It was a cold, grey day as Howard Jones looked out on to the Somerset Levels from his West Country home studio when we caught up on the phone ahead of his latest solo tour. But Spring was on the mind, in what’s already turning out to be another busy year for a seasoned singer-songwriter still selling out venues, 34 years after New Song truly announced his arrival.
That No.3 single and follow-up What Is Love? – which went one better – were the first of six top-10 and 10 top-40 singles for this Southampton-born pioneer of synth-based pop. And all these years on there’s still plenty of public appetite for this likeable Live Aid veteran.
Altogether, Howard has sold more than eight million albums across the globe and is one of a select group of British artists who have comprehensively ‘broken America’. But while equally at home playing Freddie Mercury’s Steinway grand piano at Wembley Stadium in the summer of ’85 – remember those goosebump moments on Hide and Seek? – it seems that the smaller venues hold just as much allure for the 62-year-old.
His on-going series of solo acoustic shows provide more personal settings, in which he thrives, even if he is often worried about re-telling the same tales. An Evening with Howard Jones (The Songs, The Piano and The Stories) offers audiences an intimate journey through a stellar career. Many of his best-known songs were composed on piano, and Howard looks to share a few behind-the-scenes stories and reveal the inspiration behind many of those songs on stage.
The current tour runs through to dates at The Lowry in Salford on Thursday, March 30th (0843 208 6000 or via this link), and a finale at The Grand Theatre in Lancaster on Friday, March 31st (tickets via 01524 64695 or this link). And that last date stokes up a few memories for starters.
“I think I played Lancaster before I even got a record deal, at the University there, and remember going up in a van, before anything had really taken off for me. That’s a long time ago.”
The idea of just you and a piano sharing a stage has proved to be a winning format.
“Yes, and I really enjoy doing them, so that goes a long way towards enthusing people when they come along. I’m really at home doing it. It is a challenge, a lot harder than doing bigger shows with the band, which is a comparatively secure way of doing things. With these it’s different night to night, and every audience has a different personality and you have to find that and engage with that. I really enjoy the challenge of that, and think It helps me to be a better performer and player, pushing me forward.”
As you do more and more solo shows, do you find it easier to do the talking between the songs, or was that never an issue?
“The only thing I worry about is whether people have heard the stories before! But when I express that, very few people remember what you actually said last time. And of course, those stories evolve all the time. I’m probably a little paranoid about it though, so I’m constantly on the lookout for new material.”
As you travel up and down the country, do more and more memories come back to you?
“Yes, and I ask fans to tell me which gig they’re coming to and what songs they’d like me to play. That in itself produces the most incredible stories people have about what the songs mean to them. I have so much to say that I could probably do the whole night talking and just do a couple of songs at the end. But I don’t think people would be too happy with that!”
By now I’ve recalled how much fun it is talking to Howard, laughing at the other end of the line. Besides, we agree he goes to so much trouble taking a piano with him that he might as well use it.
We last spoke barely a year ago, ahead of his previous solo tour, which included a return to his old seat of learning, Manchester’s Northern College of Music. We also touched on his family roots, the sad passing of his heroes David Bowie and Keith Emerson, his early mastery of the synthesiser, his Buddhist faith, his famous friends in the industry, his memorable performance at Live Aid …
“So we’ve covered everything already?” he butts in.
Well, it was a long interview, but was a lot of fun and went down very well, I’d say. Besides, I’ve got plenty more to ask him, not least as he’s getting set for a fresh set of engagements on both sides of the Atlantic and at both ends of the earth. I make it 17 dates this month, with three already sold out, I put to him. That’s impressive after all these years, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s great. Actually, I think we’ve sold out eight shows now, so it’s progressed since!”
Well, there you go. Howard was always much more than just a pop act, of course, but that’s not always enough in itself to ensure longevity. So it must be very satisfying to see the interest still out there.
“It is great, and I don’t take it for granted. It’s wonderful that people still want to come and see me after all this time, and that’s dependent on doing great shows and people wanting to come back. I don’t have a huge record company behind me now, so it’s all done in a very real way too. And that suits me.”
Looking further ahead, I see there’s a date lined up at Hangar 34 in Liverpool on Friday, May 19th (follow this link for details) too.
“That’s when I’ll be introducing the new band. We’re doing a bunch of festivals in the UK this summer, and I’ve expanded the band, so that’ll be our debut. There’s five of us, and I’m excited by that as well.
“Mainly, the gigs I do are with a band, but I’m trying to make it an annual thing to have a month where I do piano shows, because they’re such fun to do. And that’s a different side to me which doesn’t seem to affect the other gigs. People either like both or one or the other.”
There goes that laugh again, and I point out that those bookings continue to come thick and fast, with his latest month-long trip to America next in mid-July.
“Yes, I’m headlining an American tour, which is very exciting, playing lots of big outdoor venues, something I’ve been working towards for the last three or four years.”
Do you plan to make the most of the six weeks between engagements to carry on with your new LP? I know you’re itching to get something out there.
“Yeah. It’s very difficult to find time to get things done, but I really have to, and have three tracks that are pretty much done. But there’s a lot more to do to get a whole album together. There will be some time in the summer though, and when I get back from America. So hopefully by the end of the year it will be close.”
Spending all that time on tour, I wonder if you’re good at writing on the road, and if so does that involve some form of gadgetry rather than pad and pen these days? Or do you need to be at a piano?
“Usually with me it’s lyrical ideas, and words. I’ve got my phone with me everywhere, so jot things down as notes, which then appear on all my different devices, so I can’t lose them! If I’ve got musical ideas I can use voice memos. I’ve a stack of stuff on there, which I should go back and listen to, see if there’s anything worth culling!”
Is it something a bit like The Beatles’ way of eventually putting together a few ideas to make one song?
”That’s true. You never know. Usually the very strong ideas stick with you, and don’t disappear, I find. It’s rare that I have a killer tune and then it’s gone. If it’s that good, it stays with you.”
Howard’s forthcoming 24-date headlining Retro Futura tour in the US will see him supported by The Beat, Men Without Hats, Modern English, Paul Young, Katrina (of Katrina and the Waves fame) and Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin on some shows.
All very exciting, yet on a more contentious issue these are uncertain times in America. And it seems to be a similar tale this side of the Atlantic after last year’s referendum. He recently mentioned these ‘turbulent times’ on his website and a ‘need for good spirits’ and to ‘stand up for the things we value’. I’m guessing as an international performer he’s no little Englander and no great advocate of closed borders.
“Well, broadly, whatever form it takes, we need to work together if we’re going to solve the global problems we have. So really we have no choice other than to work together. That can take many forms and I believe people feel they need a say in what goes on all over the world. I totally respect that and think that’s a good thing.
“Above all that, we really need to collaborate and work together, and that’s hard to do if we’re separated and putting up walls and all that stuff. Philosophically, that’s where I’m coming from, but I feel there are many ways of doing that. We have to find them though, otherwise we’re kind of doomed.”
On a lighter note, since we last spoke you’ve totted up a lot more air miles, including your last stateside dates with Barenaked Ladies and OMD. And then there was a tour Down Under with fellow ‘80s icon Kim Wilde.
“That’s right. We worked out that the best way to get there was to collaborate and share bands and crew. That’s what we did and we had a really great time. I think I laughed more than I have for a decade. It was such fun touring with the Wildes (Kim’s band includes her brother Ricky), and we had a great reception from the Australians. They loved it, and we covered God Only Knows together. That went down really well.”
“Yeah, because I’ve spent a lot of time doing the groundwork again in the States, I’m starting to see results now. We’re definitely in bigger places playing to bigger audiences. It’s re-established, and while it’s taken America a while to get with that ’80s thing again, that’s started to happen again in a big way, with those audiences coming out to see their favourites.”
There were even ‘80s cruise ship engagements in America, also starring the likes of Rick Springfield, Mike + The Mechanics, Thomas Dolby, and Katrina again.
“That’s right. It’s a big trend now, from jazz to country and more. The new generation of cruise ships have the most amazing theatres, with full lighting rigs and really comfortable seats, holding around 1500 people. I love it, and was out seeing bands every night, like Morris Day and The Time, who played with Prince. Then there was Berlin and many more. For artists, it’s great to see other bands properly from a really good position, rather than from the side of the stage. And every night there’s someone amazing playing.”
There seems to be quite an eclectic mix on those bills too, not just the more obvious ‘80s acts you might expect. For example, I see The Tubes were involved.
“That’s right. It’s a very interesting and new development, and it was fun.”
But before the summer dates here then back in the US with the expanded band, Howard’s concentrating on the solo tour. Last time he had Somerset’s Elise Yuill guesting, and this time it’s US singer-songwriter Rachael Sage. A hand-picked support act again?
“Yes. She contacted me and sent links to her work – music and videos. I really liked it and thought it would make for a nice combination again. And it’s great to have female artists on the tour.”
You should be used to all this after all these years, but how’s life on the road for so long, and does Mrs Jones – his wife Jan, with whom he has three children – join you as much as she can?
“She does. She’s with me the whole time. That’s what makes the difference for me. And because all our kids have left home and are doing their own thing, we’re free to do that. It’s perfect timing.”
Finally, as it shares the billing with you, tell me more about that piano coming out with you.
“I’m just waiting for it to turn up, actually. Roland are sending a piano which I haven’t tried yet. I’ve got several options, but I’m really hoping it’s turning up today and I’ll get going with it.”
A proper road-test then.
“Yes, I’m trying to work towards getting the perfect piano sound live. I’m spoiled, because I have a Steinway at home, the most unbelievably-wonderful piano to play.”
I’m guessing taking that is not an option.
“No, I’d need a crane to take it with me. So it’s about finding something that gets close to that. I’ll probably be searching for the rest of my life, but it’s getting closer.”
That said, when you played Lancaster Uni back in the day, I’m guessing you weren’t likely to have had more than a couple of Casio synths in the back of the van.
“No, it would have been the Moog Prodigy, the Pro-One, the 808 drum machine, and a Juno 6 (both Roland) back then!”
To catch up with the last writewyattuk interview with Howard Jones, from February 2016, head here.
For further details about An Evening with Howard Jones (The Songs, The Piano and The Stories) and other shows this year, try Howard’s official website. You can also keep up to date via Facebook and Twitter.