Since 1981 Jonathan Cain has been the keyboardist, rhythm guitarist, backup vocalist, and songwriter for the band Journey. Before that he played in the Babys and also had a stint in Bad English. But in late 2016 Cain released his first Christian album titled What God Wants to Hear. Christian Musician magazine recently caught up with Jonathan to discuss how and why the new album developed and his hope for fans that listen to it.
[Eric Dahl for CM] When did you begin playing an instrument, and what was it?
[Jonathan Cain] My father had given me the gift of music lessons. We didn’t know exactly what I was going to play, but he knew that I was musically inclined because I memorized every song on the radio after hearing it 3 times. There was a terrible fire that happened when I was eight years old where a lot of kids died, and he kind of wanted to shift me into a place that he thought God had for me. He was a very prophetic and spiritual man. He wanted to take me into music to heal me, and it became my redemption actually because there was a great sadness that came over all of us from being in that fire. My hands were so small that the only thing I could play was the accordion. I couldn’t get my hands around the guitar neck and the piano was too big. The guy that owned our building was the owner of an Italian delicatessen. He heard all of these Italian songs that I had to learn for my lesson and he said (in an Italian accent), “Johnny, you learn ten songs. You come downstairs and you make a the concert for my friends. They’re going to love you.” I said, “Alright, Louie.” So I came to him later and I told him I thought I was ready. He said, “Alright, we’re going to close the store, we’re gonna stick you right here, and we’re gonna get the wine, cheese, and cigars.” All of his buddies from the old country came in and he was like the godfather of our neighborhood. I played my first show and sat there in a folding chair playing my accordion, peering over the top looking at all these Italians crying and laughing and dancing the Tarantella. My father came home and I said, “Dad, remember when I said I wanted to be a priest? I changed my mind. I want to be a musician, and that was awesome!” He said, “Alright son, I’m going to go in on that vision with you. I’m going to stay with you on that and we’re going to make it happen.” Little did I know that it’s less than 1% of anybody that can be a musician. I picked one of the hardest things to try and be.
[CM] Were any of your family members musicians?
[Jonathan] Absolutely. The thing that really sealed the deal for me was my grandfather, John. He played the fiddle, and my dad took us down to Arkansas where I got to see my grandfather jam with his friends in the backyard. Just Hillbilly music, and it was just unbelievable. They had this musical conversation right there in the backyard, and they had the lights strung across the thing at this barbeque. I was watching my grandfather going to town on that fiddle and I said, “Wow! I want to do that!” I actually have that fiddle in my possession. It fell out of someone’s closet 5 or 10 years ago and now I’m in possession of Grandpa John’s fiddle. I’m named after him, so I reckon I’m taking after his legacy.
[CM] Why did you choose the Christian music genre for your recent solo album?
[Jonathan] It was because of a cruise ship that my wife, Paula, went on with 200 women. She asked me to lead praise and worship, so that’s really where it began. She said, “Can you learn 8 songs in a week, because I don’t have a budget for a praise guy.” I said, “If I’m going with you on the boat, sure, why not? I’ll just drag my piano and I’ll give it a shot.” So that was the beginning and it was over 2 years ago.
[CM] Paula told me that she was concerned how her congregation would accept her Rock and Roll husband on a Christian Cruise?
[Jonathan] She was holding her breath for sure, and I was a little nervous too. But I looked out and I saw these faces just wanting to create a worship atmosphere. I picked some really great songs and then I just started calling in the Holy Spirit. My voice shifted, my demeanor shifted, and I saw that feeling in that congregation and I knew that congregation. I just closed my eyes and tried to be authentic and transparent with God and the music. You want to be authentically you when you’re doing something like that before the Lord, and that’s what happened. I’m a work in progress, but Paula was a huge encouragement to me and her support led me to places in the bible that I needed to go to really finish off songs. She’s just the love of my life.
[Jonathan] The overwhelming presence of what God represents to all of us in our life. I go back to John 4:19: “We love because He first loved us.” I think about the concept of the Omni-present, huge, beyond fathomable God that we have and all he’s done in my life. I wanted to praise him with the song “Deeper than Deep.” I think that is really a cornerstone for the album because it’s looking at who God is in the mightiest way. He was just such an overwhelming presence, and I feel that about God and I wanted to capture that overwhelming love that God is for us in this album. It is my first love song, or series of love songs, to God, so I want to come in praising Him, and the overwhelming grace that He continues to love us with.
[CM] Where did the album’s title come from?
[Jonathan] It was a question I asked to Paula. I was cruising all of these Christian songs, mostly the modern Christian stuff that was out, and I said, “Is this what God wants to hear?” I don’t know. Some of it just kind of made me scratch my head. And then I turned it around. Why don’t I sing what God wants to hear? Why don’t I ask What God Wants to Hear? Why don’t I try, instead of criticizing something, to be what I think He wants? It was almost like God challenging me, “Oh yeah? Well what have you got for me?” I was like, “Well Lord, help me! I’m going to open up and say I don’t know. I’m going to empty out and ask You to come to me and give me the word.” I just asked the question, “What does God want to hear?” And He just downloaded these lyrics to me. I was a steward of the music, and it was mighty, and it was coming at me. The Lord gave me that fire back that I was missing for a long time since the 80’s. I don’t think I had that creative fire. It had kind of left me. I was questioning where I was at and why am I not creating, because back in the day I was on fire and writing, and writing in those days with Steve Perry and stuff. I wanted that back again. I wanted to have that excitement for the song, and God sort of returned that to me.
[Jonathan] That’s right. In ’95, coming out of AA, he had received his higher power and wanted to get into scripture. He wanted to call it “Trial by Fire”, and he had made it through some tough times in his life and wanted to write about it. I was moved in a spiritual way that he would be just that transparent with his faith. Here’s the lead singer of Journey, a pretty guarded guy, hardly ever got the girl in the song (I think “Open Arms” was the only time.) But now he wants to bring God into the picture, and I was taken by it. I had just had my daughter Madison so I was in that grateful place, and I went, “Yeah! We should write that.” I sat there and read through the scripture with him, and it was mighty! I thought, “Wow! This is rich in imagery! It was new for me. As a Catholic you don’t do much scripture, you just get catechism. I thought, “There’s plenty more where that came from.” So we wrote another song called “One More Time.” The line about wicked prophets speaking his name was pretty powerful too. It was about all the death going on in the Middle East. If I’m in the dream business then I should team up with God and maybe we can do something great, and we did. I’ve been writing for God all these years. He’s had his hand on me. Now it’s just my time to say, “Thank you!” And this album is kind of a big Valentine to God if you will. “Thank you for everything You’ve given me.”
[CM] Where was the new album recorded, and who were the musicians?
[Jonathan] We did it at my studio, Addiction Sound in Berry Hill, TN. Jerry McPherson on guitar, who is a famous session guy who played with Kelly Clarkson and many others. We had Tom Buckovac on guitar and Dave Labruyere, who is a session guy for John Mayer. And, of course, my good friend Deen Castronovo on drums, who has been with Journey for 18 years. Tanya Hancheroff is singing backgrounds along with Deen, and my lovely daughter Madison cameos on a song too. She’s an amazing singer/songwriter in her own right. She’s in L.A. now working on a record deal, so fingers crossed she can sign.
[Jonathan] I actually am. I’ve got four (songs) in the can, and I continue to write. There’s a Christmas album I’m going to try to get out for next year that I’m working on. It’s something I want to continue with, not just a one album kind of situation. I find that it helps me praise. Through my writing I feel like I get lost in prayer, and that’s my way of praying deeply. When I work on my music I get caught up and sometimes swept away, often driven to tears even. I tell Paula it’s just my way of worship. It’s my ministry, and that’s the way I love my God.
[CM] Will there be a book in the near future?
[Jonathan] We are working on one now. A gentlemen from Chicago named Travis Thrasher is going to help me. We already have the outline. It’s been approved, and hopefully we get it out next year. It’s called, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It’s told in a songwriter way, each chapter is a title of a song, a Journey song that the fans will get to hear how this song came to be. Then there’s a little bit of a flashback through the chapters to lead the reader into who the guy is that helped write these songs. Things relate to my life that help me write the music, because you have to live life to write songs. You’ve gotta have that on you, you’ve gotta have the life on you. Sometimes people try to write songs that they haven’t lived. I feel like I’ve lived this music with God and it was long overdue. It’s just something that’s always been on my heart. I say in the song “Jealous for Me” that He’s been jealous for all of my heart. I’ve been set apart to make this music, and I believe it in my heart. It’s one of the easiest things I’ve done since making Escape in 1981, which was like a walk in the park. This album was like that: it was effortless. We had God’s winds in our sails. If that’s any sign of what’s to come, then I hope to only get better and to continue to seek out truth in the Word, and continue to lay the foundation for what God has for us.
[Jonathan] Here’s the thing . . . this is a slow process. I know that Christian music takes a while to take hold. It’s kind of like putting a log on a fire. To tour in a church you have to be invited, you can’t just go, “Hey! I’m here!” So it’s one of those things where you hope the music catches on. If it doesn’t, I’ve got another one comin’. If you don’t like this one here’s another one, and album number two, and album number three. It’s funny, I don’t necessarily need a co-writer because I already have the greatest one in the world, and that would be God. One of my greatest fears when Perry left us and I was on my own, was, “Am I only as good as Journey is gonna be? Where is the guy that wrote “Faithfully”? Ya know? Where is he? I think he came out on this album. You can hear the confidence that I have with scripture and with the Word, and I feel like there’s a lot of confidence on this record, and I think it’s got layers to it. Again, it was a joy. I’m proud of it. Hopefully there’s more to come, and if I get gigs . . . I’ll get ‘em!
[CM] What is your goal with this album? Earlier you said you hope you’ll bring in a few more believers.
[Jonathan] I hope that it ministers to people and helps firm up the foundation of their faith. Maybe there is something that will trigger them into some other door that will open and strengthen that connection with the Holy Spirit and help them find themselves closer in that connection. We are all looking for corridors in our faith, and they open and they close all the time. The enemy is constantly trying to take our God away from us and our faith away from us. We must battle and move in the Spirit at all times, and in this music there’s that innocent, childlike approach to the Holy Spirit that I hope instills and releases some confidence and fire back to them and their belief in God.
[Jonathan] That’s right, and you know you could change the word “girl” to “God” – “Oh God, You stand by me. I’m forever Yours, faithfully.” Now I’m not allowed to do that. I can’t change a Journey lyric because they won’t let me sing that, but a lot of this music was written for God. Much of my performing was for approval. I used to think I did it for my Dad, who was my great mentor and my spiritual rock. When he passed away it was the “ah ha” moment, that through my Dad I was doing it for God all along. I wanted Him to be proud of His son. I hope this album makes Him proud.
[CM] Journey was recently nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How do you feel about that?
[Jonathan] It’s about time! All of our opening acts are in the Hall of Fame, I mean every one of them. Heart, Joan Jett, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller. Critics have always been rough on the band. They haven’t been able to put us in a hole in a box. Journey’s not one of those bands that you can put in a box. We have a lot of sounds. We’re kind of a chameleon band. We sing love songs, we sing rock – it’s a full radio station. Back in the old days Steve Perry and I use to listen to AM radio, and it was a menagerie of music . . . everything from Al Green to The Who. So we thought, “Why have the same song all the set? Why not mix the set up?” Steve wanted to sing power ballads, so “Open Arms” comes, and “Who’s Crying Now.” Rolling Stone once said, “Who are the street light people?” Well they’re the ones that are going to vote us in the Hall of Fame, that’s who they are!
[Jonathan] It came from my father, who was behind me the whole time. I had gotten my butt kicked in Hollywood. I thought I was going to be able to pay my rent, and I got stuck in this house. I was living with a gal that was helping me pay the rent, but she left and I was all by myself and had to get roommates. I fell on hard times. I quit playing in the clubs because I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere doing that. And I was just writing songs and I needed some money. I called my dad and I said, “Dad, should I just come home to Chicago and forget this pipe dream?” He said, “Son, we have a vision. We’ve had a vision for years. Don’t stop believin’.” I wrote it down in a notebook and took it up there to San Francisco, and I kept all my spiral notebooks and lyrics together. They asked me if I had any other ideas, so I went in my notebooks and I saw my Dad’s words, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, and I said, “Steve Perry would sing this.” Then nine months later my Dad is at the show in Chicago and he says to me, “Son, it’s a good thing you didn’t stop believin’.” And I said to him, “Dad, It’s a good thing I have the best old man in the world.” My dad was like that. He was just very prophetic and always believed that even in the darkest times God has His hand on me. He assured me, “I’ll send you some money. You stay the course.” For anybody that is battling right now out there, through any situation, your blessings are at the other side of your greatest battles. It’s just God testing you. When you’re battling, some of that’s for a reason, and that’s what my Dad taught me, and I miss him. I try to shine twice as bright for both of us.
To create the album Cain utilized a Roland RD 800 keyboard controller, Custom Shop Fender Telecaster, ’55 Fender Bassman amp and a ’58 Gibson Les Paul Jr. guitar. Jonathan Cain has come full circle with his faith and his music. During the interview he was sitting on the edge of his seat and was very animated and emotional about his new album and his life now. It is no coincidence that after being in a band named Journey for 35 years, Cain continues to take his own journey of faith through his life and music with no evidence of stopping this forward momentum. “What God Wants to Hear” is available at Jonathancainmusic.com and most music distribution outlets. Jonathan compared he and his wife to the Captain and Tennille in the way that they weave his piano playing and her prayers and sermons. Cain has found his fire and a new musical muse in God, and he hopes to share this with anyone that will listen.