It is an unbearably hot summer day in Washington DC as I speak with Howard Jones. I'm sweating bullets, but not Howard. He's on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, enjoying a nice English summer evening at home. He's eager to hear how I liked the album, he's eager to tour, but he is also eager to spend time with his family. He stops one of his children, who is roller-skating in the kitchen.
Once the peace is restored he launches into his theory of what he wanted his new album, People, to be. "I set out to make an album that was consistent all the way through. I always thought my earlier albums were very eclectic. And the second half of the album is consistant. It's all dull drum loops, piano, strings, layered vocals, and guitars. As the album was being recorded new songs came along that really didn't fit that mold. So the album sort of grew. Now I almost see the album as having day and night- daytime listening up front and nighttime listening at the back."
Howard had completed what he though would be People, a sort of low key sonically conceptual album, when he decided to give a special concert in London with a fairly large group of musicians, including a large string section. "I had this 15-piece band, the best musicians I had ever worked with. In the process of actually performing the songs I realized that I could develop what I had already done. After the concert I had the musicians in the studio play over what was already there. That's what happened to 'You're the Buddha.' So there was my consistency theory going out the window."
One of the other events that contributed to the new songs was a retreat Miles Copland had last year. Howard, Belinda Carlisle, and Stewart Copland were invited, among others, to attend a long weekend at a remote castle. It turned out to be a sort of songwriters boot camp, where the participants had to write and record a song a day. Howard loved it.
"It was the best fun you could ever have as a songwriter. Another three songs came out of that. 'Everything' came out of it, with Stewart Copland on drums. That song came out of a three-hour session. One-take vocals, everything fresh. So I had really lost my consistency theory, but I thought, oh well... next album!"
About the only consistent thing in Howard's career has been the excellent songwriting quality he has maintained throughout his long career. His first single, "New Song," kicked off 1984, peaking in the top 30 in the US--the first of eight top 40 hits he would have here during the 1980s. "New Song" was not just another British synthpop song, but a breath of fresh air and positivity on the pop charts. Critics labeled Jones a "new wave hippie" because of his lyrics, which were more about uplifting subjects than angst or broken hearts.
Lyrics are something Howard takes great pride in. "If I had to make a choice between music and lyrics, I'd stand up on stage and be a poet. Lyrics are very important." When asked about the message his lyrics often impart, that life is worth living, that one is in control of one's destiny, and that things can only get better (to coin a phrase), Howard's sunny nature dims a little. "Well, to start, you have to stick your neck out, you have to be prepared to have people say-'you don't live in the real world, blah blah blah.' Stuff that, I've got absolutely no time for that." Howard sees gloom as the easy way out. "It's so easy to write depressing lyrics. It's much harder to write a song that's joyful. It's hard for me to write uplifting lyrics. The music comes easy, but the lyrics are much more important to me. I've never written conventional pop-lyrics. I hate them."
Music is still important to Howard, don't get him wrong. When I asked him about the perfectly placed bell that chimes in after the bridge in "Equality" from Human's Lib, he laughed, giving all the credit to Rupert Hines, the album's producer. "We actually brought the bell back for People. It's in most of the songs, I think, although maybe not as perfectly placed." Howard is an admirer of Steely Dan and more to the point, Donald Fagen (he covers "IGY" on his Elektra best of album). "I don't go along with his lyrics but I love that music. It sounds like nothing else out there."
Howard's big project this summer is the US leg of the Rewind tour. Originally he and Human League were to do a four week tour of the US last summer, but that fell through.
"We were already paired up from that. When Culture Club re-formed they needed a strong opening act to help fill the seats. Playing big venues you need to get loads of people in."
But when presented with the idea of going on tour with two other acts as closely identified with the '80s as he is in the US, Howard had second thoughts about getting caught in a nostalgia trap. "I wondered 'Am I allowing myself to get locked up in the '80s forever?' But in the end I decided it was a good opportunity to get out and play before a lot of people. I can play the hits but also some of the new stuff. I can play the old songs in a new way, show people that I've moved to the '90s."
He has no regret about the '80s. "I have no time for regret." But when asked about his fondest memories, he touches on an event that touched a lot of people and performers in the mid '80s-Live Aid. "One and a half billion people sharing this event and raising money for a cause. It was the first time that technology had been used to connect so many people. It showed a really good side of technology."
Well known for having state of the art remixes and willing to rearrange his songs from the get-go (check the "New Song (new version)" or his Action Replay album), Howard feels that while he is not as in touch with today's dance music, he wouldn't mind someone fiddling with songs from the new album. "I thought about someone having a go at 'You're the Buddha.' It has potential for speeding it up and deconstructing it. The dance scene isn't really my area anymore. I love a lot of what's going on but it's not what I do. So I thought I'd keep away from it."
What Howard has been getting more and more into over the past several years is his own label Dtox. He started the label to issue his Working in the Back Room CD several years ago. But his motivation went beyond having a CD for sale at concerts. "I wanted to set up an organization in a completely different way to the way the music industry was run. I want to be a pathway where you respect the artist and respect the music." Howard has another band signed to the label, which he is producing, and is organizing a gallery show for the artist who painted the cover to Human's Lib.
But he isn't tilting at windmills by any means. When it came to the US he hooked up with a major label, Ark 21, run by Miles Copland, the same guy who invited Howard to the songwriters retreat. Howard sees as how he could have released it on his own here, but feels strongly that he wants a lot of people to hear this album. And with the tour, a great new collection of songs, and his positive outlook, it could very well be that a lot of people will again be hearing from Howard Jones.
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