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Howard Jones on 40 Years in Music, Jamming With Stevie Wonder, Collaborating With Daryl Hall and the Surreality of Live Aid

'I'm still healthy, and my voice is still working, and I can go out and tour, and I've got my studio, I can make new records. It's just a very fortunate position to be in.'

Source: Simon Fowler

That rare photo of Howard Jones with no synthesizers anywhere in sight. (Surely there's one in that trunk, though.)

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In August 1983, Howard Jones released his debut single as a solo artist, a little ditty called "New Song," and the success he found straight out of the gate was nothing short of startling: not only did the song make its way to No. 3 on the UK Singles chart and crack the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100, but the follow-up single, "What Is Love?," provided him with another top 40 hit in America and a No. 2 hit in the UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his debut album, 1984's Human's Lib, turned out to be UK chart-topper, and by the end of 1985, not only had he upped his number of UK top 10 hits to half a dozen, but his stock was high enough that he'd played a song at Live Aid ("Hide & Seek").

Now we find ourselves in 2024, and Howard Jones is still going strong, regularly touring the world and elsewhere (including an upcoming date supporting OMD in London on March 24), and he's also at work on a new album, one that's got him extremely excited. Mind you, he has no idea how anyone else will feel about it, but he's having a ball making it, which would seem to be at least as important as any other aspect of the music-making process, if not more so. Jones was kind enough to hop on a Zoom call with Q, during which he discussed a variety of topics about his lengthy career, discussing everything from why he once shared his stage with a mime to jamming with Stevie Wonder to his appearance on Live at Daryl's House.

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Source: Simon Fowler

Howard Jones: 40 years in the music business, and somehow he still hasn't cracked up.

You celebrated 40 years as a solo artist just this past year, which is staggering. Well, it's staggering for me, so I can only imagine how it must've felt for you.

Well, yes, it seems like a long time. Four decades. We've packed in an awful lot in that time, and I'm still really, really enjoying what I do, and I've got even more enthusiasm for what I do. So I feel fortunate. And it's great, it's lovely to be in this position. I'm still healthy, and my voice is still working, and I can go out and tour, and I've got my studio, I can make new records. It's just a very fortunate position to be in.

So before we venture into your solo career, I'd like to go even back even farther. I went onto Discogs, as I am prone to do whenever I do an interview, and I'm curious: were all the copies of Warrior's Invasion burned? Because aside from the acknowledgment that it once existed, I can find no trace of it anywhere online.

[Long laugh.] No, no, we only did a hundred of them. This was when I was at school. The guitarist in the band was a guy named Paul Zeisler, who was an American, and he was a real proper American. He was a real entrepreneur. We went in the studio, and we wanted to put a record out, but we only pressed a hundred of them. I think they go for quite a lot of money now!

It's so hard to find that no one seems to have even uploaded any tracks to YouTube.

It's got tracks like "Squashed Cat's Intestines."

It sure does. That was the one I was most hoping to find.

[Laughs.] Yeah, and it's completely instrumental. There's no singing on it, and it's these very, very complex pieces that I was writing at that time.

What I was most curious about was what made you shift in direction from what I'm led to understand was a prog album into a more unabashedly pop sound.

Well, I don't know, it's a combination of lots of things. I love pop music and I love rock music, but I was studying classical piano since the age of seven, so I had all that as well. So as a keyboard player, you want to bring a bit of everything in, so that was where the school stuff went. And then I went to music college to study, in Manchester, and joined bands, and...it was just about the time when all this amazing technology was becoming just about affordable. I mean, I couldn't really afford it. [Laughs.] But you could go into your local music store and get an 808 drum machine and a cheap synth. So I quit music college, went back to live with my parents, and started to work on this idea of a one-man show using new technology. And that's where it all came from, really.

By then, I'd mostly got the sort of prog stuff out of my system and really got into the idea of writing concise songs. But it still had an element of that. If you think of "What Is Love?" the intro is like something from ELP. That fanfare is struck from the Keith Emerson songbook. So there's still those elements in there. But my thing was melody, and I loved what was going on on the radio. The radio was a big part of my life. So I wanted to be using this new technology and write pop songs that people would like. And I had the chance to test it out in front of people, doing live shows in pubs and clubs and anywhere that would have me. It was a very exciting time.

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As far as your early solo career, I feel like I've read this, but...what made you decide, "You know, what my live show really needs is a mime"?

[Laughs.] Right, okay. Well, you know, it was a totally natural thing. So there I am, doing my one-man show in these tiny little back rooms of clubs, you know? And I had a small group of people who used to come and watch me, and one of them was Mr. Jed Hoile, who was mainly a friend of my wife's from college. But I got to know him really well, and he would dance in the audience at my shows, and it was just absolutely captivating watching him. And I thought, "He should be up here with me! This would be a really cool thing! Like, a performance art type thing, a mime artist!"

And we created all these characters with very little budget and costumes just costing nothing. Jan used to make a lot of the costumes. And we just had such fun with it! And people were... They couldn't believe what they were seeing. I don't think they'd ever seen anything like it: this one guy with all these machines and synthesizers...and then a mime dressed in all these different costumes! It was pretty riveting to come and see. Exciting, really. Something new. And people just loved it, so we kept going with it. We loved doing it. We had such fun with it that it was a bit infectious, I think.

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So what was the process of you getting your first record deal?

Well, I made my demo tapes in the front room and took them up to London and got as far as the reception desk, left my tape with them, and I expect it just got thrown in the bin. [Laughs.] I lived near Aylesbury, and there was a club there called Friars. And David Stopps ran Friars. He's a legend to all musicians in the area, because he put on Bowie and Pink Floyd and...everybody had played Friars. And I got a few support gigs there. I really liked David. He wasn't a manager, he ran this brilliant venue, but I asked him if he would be my manager. And he said, "No." [Laughs.] But then I think he sort of had another think about it, and he came back and said, "Yes." So he had contacts with some record company people, and he started getting them down to my shows, and they all said "no" as well...until one person got it. And that was Paul Conroy from WEA, and Rob Dickens and Max Hole. It was like a dream team, really. They got it. They got what I was doing, even though everyone else didn't. And that's all you need.. You need just one person to believe...or two or three people, in this case. And that was it!

When you actually settled in to do Human's Lib... Well, was it a process of actually putting together an album, or was it a matter of already having the singles and just needing to fill out the album?

Well, all the tracks on Human's Lib, I was playing live for, like, two or three years. I was out doing three gigs a week for pretty much two years. At tiny little places, yes, but building a following of dedicated people. It was really unfair what I got in the press, which was that I was a manufactured artist. Hey, come on: I write all the stuff myself, I play it all myself, I've got my own following, I can fill the Marquee in London...and you're calling me me a manufactured artist?! It was a joke. It was really unfair. However, that sort of thing gives you backbone. It made me even more determined to prove people wrong. And, hey, I'm here four decades later, appearing on Live at Daryl's House with Daryl Hall, so... I mean, come on, f--- you! [Laughs.]

And it must feel good to be able to say that.

Well, yeah! I mean, I say it, but... I honestly mean that if you don't have adversity, you don't have anything to battle against. You don't have anything to raise your lifeforce. So I look back on everything, and it was a really good thing that I had that kind of reception. I proved people wrong. And maybe I wouldn't have if I'd been embraced as one of the darling new artists of the time. Maybe I wouldn't be here now.

Either way, you certainly didn't do too badly on the charts. You had, what, six top 10 hits in relatively rapid succession?

Yeah, I think I have 13 top 40 singles altogether, and there was a lot in the top 10. A No. 2, a No. 3, a No. 4... [Laughs.] So, yeah, there were a lot. But I have to say, though, that America embraced me right from day one. I mean, I didn't have the issues I had in my home country. America really got it right from the beginning. "Somebody's doing something really new with a fresh sound and proper songs with optimistic lyrics!" America got me from day one. So that was wonderful...and that's really still the case! America is my biggest place, really, for my music.

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As the musical trends changed both in the States and overseas, did you find yourself actively challenged to try and evolve, or did you just keep doing whatever inspired you in the moment?

Well, I had a great decade from being signed in '83 right through the five albums I did for Warner Brothers. I think having a decade at that level of success was amazing. And then, y'know, Warner Brothers didn't want to resign me, which... It was a bit of a shock, that. But what happened then was that I formed my own label, and I became the driver of my own career and set up tours and, really, it was the best thing that happened to me again. I'd already built a studio so that I could make records to my heart's content, and I think having that spotlight for seven years was brilliant. I don't think I could've... I don't think it would've even have been good for me if it had continued at that level.

It was fun and it was exciting and great when you're young, but if it goes on and on, I think you need to be careful of your mental health, because the spotlight is intense. So at the end of the '80s, I kind of got to do the records that I wanted to make and put them out at my leisure and do the touring I wanted to do. We had a family, so...it was kind of perfect, really. Looking back, it was absolutely the perfect thing. And I always say to young artists, "You want to be famous enough that you can go out and do tours and people will come..." [Laughs.] "...and keep listening to your music! But you don't want to be so famous that everywhere you go, you cause a fuss." I don't think that that's very good for people, myself. So I don't crave that. I'm really happy to be in that position where I find myself. It's perfect for me.

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What do you recall about the experience of getting to play a prank on Herbie Hancock?

I...don't remember that. [Laughs.]

I promise, I didn't make it up. I read it in this book right here. [Holds up copy of Thomas Dolby's memoir, The Speed of Sound.]

Oh, right! Okay, was it around the Grammys, then?

It was, yes. Stevie played the prank, and you and Thomas were just supposed to back him up when he told Herbie that they'd accidentally erased a portion of the programming for what you all were going to be playing at the Grammy Awards.

Okay, it's coming back to me now... [Laughs.] I mean, that's very Tom to enjoy that, isn't it? I went to see a gig of his in London at the time, and he said, "Oh, I've got this idea. Halfway through the show, come backstage, and I've got my cube..." You know, the one from his "Hyperactive" video? He got me to come out with that on, but dressed kind of like him, and then he came on and revealed who it was under the cube...and the audience went completely mad, of course! So that's very Tom to have that sense of fun. He's brilliant. I mean, my memory of that time are more, like, "I got to jam with Stevie Wonder for half an hour in the studio." I don't know where the other two had gone, but it was just me and Stevie one afternoon, and we were just jamming, me on one keyboard, him on another, trading licks. Oh, my God, I'll never forget that. It was sort of like keyboard players nirvana!

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Is there anyone else in your career who just left you completely gobsmacked, either just because you were meeting them or because you were getting to work with them?

Well, Keith Emerson came to my house on his huge motorbike, in his leathers, and spend the whole day with me, interviewing me for Keyboard Magazine. And we talked about music, and he played my keyboards... [Starts to laugh.] And he even went into the main studio area where I had my Hammond C3...and I had a C3 because he had a C3! And he played it backwards! He played it from the other side. I was, like, "Nobody can do that!" It was insane! I was, like, "What kind of wiring does your brain have, Keith?" And it was so funny, because I was just putting out Cross That Line, and all he wanted to talk about was the piano solo on there, because he's a piano guy. Like me. That's what I am.

Oh, I'm aware. I've got your Piano Solos album.

Ah, that's what I'm working on at the moment! I'm doing a new piano record, which I'm just loving.

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As you said, you're now kind of the master of your own domain, as it were. Are you enjoying the opportunity to steer things yourself? You've worked with BT on a recent album, although I don't know if that was a case you reaching out to him or vice versa.

As soon as I'd heard his music, I just thought, "Oh, this guy, he really is a genius." I love his records. I love the way he's moved technology forward. As electronic musicians, everyone listens to BT and what he's doing and how his records sound. He invents new ways of doing things. So we were on tour in America, and he was doing a big show in Miami with an orchestra. A big production, a one-off thing that he'd put together. So we just flew down to see it, and in the middle of the show he introduces me as being in the audience, like nobody's ever done. [Laughs.] Nobody does that with me! But he said, "This guy, I went to see him when I was, like, 14 years old, he's in the audience tonight... Mr. Howard Jones!" That was cool.

So I met him afterwards, and then we said we should keep in touch and do some projects together, which we have. And he's become a really, really good friend. He's such a cool guy, a really nice guy. He and his wife Lacy. We're very close. I don't have many people that I collaborate with in my life. People sort of come into my life, and I don't go looking for it, it just sort of turns up, and I make the most of it.

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Well, I will say that I'm a huge fan of your collaboration with Duncan Sheik, "Someone You Need." It's a beautiful song.

Oh, yeah! Oh, thank you. I'm really, really proud of that song. I think it's one of the best ones, actually. We wrote that in France, at one of those songwriters retreats, where all of these amazing songwriters and artists get together. We wrote it there in one afternoon! It really just came together. Yeah, I'm really proud of that. I hope people can hear it.

It's definitely out there. I'll be sure to include an embed.

Oh, great, thank you!

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And as long as we're discussing collaborations, how did you come to work with Propaganda on "Heaven Give Me Words" and "Your Wildlife"?

Oh, right... Okay, now what's the full story on that? So Ian Stanley, from Tears for Fears at the time, he was producing the album with Chris Hughes and Ross Cullum, and I think Ian... He was close with Max Hole, who was my A&R man at WEA, so Ian loved my writing and wanted me to come down and help them out with singles and stuff. Vocals, lyrics, and stuff. So I went down to Bath and hung out with them all, and it wonderful, because I got to know Chris Hughes and Ross, and the three of them produced a couple of tracks for me, which are some of my favorite records I've ever done: "Everlasting Love" and "The Prisoner."

So, yeah, it was really, really great. And it was a new way of working. They were very, very meticulous about everything. Everything was under the microscope, and everything had to be just absolutely amazing before they would accept it. I'd never really worked like that. I've always been very spontaneous and just loved everything and went with it. But their method of working was much more considered. I really learned a lot from working with them, we got to do the couple of tracks that came out of that collaboration. It was fun. I think it was just the two tracks.

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You mentioned it in passing a bit ago, but how was the experience of doing Live from Daryl's House? Because to watch it, it certainly seemed like you were having a ball.

I was having such a great time! [Laughs.] It was so great. Well, I mean, I did my homework on that. I'm pretty sure listened to every recording that Daryl had ever done, or at least what was available. Hours and hours, spent trying to come up with two songs of his that I thought would push me out of my comfort zone...and those were "I'm in a Philly Mood" and then a song that he probably hadn't heard or played for decades ("Let Love Take Control"). But it was just the best fun. So you arrive, and then you work through a few things with the band, but you don't do meticulous rehearsing. It's just, like, pulling it together quite quickly. And then Daryl comes, and we record it. It really is reality TV. [Laughs.] It's not scripted or anything like that. It's completely what happens when you meet people who you've never met before, and then you do music together. I mean, it's the most incredible... There's nothing like it!

I just had a ball. And they brought in a brass section, so I was there to give them the brass arrangements I've done with my songs, and we did different versions of my hits with them that I thought would be better for Daryl's band. And it worked out really well. It was just the best day. I'm so proud of that show, I really am. Because, you know, you can't fake that. You have to be able to do that stuff. And it's a real insight into... Well, it sorts the men from the boys, really! And you don't know how it's going to turn out, because you're going out of your comfort zone. But it just worked really well. I love Daryl, I love his music, and he's a really cool guy. I got on with him very well. It was brilliant.

It was a really nice combination of the electronic meeting the organic.

Yeah! Well, you know, I guess at the end of the day I'm a songwriter. If the song's are good, they're gonna work in all these different configurations. If there's a good, strong structure of a song - great hooks, great chord changes - it's gonna with a band, it's gonna work with a brass band, it's gonna work with an orchestra, it's gonna work electronically. And I think that really showed that, the four songs that we did of mine. It was cool. And I really liked the way that Daryl was singing my songs as well! He had such a different take on it...and it's so refreshing to hear somebody just basically improvise your melody or your lyrics. It was such good fun, I can't tell you. I was totally buzzed with that.

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I think I've told you this before, but my wife and I actually saw you on our honeymoon in the UK.

Did you?

November 2001, it was. You were in Blackpool.

I was in Blackpool? [Long pause, followed by an expression of horror.] Oh, my God, you saw that gig?

I did, and as a result, my wife and I have become friends with Shaz Sparks, who was with you that night and sang on that incredible version of "All I Want."

Oh, wow. I can't believe you were there. That was... [Starts to laugh.] That was a period of time where nobody wanted to know about the '80s! Nobody wanted to know. It was a struggle to get gigs, any kind of decent gigs at all. But the great thing was that, because of that, we just had nothing to lose. And I think the album that came out of that tour, The Peaceful Tour Live, is one of my favorite albums. It's so...crazy and out there. But it's fun. It's such fun! It's a real new take on a lot of the big songs, and it's got such energy.

And the way it was made... I don't know if anybody's ever done it before, but we did 17 shows and recorded them all. I sat with a laptop and chopped together the best bits. Because we were running it to click, everything fit. So you'd be jumping from, like, Southampton to Newscastle to Blackpool to Oxford in the space of, like, a chorus! I'd just be chopping everything. And all the perspectives, the reverbs... Because Robbie was doing all kinds of different things at the desk every night. So I think it's a unique thing. We also sold the CD that night when we recorded it, so people could take it home. I don't think anybody had done that before, either. So, yeah, we were having a ball.

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Looking back at your career, can you think of anything that would qualify as your most absurd pop star moment?

Absurd pop star moment... [Long pause.] I dunno, I think Live Aid was pretty up there, because I was at the peak of my... Well, y'know, I'd just had huge success in America with Love into Action, and I was on the stage with the greats. Of all time. Bowie and McCartney and Queen and U2. So that was a bit special, yeah. It's hard to beat that. That was a real moment. Just watching the other bands and seeing them and then being in the mix with them. It was really cool. And just doing a song at the piano. It was just, like, "I'm a songwriter, and the lyrics are important, and this is me just playing you a song at the piano." Nobody expected it, I don't think. It was just an amazing day. I met all those people. I met McCartney, I met David Bowie, I met Pete Townshend... I was in a queue with Paul McCartney, waiting to have our photograph taken! [Laughs.] I was, like, "There's Paul...and Linda!" That was pretty mindblowing, that. So, yeah, that was a pop star moment. And, of course, meeting Diana the same day!

Now, I won't say that you had the best hair of the day, but you were certainly a fierce contender.

Absolutely. I was rockin' it, man. I was rockin' it.

Do you ever miss that 'do?

No! [Laughs.] No, I think one should be always moving forward. Just staying the same your whole life, that's dangerous!

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Well, you've continued to move forward. And even if you've often stayed more or less within the same genre, it's evident that you're still always experimenting.

Yeah, well, I still create music every day, and...that's me. That's who I am, that's what I do, and that's my contribution to the world: doing that. Thankfully, people still want to hear it and come to my shows. It's very exciting.

Do you have an eye on when the new album might be out?

Well, I'm working on these pieces. I've no idea whether people are going to like it. I'm working with the Steinway Spirio, so I can play into it and then transfer it to the computer, and then edit what I've done`and then play it back through the piano and enhance it. So things like...if I want a real strong four octaves of a melody, I can do that. You couldn't actually play it. Even if you had, like, two or three people around the piano, you wouldn't be able to play it. So I'm feeling like it's a piano, and I can play the piano, but I'm a programmer as well, so...it's, like, the perfect moment for me to bring the two together. An instrument that's been around for centuries is still evolving, and I'm fortunate enough to have one. So, yeah, I've no idea what people will think, but I'm having a ball doin git. [Laughs.] I guess some of that's gonna get through!

Well, as long as you're having fun, that's half the battle.

Yeah, that's right. And I really, really am. It's really consuming me. I can't walk past the studio without coming in and doing some more work on it. It's great.

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