Steve Perry Speaks On Personal Loss in Music and Songs Being 'Little Ghosts in Time' at Pop Conference 2019
Steve Perry recently took part in a keynote panel at Pop Conference 2019 on how music makers and writers confront loss and grief, produced by Jason King and moderated by Ann Powers. The Seattle Museum of Pop Culture's annual conference addressed the theme of "Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death and Afterlife" this year.
To begin the nearly hour-and-a-half conversation -- which included Perry, musician Ishmael Butler, writer/scholar Daphne A. Brooks, musician/writer/scholar David Toop and musician Efrim Manuel Menuck -- Powers brought up the question of what grief does to time and how writers and musicians try to reflect that experience.
Perry spoke up, saying, "I'm a pretty melancholy kind of guy. I kind of live in a melancholy state all the time. For me, is that too much sadness? I don't know. It does keep me centered, it keeps me in the moment. Am I a depressive guy? I don't know, I call it melancholy. I write music that I think speaks from that place."
The former Journey frontman then brought up the loss of his partner Kellie Nash, who died in 2012 after a battle with cancer. They were together for a year and a half before she passed away.
"When I had my profound loss with Kellie [Nash] a few years back, I agree that being pulled into that moment deeper than I ever experienced before was a new place, to where everything that mattered, I thought, fell off," Perry said. "I sought professional help to really learn how to grieve, because I didn't know how."
"The professional I was going to turned to me and said, 'I think you need to cherish the grief.' I said, 'Excuse me, I'm tired of crying. I've been crying so much. It's been going on now, honestly, for months. And he said, 'I know that, but if you cherish the grief that you're in right now, I guarantee you there will come a time where you won't be able to access it as deeply and as clearly and in the moment as you are now. So I think as it starts to come up, and you start to get back to whatever happens once we do face the grief and cherish it, you'll be glad you did.' That's just been my experience. Everybody wants to pull out of it and get back to normal. I wanted just to move on. Now I'm so grateful that I didn't," he said.
The topic turned to the making of Perry's 2018 album, Traces.
"It's a complex record because there are two songs I wrote that were about profound grief -- one called 'In the Rain,' which is the darkness of grief, pictures that stare back in silence, by myself; the other one is a song called 'Most of All,' a little but more uplifting, but still about loss," said Perry. "Those songs were written before I met Kellie, which was really bizarre."
He revealed, "They were so profoundly about loss that I was afraid to play them for her when she was struggling to win her battle against cancer because I didn't want to put that energy into her struggle. So that's the only thing I kept from her, those two songs I'd written before I'd met her. After she had passed away, I went back to my hard drive and found them and went, 'Wow, these songs feel like they were about her before I met her.'"
Nash had been fighting cancer for three years when they met. "We just had this connection, something I'd never experience before. I just couldn't stay away from her," Perry said. "We fought it together."
"It was falling in love with potentials of loss -- on the front end. It was something insane to me, but honestly I had nowhere to go 'cause that's all I wanted. I wanted to just be there," he explained, before pointing out: "Nobody in this room, if you're alive, doesn't have loss. And yet we don't want to talk about it or embrace it. That's, to me, really important."
Later in the panel, he spoke of the "haunting" aspect of music: "We're just walking flesh and somehow these tones and sounds resonate with us in a way that conjures ghost-like feelings and images," Perry said. "In fact, some of the recordings are little ghosts in time, and they have a tendency to remain that to us personally, but they are invisible until they hit your inner ear and they go in your mind and they recall spots where you first heard that song, what it means to you, what's going on today. They conjure all these emotions."
Watch the full conversation below.