Throughout his varied and extensive career, Jonathan Cain has played a key role in writing and performing some of the greatest music of all time. Whether it’s with Journey, Bad English, The Babys, or as a solo artist, Jonathan Cain has left an indelible mark on the music industry. In Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, the Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations, released May 1 (Jonathan Cain’s memoir), the prolific piano player reflects on his life and career. In addition to releasing his autobiography, Cain will be on the road with Journey as the band joins forces with Def Leppard for what promises to be an epic summer tour. Below is my interview with Jonathan, where we discuss his book, his music, and more.
This spring you’re releasing your autobiography. What made you want to release your life’s story at this point in your career?
I think it was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It seemed like a milestone to me. Standing up there on stage with all of the guys after 37 years with Journey. It seemed like the right time to tell my story. It really hit me then. I had been working on my memoir for a while. It’s been brewing. I changed editors. And I fell in love with my current editor’s style of doing it from a songwriter’s point of view. The editor helped me get my outline together. We put all the right pieces in the right places.
In 2002 you released an instrumental album entitled Animated Movie Love Songs. On this record you include your interpretation of the beautiful Barry Manilow song “Soon,” which he wrote for the animated movie Thumbelina. What are your thoughts on Barry Manilow and his music?
I think he’s a talented songwriter, underrated, and very much a genius of his time. I have total respect for him. Actually, I almost did an album with him. I got really close. It was just the wrong time and the wrong place.
What are the details behind the album you were working on with Barry Manilow?
It was an eclectic mix of songs that Clive Davis had gathered. There wasn’t a whole lot of commercial stuff in there. The one song that they had was written about AIDS, and I wanted him to do a duet. Clive fought me on it and I quit. I said, “If I produce, you let me produce.” I said, “I think this is right for Barry right now,” to sing about AIDS with a lady because women were dying from it too. I had a beautiful arrangement all ready to go and I said, “That’s a deal-breaker.” I walked away from the table with Clive and he got mad. We’ve patched up since then. I enjoyed working with Barry very much for pre-production. But I felt a sense from him that there was a falling out between Barry and Clive, and I didn’t want to be in the middle of it.
When was this exactly?
It was before Bad English.
In your mind, who did you think he should do the duet with?
Marilyn Martin, she did a duet with Phil Collins. Beautiful voice, innocent, and sweet. Her and Barry would have killed it.
What would have been the theme of the album?
They were, sort of, very artistic. Clive picked all the songs. He had a Jimmy Webb song, “Once And For All.” The songs were very artistic songwriter songs. The one that I wanted to be a duet was called “Please Don’t Be Scared.” We were supposed to cut it together but we didn’t do it because I pulled out. I just didn’t like Clive muscling me around. I’m supposed to be the producer. I made the demo. I had it all dialed in. I had the harmonies done. It was going to be a beautiful album, but it never got made.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Barry released a self-titled album in 1989 with “Please Don’t Be Scared” and “Once And For All” on it.
There might have been a couple songs on it. But I don’t know that it was made the way we were going to do it.
That’s a shame. You and Barry are my two favorite piano-driven musicians. You producing an album for him would have been great.
Yeah. Well, I sensed a tension between Barry and Clive and I didn’t want to be in the middle of it. Barry would say, “You go tell Clive” and Clive would say, “You go tell Barry,” and I said, “Why don’t you talk to each other?” I felt like I was in a lose-lose situation there, so I’m glad I got out. And Bad English was fun, so it all worked out.
Your two most recent solo albums are 2016’s What God Wants To Hear and 2017’s Unsung Noel. Both of these albums were, obviously, heavily influenced by your renewed faith. What was it like recording these albums?
It was blessed. It was effortless. The easiest records I’ve ever made. The fastest music I’ve ever written. God’s wind was always in my sails. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever done as a solo artist. I think the songwriting is among my best work.
Prior to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when was the last time you spoke to Steve Perry?
The Hollywood Walk of Fame. That’s it. 12 years, probably. I see him every 12 years. I don’t know when I’m going to see him next. I’d like to have a better relationship. I thought about calling upon him to sing some of this worship music I’ve been writing. I see him doing great things with it. I’m going to call him for the next one I’m doing to see if he wants to take part in it. We’ll see. Steve was the first one to bring a Bible into the studio and tell me he wanted to write music based on scripture, the first one. And Trial By Fire was inspired by the jars of clay passage from 2 Corinthians.
While on the Higher Octave music label you released three terrific instrumental solo albums, Piano With A View, Body Language, and For A Lifetime. How did you approach writing and recording music for each of these records?
I was trying to make mood music to relax by. I was feeling there was a lot of tenseness in life. And I thought, what if I could create music you could cook to or groove to — it’s just lifestyle music. I wanted to create a background or backdrop, with a little bit of sensuousness and a little bit of intimacy to it. That kind of thing. I also wanted to explore world music, different rhythms, beats, and loops, that sort of thing. Play the world.
In 2001, you released another instrumental album, Namaste. How did you set out to differentiate this record from those that came before it?
I explored that world music even more with this album, but I couldn’t get a record deal. So, I just released it myself. It was pretty depressing that nobody would pick me up. I spent a lot of time on that, hoping that I would get into that genre. Then I discovered that the smooth jazz community wasn’t going to play me anyway, so I quickly departed from the idea. Since I’m in Journey, I got pigeon-holed and blocked.
In 2004, you released your most recent instrumental solo album, Bare Bones. What did you set out to accomplish with this record?
When “Who’s Crying Now” came out as the single for this album, it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t going to get played, even though it was my song. Why? Because I’m in Journey. That was the dirty little secret the record company told me. They said, “We talked to all of the radio stations and you’re in Journey, so they’re not going to play you.” So, I left that scene.
You also released Anthology in 2001, which is a wonderful compilation including many songs from your first solo album, Back To The Innocence. Looking back on it, what are your thoughts on Anthology?
What’s funny is I’m releasing a CD around the same time as my autobiography and most of Anthology is on there — all the songs that pertain to the book. Those songs are featured in the audiobook as well. I picked the life-telling tunes. I, sort of, chronicled my life in Anthology. When you open it up, you see my book there. So, I was prophesying my book before it was even written. I can’t think of anything better to accompany my book than that music. We’re remastering the songs, and they all sound terrific. And I’m including some new songs too, that I wrote for the book.
Before you mentioned the difficulty of breaking into the smooth jazz community. How has it been with your worship music? Has that community been more receptive to your music?
It’s been very strong. There an internet audience out there that buys music and loves it. You don’t really need radio anymore, to a degree. My base is so broad, including children and other people. It’s also terrific that I get to perform this music around the world with Paula: Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana. I couldn’t have done that with jazz.
Michael Cavacini is an award-winning communications professional, and his arts and culture site, MichaelCavacini.com, features additional interviews with iconic artists.