July 19, 2010

An Interview with Howard Jones

In the ’80s you didn’t have to listen too long before a Howard Jones song would play on the radio. Having scored a Top Ten single in 1983 with his first single, “New Song,” the British musician solidified his debut the following year with the full-length effort, Human’s Lib, which was a worldwide hit upon entering the UK album charts at Number One. A string of hit songs followed—“Everlasting Love,” “Things Can Only Get Better,” and “No One Is To Blame,” among them—with which Jones enjoyed a ubiquitous presence on the charts throughout the decade and beyond.

While classically trained on the piano, Jones has spent the better part of his career experimenting with and composing on synthesizers. However, for his latest album, Ordinary Heroes, he felt a change was in order. “I’d been collecting songs for about five years and I played a lot of acoustic shows during that time,” Jones says. “I would test out the songs and develop them, really, on the road, which I think is the best way to develop a bunch of songs before you record them. So I had them all written and pretty much arranged before I sat down to start the record.”

You had a set of preconceived ideas on how to record this album, right?

I thought the best thing to do in a recording world where you’ve got everything available—you’ve got amazing keyboards and you’ve got amazing software and you can have any sound you want from any country in the world—is to say, “Look, I’m going to give myself a certain set of rules for this record. I’m going to make sure it has a character of its own.” And I thought, right, the best way to do that: one piano part, one guitar part, a string quartet, one backing vocal, drums, and no overdubs of keyboards or big production things going on. Make it all about arrangement. Make it all about straightforward songs so that the lyrics can come through.

The lyrics are quite reassuring, even optimistic.

Good, I’m glad. For me there are two strands to the record. One is of ones like “You Knew Us So Well,” which is about a really good friend who was in my band who took [his] own life. That’s about as personal as it gets, really, that one. And another song, “Soon You’ll Go,” which is about my daughter leaving for college and how that hits you as a parent. So that’s one strand, very personal stuff that's happened. Then there [are] the other things like “Straight Ahead” and “Ordinary Heroes” and “Fight On,” which is about having real courage to take on problems and difficulties that we all have in life and to know that we’ve got the power within us to overcome [them] and to get a positive outcome no matter what is around the corner. Those two strands are running through the whole record.

There's a sense of resilience that you convey in songs like “Fight On” and “Even If You Don’t Say.”

I’ve always benefited from a friend offering a few words of encouragement to me. And I’ve always thanked them greatly for that. I think as an artist that’s something you can offer. Music can be a great inspiration when you’re feeling a bit low and life‘s dealt you a few blows. Music and art can really help to get you over the next little hill.

In the one about your daughter, “Soon You’ll Go,” when you sing, “These things I will hold on to when I can’t hold on to you,” you’re reassuring yourself that you can make it through this change.

Yes, that’s right. Exactly. Exactly.

Was that a difficult song to write, lyrically?

It was, actually. A lot of tears were shed writing that song. It was literally happening to me at the time as I was writing the song. I remember playing it for my daughter for the first time. We both were in floods of tears because that’s what we were saying to each other. I really tried to lock that feeling, that emotion, into the song so that when another person heard it, they would feel the same because they’ve felt the same things in their own life. And I just think that music and songs are so powerful in that way that they can evoke these really powerful feelings and it can catch you by surprise. Music seems to go into your brain through another door, not through the intellect and not through the logical mind. It seems to come in through another passageway and evoke all kinds of feelings.

As a songwriter, it’s as if the deeper you go into yourself the more you can resonate with others.

Yes! That’s right. That’s actually a really good way of putting it. And the more fearless you are to reveal those things the more it can resonate with people.

How have you evolved as a songwriter over the past twenty-five years?

I’ve come to realize that the pop song is actually a very beautiful form. It’s a very simple form, but very, very elegant and beautiful. And the way you can bring some originality to it is by doing some fine, little changes to where the keys go, how the middle eight works, how long the bridges are. I always try and take that very beautiful pop-song structure and just tweak it a bit and change a few things so that it’s got a little twist in it that you don’t expect, but still it feels familiar.