At the top of the charts in the 1980s and 90s, Howard Jones continues to make music. He spoke to Duncan Seaman ahead of two solo shows in Yorkshire.
A pioneer of British synthpop, Howard Jones scored 15 top 40 singles between 1983 and 1992. His 1984 album Human’s Lib went to Number One and a year later he performed at Live Aid at Wembley Stadium.
He’s continued to make music ever since and on his latest tour, which visits Sheffield and Leeds, he’ll be performing solo with a piano.
Jones, now 60, says the intimate style of these shows give him a chance to talk to the audience more about the stories behind the songs.
“It’s an opportunity to fill in some of the background and give the back story to how the songs were written and why they were written and what they’re about,” he explains.
“I go back to the beginning when I started out and talk about that and Live Aid and meeting people on the road. It’s a chance to chat a bit about stuff.”
These concerts also offer an interesting contrast to Jones’ interactive multi-media show Engage, which he’s performed in London, Beverly Hills and New York.
He says he was trying to create “a real visceral experience for people at a show where the music and visuals was totally designed to be coordinated to really involve people and take them on a bit of a journey”.
“I wanted to use all my influences throughout the years, the things I love – classical music and pop, electronic, Steve Reich – there’s a piece there called Five Pianos. I love ballet and I love contemporary dance, so I wanted to weave all these things together, and technology as well, to do something a bit different.”
Jones has previously talked about having two audiences – one that comes to hear his chart hits, another that has remained loyal throughout his whole career. “I don’t know if it’s possible to completely please everyone but I do my best,” he says. “When the real hardcore fans talk to me about songs they’d really like to hear I try and weave at least some of those in and then give the hits a bit of a makeover. Partly it’s to keep it interesting for me so that people can feel I’m not just going through the motions and I am actually enjoying it.”
Though classically trained on piano, Jones says he was drawn to a variety of music by his parents. “My Mum was always listening to the radio and she listened to the Home Service lunchtime concerts where The Beatles and the Stones and Freddie and the Dreamers and all those people were playing live on the radio, so I was hearing that all the time. Then my Dad gave me a radio when I was nine and I listened to pirate radio.
“My parents were Welsh and they sang in Welsh, they sang traditional songs and hymns, so I was getting music from every angle and all different. I think everything you hear contributes to that.
“I moved to Canada when I was nine so I was hearing American music and American radio, I went to see bands there, so it was just music all the way, really.”
Jones was 28 years old when he released his first solo single, New Song. Jones thinks that having had plenty of life experience stood him in good stead when it came to dealing with the temptations of fame.
“I think I was very fortunate that I had a stable relationship with my wife Jan and I had great friends who helped me get the music going in the beginning, they knew me when I was just a bloke having a drink in the bars all the way through to when I played Madison Square Garden, so I always had this grounding influence helping me to deal with the crazy adulation that you get,” he says. “You can get carried away with it if you don’t watch it and I always think that helped keep my feet on the ground and I’m very grateful.”
At Live Aid, Jones met one of his musical heroes, David Bowie. He describes the experience as “incredibly exciting”.
“He was one of the few artists that had a massive effect on me. In a way he paved the way for artists like myself to be able to do what we did. His emphasis on the way you looked, the visual way you presented yourself, videos, the whole creative package he was the first one in my opinion to do that and he liberated us all to be able to really express ourselves fully and not feel that we had a follow a kind of rock ’n’ roll convention. I’m realising it more certainly after his death how profound that effect was.”
As for the song from his back catalogue that means the most to him, Jones says: “At one time I’d say that I don’t have a favourite, it changes all the time, but recently if you asked me for one song it would be Hide And Seek.
“It’s a very spiritual song about how you would describe God to a child, it involves a lot of broad and unprejudiced thinking. To give a story to a child involves putting it in terms that are very human.
“I’ve been a practising Buddhist for 22 years so I see part of it involves connecting to every person and every single thing and feeling that connection, and Hide And Seek is really about that. That’s why my fans love it so much. It says something to all of us. Because it plays with minor and major as well, it’s thoughtful in the verses and celebratory in the choruses, that connection and the way it’s written add up to it being my favourite.”
Howard Jones plays at Sheffield City Hall on February 14 and Leeds City Varieties on February 19. For details visit http://www.howardjones.com/