Neal Schon Finds ‘Freedom’ at Last With New Journey Album
Journey's latest album arrives on the brink of their 50th anniversary as a group. They dialed in a successful formula decades ago, producing an enviable stack of successful singles which traveled across television and the airwaves of radio worldwide.
But Freedom, Journey's 15th studio release (and third overall with vocalist Arnel Pineda out front), proves that they remain just as forward-thinking and experimental as those earliest moments when guitarist Neal Schon and manager Herbie Herbert began to plot the next move for the young musician as he stepped away from Santana.
Whether it's the old-school progressive Journey that first emerged during the '70s prior to the arrival of Steve Perry or the slick hooks and melodies of the radio hits that came later, there are echoes of all eras of this group on Freedom.
The project began with demos from Schon and producer Narada Michael Walden, who also played drums on the bulk of the songs. Then members of Journey – including bassist Randy Jackson, who stepped back into the lineup for the sessions – ended up working remotely to write and record more than an hour's worth of new music. While some listeners will likely isolate certain songs for a playlist, Freedom is a ride that should be taken in sequence to get the full effect.
We spoke with Schon via Zoom and he took us through the album sessions, while also discussing lineup changes that brought bassist Todd Jensen into the fold and drummer Deen Castronovo back into the family.
"Don't Give Up on Us" is a classic Journey epic.
Narada and I started every day that I worked with him in the studio the same. He’d go, “Well, what do you want to do today?” I’d say, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” [Laughs.] On my last solo record I did, Universe, as a producer to work with, he was so amazingly talented. He’s a very patient, very musical, excellent producer. I just handed him myself during that project. I said, “I’m just going to shut up and play guitar.” I trusted him so much. This song, I probably overindulged, more so than any other song on the record as far as trying different things until I was happy with what I heard for the bridge and the solo section. You know, I wanted something that was big sounding that had a melody that would go all of the way through.
Arnel starts singing the melody with the guitar and it’s thematic. I really love the themes whether it’s “Stone in Love,” any song, I like having that theme that goes through the song while the solo is happening. We finally chose the right chord progression and the feel of the chord progression. We punched it in and that was the beauty of Pro Tools right there. I’m really anti-Pro Tools, but in this case, it worked – because it was uncertain where it was going to go. We were able to keep the performance, the other parts of the songs that just drop in seamlessly. After I had the harmonies on and the vocal, we sent it off to Jonathan [Cain] and he wrote the lyrics and it was done.
Listen to 'Don't Give Up on Us'
It doesn't seem like you were afraid to follow your muse with this stuff.
I did a lot of playing and not so much thinking. “You Got the Best of Me” came later in the sessions. I’m listening to everything as we’re compiling and writing all of this stuff. Once again, I’m going, “I’m looking for tempo; I want some tempo.” We need some uptempo songs. We need a new chapter for Journey, as well – something that doesn’t sound so familiar. Like with “Let It Rain,” “Come Away with Me,” “All Day, All Night,” you know, those funky, heavier [songs on the album] and “Holdin’ On.”
“Holdin’ On” was the first song I did with Narada when we first got together. I had the riff and it just sat there for a long time. I didn’t think it was going to make the record, because I couldn’t find the right vocal part. One day, after trying so many different things, I got really frustrated with it. I’d let it sit for a couple of weeks and then I’d come back and I’d go, “Let’s go back to that for a second. While I’m here on the mic, I’m going to try some different scats.” I scatted my way through it and this time, I went into my Aretha Franklin mode. I go, “What would she sing?” [Schon sings a section of “Holdin’ On” in a Franklin-esque tone.] You know, that whole gospel blues thing? I go, “Well, I don’t know if it’s Journey, but I think that melody fits the song.” That’s what happened.
I didn’t think that song was going to make the record, [but] I laid down the vocal parts and Narada worked with me. Randy heard it and he laid down [his parts]. “Oh bro,” he said. “We need to work on this stuff. This is really fresh and this is exactly, I think, what the doctor ordered in order for Journey to go into the next chapter. You have everything else. You have the power ballads, you have everything else that remotely, people can identify with. Like ‘Don’t Give Up on Us,’ people will go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Journey.’ But you don’t have and we’ve never come up with, since Arnel has been in the band, anything that was like this.” Then, Arnel just killed this stuff. You know, he loves this new direction, because it allows him to be him without sounding like something that was. So it was a very healthy move. It opened tremendous doors, I think.
It seems like a really fortuitous thing that you had the combo of Narada and Randy drop into the mix for this record.
Completely. I think they added so much. You know, there’s a new strut on this album. It’s just a strut, man.
Did you think that Narada and Randy would be in the lineup long term?
I hoped [for that]. We had two drummers at one point. Randy had a back operation that he was recovering from and I didn’t even know. He was able to go in the studio and work on this stuff, but he was still in recovery and doing what he needed to do to get back to 100%. I was hoping that they would have both been there but you know, life takes its turns and you’ve got to kind of go with the flow. Rock 'n' roll, man, like they call it – you’ve got to go with the flow.
Deen was able to come to Chicago and helped us remember three and a half hours of material. He was the only one I knew that had it down. He’s like a sponge. Stuff that I wrote, I’d go, “Deen, how does it go, man?” I didn’t have time to listen to the record. He’d go, “Oh yeah, it goes like this! Play this, play that.” [Laughs.] He remembers every single thing about every Journey song. He can sing it all verbatim, every lyric, play every drum part and then tell everybody what they need to be doing too. He’s monumental to us. He went through a little tough time where he needed to reckon with himself and get himself in order – and he did. He paid the price for that. I love him and I’ve always loved Deen. I’m glad to see him back in the fold.
Todd Jensen, we had Marco Mendoza for a while, who is an excellent bass player. I’ve done many projects with Deen and Marco. You know, Marco is an interesting player. He’s a Latin fusion/jazz [guy]. I don’t really consider him a rock bass player. I really wanted him to dig in a bit more to the Journey stuff and learn the original parts for our classic tunes. I think he bit off too much, man. He was all over the place. He was in Europe doing this, he was doing a solo thing over here. He had too many projects, so I don’t think he was able to concentrate well enough.
When we did the iHeart Music Festival, we headlined that and totally kicked ass. We won so many new fans over. But when I went to mix it with Dave Kalmusky, I noticed that the bass parts were really not sitting in the right place. The parts weren’t right themselves, but the overall feel with Deen, he was kind of in front of Deen. I’m used to hearing the bass on the backside. Then, I’m trying to slide my guitar in and find a pocket where I sound good in the middle. It was kind of just squeezed. So I talked to Marco about it, to be honest. I said, “Dude, you know, you’ve really got to dig into these parts a bit more and learn them.” He goes, “I’ll keep that in mind.” [Laughs,] And I go, “Oh, okay. You’ll keep it in mind.” So I go, “Keep it in mind and in the meantime, I’m going to call Todd Jensen,” because I knew what I sound like with Deen and Todd.
Listen to 'Let It Rain'
I think this album is going to turn some heads.
I’m hoping so. I really do love this album. We all put a lot of heart and soul into this album and I think it’s got the goods. Nobody wanted to come with “Let It Rain.” They wanted to come with the obvious, right? “Don’t Give Up on Us.” But Randy, Arnel and I fought for it and said, “No, it’s imperative right now that we come with something that’s a little sideways. It's appealing to a lot younger audience. The guys and women who want to hear that jamming. You know, I’m looking out in our audiences now and I’m seeing five generations of people. The younger generation are open-minded to everything that you’re going to give them, which enables you to move on and get out of the box a little bit and experiment.
"Let It Rain" has the sound of really old school early-'70s Journey.
Right! A lot of people are saying it sounds like the early stuff, man. I don’t really hear that. I think it’s a bit funkier than that, but I know it’s progressive in one sense.
The Best Song From Every Journey Album
See Neal Schon Among Rock’s Forgotten Supergroups