The Popdose Interview: Howard Jones

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

Howard Jones is best remembered as an icon of ’80s pop, but he’s never stopped working — as evidenced by Ordinary Heroes, the new album he discusses in his Popdose Interview with Will Harris.

If Howard Jones wasn’t the definitive poster boy for synthpop during the 1980s, he was certainly one of the leaders of the pack, spending many a week in the charts during the course of the decade. We won’t waste our time by listing off every single hit single the man had, but…oh, sorry, perhaps some readers do need a brief refresher course. For those of us who may not have lived through the decade in which Mr. Jones saw his greatest success, we speak of the man responsible for such memorable ditties as “New Song,” “Things Can Only Get Better,” “No One Is To Blame,” and “Everlasting Love.” Indeed, he even managed to maintain his success into the ’90s, scoring a substantial hit in 1992 with “Lift Me Up.”

Although he departed the ranks of Elektra Records not long after the label released his best-of collection in 1993, Jones has continued to release records throughout the years, including Angels and Lovers (1997), People (1998), and Revolution of the Heart (2005); his latest album, Ordinary Heroes, will see release on Nov. 9th, 2009, preceded on Oct. 26th by the single, “Soon You’ll Go.” As part of the pre-release press blitz, Popdose was provided with the opportunity to do an E-mail interview, and it was an offer we could not refuse.

First, here’s the video for the aforementioned single, “Soon You’ll Go”…

…and now that the stage has been appropriately set, here’s the interview:

I’ve followed your career since the ’80s and all the way through to the present, but it will likely not surprise you that many will be shocked to hear that A) you have a new album, and B) you’ve pretty much been recording and touring all along. How would you describe the sound of Ordinary Heroes to those who’ve been out of the loop? Will it be hard to access for those who lost track of you after you departed Elektra?

The new album is very not electronic. It is a songwriter’s album with very personal themes, intense lyrics, and a strict lineup of drums, bass, piano, guitar, string quartet, and background vocals. Kind of pop chamber music…and very no synths. People who have followed my output since the early ’90s will not be surprised by this collection of tracks, as they have come to expect an eclectic output from me. (Next album: death metal meets Leonard Cohen!)

I interviewed Glenn Tilbrook several years ago, and he said that Squeeze’s final album, Domino, was actually the most profitable album of their entire career, owing to the fact that they released it themselves. Have you found that to be the case with your recent output, and how do you find the indie route overall? Do you miss the major-label lifestyle at all?

Being in control of my musical destiny is something I am happy to fight for. As an independent artist, I am responsible not only for creating the work and financing it, but also for getting it out to my audience. This is challenging and at the same time exhilarating. I am grateful to have had the major label start to my career but I love the freedom and excitement of having to make things happen myself. (And my collection of Francis Bacon Originals speaks for itself!)

How did you come to team up with Duncan Sheik for the original version of “Someone You Need“ (my guess would be the Rupert Hine connection), and what made you decide to revisit it as a solo number for the new album?

I knew Duncan Sheik before he worked with Rupert, because we met as fellow Buddhists. We then ended up at a songwriters boot camp in France and wrote “Someone You Need.” The song sits so well with the other material that it had to be included in the new album.

When I played “Love’s Never Wasted” for one of our other Popdose writers, he said, “Sounds like Keane.” I don’t know if you’d necessarily hear that particular similarity, but it does lead me to wonder if you can hear your sound within the work of any of today’s musicians, and if any artists have come to you and acknowledged a sonic debt that they may owe to you.

I suppose the new rash of ’80s-sounding records is where I hear the influence the most. I have no idea whether today’s artists cite me as an influence, but I am sure I saw Brandon Flowers at a gig in Salt Lake City circa 1985 taking notes.

My wife and I saw you perform in Blackpool in 2001 while we were in the UK on our honeymoon, and we were positively blown away by the performance of your background vocalist, Shaz Sparks, on “All I Want.” (She also does a great solo version of “All I Want,” which is available on her self-titled EP, and has contributed vocals to three songs on John B’s upcoming album.) How did you first cross paths with Shaz, and does she appear on Ordinary Heroes?

Shaz – as part of dba – was signed to my dtox label, and I made a record with them (Spectrum), which is fabulous and still available at the website. But I wanted a male background vocal sound to the new album, and Daniel Pearce (yes, that Daniel…Simon, are you deaf?) is amazing on this record.

Speaking of my wife, I don’t think she would mind if I revealed that your first Pianosolos album helped immeasurably to soothe her spirit in the hours leading up to the birth of our daughter. I can only presume that the idea of an instrumental album was something you had considered in the past, but what led you to finally release one?

The piano solos started as a series of gifts that I did for people for special occasions. A gift that was totally unique to them. I found after a while that I had quite a few of them, so that became Pianosolos Vol. 1 and Pianosolos Vol. 2.

Not to in any way diminish your recent and, indeed, current musical accomplishments, but what is life like for a musician who is generally perceived as an “’80s artist,” and do you find it hard to walk the line between making the casual fans happy and thrilling those who’ve come to hear the new material as well?

There are, broadly speaking, 2 parts to my audience. The first group are the fans that are actively engaged with my output for the whole 26 years, and the second a more general or casual audience that only knows the ’80s work. I don’t find this a problem. I’m happy to have an audience that knows me at all!

Of your major-label output, which overall album do you think is the most underrated, and what album track from that era still leaves you thinking, “That really should have been a single”?

One to One is a very interesting album produced by Arif Mardin. There is a lot of experimentation going on with sampling, and some interesting grooves and amazing musicians. Saying that, In the Running and Cross that Line row my boat as well.

You didn’t really tackle a great number of outside projects in the ’80s. You made the occasional cameo here and there (such as on Chris DeBurgh’s “The Head and the Heart“), but were you ever tempted to step out a bit and do more guest appearances, production work, and so forth?

In the whirlwind that was the ’80s for me, there was hardly time to catch my breath, let alone work with others. Saying that, I did do an awful lot of Prince’s Trust concerts with the great and the good of the pop and rock world.

And, lastly, I’m looking at your Live Aid performance right now, and I’m torn between two thoughts: “Is it really true that the piano belonged to Freddie Mercury, and did he actually give you permission to use it?” and “If Howard’s mullet and Nik Kershaw’s mullet had gotten into a fight that day, which would have come out the victor?” Any comment on either matter?

The piano was Freddie’s, no permission was granted. And Nik and I would take on Bono’s do as a tag team.

In closing, our Popdose readers in the UK may be interested to know that Howard Jones will be embarking upon a tour to support the release of Ordinary Heroes. You can catch him at The IndigO2 in London on Nov. 6th, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on Nov. 12th, and at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff – featuring special guests The Morriston Orpheus Choir – on Nov. 13th.