Category Archives: Interview

HOWARD JONES

HOWARD JONES HEADS OUT ACROSS THE UK ON A SOLO PIANO TOUR IN EARLY 2017. BETWEEN 1984 AND 1986 IT SEEMED AS IF HE COULD DO NO WRONG, COMMERCIALLY AT LEAST. HIS DEBUT ALBUM – HUMAN’S LIB – ENTERED THE UK CHART AT NUMBER ONE, AND HE ENJOYED A LONG RUN OF HIT SINGLES.

Recognising that he was never likely to be a particularly ‘cool’ or ‘credible’ proposition for the inky side of the music press, Jones concentrated his message of positivity – of being the best version of yourself that you can be – on a captivated teenage market. In this new interview he talks about his personal values and spiritual beliefs – how they deeply influenced his lyrics and behaviour during his time as ‘a pop star’, how he has continued working at living by them for the last three decades through his adoption of Buddhist practices, and how they resonate in these unsettled times of Donald Trump and Brexit...

FAIRLY RECENTLY YOU ACTUALLY RE-RECORDED THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER, ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST HITS, IN A SOLO PIANO STYLE. THE 1985 ORIGINAL IS UPBEAT, AND I HAVE TO SAY THAT THIS NEW VERSION FEELS MUCH LESS SO… IT’S MORE CONSIDERED, MORE THOUGHTFUL, MORE REFLECTIVE… IT’S OPTIMISTIC, STILL, BUT IT FEELS AS IF THERE MIGHT BE CAVEATS… DOES THAT MAKES SENSE?
Yeah.

001-thingsIS THAT AN AGE THING? DOES EXPERIENCE ACTUALLY TEACH US NOT TO THINK LESS ABOUT WHAT WE DO AND HOW WE APPROACH THE WORLD, BUT MORE?
What a great question… Well, as you know, when I go out with a band I do still play the full electronic version of THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER, which is very very upbeat. But I think sometimes when you strip a song down and you play it in a different way, you can bring attention more to the lyrics…

… AND PERHAPS LOCATE ‘SOMETHING ELSE’ IN THEM?
Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Although it’s still a very positive message, because the new version of THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER is stripped down, it lets you know that it’s actually difficult to achieve. If things are going to get better, you have to put some work in. It’s a serious process; to keep believing in the future and to keep believing in everyone’s future… You have to put the effort in to do that, some real effort, for things to get better.

IT’S SO INTERESTING, ISN’T IT? ESSENTIALLY THE SAME MESSAGE CAN TAKE ON A DIFFERENT MEANING DUE TO THE SOUND – MAYBE SHIFTING THE KEY THE SONG IS PLAYED IN, OR THE INSTRUMENTS OR WHATEVER…
Yeah. You can throw a different slant on it and a different light on it by the way you play it, with the tempo you play it, the way you sing it. That’s definitely what I was trying to do with that one. I was trying to draw attention even more to the lyrics, and to that fact that we have to work even harder and put the effort in for things to get better.

THERE’S A LINE IN THAT SONG – “GET TO SIXTY AND FEEL NO REGRETS”… YOU WERE ABOUT 30 WHEN IT FIRST CAME OUT, BUT YOU’RE NOW AROUND THAT AGE, LET’S SAY…
Yes! Yes I am, ha ha ha…

SO, DID YOU MANAGE THAT? DID YOU MANAGE TO GET TO SIXTY WITH NO REGRETS?
I feel that I really don’t have regrets about how I’ve lived my life. When I did get to sixty, though, I felt a real compulsion to really go for it in this last part of my career. To really give it everything I’ve got. To not hold back on anything. This life is finite, and there’s no time left now to be relaxing, ha ha… Give it everything you’ve got whilst you can. It was quite a big moment for me, reaching sixty, anyway – but even more so because I’d said that in that song. It was poignant.

IF YOU GOT TO SIXTY AND THE ONLY POSSIBLE REGRET WAS HAVING SAID “GET TO SIXTY AND FEEL NO REGRETS” IN A SONG, YOU’VE DONE OKAY HOWARD…
Ha ha ha, yes! Ha ha…

LOOKING AT THE CURRENT STATE OF THE WORLD – AND HOW IT’S CHANGED, ACTUALLY, IN ONLY THE YEAR SINCE WE LAST SPOKE… THERE WERE SEVERAL NOTABLE DEATHS IN MUSIC: LEONARD COHEN, PRINCE, DAVID BOWIE AND (I THINK THIS IS THE ONE THAT’D AFFECT YOU THE MOST, HAVING BEEN A HUGE FAN) KEITH EMERSON…
Yeah. Yeah…

… BUT ALSO, OF COURSE, THERE HAS BEEN BREXIT AND THERE HAS BEEN THE RISE OF DONALD TRUMP… YOU’RE A MAN WHO HAS SPENT QUITE A BIT OF TIME OUT THERE, SO I THINK YOU’LL HAVE AN INTERESTING PERSPECTIVE ON THINGS… WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON OUT IN THE STATES?
I was in Los Angeles on Saturday, doing a big gig in downtown LA, and all of my American friends can hardly believe what’s going on. Several of them had been out on marches and protests already. When we left LA airport there was a big demonstration, an anti-Trump demonstration. Before that there were the big women’s marches around the world, and a lot of my friends had been on those. In my opinion, what’s happening is that the current elite are polarising people’s thinking. And people are realising that if they want to uphold the values they’ve always believed in – this is especially true for Americans and the values they’ve always believed in – then they’re going to have to get out there on the streets and start making a fuss about it. It’s being proved that those values can not ever be taken for granted again. And so, if there is something positive to come out of it, it’s seeing that there’s this new activism as a consequence of what’s going on. I’ve got to say that I believe that’s a good thing. It is a scary time, of course, but it’s bringing out this activism… this sort of militancy, if you like. People now know they’re going to have to get organised.

I’M REMINDED OF THE 1980s, ACTUALLY, WITH THIS RISE IN MILITANCY, WITH THIS SORT OF ‘NEW ACTIVISM’. I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT FOR PEOPLE TO REALISE THEY HAVE TO DO IT THEMSELVES, AND TO THEN MAKE THAT EFFORT…
Yes. And also, with Brexit, it has been revealed that there are so many people in our society, a huge amount of people in our society, who are not happy with the way things are going. They feel that they’re being left behind, they don’t feel that they’re considered or that they’re being thought about at all…

IT’S BEEN A BIG WAKE-UP CALL…
It has. It’s been a huge wake-up call for the way that we run our society, I think. You know, capitalism needs a major rethink. It needs a major overhaul. If we’re going to have any kind of peaceful and fair society then we have got to rethink it, we’ve got to rethink the way things are run… We’ve got to look at capitalism and work out a way to make it better, to make it work for absolutely everyone… Often, for things to change the poison needs to come to the surface – and I believe that’s what we’re seeing now. The poison has come to the surface. When it’s there at the surface it can be dealt with, it can be addressed, it can be fought…

… YEAH, SO IT’S COME TO THE SURFACE AND WE CAN SEE WHAT WE’RE DEALING WITH – WHICH IS WAY EASIER THAN WHEN IT’S BELOW, SIMMERING AWAY… 
Yes, exactly. Exactly. When it’s come to the surface it can be worked on. That’s where we are, at the moment, I think…  I always look for the positive side of a situation, and the positive side of things now is that lots of people seem to have realised that they’re actually going to have to get organised and co-operate and fight for the values that they believe in. We cannot be silenced any longer. Ever again, actually… That’s a good thing.

IN THE POLITICAL CLIMATE OF THE 1980s, I ALWAYS FELT YOUR MUSIC SHARED SOMETHING WITH THOSE BANDS WHO WERE TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING – THOUGH I THINK YOU WERE ON A MUCH MORE SPIRITUAL KICK. YOU WERE OFTEN LOOKING AT THE IDEA OF TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR OWN DESTINY… YOU WERE LOOKING AT THE IDEA OF RESPONSIBILITY FOR ONE’S OWN BEHAVIOUR AND, IN SOME CASES, THE CONSEQUENCES OF IT… YOU WERE LOOKING AT MINDFULNESS – QUITE A TRENDY CONCEPT THESE DAYS, BUT THAT WAS ALSO IN THERE… DESPITE THE PERCEPTION OF YOU AS ‘POP SHEEN’, YOU WERE ALWAYS A VERY ‘AWAKE’ ARTIST…
Thank you for that. I’ve always been of the mind that if we want to change the world then first of all we have to change ourselves. We have to work on bettering ourselves, constantly…

… AND THAT WAS RIGHT THERE FROM THE START – IN THE SONG CHANGE THE MAN, WHICH WAS THE B-SIDE OF YOUR DEBUT SINGLE…
That’s right, yes, it was. It’s so hard to enlighten oneself, and be a person who is respectful to other people in the world, other people’s views, other people’s ways of doing things – and also respectful to your own self. It’s hard work to do that. It’s much easier to moan about what everyone else is doing, and put it ‘out there’…

… RATHER THAN LOOKING ‘IN HERE’ AND RECOGNISING YOUR OWN PART IN IT, AND THEN ADDRESSING THAT?
Yes, exactly. To reform oneself is where the real hard work has to go in, in my opinion. I’ve always been inclined towards doing that. The work really has to start with yourself as an individual – which is the most difficult thing to do, actually. And then our actions come from that…

I CAN LOOK MYSELF IN THE EYE BECAUSE I CAN ACCEPT ‘GUILT’, I SUPPOSE… IN ANY SITUATION I’LL THINK ABOUT IT LATER AND WORK OUT MY OWN PART IN IT… I TRY TO TAKE THAT RESPONSIBILITY. I WOULD NEVER SAY THAT I ALWAYS BEHAVE WELL OR THAT I OFTEN GET THAT RIGHT – BUT AS I’VE GOT OLDER I’M MUCH MORE AWARE THAT I’VE GOT TO LOOK AT MY OWN BEHAVIOUR AND THE PART THAT HAS TO PLAY, AS MUCH AS ANYONE ELSE’S…
Yes, me too. Exactly, exactly… Of course, the other way of looking at that is that when you blame other people on the outside of yourself, in a situation, you actually hand over all the power to them. They’re dictating how you are, how you feel and how you behave. You allow that to happen. It should really not be that – it should be that you decide how you feel, you decide how you react… Regardless of what people may be doing in front of you or what those people may be saying to you, or even about you. So it’s about flipping things around.

IT TAKES TIME TO GET THERE, DOESN’T IT?
It does, yeah. Certainly when I was young I was always blaming everyone else for my unhappiness. Fortunately I’ve worked on that and now I don’t do that. I take it on myself, the responsibility. Like you say, I’ll think “What could I have done differently? What could I have done to make this better”.

WAS THERE A PARTICULAR CATALYST FOR YOU REALISING THAT?
Well, I’ve been practising Buddhism for twenty four years. So that was when I seriously started to address that. I sort of intellectually understood it before that, but the actual process of doing it started when I started practising Buddhism twenty four years ago. It’s effort that you have to put in, to try and change, to try and evolve oneself. So, 1993 was when the biggest change happened for me, I would say. But it’s a process – it constantly needs work. It’s not like suddenly you’re there. Every day you’ve got to work on yourself. As humans we have such huge capacity for destructive behaviour, and particularly for destructive thinking. To keep the balance shifted to the other side I think I’ve proved to myself, at least, that it needs constant effort. So that’s what I’ve tried to do. Make that effort.

AS I SAID EARLIER, I ALWAYS FELT YOU WERE ONE OF THE MORE THOUGHTFUL ARTISTS TO EMERGE IN THE 1980s. YOU HAD SOMETHING OF VALUE TO SAY… BUT THE MARKETING OF YOU WAS TARGETED IN A PARTICULAR WAY. YOU WERE PUSHED TOWARDS A PARTICULAR AUDIENCE. HAD THINGS BEEN APPROACHED DIFFERENTLY BY THE INDUSTRY AROUND YOU, I THINK YOU MAY HAVE BEEN RECEIVED WITH MUCH MORE CREDIBILITY, MORE RESPECT – PARTICULARLY BY MUSIC PAPERS SUCH AS THE NME… BECAUSE (ALTHOUGH NOT MUSICALLY) THERE WAS SOMETHING OF THE PUNK SPIRIT ABOUT YOU IN THOSE VERY EARLY DAYS – THE MESSAGE OF CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO, THE DIY APPROACH TO WHAT YOU WERE DOING, THE RISK FANZINE…
I honestly didn’t worry about that at all, because I was very confident that my prime message was in the songs. It was there. So the things that go on around the music itself, the things that go on around you, are actually very difficult to control, really. It’s all culturally driven. If you’re writing pop songs that go to the top of the charts, then there is a particular way that society is going to view that – rather than if you only put out albums and nothing ever gets in the Top Twenty so you’re an underground thing, an indie person. I’m sure that, now, having been in the business for all of these years, I could probably be more aware of that. I don’t know…

WE’RE IN DIFFERENT TIMES NOW, THOUGH…
Yeah, we’re in such a different time now… I don’t even know if it’d be relevant, all that experience of mine… What I did do back then, though, was think “Make sure that what you say in interviews, and what you put in your music, is really you and is really how you feel, how you think”. The rest of it, I’m afraid, I couldn’t control it. It was what it was. What’s interesting is that these days I get e-mails from people who say that they came on board with those early records and they loved the music, but it’s only in recent times that they’ve gone back and discovered what the songs are actually saying. I find that really interesting. For me, that’s like playing the long game. Don’t worry about people’s perceptions of you, what they think. I’m still here, I’m still doing it, and I’m still saying the same message. It’s real. I have truly lived my life according to those things that I’ve said.

I KNOW YOU COULDN’T CONTROL OUTSIDE PERCEPTIONS OF YOU, BUT IT MUST HAVE BEEN TOUGH…
What I was aware of in those early days was that I was a soft target. I wasn’t the kind of artist who was going to turn on a journalist and tell them to “f. off”, or have a go at them. They would probably have given me respect for that – but I didn’t conduct myself like that. I never will. So there was this soft target aspect of it and, you know, let that be what it is. Let’s see what happens in ten, twenty, thirty years… And here we are… The fact is that I’ve never had the pressure of being in that constant spotlight. I’ve never had my children kidnapped, or something. I’ve never been ridiculously famous, where it’s mental. I’ve been somewhere in the middle, there, and I’ve been able to get on with what I do. Quietly but determinedly. That’s always suited me well so, really, it all worked out…

I’M VERY GLAD… BEFORE WE SIGN OFF, I HAVE TO TELL YOU A STORY…
Excellent…

WHEN I STUDIED MUSIC AT ‘O LEVEL’ I GOT INTO A HUGE ROW WITH MY TEACHER ABOUT YOU. SHE SAID SHE’D SEEN YOU PLAYING ON TOP OF THE POPS AND THAT YOU WERE IRRELEVANT – NO GOOD, ACTUALLY – BECAUSE YOUR FINGERING WAS ‘WRONG’… YOUR TECHNIQUE WAS ‘WRONG’… I WAS A BIT FIERY, AND IT BLEW UP A BIT – I ARGUED WITH HER: “BUT THE SONGS ARE GOOD, THE RECORDS ARE GREAT, SO YOU’RE THE IRRELEVANT ONE, ‘COS YOU’VE TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT OF MUSIC”…
Ha ha, brilliant. Yes. Good for you, really.

SHE THREW ME OUT AND BANNED ME FROM THE CLASSROOM FOR A COUPLE OF LESSONS. I HAD TO STAND IN THE CORRIDOR…
Ha ha ha ha… Well, good on you for that. Seriously… She really was missing the point. It doesn’t matter how the music is created or how it’s generated. It’s not really about that… I think that was a lot of the argument at that time against electronic music. Some people weren’t particularly good at playing at all, but they could hear stuff in their heads and they could put it together in such a great way, and they made these fantastic records. It totally worked and it totally connected with people – and that’s the important thing. That’s the point.

IT WAS ALWAYS LIKE THAT, THOUGH. YOU’D STRUGGLE TO FIND BETTER RECORDS THAN THOSE BY THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, BUT YOU COULD NEVER ACCUSE THAT BAND OF BEING INCREDIBLY TECHNICALLY GIFTED OR ‘CORRECT’ PLAYERS…
Yes! Exactly, exactly… But, ironically for your music teacher, I did eighteen years of classical training! I went to music college and played Bach and Bartok and Beethoven… I did actually have all the chops. That’s the irony of it!

Howard Jones’s 2017 UK tour dates and tickets available here