By Carol Anne Szel
Sometimes you have to do a 180 in life. Often that comes as we travel down the road as we gain knowledge and just grow and experience while our world grows and changes.
Such seems to be the case musically. With the release of his latest album, “Ordinary Heroes,” 1980s iconic musical force Howard Jones takes us down his musical 180 journey.
Jones has taken a more introspective look at the very different place he is now in his life, gives his perspective of the world around him, and in these ten songs brings us along on a range of emotions both hopeful and distraught, often simultaneously.
This multi-Platinum musician, you might recall, was a pioneer in bringing the sound of synth-pop to the 1980s scene. Jones was on the cusp of what was the new and literally undiscovered marriage of music and video in a world that had relied on sound to conjure up their personal meanings in the songs.
With his album “Human Lib” going double platinum, having five Top 20 singles from 1985-87, five Top 100 records in the span of ’84 to ’89, Howard Jones hit his stride with his 1985 release “Dream Into Action.” On this offering, Jones introduced an addition to his repertoire of backup singers and a bass line to compliment his keys. One single, “No One Is To Blame,” which was previously out by Jones, was later re-recorded under the helm of Phil Collins, who both produced and played drums, which turned out to become Jones' most successful release.
I had the chance to speak with Jones recently as we spoke of raw human emotion, took a retrospective look at the changes in music over the span of the last couple of decades, and discussed the journey he took to get to his new music.
What were your inspirations for this album? It seems you got more introspective with this release as opposed to your old sound.
Howard Jones: I think it was really driven by the nature of the songs, the songs are so personal. It needed the kind of production that was straight forward and intimate really. So that’s why I have the string section, just one guitar, piano, and really keeping it simple. But yet sort of beautiful, you know, at the same time.
The simplicity is quite a departure from your old stuff. Was that done consciously or is this sound where you’re at now?
HJ: Well, with each album I like it to have its own distinctive signature and flavor. So with this one I thought it’s very important to give yourself a set of rules that helps to give it an identity. Otherwise it just ends up being a bunch of work that doesn’t hang together properly. This is what I’ve learned from making records for a long time.
What do you think the difference is from the 80s music and today?
HJ: Well, blimy! I suppose one big factor, the 80s were so different, the internet changed things because people don’t buy records or vinyl or CDs. They go and download stuff. So for a start there’s a different way of consuming music. And I think that’s really changed everything.
When I was putting out records, my first record on vinyl. And then later it was released as a CD and it was one of the first CDs. But now you can get a track, you can buy 24 hours a day on iTunes or download it for free, and it’s a totally different world. So I think that’s the biggest change. I mean, the music, it’s all out there but you have to kind of... it’s hard to find. You won’t find it on the radio, you have to keep searching. So it’s this big of a change as can possibly be, really.
Yes you’re right, people can just spontaneously buy music now.
HJ: Yes, and of course people don’t buy whole albums, they buy single tracks. And that means a different way of thinking on behalf of the artist. Because I think in terms of ten tracks and how they all hang together. But people now only want one track. So maybe that’s how you should do it, just release two or three tracks at a time. It changed everything.
Your new album is very much a coherent unit. Do you think it would be the same if it was broken up into individual tracks?
HJ: It was conceived as an album when it was put together, yes.
What were the inspirations for the songs?
HJ: Well there’s a track on there called “You Knew Her So Well” which is about a friend of mine who took his own life. And he was a close, close friend. I mean he was in my band. It was such a shock, it's indescribable. And I really needed to write a song about for my own benefit and for people who are going through a similar thing.
First you feel absolute grief. Then you feel angry because the person didn’t give you a chance to help them. And then you start to feel really guilty because you might have said something or you might have done something differently in the last time that you saw them. But I wanted to end it all with a positive. I wanted it to be that even though it was a horrendous thing, the thing that I wanted to end up with is a celebration of this person’s life. To remember all the great things that they did. So that’s why it took me about three years to write the song. I needed to go through the whole phases. But I thought, hopefully that’s going to be useful to people who go through similar things.
It must have been cathartic for you to write it.
HJ: Oh yes. And also I’ve had dialogues and conversations with mutual friends, because we needed to help each other through this as well. So that was part of the material for the song.
You have grown with your audience, and I think that is reflected in this album.
HJ: Well obviously our concerns about life have changed. As we grow older we have different responsibilities, we have different circumstances. And I like to talk about those things in the songs, because that’s what is going to be relevant to people who started out with me when they were say in their early 20s or teens. And now they’re older. And so we’ve got different concerns now.
How do you compare a UK audience with an American audience?
HJ: Well I suppose in general Americans are more demonstrative and they’re more celebratory as an audience. And the British audiences are a bit more reserved as you would expect from the Brits. But I suppose that’s the main difference. Americans always make you feel so loved.
You were huge in the US. You are very well liked here.
HJ: Well, I’m very honored to be known in America. Because it was quite hard to do. Not every artist did cross over to America. But America did embrace my music and I’m always going to be grateful for that.
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