HOWARD JONES is often thought of as the one man musical mastermind of synth-pop but when looked at fully, he’s so much more than that.
His journey started in the early ’80s when his infectiously catchy and optimistic ‘New Song’ emerged onto the radio waves. He quickly grabbed the eyes, ears, and hearts of the electronic world partly due to his energetic and elaborate one man stage shows, originally including the talent of mime artist Jed Hoile. But also, there was his knack for writing passionate, sincere, and often uplifting lyrics heard in such numbers as ‘Life In One Day’, ‘Nothing to Fear’, and ‘Everlasting Love’. His first two albums, Human’s Lib and Dream Into Action went to UK’s album charts at numbers one and two respectively and Howard was also one of only a few UK artists to “cross the pond” into the American charts, enjoying success from hits not only off his first two albums, but also from a remix EP for American release only called Action Replay, which gave him his biggest hit ‘No One Is To Blame’. He was even voted Keyboard Player of the Year in 1986 by Rolling Stone magazine.
But the ’90s found a change in the music scene and, never being one to slow down, Howard transitioned quite nicely, expanding his reputation. He first released In the Running which generated the single ‘Lift Me Up’ before leaving Warner/Elektra and starting up his own independent record label called Dtox Records where he put out two more albums; ‘Working in the Backroom’ and also ‘People’, a favourite of long standing fans. He continued to tour worldwide, at times with a full band that included his brother Martin on bass, and also for the first time acoustically which really allowed him to shine both as a superb pianist and also as a continually influential and emotional songwriter. Both were met with much acclaim.
The last 10 years has found Howard continuing with his advancements which include such feats as the Top of the Pops European tour, performing in Ringo Star’s All Starr Band, and a 20th Anniversary Tour in London. More albums have emerged including Revolution Of The Heart, the ever moving and personal Piano Songs (For Friends and Loved Ones) and his most recent release, Ordinary Heroes. In keeping with the times, he even conquered the world of podcasts when his song ‘Building Our Own Future’ broke records by debuting at #1 and remaining there for 3 weeks. Through the years and inevitable changes, he never lost touch with what was important and continued to maintain the same initial appeal of quality music matched with distinctive lyrics that fans and critics alike can relate to.
During a Friday afternoon, he was gracious enough to stop and talk via a transatlantic phone call with The Electricity Club’s American correspondent Lori Tarchala about all that is Howard.
First off, I know you’re really busy with your new album and the touring and stuff so I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I’ve been a fan so this is a personal honor! So can we talk about what you’ve been up to lately?
Yes, I was going to ask you about that. It sounds exciting. I was wondering what kind of layout you’ll be using? Are you going to be using all the old Moog Prodigys, Pro-Ones, the whole circular set up and things like that?
Well what’s happening is it’s the first time that I’ve been able to have access to the multi-tracks of those two albums because I managed to do a deal with Warner Brothers to actually license my material so I’ll be able to access the original sequences and as I said strip off the multi-tracks so we can really replicate those first two albums really accurately. It’s a big project that we’ve started to get all the material together and I’ve had some of my old synthesizers repaired. But I’m not going to do it in a totally retro way; I mean new technology and a bit of old technology together. I don’t want to be sort of recreating the ’80s exactly because, for a start, it’s too dangerous! laughs
So it’s gonna be very, very modern technology and a bit of the old stuff to get the sounds to work. And also, we are going to have a big sort of visual element to the show as well which is being done by my friend Steve W Tayler so it’s going to be quite, um, I almost want to say a sort of art based event. Ultimately that’s the kind of thing that I’d like to be doing the whole time instead of really focusing on that show. But then there’s other gigs with the band, I’m doing an acoustic tour in September with Duncan Sheik so yeah, there’s loads going on but the most exciting is probably that show in November.
Yeah I actually have a ticket for that so I’m looking forward to it.
Oh great, oh great.
Could we possibly expect to see Jed on stage?
Um, well, y’know perhaps that may occur. I don’t know…well I DO know actually but I’m not going to tell you laughs
Riiiiight, surprise and suspense, that’s ok laughs. You also did a show recently with Mark Jones / Back to the Phuture and you’re gonna be playing the Bestival Festival this summer. How did that come about?
Well, there’s been a campaign with people from Bestival to get me to play and there’s one guy who actually wrote a song and put it up on YouTube. And the song was about me playing the festival so there’s been quite a bit of pressure from the fans laughs
I guess so if they’re going to write about you, you HAVE to do it!
So it should be great, yeah I’m really looking forward to it.
Great, well do you do a lot of festivals?
No, I don’t. I don’t do festivals! I mean I do sort of outdoor events during the summer but not types where people can go camping and stuff so this is kind of a rare thing for me.
Will you be camping?
I won’t be, no but my kids apparently are going to camp for the weekend.
Oh wonderful, ok well that will be fun, a whole family outing for you guys.
No one can argue how impressive it was for you to come out as a one man act in the ’80s, that’s a lot of courage on your part. Your big UK live break came when you were supporting China Crisis on their 1983 tour. Eye witnesses tell me because I obviously wasn’t there that you pretty much blew out the headlining act. Do you remember anything about that tour, like how the audience was reacting or having any kind of feeling that this was the start of a big thing; something was going to happen for you?
Yeah it was a big break for me to get that tour as the opener for China Crisis. I remember we were piled into a transit van and staying in the local bed and breakfasts on that tour and it was… I just started to get a bit of airplay on Radio One and so one of the weird things it does is every gig kind of builds and builds so that in the end it was getting a bit out of hand cause China Crisis, y’know I was going down better than them, and they were one of my favorite bands laughs so I didn’t feel good about that. But then again, yeah, we definitely got the sense that something was really taking off and I particularly remember when we got to Glasgow, it just went…the audience went MAD! So I really thought that I kind of got it right. It was going to happen then.
Wow that’s amazing! It must have been a great feeling for you.
Yeah it was because up until then I’d really not done any proper tours. I’d done clubs in London, I played the Marquee and, I mean I did about 250 gigs a year but I was playing pubs and grotty clubs all over the place. But not a proper tour so it was very exciting doing that really.
So you have a new album called Ordinary Heroes. It’s got great reviews so congratulations. I’ve listened to it a number of times, I really enjoy it. You’ve done so many styles between synthesized electro, to acoustic, to full band sounds. But this album you set up a couple rules; no synthesizers, and another one; one track of each instrument used only.
So in terms of the song it definitely makes them shine, it sounds more whole, it’s much clearer but what prompted that? What made you decide to do something like that?
I think it was because I had this bunch of songs that were quite intimate, heartfelt and it’s really about the lyrics I found and the emotion of the song so I wanted the production to be very straightforward and clear and very honest. And that’s really how we did it but also when you give yourself a set of limitations, you have to be resourceful and creative in doing that and I really enjoyed the fact that you couldn’t use any extra parts to solve problems with the tracks.
Everything had to be done and planned on its own so the way that everything sort of fit together; I’d planned that before I actually recorded every one. So to me this album was very much about how the pieces are arranged and how they make a jigsaw together. So I started off with the piano and before there were drums over, it was just piano and vocals and then everything moved around that. So that was the approach and I really enjoyed the process of doing that.
Well from a lyrical stand point, the album’s really quite striking. There’s a lot of numbers that stand out lyrically. I know ‘Soon You’ll Go’ is one that I think a lot of people… I personally was getting teary eyed and I’m single, I don’t have a daughter but it’s so touching the way you wrote these things. With songs like that that are so personal and meaning to you and your family, how do you present them to your family?
Well, it’s just the same way as to everyone else. It’s the same process. I mean when I actually sang the song to Mila for the first time, I got the same reaction that people get when they hear the song. I mean she was very, really moved and so was I. And I just feel that that’s what music should do. That’s what all artists should have, an impact. Otherwise, what’s the point of it? It should be something that unlocks feelings that you can’t access normally and I just think that music has the power to do that so if you are a musician that’s what you should be aiming for to try and have that kind of um…y’know, deep effect on people.
Yeah it definitely did. I’m sure especially for this album in particular like you said, it’s very personal so I think it’s kind of neat that you did it that style because it really does make the songs, at least from my stand point, stand out. So like Andy McCluskey of OMD, you’ve written also for modern girl groups, ‘Blue’ by Sugababes in your case. How did you find this whole experience and what do you think of the whole American Idol/X-Factor culture of finding new musical talent?
Um, well I don’t do this very often but I was asked to work with Sugababes and earlier on I was a big fan of theirs right from the beginning so they came down to the house and I really wanted to work with them and work with their talent and not impose one of my songs on them. I wanted to write with them and work with them and I think THAT track is the most representative of them on that whole album and I feel really proud about that. I just believe that when you work with creative people you’ve got to let them go and let them feel free to be who they are and that’s the whole process and it was really great working with them.
COMPLETELY the opposite to the whole Pop Idol and X-Factor thing which is basically what they do is they exploit people and turn them into automatons which is basically saying that you all have to sound like Whitney Houston!!?! I mean don’t try and be original, don’t try and be like who you are, copy some historical singer from the past. And I find that ABSOLUTELY a disaster to music and I really wish that there would be much more of a nurturing culture that would nurture original talent and don’t try and make people become clones. So I don’t have very strong feelings about it. chuckles
Hmm, yeah, American Idol; I mean obviously I don’t watch Pop Idol but it’s the same thing and I’ve noticed the same thing in terms of especially the girl vocals they do, they all want that kind of loud, screamy sound and you get someone who’s maybe more melodic or a little bit laid back and nobody wants them. They want a particular…they want to model them into their corporate idea of what’s popular so that’s interesting.
Well there’s been a recent resurge if you will of electronic bands; people like Hurts and Mirrors, Little Boots and that type of thing. Most if not all are citing various acts from the ’80s as influences so what do you think of this new generation of electro music makers and how do you feel about being part of it in terms of setting a stage for them to stand on?
Well I quite like La Roux, I really liked her album but you do hear a lot of ’80s influence these days and I’m certain because these kids, they grew up with their parents listening to that music so it’s got this sort of appeal to them. I don’t know what to say, again I think that it’s important that if you’re gonna embrace electronic music that you try and do something new with it and don’t just recreate sounds from the past.
I mean because the whole electro movement really didn’t come from any reference point from the past, it was like “oh wow, we’ve got some new kits to play and we’ve got new sounds to work with, let’s do something different” and that applied not only to music but to the fashion and the way that people, like for instance this year I’m playing my first festival this year, I mean you didn’t play festivals because that’s what old farts did! laughs
So I think that if bands are going to embrace it, then take it somewhere new, please take it somewhere new don’t just listen to your favorite album and just do the same as them but take it on. I think it’s so important to be able to do that.
Yeah, because you don’t wanna be, I mean the ’80s were wonderful, that’s when I was growing up but like you said…there is a different era now so you don’t want to be compared to…
Yeah, I mean, put it this way. If I was a band and I started out now and somebody said to me “oh that sounds just like the ’80s” I would go…I’D GO MAD! I’d want to like trash their gear. You know what I mean? I’d say “I want to sound like now, NOW laughs and not 30 years ago!” I wouldn’t take it as a badge of honour if somebody said to me you sound like the ’80s and I was a new artist!
You’d have to start all over again, trash the album and do it all over. It would not be good.
So who are you listening to these days? Whether it be electronic or otherwise, who are some of the artists that you like?
I’m a big fan of BT when he’s in his fully electronic mode. But also I’m very much into English sort of folk and the English folk singers. I’m a big fan of Laura Marling and the artists that she associates herself with like Mumford And Sons. But my absolute favorite is Laura Marling, she’s the most original and the most talented I think. And she’s a poet as well. So that’s my favorites at the moment.
Would you ever consider collaborating with her? Has there ever been a thought of that?
Well I mean, I go to her gigs and we hang out a bit but I don’t think she needs to collaborate with anybody laughs. I think people should do what they do on their own. Because that’s what’s great about being an artist is that original voice. I know it’s all great all this talk of collaborating with people but really, I mean isn’t it just a marketing tool these days to do that? It gets motivated by a real love of getting together to do something great.
Laura Marling doesn’t need anybody to do that, she’s got such an original voice, that’s what I want to hear. I don’t want to hear it with someone else watering it down laughs. I want to keep the original voice, that’s what I like.
Things have changed greatly in terms of the technology that’s available in making music, especially electronic music. What do you see as the pros and cons of what things used to be and how they are now?
I suppose in the early days things were more limited when I started out. I didn’t need a computer to sequence things because they weren’t really invented to do that. So it was very, sort of primitive really. You had trinkets coming from drum machines and arpeggio pulses coming from drum machines and you had to work within the limitations of the gear. And that produced a particular sound and it was difficult to work with live and it was a struggle but it did produce a very, very original approach to how you did live gigs.
And now, things are so much more stable and they’re so much more accurate, and you can use the laptop to give a much more secure sound. So it’s not quite so by the seat of your pants kind of thing laughs And I suppose in a way the edginess of not knowing if your gear is going to work or not that night, it lends something to the performance that you can’t really get any other way laughs. I think that I’ve done my time of stuff going through breakdown and collapsible gear going down in the middle of a show.
Yeah, I just went and saw; I don’t know if you’re familiar with a band called Covenant but they’re electronic and they have a lot of things programmed and half way through one of their songs, like you said, everything just stopped. But from a fan’s standpoint, the lead singer started just doing acappella and it was actually special and it was probably one of the highlights of the show. Obviously THEY didn’t want that to happen but from our stand point it was really neat. Hopefully that won’t happen though!
Yes, that used to happen to me on a regular basis and I’d have to invent ways of getting out of it but y’know, you do. That’s how you develop confidence as a performer is when you have to deal with it when it goes wrong.
Right. Make sure you get some good jokes on line in case you need that.
So you’ve done a lot, you’ve accomplished a lot of things. I was reading about the things that were personal goals and dreams that you got to do, like your acoustic shows at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then being able to perform Emerson Lake & Palmer’s ‘Karnevil 9’ which I know you said was really the reason you became who you are and what you are today. What do you still want to accomplish? Is there a particular dream or something that hasn’t happened yet?
I just think my thing is to keep carrying on and keep evolving and I think that’s the hard thing to do is to keep doing new things and challenging yourself. I mean I’ve played Madison Square Gardens and I’ve done all the big things at Wembley and I do know a lot of people but I think the hard thing to do is to keep going and keep trying to be innovative and original and to just keep on and not be distracted. I think that’s the hardest thing because a lot of people kind of give up. They become ex-musicians and things but as I said, I don’t want to do that. I wanna be kicking and screaming right up to the end! chuckles
Ok, well you’re definitely, with all your changes you’re definitely still going.
So I have one more question, this is a free for all so you can take it however you want it’s the final question. Tell me something about Howard Jones we don’t already know.
Um…… I think people know most things about me, I Twitter so ah let’s see, something people don’t know about me…….um…..ah….laughs
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to throw you a curveball laughs
Yeah, yeah, well I um….um….yeah I don’t have one really. I do tell people most things that I do so…ah….hmmm….yeah I can’t think of anything really. Not that people don’t know already!
Any secrets about a song, hidden stories about a song or any tour stories?
Um…..hmmm…not really laughs
Ok, that’s fair enough, you gave it a good try!
Sorry about that! laughs
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Howard Jones
Special thanks also to David Stopps at FML Music Limited
by Lori Tarchala
14th July 2010