Interviewer: Michael Laskow
Jonathan Cain and TAXI’s Michael Laskow admire the Lifetime Achievement Award Cain received.
So many people talk about you being gifted with melody, but few ever talk about your lyric chops. How are they?
Well, I’ve gotten more confident. I am the guy who wrote “Faithfully,” by the way. That is my song, 100%. It’s a road song, but that’s all me. So I really got my confidence coming out of The Babys with Steve [Perry]. And Steve had such an instinct. And the one thing that I learned about writing is the character of a singer. John [Waite] had a character. He was sort of like the Vampire Lestat, you know. He was very sexual, sensual—“I want you baby,” “Oooh, oooh, baby.” So it was easy to write because John wasn’t afraid to sing about lovey, sexy things. [He sings] “Every time I think of you, it always turns out good.” Beautiful stuff. Steve Perry was the boy next door. Steve Perry never really got the girl. It was, “Love and touch ’em, and she was squeezing another.” Remember? And, “Hopelessly in love with you, but you never call me up.” So he was the guy that never got the girl. And even in “When You Love a Woman,” the Grammy-nominated ballad, he doesn’t get the girl. He just doesn’t get the girl. She’s waiting out there, somewhere. Rod Stewart had that character; he picks songs that suit his persona. And I think it’s very important to pin the tail on the right place when you’re trying to...
Coming from The Babys to Journey, he [Steve Perry] already had a formula. He had this sort of safe sex, if you will. Journey never really sang a really sexy girl-song. We stayed away from it, because that wasn’t who we were—especially Steve. His character was an innocent guy from the San Joaquin Valley that loved the country. He loved God, he loved hopes and dreams. He was a dreamer. But he wasn’t overtly [sexy in what he sang]. So we never did that with him.
"Journey never really sang a really sexy girl-song. We stayed away from it, because that wasn’t who we were—especially Steve."
So that’s what I learned about character. Cyndi Lauper was a great example of somebody who is bubbly—“Girls just want to have fun.” It works, and she very seldom strays from that character, that persona of who she is.
I think it’s writers. We have a voice. We need to tune into that voice. I’ve been writing the same song since 1981. When you hear it, it’s a Jonathan Cain song. You can tell it’s me. When you hear it, you’re like, “Aha, that’s Jonathan Cain.” [He sings the melody.]
Some of the songs you sent me in that folder didn’t sound dated at all. And I fully expect it, because we do get people who’ve had a big career, then they join TAXI and they are that thing that they were, and they continue to be that. I had a big smile on my face when I listened, because it sounded like you, but it didn’t sound like you 25 years ago.
And lately I have been into contemporary Christian music. I’ve dropped three Christian albums on iTunes. Those of you believers out there want to hear a little something different, check out what I do for the Kingdom of God. I found that my persona continues to stay true. So once you find your voice, stay with your voice, man. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know.
Do songs start with an idea or a concept for you? Or do you noodle until you hit a little melodic thing and then develop from there? What’s the root?
It’s different. What happens with Journey, for example, we’ll just go in and jam, because that’s an ensemble. We are just progressively working with each other. So then the lyric and the melody has to be found. But then, when I’m sitting at home and I get an idea like “Faithfully,” for example, I didn’t know what the title was gonna be, I just started writing: “Highway run into the midnight sun. Wheels going around and you’re on my mind...” So it didn’t get a title until I got to, “Oh girl, you stand by me. I’m forever yours.” And that’s got to be “Faithfully” right there. So I didn’t have the title until I got to the title, and those words just flowed in half an hour on a napkin. I had my Casio on my bed, and I plunked, plunked, plunked. I swear. And then I went to soundcheck and played it on a real piano, and I went, “It’s a very good song.”
"Steve and I had such synergy. It was almost like Lennon and McCartney. When I look at these Beatles things on Netflix, and I watch the way they were in the studio, we had that same thing."
What percentage of the songs that you brought to the band ended up getting cut?
Every one of them.
Wow, that’s a batting average!
Well, Steve and I had such synergy. It was almost like Lennon and McCartney. When I look at these Beatles things on Netflix, and I watch the way they were in the studio, we had that same thing. We couldn’t help but being good. We got together and great stuff just happened, and we wouldn’t question it. We were cocky, and we were patient. And we would write some pretty bad songs. If we took a break for two years, we’d write two really marginally okay songs. But we didn’t get discouraged, because we knew the good ones were coming. Well, this is pretty good, but there’s more. We wouldn’t worry about it, and we weren’t judging it, you know. So we knew the process had to just keep going and going.
When you’re co-writing... I just recently wrote a Christmas single with these two amazing Christian guys, Tony Wood and Ian Eskelen. They are big Christian songwriters. I walked in and they said, “We want to write something upbeat and happy.” And they played me something, and I went, “Oh, you mean something like this?” And I jumped on the keyboard and I sang the melody, the bridge, and the B-section in about two minutes. It was done. And they looked at me like, “Okay, that’s it.” And Tony had this title called “Wonder of Wonders,” and I sang, “It’s a wonder of wonders,” and that’s it. Just like that, and then we pieced it all together. So that’s a different way of writing than when you are sitting down by yourself and thinking about a title. Like “Open Arms” was a title I had, then I crafted the melody to go with “Open Arms.”
But I’m like Bob Seger, I think we need a title, or some kind of thing to hang your hat on. And sometimes the title ends up being the opening line. You don’t know. I am constantly moving stuff around. I’m like Henley; he doesn’t finish his song until he’s on the microphone. And I’m always thinking “That word could be better.” I’m tweaking all the time. I’m a tweaker.
(0363) Jonathan Cain explains how he wrote the mega-hit, “Faithfully.”
That was my next question. Are you an “inspiration hits and you write a song” kind of guy, or are you a “write, rewrite, and rewrite” kind of guy?
It varies on the song. Like “Faithfully” was just, boom like that; “Open Arms,” same thing. We had problem song, “Be Good to Yourself.” We had the chorus, had the title, didn’t know what the heck the verse was. I wrote the lyrics first, because Perry said, “Are you finishing ‘Be Good to Yourself,’ because I don’t know what it is? You finish it.” So I wrote all these lyrics and I showed him the first verse. “Yeah, that’s a good verse.” Second verse, “What’s the melody?” I didn’t know.
We were with Bob Clearmountain in Woodstock, and it was the last day and Perry said, “What about ‘Be Good to Yourself’? I didn’t know what the melody is, so I got in the shower and all of sudden I thought to myself, “What would Bryan Adams sing on this song? What would Bryan do?” Because Bryan’s my buddy. Bryan was a rocker, and this sounded like a Bryan song, you know? And it was like there it is. [He sings it.] And then Perry comes in and just destroys the thing. And one morning we are mixing it, and then we have a Top 10 song just like that.
But that song almost didn’t make it, you know what I mean? Because it was like you are haunted, you are obsessed. How many people have been obsessed by a song—the way it gets in your gut. It’s like, “Ahhhh, what is this?” So I have this tape with Perry going [he sings]. What is this song? I love this melody, but what is the lyric? A month goes by, and I play it every morning, and it just hit me, “Only the young can say,” and boom, that’s it. But it sets you free. Doesn’t it set you free when you finally figure it out? It’s like, “Praise God. Thank you.”
What’s the longest you’ve ever gone from the kernel of a song to the...?
Yeah? How long was that process?
"I’m always thinking ‘That word could be better.’ I’m tweaking all the time. I’m a tweaker."
Oh, that’s not long. I know people that take a year to write a song.
No, Six weeks. I’m usually like, “I got the title for that.” That song eluded me big-time. So they come in different ways, but as a writer we just have to understand the process and be patient. And also look for clues, because in the music there are clues. If you have to write a lyric to a certain set of chords that are moving, where are they moving you to?
I think in cinematic ways. For me, music is very much like a movie. So like when we did “Send Her My Love,” for example. You know, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen her face.” It’s this melancholy thing going [he sings]. You know the song “Send Her My Love”? And I saw this sad café where they used to meet. I mean, the movie was just there. Same thing with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I heard Neil’s guitar on the original tape [he sings], and I said, “Steve, that sounds like a train. Like ‘The Midnight Train.’ That’s a nice song, but we can’t do that. How ’bout the midnight train going anywhere?”
So the music gave me the lyric. So I was looking for clues in the sound. Now, we already had the title “Don’t Stop...,” but we didn’t have the rest of it—like strangers waiting. So I said to Steve, “This sounds like Sunset Boulevard in 1972, when I used to live in L.A. And he goes, “Really? Tell me more.” I said that every Friday night there was this big parade of people, dreamers, and hustlers that would come by in their cars, meeting and going into the Rainbow Room, Le Dome, the Whisky and the Starwood, all lookin’ for something, all trying to connect. It was like strangers waiting up and down the boulevard. They’re shadow-searching in the night. Yes, Sunset Boulevard. And guess what Rock of Ages closes their show with. “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Amen.
"So I disappeared, and it just turned into the most incredible performance I think I’ve ever heard [Steve Perry] sing. I came in on a Friday morning and I sat there and wept. I was just a mess. It was so good."
That is the music showing you where the lyric must go. Sometimes you have a lyric, and now you’ve got to go the opposite way, so you’ve got to get somebody that can say, “This is a lyric like ‘Faithfully.’” The lyrics came first. But I knew it had to be a strong, simple melody, and that’s how it ended up, because the words were simple.
Did you know it was gonna be a huge hit ... on any of your songs?
Okay, true story. “Faithfully” was a demo that I recorded at Good Night L.A., next to Sound City, for Keith Olson. And he gave me a cassette of me singing “Faithfully.” And he calls me two months later and he said, “I played that song ‘Faithfully’ for the girls in Heart, and they were crying, Jon. They were weeping.” And I said, “Is my voice that bad?” “No, Jon, they loved that song.”
So Perry says to me, “I’m gonna make a solo album; I know you have a song.” So I said, “Well, I’ll play you something.” It was “Faithfully,” and he said, “I really want to cut this on my solo album.” But I took the cassette tape—“Give me that. Only on a Journey record. No, you are not going to sing this on your solo record. But I just want to show you that I have a song.”
And then 1983 rolled around. I had this cassette, and the producer Mike Stone calls me the last day of recording and says, “I know you have a ballad.” So in comes the cassette out of my pocket again in the player, and Perry looks at me like [he growls]. “I’ll sing it, Jon, on one condition—you are not in the room, because you are too close to this song. You’ve got to let me play with it.” “Gladly, Steve. I’m gone.” So I disappeared and it just turned into the most incredible performance I think I’ve ever heard him sing. I came in on a Friday morning and I sat there and wept. I was just a mess. It was so good.
(0393) Cain explains how his lyric writing approach can be influenced by the singer’s “character.”
It’s an iconic song. I mean, every aspect of it. First of all, the construction of it is strange. You wait forever to get to the chorus, and when you do, it pays off...
It’s a simple Hank Williams country song. Hank Williams could have sung it. [He sings it like Hank Williams.] But with Perry, he would take things and make them just special, because he had that kind of voice.
I remember the video for that song. You are sitting in front of a mirror in a dressing room on the road, with a picture of your girlfriend or your wife on there. It was a heart-melter—for the ladies.
My favorite moment of that chapter of my life was when our fans came in and said, “We are forever yours faithfully, Journey.” God has a sense of humor.
Don’t miss Part 4 of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!