Help! album. I always, always heard that song done another way. They did it with a bossa nova feel to it. It’s a beautiful version; it’s not how my mind heard it. I heard it slow like an R&B song, but I never did it.
One time, I sketched up an idea on guitar with a friend of doing it down in tempo like this. We put [drummer] Vinnie [Colaiuta] on it and it became something that made the record. Waddy Wachtel played on that. He came up with a way of playing it so simply that is just sounds more like the song to me than even the version I’ve always known.
“No More Cryin’” (Acoustic)
I got together with Dan Wilson for this one. He’s someone I’ve never written lyrics with before. We did this years ago and we just sketched up an idea. For this acoustic version, we pulled up his original demo of guitar parts and Thom played along with it too.
There’s a history in this song. The lyrics go, “Well, she told me that she loved me/That was not so long ago/Love’s forsaken and forgotten/On this lost and lonely road/She could heal my complications/Hold me up when I was low, low/That was all so long ago.”
It’s about an old relationship, for sure. But it also can be a lot of other things. Relationships are relationships. I’ve been in a lot of powerful relationships in my life that were very successful. I’ll just say that. Some of those relationships that were very successful can fit in songs like this, too, especially when he says, “When you told me you really want me/I was all by myself/Then you told me that you loved me/And there is nobody else.”
Relationships, whether they are successful career relationships or love relationships, can be very similar. And there’s some betrayals in this song. I think it’s just feelings all coming out and becoming a song that’s modular in people’s ability to make it something they can make their own.
“Most of All” (Stripped)
I wanted this song to even have an opportunity to be heard stripped down, so I did exactly that. It’s basically piano and voice and the cello from Steve Richards. And I wrote a little string part and Roger Manning from [the band] Jellyfish is in there [on synths]. There’s a little bit of background [vocals], but not much, just the harmony part. I just wanted people to see what Randy Goodrum and I wrote years ago that I think emotionally still holds up.
Randy is a huge Nashville writer. That’s where he started and he’s moved all over the world. He’s written with people all over the world, from Anne Murray to Toto to everyone. He’s just a very, very fluid songwriter who can work with anyone.
I first met Randy when I wrote “Foolish Heart” because I was suggested by Andy Newmark, the drummer, to write with a great songwriter like him and see what happens. First day we met, we wrote “Foolish Heart” and we finished it that day.
Randy and I wrote this years ago, before I met Kellie, and it was sitting there, just ready to come to the time that we were in. The song was written in another time and it showed up just where it was supposed to. I want, emotionally, people to give it a chance and hear just the melody and the lyrics of this song. “To the ones who’ve lost their most of all/Many years won’t heal with tears/Still call their most of all.” I just love that sentiment and I believe in that sentiment and I’m proud of that sentiment.
“We’re Still Here” (Acoustic)
Brian West is a guy that writes with a lot of people in Hollywood and I met him through Randy Jackson. We were just sketching one night and we broke for dinner and went back to the place. On the way back, I truly saw something I had forgotten since I was living in San Diego, where I still live.
There were these 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, hitting the streets of Sunset Blvd. These cute girls with miniskirts that can’t get any shorter and I’m watching these 16-year-old guys just honking after these girls and having fun doing it and the girls are having fun being chased.
I thought, “I forgot this is still happening at this level” because I had not been hanging out on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. It dawned on me that we’re still here emotionally, doing what we’ve always done. And through them, I got to see myself because we’re still doing what we’ve always done.
“We’re Still Here” is a timeless statement. We’re still here doing what we’ve always done and it’s going to continue to be that way. That’s what the song is about. “Another night, another town/Walkin’ my heart around/Same old choices, again.” That’s exactly what I saw that night and we went out and wrote it after watching it.
“You Belong to Me” (Stripped)
Barry Eastmond is a great songwriter that I ran into accidentally. He wrote with Billy Ocean and a lot of other people. He’s such a prolific writer. We sat down on my little laptop setup one day and we just sketched this idea. The version we originally did was a different tempo. It was a different sort of song. It had a different rhythm to it, almost like an uptempo-ish thing.
One day Thom Flowers, my co-producer-engineer went, “Man, that is a beautiful song. I think you could do this as a ballad.” I went, “I never thought about that.”
And so we started to play around with it and that’s what it became. It completely changed its direction and we recorded it as a ballad. Then we brought in David Campbell to do the strings and I added some strings in there. We did it at Capitol Studios with violins and cellos and horns.
This song became just a whole different thing than it originally started. I’m really, really pleased with the way it turned out.
“Sun Shines Gray” (Acoustic)
John 5 and I got together to write this song. It was just a sketch we put together. I don’t think he really believed this was going to grow into anything since we just got together for a day. And then I went back and found it and started really expanding on it. I used a lot of his stuff on the album production. This version, which is completely stripped down, I just used Thom’s guitars, Devin’s bass, and my bass. There’s little strings, little background, especially on the choir on the bridge because the bridge was so important to me.
This one has its own big ending to it. The solo has been redone, which is nice. I love it and I want it to stand alone as a rock track. A rock track should also stand alone when you strip it down lyrically and melodically. It should say something that touches you with a little harmony, maybe, but that’s it. I wanted to risk being naked with these songs.
I didn’t know where to stop when making this album. I was going to keep going, but I thought, “I gotta get this on vinyl, so eight songs will be enough for now.”