From Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie’s roots in Santana, to their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Journey’s contribution to Rock music is undeniable. More than a great band made up of talented musicians, Journey’s biggest contribution has been the countless songs that so many of us have sung along with, be it on our radios, CD players or Spotify. Although the Infinity disc put Journey on the map with hits like “Feeling That Way”, “Anytime” and “Lights”, it wasn’t until Rolie was replaced by Jonathan Cain that the band was catapulted into superstar success. Escape hit #1 on the Billboard 200 chart thanks to songs like “Who’s Crying Now”, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, “Stone in Love”, and “Faithfully”, all of which charted within the top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Regardless of what kind of music you play, the songs are what your fans will remember, so we hope you’ll get as much out of this interview with songsmith extraordinaire Jonathan Cain as we did.
[GTR] You play keyboards, guitar, sing and have written a huge string of chart-topping hits. Do you think of yourself as an artist, a songwriter, or a blend of the two?
[Jonathan Cain] I think I’m a singer/songwriter, so yes, I believe I’m an artist and a writer first – that’s how I began my career. I knew that there were limitations vocally, and I was keen on having someone else sing my songs. When you’re writing the lyrics and melody of a song your voice has to be an instrument. I certainly laid down the demos for “Open Arms” and “Faithfully” for Steve Perry, otherwise there wouldn’t be any melody.
[GTR] What was it like to hear those songs realized with that voice?
[Jonathan] When I got the final rejection from Warner Brothers it looked like I might have to find a day job – but I knew that I could find a voice that would transcend anything I could do. It was a supernatural thing that God gave me John Waite and Steve Perry. What can I say? That’s pretty epic! Co-writing with John was a great thing for me. He showed me a lot of things that I needed to learn, so it was great to have that experience. Hearing Steve Perry sing “Open Arms” for the first time… I was sitting back thinking, wait until the world hears this, that’s the power of a great song – but one song isn’t the song for everyone. I asked John about that song, and he didn’t hear it, but Steve did! It was so good that I was able to pull that song out and Steve helped me finish it in an eloquent way.
[Jonathan] I’ve made it my business to learn how to produce. I built a studio in Marin county, and I made it my business to learn. I taught myself how to engineer and to really get into the nuts and bolts behind what makes a great mix. I didn’t have to do that, but I was drawn to it. I built a world-class studio in my backyard and produced a lot of smooth jazz records and my solo stuff on an amazing vintage console and equipment that I was able to collect over the years. I’ve been sort of a gear head. I bought the Record Plant’s console, the Trident TSM. There are very few of them out there, and that is the heart and soul of the sound. I have Neve pre-amps, Pultec EQ and a bunch of other stuff. I asked a lot of questions when we made records with Keith Olsen and Mike Stone, and when I got to the point where I could produce (and I did). I produced Michael Bolton’s Dock of the Bay, and Jimmy Barnes’ platinum Freight Train Heart, and we had two #1 singles. It came from following through with the process and being curious enough to learn it.
It’s like some of these guys that work on cars, they go pretty deep and they learn not only how to modify bodies, but they get into the engines, and now they’re making hot rods. That’s kind of how it happened with me. I was fascinated by the process and the idea of engineering and producing. Keith Olsen was the first guy that I met, back in the days at Sound City and Goodnight L.A. He really inspired me to go that route and to learn all that stuff.
[GTR] As rumor has it, when Neal joined Santana, Eric Clapton also wanted him to join Derek and the Dominos. Neal’s playing is iconic both in terms of his feel and his sense of melody. How did his playing impact how you arranged the songs?
[Jonathan] Neal always had the fire, and the virtuosity that I admired. He is ferocious and fearless, and had a ton of content going on. It was for me to harness that raw energy and find places for it and put it into a structure. This is the old days, but he would give me like three cassette tapes and it was really awesome to have that much content to listen to. I would go through it and listen to it for clues, as a writer and creator. I would begin to match ideas that I had with things that he had played. Then I would present the ideas to Steve and tell him about the ideas that Neal had. When I joined the band, there was a push from Neal to go more muso, and from Steve to stay simple. Steve’s songs were very basic, and soulful, but Neal wanted the progressive music that he was working on to be represented. Steve got a little bothered by it, so I showed him where the pieces fit and told him, “There’s a melody here, listen.” Then he would check it out and would hear what I was hearing. I told him, “Let’s take this and run with it”. So, we were able to expand Journey’s style quite a bit. It was pretty cool.
[GTR] In working as an arranger within the framework of a band, what are the most important things a band should do when working up an arrangement?
[Jonathan] That you have the right atmosphere for a song. You have to look at the nature of the song and what kind of feeling you’re trying to convey. You have to put the singer in the right setting. It’s like being a director of a movie and finding the right location to film the scene. As a musician or a producer, you have to find the right colors sonically to tell your story and to get the feeling across. I liked it when we just had 24 tracks and had to make a statement with 24 tracks. Now you can get layers and layers and layers of stuff. I’ve been on records where there’s just too much stuff going on. If I’m producing, I’m going to strip it away.
[Jonathan] You’re representing your fans in a big way. That was the coolest thing for me. It hit me that it was more than just about what the band had accomplished, it was about what Journey has come to be for the fans. And then to win the popular vote and to get in the first time around was pretty amazing. When you get on that stage, you realize that you’re representing a nation of fans that have stuck with you for 40 years. That’s really something.
[GTR] When you left The Babys to join Journey did you come in with a mission of knowing what you wanted to do?
[Jonathan] Neal and Steve were keen on moving in another direction. They felt like they had been there and done that, and they wanted to try and modernize their sound a little bit. They didn’t want to just write the same songs, they wanted to write something new. I knew what they wanted from me. I watched them play while I was a member of The Babys, and it was obvious to me where it needed to go. They went along with it, and the rest is history. I just keep marveling at what a setup that was for me, and for them.
[GTR] Do you write quickly, or do the ideas sometimes take a while to fall into place?
[Jonathan] When I’m in a room with someone, it’s usually pretty urgent to get that idea going and get the song moving. But I like to marinate a lot of ideas for a long time. In my songwriting classes, I always teach that you shouldn’t write something until you know what it is. Until you can locate it, live it, and know it, then keep it on the back burner. Let the idea ripen. I’ve had plenty of ideas that have come in and boom! I knew what they were right away. Like “Faithfully,” it marinated for a while, and then it was written in about 40 minutes in my hotel room. It came from a lyric, and then God showed me what that melody was and I was off and running.
[GTR] Do you pretty much come up with your final arrangement as you are writing, or do you mess around with it quite a bit after it’s written?
[Jonathan] Sonically, I like to get it out and into the band situation. “Faithfully” was sort of an impromptu take at it. I knew what the piano part was, and I kind of knew what the drums were going to do, and the bass, but I wasn’t sure where it was all going to go. At some point, you have to let the band have some freedom with it. I was grateful that we were looking at the song to be a cut on the album, and then what happened was beyond my wildest dreams.
[Jonathan] Find your voice and stick with your strengths, stay unique, say things differently, and find something that you’re good at and really hone in on it. Look at John Mayer, he’s found a sound and a style and he’s stuck with it. He could have easily just done the Blues thing, because he was a Blues player, but he chose to stay in that Pop world. A lot of times, people are chasing some kind of sound that they think is hip, but you have to find your own voice and what your sound is going to be. That’s key. How are you going to be different than everyone else? What makes you different? The other thing is to not just follow the trend. Stay away from clichés.
I asked Isaac Hayes after Shaft came out, “How did you come across this sound?” And he said, “I’ve always been making this sound. They just finally caught up to me.” That was really cool to hear that. I’ve been staying true to who I am, and I’m probably writing the same song that I wrote back in the 80’s, because I know that’s my sound, it’s my signature. Can I do other things? Sure, but when it comes back to “Who is Jonathan Cain?” I will always go for what I’ve been doing. If you listen to the Christmas album, you’ll hear a lot of moves, sonically and stylistically, but you can always tell that it’s me. With Journey, we had a lot of different places that we went. We had our Motown period, and our Rock stuff, and our ballad stuff, but it was always Journey.
[GTR] So what was the inspiration for making a Christmas record, and how did you decide this was the right time to do it?
[Jonathan] It started with my kids back when they were in grade school – the moms roped me into doing a Christmas pageant. I didn’t find much besides Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman that was interesting for the kids to sing, so I started writing music. Then, we started putting on a pageant called “Celebrations Around the World” every year, and I kept adding songs to it and I kept studying the idea of Christmas. Most Christmas albums are pretty predictable. They are kind of just re-treading what has already been done, but I didn’t want to do that. I thought, “Let’s make some new music for God.” I wanted to exemplify what it must have been like in such a dark and dangerous time back around the birth of Jesus. His birth was no easy thing. I read a Billy Graham sermon online called “The Heart of Christmas,” and it really hit me, and I wanted to bring that message and make it come alive on this album, Unsung Noel.
[GTR] We will check it out. Thank you for your insightful answers here.
[Jonathan] You are quite welcome!