From Standards to Stadiums, Journey's Jonathan Cain Retraces His Steps

From Standards to Stadiums, Journey's Jonathan Cain Retraces His Steps

By Chris Steffen

Jun. 1, 2018

As Journey crisscrosses North America alongside Def Leppard this year, two-thirds of the songs in their set -- including the classics "Don't Stop Believin'," "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" and "Faithfully" -- bear the fingerprints of keyboardist Jonathan Cain. While not a founding member, his contributions from the Escape album onward helped catapult the band to its biggest successes in the 80s. Cain recently traced his trajectory from playing the accordion at weddings in his hometown of Chicago to headlining stadiums with Journey in his autobiography, Don't Stop Believin': The Man, the Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations, which now has a companion album, The Songs You Leave Behind, showcasing Cain's solo work.

The day after the first show of the Journey/Def Leppard tour, Cain hopped on the line to speak with AllMusic about his early days in music, the harsh realities of the songwriter's life, and how he feels he helped bridge the gap between Steve Perry and Neal Schon when he joined the band in 1980. The Songs You Leave Behind comes out June 8, and Journey is touring through October.

AllMusic: The title track is pretty blunt about the frustration that comes with being a songwriter, as well as how unglamorous it can be.

Jonathan Cain:
It is, being a songwriter can be one of the loneliest jobs on the planet, especially when you’re not getting covers and you’re banging your head against the wall, and you send another one out and say, “Surely, this one will get noticed, somebody will cut this one.” I know the feeling quite well of that rejection, “That song doesn’t move us, we don’t like that song,” and you’ve got part of your heart in it. You’re sure it’s one of the better things you’ve written, yet they don’t hear it, it doesn’t register.

AllMusic: So for every "Separate Ways" there's 100 ideas left on the floor.

Well, when I met Stevie Wonder, his big nugget of wisdom was to not leave songs unfinished, so I’d never leave them. Most of the time if I started it, it would get finished. I could probably count on both hands the songs I never finished, there’s not that many.

AllMusic: This new collection specifically isn't a greatest hits, but more of a snapshot of some specific moments that correspond with your book.

And it’s a look at the neighborhood, the life of a kid growing up, the tragedies, the ups and downs, coming of age. When I teach a songwriting class, I say that these are the important things that define you and you have to write these songs. "Who is Jonathan Cain? He’s the guy who wrote 'Faithfully.'" I think this album answers who Jonathan Cain is. I wrote a lot of these songs back in the 90s, being away from Steve Perry and Neal Schon, just trying to find me, and I had no idea that they were going to fit in the book so well. There’s something endearing about them to me. A lot of the piano on this record is the Whale, the red Journey piano. It's kind of fitting, now that it’s in the Hall of Fame.

AllMusic: In your early days, did you think of yourself as a keyboard player or a singer first?

I was always a singer/keyboardist, and then I moved into the songwriting thing and it really captured my imagination. I studied the songs of the day and tried to figure out why they were hits, what makes a great song? I played a lot of songs from a fakebook, a giant, illegal Xerox-copied sheet music collections that the union could fine you if they saw you using it. I had one that was huge, and I’d go through the different tunes and say, “Why was this song so big?” These were standards, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, that whole thing, because I was making money to get to college playing in this standards band. And what an opportunity, to get to look at all the melodies, it worked well to teach me what a great song looked and sounded like.

I started reading about Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Mac Davis. I met Mac Davis one night and I asked him about “In the Ghetto,” how hard it was to get Elvis to sing that, and he said, “I had to write it four different times before I got it right and he finally said yes,” and I haven’t forgotten that. He’d been through the whole singer/songwriter thing, and I patterned myself after him. Elvis had passed on before I got a chance to pitch a song to Elvis, but that would have been…I could see “Open Arms” for Elvis, come on. Or “Faithfully,” he’d kill that one.

AllMusic: You play standing up most of the time, was that a conscious decision you made at the start?

I didn’t like the sitting thing, I only sit when I play classical or complex things. Usually the ballads are nice to sit for. My whole career, I’ve hardly ever sat. You don’t sing right when you sit down, either. And you look like a floating head.

AllMusic: Guys like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis could barely stay seated.

Well, they did, but then they went flying. I was a huge Dave Clark Five fan, and the lead singer played the organ and he stood up and sang. Early on, I got the idea that I’d do that, and when I played accordion I stood up, too.

AllMusic: When's the last time you played accordion?

I usually play it at the birthday parties. The last one I used my old one was on a song called “Hometown Boys,” and I really need to get it fixed, because it’s so sentimental. I recently found an accordion shop in New York, and the owner gave me a killer price on a used Bell accordion, but I couldn’t get a cab back to the hotel, so I had to schlep it for at least two miles. I had to get back for soundcheck, so here I was, just dragging it down Broadway. It gets heavy after a few blocks.

AllMusic: The accordion can be pretty frustrating if you don't know what you're doing. I can barely make a sound with one.

It came to me pretty quickly. But if you’d put a violin in my hand, I probably would have done the same thing. Kids have a supernatural something, when you really want to play. I could make that thing sing, it became an extension of me. I could pour all kinds of emotion into it that would make you cry, because it was so expressive, because it all came from you, it wasn’t just like a piano sitting there, you had to really pour yourself into it and do something. It was a challenge, and I got quite good at it.

One thing I can say about the accordion is that you play the songs that make the whole world sing, you play the Tarantella and “O Sole Mio” and "The Irish Washerwoman Jig," and they’re dancing and singing to all that stuff, these gorgeous melodies from all over the world. That’s the foundation that I grew up with, which was melody and rhythm. And all the polkas.

AllMusic: That must have been instilled in you from the start as a kid in in Chicago.

Yeah, we had a huge Polish faction there, and Germans, but polkas at a wedding, forget about it, you win. You’ve got grandma up there doing the polka. Then the tips would start coming, and as corny as it sounds, it was pretty cool. It was dumb enough to be cool, actually, because of the musical foundation that it set for me. “This is what moves somebody, these songs move generations.”

AllMusic: So when a guy from Chicago joined Journey, a band from the Bay Area, were you on totally different wavelengths? Did they understand where you were coming from?

You’ve got two only children, Steve Perry and Neal Schon, and I’m a kid with two brothers, so when I get there, I can see that they’re looking for a brotherhood that’s kind of missing. "Let me be the middle brother, I’ll bring everybody together," and I became that for them. They liked my frankness, they were transparent with me, and we hit it off amazing. I had no idea there would be that kind of chemistry, but I did see how all of the pieces fit together after coming out of the Babys, I learned so much in that band about the business and about the band business and dynamics.

All of the years I played baseball really gave me an idea of what it took to win as a team, and in Journey I was sort of the utility outfielder, I could play anywhere. It was easy for us to win, because I could tell we had the talent. There was greatness everywhere I looked, it’s like they were just waiting until I got there so we could make that music.