Steve Perry's journey back: How one special woman made him start believing again

Steve Perry (Photo: Myriam Santos)
Steve Perry (Photo: Myriam Santos)

Fans may have thought Steve Perry had stopped believing, but after a two-decade recording hiatus, the reclusive ex-Journey singer is finally returning with the solo album Traces, out Oct. 5.

When Perry quit the music business years ago, he returned to his boyhood hometown — the central San Joaquin Valley farm community of Hanford, Calif. — and had no intentions of ever singing again. Inspired by his mother’s battle with a neurological disease that took her life in 1985, he even considered enrolling in medical school and reinventing himself a neurologist. But then director Patty Jenkins put Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in her film Monster. Not only was that the beginning of a long history of the classic power ballad being placed in movies and TV shows, but it was the beginning of a friendship with Jenkins that eventually led Perry to the love of his life, psychologist Kellie Nash. And it was Perry’s whirlwind romance with Nash — and his grief after Nash tragically died of breast cancer a year and a half after they met — that made Perry believe in music once more.

On Traces, the man who recently ranked at No. 76 on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Singers of All Time sounds in fine form — a bit raspier, a bit world-wearier, but that only adds pathos to poignant tracks like “We’re Still Here,” “Most of All,” “No More Cryin’,” “In the Rain,” and a cover of George Harrison’s “I Need You.” As Perry tells Yahoo Entertainment, “This is not the guy who left Journey. This is somebody else who’s lived quite a few years away from it all.”

But while Perry says “Kellie is profoundly responsible for this thing happening,” he stresses that Traces — which features contributions from Dan Wilson, John 5, Pino Palladino, Josh Freese, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., David Campbell, Nathan East, Steve Ferrone, and, on one track, a special “Love and Laughter” credit for Nash — “isn’t all sad songs. There’s sexy songs, there’s rock ‘n’ roll songs. There’s joyful songs, and there are loss songs.”

In the end, Perry’s long-awaited return to music is a cause for celebration. Below, Perry tells the magical story of how he fell in love with Kellie Nash, and how he fell in love with music all over again.

Yahoo Entertainment: First of all, I just have to say, I am so, so happy that you are making music again. It’s been way too long. It’s an obvious question, but why did you leave Journey, and the music business in general, when you were really at your peak?

Steve Perry: I would say, after years of touring so hard — we used to call it “road burn” — we were just burnt out. I started to have a little bit of a PTSD thing from music. I didn’t like that nervous feeling the music was bringing. It was breaking my heart. I figured that, accompanied with the ’80s — which came with some party behaviors and extreme fatigue from working so hard — I knew I just had to stop. It wasn’t like the band and I were all talking, going, “Well, how are you feeling today?” “Oh, I’m feeling pretty good, how about you?” Nah, we were rocking it, we weren’t talking it. No touchy-feely conversations were happening back in those days. … And so, I just said to them one day, “I can’t do this anymore.” I knew that was not going to be a welcome statement. The band was going to be angry with me. The fans were going to be disappointed. But I had no choice except to throw myself into the abyss and go back to my hometown.

At the time, did you expect this would be a permanent or indefinite hiatus, or did you intend it to be just a short break?

My plan was to not build a back door. My plan was to not go back, if I’m going to truly be honest with myself. I had to let go and move forward into a new life.

But then, you met Kellie.

Yes, Patty was doing this show [about cancer survivors] for the Lifetime network called Five. I was hanging out in the editing bay with Patty, and there was this scene where the camera is panning across this patio in a hospital meeting area. And I said, “Patty, whoa. Stop. Who’s that?” She said, “That’s Kellie Nash. She’s a PhD psychologist who had breast cancer. I put real cancer survivors on the set with my actors. I just wasn’t going to pretend with actors pretending they had cancer; I surrounded them with people who are survivors, who are actively facing treatment.” And I said, “Wow, Pat, that’s amazing. Do you have her email?”

Patty looked at me funny, because she knows that I don’t do this. She said, “Really? Why?” I said, “I don’t know, there’s something about her. Would you send her an email saying your friend Steve would like to take her to coffee? She’s a PhD psychologist? Well, maybe I need a new shrink.” [laughs] So she said, “I will [give her your email], but there’s one thing I need to tell you before I send that: Kellie was in remission, but [her cancer] came back in her bones and her lungs, and now she’s fighting for her life.”

Steve Perry and Kellie Nash at the screening of ‘Five’ in 2011. (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
Steve Perry and Kellie Nash at the screening of ‘Five’ in 2011. (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)

So you knew from the beginning what you might be getting into — that if you got involved with Kellie, you were setting yourself up for heartache. And yet, you were still drawn to her and still wanted to pursue her and take the risk.

Yes. At that moment, no harm, no foul — nobody would know nothing if I had just told Patty, “OK, never mind.” My head said, “I don’t know, Steve. You’ve lost your whole family. You walked away from an amazing success already. Now you’re walking into the abyss of who knows where. I don’t know if this is a good idea…” But my heart said, “Bulls***!” So I told Patty, “Send the email anyway.” And she did, and then I sat on pins and needles for two weeks. I kept bothering Patty: “Did she get back to you, did she get back to you?” Finally, Kellie did get back to Patty, and we started corresponding in email. And then we talked on the phone one night, me and Kellie, probably from 6 o’clock until midnight.

When did you meet in person?

We made a date to go out to dinner on June 16 that year [2011]. I met her at 6:30, and we closed the restaurant at midnight. There was nobody in that corner booth but us, and we were laughing and talking about things that no one probably ever talks about ever on their first date out. It was just an open book about every fear and every thought, every feeling. She was just wonderful. And I couldn’t stay away from her. I just wanted to be with her.

You fell in love pretty quickly?

Yes, I remember the day we dated for just only two, three, four times. I left her apartment and was going back to my apartment. I was driving up the freeway and my head bugged me: I said to myself, “What are you doing? Go tell her how you feel about her. This is bulls***!” I thought about that Robin Williams movie — seize the day, that kind of thing. Run the risk. So I got off the freeway, turned around, started heading back, called her on the phone. I said, “Will you meet me out front, please?” She went, “What’s the matter?” I said, “Just meet me out front.”

So she jumped in the car and said, “Is everything OK?” And I told her, “Kellie, I just love you. I don’t know what is going on. I just know it’s an overwhelming feeling. I just want to be with you all the time.” And she said, “Honey, I feel the same about you. But this [cancer] is some nasty stuff, and I don’t think you want any of this.” I said, “I don’t really care about that. I don’t. I look at it like a train with two tracks. Yes, the left track is you and I going through that [cancer battle] together, but the other track is just you and I.”

You knew your time together might be brief, though.

Yes, when we moved to New York, we used to have conversations about this all the time. I’ll never forget one time — she said, “Honey, this might take me. But it will never be able to touch our love. It might get me, but it can’t get our love.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right. I know that’s true.”

How did you deal with the grief when she passed away in December 2012?

When I lost her, it was the roughest two and a half, three years of grieving I’d ever gone through my whole life. And I’ve lost my mother, my dad, and my grandparents who raised me. But this was the first time I ever grieved. I was going to a professional [therapist], and he said to me, “Steve, I want you to cherish the grief.” I said, “I’m tired of crying, man. I’ve got to stop crying at some point.” And he said, “No, I think if you’re smart, you’ll cherish the grief.” I said, “But why?” He said, “Because eventually, believe me, it will start to raise, the bottom will raise, and you won’t be able to access it as deeply as you are now. And I’m sorry it hurts you so much, but it’s only an affirmation of the love you had for each other.” I was like, “What the hell am I supposed to do with that?” He told me, “Stay in it.”

I understand that you made a promise to Kellie before she died that you wouldn’t keep isolating yourself. What was that conversation?

Well, the days were so long and beautiful and magical — like living on a pin together, standing on a pin together. We were so in the moment together. There was no time for bulls***, no wasting any time. One of my favorite times of day with her was we’d go to bed and turn the lights off, kiss each other goodnight, and we’d start to talk to each other in the dark. I’d either talk her to sleep, or she’d talk me to sleep. One night, she said, “Honey, if something was to ever happen to me, make me one promise: Make me a promise that you would not go back into isolation, for I think it would make this all for naught.”

And I sat there in that statement, and I could see what she was saying: That the arc of us finding each other, being together, and the potential perhaps of losing each other, had to have some kind of meaning. Because she was looking for purpose and meaning. So I made the promise that I would not go back in isolation. This conversation I’m having with you now is part of keeping that promise.

The positive outcome of this tragedy, besides the love you obviously got to enjoy with Kellie, is that this entire experience eventually inspired you to make music again.

Yes, but you know this is not the guy who left Journey. This is somebody else who’s lived quite a few years away from it all. This is a guy who has experienced what everyone else in the world is going through. All I can hope is that the sincerity is built into this music, because that’s what it’s doing to me and that’s where it came from. Kellie is profoundly responsible for this thing happening, but know this: The record isn’t all sad songs. There’s sexy songs, there’s rock ‘n’ roll songs. There’s joyful songs, and there are loss songs. But it all came from the arc of all that.

I know you started recording in May 2015. Were there early, unfinished versions of this music that Kellie got to hear?

I did play her sketches, and she loved ’em. She used to hum them around the house, and that was some external affirmation, like, “Maybe I still know what I’m doing, writing music. Maybe I can still touch somebody.” Because she remembered it and liked it, and she didn’t even know what it was! The lyrics weren’t even there; she was just mumbling the melody and the groove of it.

There are two songs [on Traces] that I wrote before I met Kellie, probably a year before I met her. One was called “Most of All,” which is one of my favorites on the record, and the other is called “In the Rain.” They’ve been both inspired by profound loss. … I did not play those sketches for her, because I did not want to bring that type of energy into her struggle. … But after I lost her, I went back and brought those songs forward and realized that they were always about her before I met her, which was really strange.

A couple years after Kellie passed away, you sang with your friend’s band the Eels at one of their shows in St. Paul, in May 2014. Everyone was so shocked and excited to see you back onstage. How did that collaboration come about?

The ice was starting to thaw a little bit. [Eels frontman] Mark [Everett] was always asking me, “One of these days you should come out and sing with the band.” I love the Eels, and I love his songwriting, and I had a special place in my heart for the Eels song “It’s a Motherf***er.” I love that song. I think melodically it’s one of the most beautiful, most juxtaposed songs lyrically and melodically you could ever write. It’s so brutally honest with emotion. With that lyric and that melody being so juxtaposed, it’s genius.

And the Eels also did an entire amazing album, Electro-Shock Blues, about death and loss, partially inspired by Mark’s mother’s cancer.

Yeah, and that resonated with me. … So, I flew myself out to St. Paul, and they were setting up soundcheck and there I was. We just rehearsed a couple of things, and I said, “Can we do ‘Motherf***er?’”

The crowd exploded when you showed up. So did YouTube, when the video made the rounds.

Honestly, I did not know [how people would react]. That eclectic audience that the Eels have, that indie crowd, it’s a whole ’nother generation, years gone by from Journey. I walked out, and I swear from my heart, I had zero expectations. … But I really had a good time standing in front of an audience again and singing. It was something I had not done in 25 years. I was surprised by [the audience’s] reaction, and I was surprised by my emotional connection to them. I forgot how much I missed them, to be honest with you. I forgot how much I missed being in front of an audience, trying to give them that voice that they want to hear. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like [that voice] was ever mine; it really belongs to [the fans] now, I think.

So, that begs the question: Steve, are you going to tour for this album? Please say yes!

I would love to. We’ve talked about that. Uncle Steve is no spring chicken, you know! I’ll do my best to take my Advils. [laughs]

Final question, and it’s a big one: What do you think Kellie would think of Traces? I imagine she’d be thrilled with it, and thrilled that you’re putting yourself back out there.

I’m so glad you’ve asked that. I’ve done these interviews for days on end since we started this process, and no one has asked that. They’re asking questions from like 35 years ago, which just is such a waste of time; life has moved on for everyone. So, that’s a tough question, but I thank you for that question. I have to sit here for a second and think about that. … I think Kellie would be proud of me. I think she would thank me for keeping the promise. I think she would love the record. I really do.

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