"I don't like repeating myself and doing things I've already done. "
JSS talks about his new album, vocals, SOA, Journey and more in our latest interview.
Jeff Scott Soto has appeared as a vocalist on 85 albums along with numerous collaborations, from Yngwie to Sons of Apollo. Wide Awake (In My Dreamland) is the hard rock veteran's 7th official solo album. We chat with Jeff about his career and new album.
PG: You've got a new solo album out Wide Awake (In My Dreamland) tell us a bit about that.
JSS: It's my seventh solo album. It's one of the first times I've relinquished the overall control of an album, especially a solo album to one person, that's Alessandro Del Vecchio, my producer. Normally I'm very hands-on my records and creating the particular vision of what that album is going to be about. I use my solo career to try and not just repeat most of the things I've done in the business.
PG: What was it like working with Alessandro on the album?
JSS: This time around it was requested by Frontiers (record label) that I would collaborate with Alessandro. I've known him for about 15 years now, so I've been wanting to work with him for the longest time. What he's done for this record has been absolutely phenomenal. I entrusted him with coming up with the material and I entrusted him with the overall sound and direction; he came through with flying colours. He wrote all the music, I just did the lyrics and we created this great chemistry together for the record. For all intents and purposes, it sounds more like a wrap-up of my entire career. You have a little bit of everything from my life and my career through the past thirty-something years. That's probably the best way I can sum it up. It truly is a snapshot of the things people remember me for, without being a plagiaristic carbon copy.
PG: Was it difficult to let control go?
JSS: Initially yes, but only because I don't like repeating myself and doing things I've already done. My solo career has been more expressive in terms of spreading my wings.
PG: Would those be Paper Wings? * reference to a track from the new album, if you didn't know
JSS: (laughs) Nice one! In General, I like to expand a little more than the things I've already done. Through that, I want to be able to show the people that give me the opportunity to continue making music, that I've got more to say.
It all harks back, even when I was singing for Yngwie Malmsteen. When I left Yngwie's fold the first thing I did was start a band that was very much a cross between Prince and Van Halen. It was very funky, groovy, R & B based rock music, kind of like what Dan Reed and Extreme were doing, because I didn't want to go down in history as this metal screamer. I didn't want the world to just see me as such. Having been influenced by somebody like Freddie Mercury or Queen where they didn't have any moulds, they didn't have any barriers, they build their own castle, musically. They tapped into so many different things, so that was injected into my DNA early on. I wanted to be that kind of artist that could sing anything, do anything, but not make it sound like I was trying to chase any particular genre; just that I was able to harness those different genres and turn them into my own.
PG: You're far from a 'metal screamer', as you say. One thing that comes across in this album is the clarity of lyrics and vocals. Is that intentional?
JSS: In general everything has its moment for different approaches. The band Soto is a lot heavier and rough around the edges, this is why it's a separate entity to my solo albums. Soto is essentially meant to be a modern metal band and so I'm singing more aggressively, maybe with the same clarity - but maybe not as clean vocally. I get to use the grittier, heavier side of my voice for Soto and even Sons of Apollo, but for my solo albums, it depends on the song. I'm not going to use that gritty voice on a nice sultry ballad and vice versa, something that's a little heavier around the edges I'm going to give it more edge. Again that comes from the DNA of having Queen in me. Freddie could sing anything, from hard rock to metal, to blues, jazz, classical, pop, soul, R&B, funk, disco, you name it. I wanted to be as well rounded as he was and not a one-trick pony.
PG: I think you've certainly achieved that. Freddie was great, he was definitely a one-off.
JSS: Yeah absolutely, nobody will ever touch that. Anybody who influences sounds like Freddie to me is missing out and should go for their own deal, instead of trying to impersonate. Impersonation is great, it's a clever form of flattery, but you have to have your own voice and your own style and career. That's what I've tried to build. I've tried to take Freddie and Ronnie Dio and Bruce Dickinson and all these great singers and harness all of them.
PG: As you say, you can also turn on that harder edge of your voice, which is more of a gritty belt. How did that come about? And how did you develop that?
JSS: I have no clue whatsoever. When I open my mouth it just happens, it wasn't something that I was taught. A lot of it comes before when I was with the Yngwie and even when I was at high school. I was with Yngwie literally a year and four months after I graduated high school. I was still very young my voice was still developing but the style that I was able to bring into Yngwie was a true testament to the band I was in before. You could be in the top covers 40 band that was playing only the hard rock stuff that was happening. Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Rats, Motley Crue, Van Halen those were the bands of the day.
Some of the rock bands today are not at the arena level that those bands were at that time. So being in bands that covered all those songs and those styles, I threw myself into trying to sound like those singers. When I was in those bands doing those songs, it wasn't Jeff Scott Soto's voice singing. When I sang a Scorpion's song I did my best to sound like Klaus. When I sang a Kiss song I did my best to sound like Paul Stanley etc. I impersonated all these singers, so if they had aggressive voices I knew I had to put the grit in, and I found a way to do it. Taking all of those influences during that time I was able to harness that into whatever the song called for. If you gave me a hard rock or heavy metal song I knew how to incorporate those harder edges. Vice versa, if you gave me a Styx or Journey song, I was able to lighten it up and give you the cleaner version and what was necessary to sing those songs.
PG: When I first heard you sing, I wondered if you'd had any formal training, or been involved with rock operas or musical theatre like some other rock singers. Were you, or is that something you'd consider?
JSS: I'll give you a double answer to that. I absolutely detest musical theatre. I would never in a trillion years have been part of a Broadway musical. Having said that, I happen to be very influenced by bands like Styx and Queen who have that level of theatre behind the singing, behind the lyrics. So I had it naturally without knowing, maybe that's where that comes from. Of course, my time with Trans Siberian Orchestra opened up a whole new world for me vocally and expression that I didn't have before. I learnt it naturally without ever having that kind of training. It was essential to have that level behind you to be part of TSO, so I've since learnt how to harness it and how to use it in other things I'm doing, without being a Broadway fan.
PG: Vocals sounding real and not overworked is important for you – how does fit in with Sons of Apollo's prog technical precision?
JSS: The thing with Sons of Apollo is, when I'm singing they're pretty much keeping it straight for me. I'm not singing over all the proggy sections. They save all the crazy sections for when it's time to jam and do solos. When it's time for the vocals they keep it so that it's straight and what's necessary but for the songs, I guess so that it's commercially viable.
As it is heavier than my solo records, again I'm just harnessing all the influences of heavy music, of the different things that I hear when I hear that music. If they present a piece of music to me without vocals, that I need to fill in the gaps, I listen to it and say "this reminds me of this style, or this energy" and I'm able to draw from it. I love the challenges that I get from music, especially now in this day and age, when I've pretty much done it all, in terms of everything that I've set out to do. It's nice to see that there's still something left and that's what Sons of Apollo represents.
PG: You took part in the Queen Extravaganza. What was that like and how did that come about?
JSS: It was a lot of fun. I was called upon by Roger Taylor to be the hard rock representative of the band, because then when they started out there were four singers. Every singer had their speciality of what they brought to the situation. At the time they didn't see Mark Martell as someone that could carry the heavier side of Queen and that's where I stepped in.
I also realised that it wasn't something that I would be sticking though with for many years. It was a great thing to do and as they were continuing I had to go back to my masterplan.
The same goes for Journey. It's a shame I was fired and let go before I got to really leave my own personal mark with the band. I have to be honest, if they had not let me go and I continued with them, I probably would have been out of the band now anyway. I would have felt I was cheating myself out of my own personal career and the things that I want to say, do and achieve.
It worked out for both sides that I got to continue chasing my own rainbow, so to speak and they needed somebody to carry the torch that Steve Perry gave them. I wanted more than just getting a paycheque for singing somebody else's legacy.
PG: Did you feel you wouldn't be true to yourself if you had have stayed?
JSS: Who knows what would have happened had I continued with them and it had not ended the way it did. On a personal level, I feel that I would have lasted three or four years or gone the rest of my life and down in history as having people just know me for singing Steve Perry's music, I need more out of life.
There's clearly not much interest with me in this band as a singer and moving forward. It's not like the days where Bruce Dickenson replaced Paul Di Annio, or where Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth, they are past that level, now they are a legacy band, people just want to hear the legacy songs.
It's understandable, I get it. In the early stages you go " what's wrong with people, how come they're not latching on?" But as a music fan myself, especially of several bands that had to make these changes, especially late in life, I do get it. When Kelly Hanson joined Foreigner I think he also realised he wasn't going to change the face of this band, all he was going to do was preserve it. He was fine with it, a lot of people are fine with that and are not going to move the band forward, they are just going to continue their legacy. I just think at some point it wouldn't have been enough for me.
PG: Do you think creativity ends at that point? If you had just been happy to sing somebody else's songs?
JSS: Yes and no. There's a place for it, everybody has a chance to do what's good for them. Somebody like Kelly or Arnel they are fine with that level. Arnel was fine with it in general because in the Philippines they made him a national hero, so he was going to be able to build his own path using Journey. Somebody like me from LA where singers are a dime a dozen, they're not going to be naming any streets after me any time soon.
PG: The first track, Somebody to Love mentions Sanctuary, what's your sanctuary?
JSS: Music is my sanctuary. It sounds cliched, but music is my life. It's my escape, my therapy, my job, my passion. My sanctuary is music in every sense of the word. I get the chance to express myself and I have a loyal following that continues to support that. To have that after this many decades in the business is something I truly treasure. No, I'm not a household name by any stretch, no I'm not known around the world as one of the top rockstar singers, but I do have a level of integrity that I've been able to build for myself and I have a loyal following that allows me to do that and keep pushing me forward and give me this platform to do what I do.
PG: You're rewarding your fans with an extra live CD from the Frontiers Festival, how did that come to be a bonus on the album?
JSS: We were going to be recording that show anyway. Frontiers wanted to record the show to use it for something in the future. Once they realised what that was going to be I begged them, I was on my hands and knees, saying "please do not release this as a standalone" product. Mainly because the show was so short, I was only allotted a 50 minute set time and I knew that it was going to be impossible to build a best of JSS set with only 50 minutes. You take that 50 minutes between the talking and between the songs, the amp going out and having to replace it during the show. Then pulling up Dino (Jelusick) [from the crowd.] It's not like he was on the side of the stage ready to come up, he was literally 3/4 deep into the audience and I spotted him and we had not discussed it and when I said "come on up", it took him time to get through the crowd, to the backstage and on stage. So when you shave all that time into the final product it was only 42 minutes long.
I knew that anybody buying this as a standalone CD would be griping and saying it was a money grabber and releasing something so short we would just get crucified by the fans. They [Frontiers] came up with the perfect balance of releasing it as a digital stream first, to commemorate the anniversary of the gig. Then when the new solo album came out, to give the people that are still buying and believe in the physical product, because that's also very important that we keep that format alive, give it to them as a bonus. I thought what a brilliant way of having your cake and eat it too.
PG: I couldn't help noticing that the album title is similar to an album by Pat Benatar, is that a coincidence or are you a fan?
JSS: First of all I love the title of the song itself. The song itself came about because the dreamland I was referring to, I guess it's more of a nightmare, or dream, that you can't really escape. That's what we've all been living, especially in the US, the past few years. It's something that is so incredibly challenging, from the social, gender, religious and so many different things that we are dealing with simultaneously around the world, but more so in the US. I felt like I was dreaming, this can't be real, but no we are wide-awake.
I've heard this reference used a few times before writing that song, it really just wrote itself. I wanted to reflect the theme of this album to that and the whole album would be based on it.
I also realised I and remembered that Pat Benatar had an album called Wide Awake in Dreamland, I added the extra on 'My' to change the title so if someone is looking it up, they're not going to only find Pat. I also thought it was too strong not to use. I wasn't going to let the fact that it was used previously as a reason for me not to use it.
PG: We saw you with Sons of Apollo at Ramblin' Man Fair a few years back and really enjoyed the show, what was it like performing at the festival?
JSS: I just remember that being a really rough day for me vocally. We'd played the day before in Barcelona and we had to go from the venue to the hotel and had such an early morning, I think I got maybe an hour's sleep. Once we landed at the airport, the bus picked us up and I tried to sleep but I knew my voice had to wake up and had to be ready for an early afternoon show. If I went to sleep and they woke me up just before the show, I'd sound like a horses ass. So I had to stay awake and get as much steam as I had to go on the stage.
That's the tough part about the festival season in Europe, especially, because you're going from country to country. Unless you're flying privately, they don't necessarily make flights affordable with a crew of 11 people and they don't make them to your schedule. It still was a great day, I hung out with my mate Nathan James. I love festival settings where you get to hang out, with people that are your friends and you don't normally get to see because you're always on the road.
PG: You're a big Van Halen fan, did you ever get to meet Eddie?
JSS: One of my biggest regrets is never having shook the man's hand and met him in person. One of the most amazing perks that someone gets from this business, from being a "rockstar" is you get to meet your peers, you get to befriend them and they become your best buds at some point. I never even got to meet Eddie and that truly is a regret in life. I would loved to have jammed with him, meet him and even thank him for his contributions to music and everything that he's done. Strangely I met all of Van Halen, but I never ever got to meet Eddie and that's a shame.
PG: I read that you played the trumpet – do you still play?
JSS: No, that was in middle school and high school. I basically gave that up once I started growing out my hair and wanting to be a rock singer. I remember most of the fingering and I'm sure if I worked on the embouchure I could bring it back in no time flat, but it's not something of interest now.
PG: I did wonder if it was one of those quirky things that some rock stars do. Another quirky thing I came across was the Biker Mice From Mars soundtrack.
JSS: It was a session I was booked to do. Originally I was booked just to sing a few songs, Billy Idol and Vince Neal were booked to be on the soundtrack. As I was doing my songs, they just started disappearing and pulled out, so they asked me to sing the next one and the next one and the next thing I know I did the entire record.
PG: What else is lined up?
JSS: Sons of Apollo are going back out in April and May, hopefully, we won't have to reschedule again. I've got a new W.E.T album coming out in January. I've been very productive at home during the pandemic. I've sung on about four or five albums, hopefully, they're not all coming out in the same month. I'm working on something else I can quite talk about just yet, it should be able to be discussed soon, I have not been resting during the pandemic, let's just say that.
Wide Awake In My Dreamland is out now on Frontiers
Interview by Cathy Clark
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