'80s hitmaker Howard Jones is back on the road with three decades of songs and stories
After spending last summer crisscrossing the country headlining the '80s-themed Retro Futura tour, this winter finds Howard Jones back on the road. This time out, he's backed only by his piano and interesting tales from over three decades for The Songs and The Stories Tour. The show is a stripped-down look at the stories behind some of his greatest hits, mixed with deep cuts and material from his recent album Engage.
Once an MTV fixture and major label artist, Jones is now happily working as an indie artist on his own label. The equally crafty Rachael Sage opens the show with a charming set of her own fiercely indie, piano-based music.
INsite caught up with the soft-spoken Jones at his home in the UK.
You're on the road so much; are you able to write while on tour?
I have a song in the film "Animal Crackers" which came out a little while back. I was on the road and talking with the director who was very keen on the idea of me coming up with a song for the film. I was in a hotel in Little Rock so I sat down with my laptop and I was just belting out vocal ideas into the computer. Then when I got to Nashville, I was able to play him the piece I'd been working on. When needs must, you kind of have to do it that way. I wrote the whole of Dream Into Action (1985) pretty much on the road.
Were you on a deadline to finish it?
Yeah and I had nothing. All the songs had gone on the first album (Human's Lib) so I had to have a demo studio with me everywhere I went.
With modern technology, now you can bring your studio on tour in your pocket.
It's true. Now you can record on your phone.
But it's still not the same as the real studio experience.
Yeah, I have to say the records we made in the '80s are still sounding really good. I think it's because more time was spent in the studio getting the sounds just right. Now, because people can make a record in their bedroom, I think some of the quality has dropped a bit. The records I really like have been done in proper studios. The first five records I made, I did them in the studio but now I have a studio at home to put it all together.
Do you enjoy the scoring process for films?
It's a good way to reach people all around the world in a different way, really. I take it quite seriously when I get asked to do a song for a film, to fit it into the narrative and work with the director and get his ideas in there. I'm really enjoying it but I'm also looking forward to making another new album of my own, hopefully this year. I've been doing so much touring lately and putting a lot of my energy into that, rearranging the songs and updating them. I'm into the idea of updating songs and putting a bit of modern sounds next to the classics. It keeps it interesting for the audience and fresh for me. I couldn't just be a museum piece, playing the same songs the same way, decade after decade.
People do pay attention and they do notice the updates.
One should never underestimate their audiences. They're up for new, fresh ways of looking at things in the same way that I am, so it's great. I think they like the fact that I'm not treating them as showroom dummies and just playing them the hits. It's important to respect their taste.
But people do love the '80s. As nostalgia and simply as good music.
I always thought the '80s would finally get its due. People here in the UK looked down on the '80s for quite a while as a terrible time for music and all that. That's all changed now, of course, but it was really unfair, because it was a very rich time for music.
There's no one single '80s sound.
Exactly. There were all sorts of genres for pop music - all doing very well, side by side. It was all going on at the same time. I think that's really healthy, rather than pop just being kind of one thing. And people were experimenting with new production techniques and new equipment like synthesizers and drum machines and all the tools of the studio. To be a recording artist at that time was very exciting. We had all these toys to work with and we could put a new stamp on rock and roll and pop.
You managed to create your own sound in the process.
Right, that's what I wanted to do. I love my heroes but I don't want to sound like them.
You also had to think not only musically but visually because of the rise of MTV.
Yeah we were the first generation for that. You had to think visually because of the videos and how you'd present yourself to the audience so you had to keep in touch with fashion and style. The only era I can think of that would parallel that would probably be the '60s, when all those elements were firing together as well.
What is the single biggest shift in music you've seen during your career?
Well it's changed beyond all recognition now, really. The way people record and consume music - but also the importance of music in society. It's diminished since the '80s. Other things have come along to challenge it. But if you're a new artist now, you can form your own label, have direct contact with your fans and book your own shows. So the power has come back to the artists. If you're aiming to be a global superstar, you'll probably still need a major label to do that. But it's totally possible to have a career and make a living within this environment. That was never possible in the past. You had to have a label and a team of scientists working behind you in the studio. I know some people moan about it but I find it full of possibilities, this new world we sort of find ourselves in. It's really up to the individual to make it happen.
You've been an independent artist for quite a long time now.
Yeah, at the end of the '80s, early '90s, my deal finished with Warner Brothers. I found myself thinking, 'If I don't do something about this, I'm never gonna work again or make another record.' I formed my own label, started to book my own tours and became an independent artist, communicating directly with the fans. Basically setting my own agenda and being responsible for what happens. I've enjoyed it. I think I've thrived in it because I've designed the sort of musical life that I want.
That's the ultimate goal for any creative person.
I think so. Some people want that sort of Madonna-sized success but I'm happy being somewhere in the middle, getting on with my work. Not having all that massive pressure of being in that huge spotlight that big fame gives you. I had that in the '80s but I couldn't have done a whole life of that; it would have been too extreme.
But you did have a wild ride from '83 to '86. What was it like being on the inside of that crazy mid-'80s hurricane?
It was literally every day without a day off, either in the studio or on tour or doing TV or interviews. It was a hell of a roller coaster. All the things I'd dreamed of doing, I was doing. I was grabbin' it with both hands and feeling very grateful that I'd managed to get there. I saw the world. I met and worked with a lot of my musical heroes. It was just absolutely brilliant. Basically it was from '83 to the end of the '80s for me. It was the most riveting time and I'm so glad it happened.
And unlike so many of your peers, you haven't turned into a trivia question or a punchline. You're still making great music and calling your own shots.
Well it is what I love doing and I still have to something to offer, I feel. You know, you have to believe that. I'm just totally inspired by Mick Jagger. He's still a Rock God. The Stones are just amazing and an inspiration to everyone. The way they are on stage, still sounding good - in fact even better than they used to - is a real inspiration for me. I look at Mick and I think, 'That's the way to do it.'
Howard Jones plays February 21 at City Winery. Rachael Sage opens. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.