There aren’t many rags-to-riches stories in the entertainment world that can top Arnel Pineda’s amazing saga. As a youth growing up in Manila, he endured extreme poverty, living on the streets for two years and sleeping on park benches before becoming lead singer of a band in 1982, at age 15.
Twenty-five years later, a series of videos posted on YouTube featuring the golden-voiced Pineda singing hits by bands including Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Eagles and Journey caught the attention of Journey’s guitarist Neal Schon, who asked Pineda to audition for the lead singer spot vacated by the legendary Steve Perry.
Things obviously went well, and today, Pineda is the lead singer of Journey, one of the most beloved classic rock bands of all time, which hits the Hard Rock Live on Friday and Saturday. Don’t Stop Believin’ indeed.
Pineda talked to Miami.com about the show and his wild ride to stardom.
Journey kicks off its tour in South Florida this weekend – are you excited?
Yeah, of course – I’ll love to see the place again and see a lot of familiar faces. I’ve developed a lot of good friendships there.
How often do you visit Miami?
Oh God – we’re there every year. And what’s so special about the city is climate, weather. It’s pretty much the same as the Philippines, except when we’re there it’s always near the sea, but here in Manila we have to drive at least two or three hours before we get to the beach. And I like the food – I like going to Whole Foods and buying all those organic foods.
So you have two shows down here – will they be different each night?
We’re trying [laughs]. But the hardcore fans of Journey always want to hear the dirty dozen, so we cannot delete those songs.
What are some of your favorite songs to perform?
Oh gosh. Well, besides the obvious – “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Faithfully,” “Separate Ways” – sometimes I would want to perform the obscure ones, like, “Where Were You,” “Too Late,” “Stay Awhile,” “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever.” We also have a lot of great blues songs that I think would be great.
How much input do you have on the set list?
They ask me, and of course the first thing is if I’m comfortable during that night, if my voice is holding up good, if I’m OK. So that’s how they base our lineup, because as you know, Steve Perry has put the highest bar when it comes to singing those songs. They’re all in those really high notes. Nothing is easy when you sing Journey songs – even their easiest is really hard when you’re not in good condition.
Was Steve Perry one of your idols growing up?
Oh, yes, he was one of my biggest idols – him, Robert Plant, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bono. I grew up listening to those guys. Steve Perry – I remember I couldn’t afford the CD then but cassette tapes were still available in the early ‘90s, and I would buy his solo albums, the one with “Foolish Heart.” And before I’d sleep, I’d stick the tape player three inches from my left ear and I’d listen to it all night. Who would have thought that after almost 20 years, I would be singing for the band? It’s surreal, crazy. The way I look at it – it’s sacred, an American rock ‘n’ roll band. I’m kind of a purist - I never imagined in a thousand years that there would be some Asian guy like me who would front a quintessential band like Journey.
Have you ever gotten any negative reactions from Journey fans?
I do understand when a lot of hardcore fans are not so comfortable with me being onstage with them. But then again some of those people have already had a change of heart, and they’ve accepted now that Journey keeps going on even when Steve Perry is not there anymore. And they’re happy that I keep it alive with the band, and I think even my grandkids will be grateful about what happened. I’m gonna make sure that this story will be told to them, and they will know that whatever we have right now came from Journey.
Have you ever met Steve Perry?
Never. I would really love to have at least a picture and his autograph. I don’t know – he’s pretty elusive these days. I guess he’s a very private person and he doesn’t want to be bothered much and is trying to live his life the way he wants it to be, and I have so much respect for that. But I’d be thankful if someday he’d have a change of heart.
Back when Neal Schon contacted you, what was your first thought?
Well, of course coming from a third-world country, you would not in your wildest dreams have ever thought that some big rock star like Neal Schon would call you and invite you to San Francisco to audition for the post. It’s just weird, right? Like dreaming with your eyes wide open. So I considered it a hoax, you know?
When you did meet the band and first sang for them, how did it feel?
The whole week that I was there, it was rigorous. They had to make me sing everything for an hour and a half or two hours straight, because they wanna know how I cope with it if ever I make it to the tour. Because the tour is like almost every day. So it was like me being in a movie, like I was warped inside the video – that’s how it felt. Like I can touch them and talk to them, but I feel like I’m a cartoon character.
Most people probably think you came out of nowhere to become lead singer for Journey, but you’ve been performing for decades. Do you feel that all of your experience helped you succeed with them?
Yeah, before Neal found me, I’d been singing for like 25 years straight. I would sing from Monday through Saturday every week. But I never expected that they would choose me – even when I was in San Francisco trying out. But they heard something in me that they thought would work out.