Perry grew up in the inner city working class area of Sydney known as Redfern. He grew up in a home populated by various uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. Every Saturday morning his grandmother would do the house work whilst playing the likes of Ray Charles and Roy Orbison at a volume loud enough to spill out onto the neighbouring streets, lined with tightly-packed terraced houses, warehouses and textile factories.
When he was 12, he got his first guitar from the local pawn shop and within six months he’d written his first song. It was during his first year at high school that his family moved to the neighbouring area of Waterloo, with its high-rise Department of Housing blocks. It was within this environment that Perry formed the band The Stolen Holdens in 1989. Musically inspired by the likes of The Clash and Elvis Costello and lyrically taking his cue from artists like Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen, Keyes and The Stolen Holdens developed a small but loyal following in the local Sydney music scene.
The band faded by the early 90’s and Perry re-emerged in 2003, playing solo sets featuring songs that would make up the bulk of his debut double album Meter – released in 2005 to critical acclaim and numerous years end best-of lists.
His next album The Last Ghost Train Home was received with even greater acclaim upon its release in 2007. It went on to be short-listed for the Australian Music Prize and was named the ABC Radio National Album of the Year.
Johnny Ray’s Downtown contains 16 tracks that once again draw on Perry’s local environment – the marginalised, often neglected and rapidly decaying inner city areas of Sydney – for their inspiration. These are songs about growing up, or trying to grow up, in the face of an environment that often suggests that the mere thought of getting past your late adolescence is hoping for more than what’s actually on offer.
With Sunnyholt the focus shifts west to the outer Sydney suburbs where Perry's family travelled in the late 1960s and 1970s only to find an environment devoid of infrastructure and struggling to birth a community.
Jim Salmon's Lament was released October 5, 2018. “I started thinking about the families I grew up with and a particular family that lived in the James Cook [Housing Commission] flats, a brother and sister. I thought I would write about the dad, because I was pissed off with narcissistic blokes where everything they do is fuelled by self-interest but every time it got to mentioning the kids I would start writing a song about them, so I realised that the centre of the album was the brother and sister. That is the grace in the record.”
In 2020 Perry released a series of singles including "Railway Square" and "Wentworth Park".
"I think putting the songs out at regular intervals is a good way of keeping up contact with the people that like what I do and at the same time, hopefully, have some new people hear it as well," he says. "There's a nice immediacy to it as opposed to going away for two years to record albums whilst nobody hears from you for all that time.
"Having said that, there are three albums in the can that I hope to get out in a relatively short amount of time. And, there's also a live album ready to go."
That album was Live in B-Town, and was released at the end of 2021.
His new album Black & White Town was released in November 2023.