Interview: Howard Jones

(June 2018) British singer songwriter and 80’s synth pop pioneer Howard Jones is making his way from across the pond to Peterborough this summer. His first single, “New Song”, was released in September 1983 and reached the Top 30 in the US and the Top 5 in the UK. It was followed up by a list of world wide hits, and his album, Human’s Lib, being certified gold and platinum in several countries. Later singles “Life In One Day”, “Things Can Only Get Better”, and “Look Mama” were only precursors to “No One Is to Blame” his biggest hit yet. After major deals and tours ran their decade long course, he took to producing his own recordings, practising Nichiren Buddhism, adhering to a vegetarian lifestyle and maintaining a most positive attitude about himself and the world around him. I caught up with him as he got ready to play a gig somewhere in Chelsea….

Mb: Hello Howard.
Howard: Hi Michael, how are you?
Mb: I’m well. Yourself?
Howard: Yes, I’m very good, thanks.
Mb: So you’re coming to Peterborough this summer…
Howard: Yes, fantastic!
Mb: Are you out touring right now?
Howard: I’m at Chelsea football grounds at the moment. I’m going to do a gig this evening at a venue here.
Mb: Full band?
Howard: Yes it is, a full band and I’ve got a brass section for this particular gig as well, ya. So it’s a very big band. We’re playing a venue at Chelsea, we aren’t playing the stadium.
Mb: So let’s go back to 1985 and talk about playing Live Aid. As a Buddhist that show must have played right into your sensibility?
Howard: I wasn’t actually practicing Buddhism when I played Live Aid, but yes, it was amazing to be part of that event because it was the first global event, of any kind, where technology had linked up the whole world, and it was for such a great cause. It really was the best thing that happened in the 80’s, in terms of a philanthropic event that really worked, you know? People’s lives were saved. It was really important for me to be involved in that, and to play a part in a small way. I played one song that day, a song called Hide and Seek. It was an amazing memory that I will always keep with me.
Mb: An event like that must have helped you re-enforce your positive thinking, though I read somewhere the media suggested your songs were “too sweet…” while everyone was writing about sex and drugs.
Howard: It’s very important to have a hopeful view for the future. I don’t think it helps anyone to be dragged into a negative view of life. So for me, I thought that was my role in music, was to present a positive view. Everyone has down times or bad times, or is struggling with something or other. Nobody escapes that. Music and art can have that function of giving you a bit of a boost at the time you need it. I was always very aware of that, as a person listening to music and benefitting from it, so I set it out as my mission and to put positive messages in everything I did.
Mb: That giant hit of yours Things Can Only Get Better speaks to that.
Howard: I wrote that song in 1985 when I was on the road. I’d recorded Human’s Lib, that album was out, and I was constantly touring, on stage every night , so I had a little studio setup backstage at every gig, and that was one of the songs I wrote. It was great because when you’re out on tour with a great band, which I had at the time, spirits are high and everyone’s in an energetic mood, so it was a good time to write that song. I was imagining singing it to the audiences I was playing to on that tour. It was very exciting. It’s written from the perspective of, when things go horribly wrong, which they do for everyone, and you never know what’s coming around the corner, and as bad as it gets we can always turn it around. We can always turn it into something positive. We can always learn from it and we can go forward. But if we give up on ourselves, and other people, then it can only spiral down. It’s a cheerleader song really! (laughs)
Mb: Must feel great having seen the song come back 30 years later as a re-mix with Cedric, especially in the times we’re living now.
Howard: I’m more aware now than I’ve ever been of the need for people to have a bit of encouragement. I think people’s heads are dropping a bit, looking around at the world and what’s going on, but there’s plenty of good things going on as well. And plenty of great things to be hopeful about and we’ve just got to keep that in mind. It is a time for people to stand up for what they value and we have the opportunity to do that and so, that’s what we’ve all got to do. We can’t be passive. We’ve got to be actively standing up for what we think is right. I’ve always wanted to put that across in my work.
Mb: That also plays out in the way you’ve engaged your audience. In the early days crowd-sourcing to record, taking a DYI approach, as an Indie pioneer…
Howard: I was fortunate to have a 5 album deal with Warner Brothers which eventually came to an end after 10 years. And then I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to become an independent artist and record my own albums and fund my own work, be in charge of my own agenda and calendar and take the risk. What comes with that is, you have to be engaged with the fans. You have to make sure they’re on board with you and feel valued. I think that’s something independent artists have really taken on board. You have to be directly responsible to them, you know? (laughs) I think it’s a good thing, people being able to raise money to make albums. I think it’s a wonderful thing. If people are prepared to work hard enough they can make a career for themselves in music, but it’s got to involve looking after the fan. I’ve always put that at the beginning, at the centre of what I’ve done.
Mb: And now with technology being what it is, and you embraced it early, now you’ve developed a phone app… utilizing technology to reach your audience.
Howard: Ya, I thought it would be good to develop an app because everybody brings their phone and they’re often spending a lot of time filming the show. (laughs) And in a sense, not being part of it! Being an observer instead of a participant. So I thought it might be good to have an app where you could engage with the show with your phone. It was about bringing the focus back to that. I don’t have a problem keeping people’s attention at shows, I mean there are a few people who have the app and they hold up messages to me and it’s very cool. I’m sure as time goes by we’ll develop it more and make it more interesting for people.
Mb: It’s a great response to what’s happening in the culture.
Howard: Ya, I always thought it was very important that if you are going to be an artist living in this time that you should use technology of the day. With my live shows we use technology. I can do gigs any way, but I think it’s fun to do it with the instruments that are all around at the time you’re living. I feel very strongly about that. If I had been born into the 70’s I’d have been playing a grand piano, and probably have more conventional instruments on stage with me, but I wasn’t. I was born into this time and I love to embrace what’s around me.

Howard Jones performs Saturday July 14, Peterborough Musicfest, Crary Park.