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Music Interview: Howard Jones

Howard Jones. Image by Simon Fowler
Image by Simon Fowler

To celebrate 40 years of his career, ‘80s pop star and pioneering electronic music artist, Howard Jones, is releasing a deluxe four-CD box set on Cherry Red Records.

Called Celebrate It Together – The Very Best Of Howard Jones 1983–2023, it’s available this month and across its 64 tracks, it showcases just how diverse Jones’s output and influences have been, from European-sounding synth-pop, to Cuban music, disco, soul, funk and dance, to more chilled and reflective moments.

Rather than in chronological order, the songs have been compiled across four different-themed CDs: Popular Hits, Electro, Chill and Curiosities.

There are some tracks that have never been released on CD before, plus some unheard rarities for the diehard fans, including brand new remixes and alternative versions.

“As it was going to be a comprehensive look at 40 years, I wanted to divide it up into four different themes,” he tells hi-fi+, speaking to us on the phone shortly after arriving back in the UK from a North American tour with Boy George/ Culture Club and Berlin.

Howard Jones
Howard Jones, Image by Simon Fowler

“It was a lot of fun fitting the songs into the different categories.”

He adds: “One of the things about the four-CD set is that it’s a combination of my own Dtox label and the Warner era. It’s the first time we’ve been able to do that.”

SH: How is it celebrating your 40th anniversary as a musician? Does it feel like 40 years?

HJ: It feels like longer because I’ve packed so much in over that time. I know everyone says, ‘It’s just flown by’, but, no, it hasn’t at all! (laughs).

It’s amazing – it’s great. I never thought I’d get to 40 years, and I’m looking forward to 50 now.

What’s kept you going for 40 years – what’s your secret?

I really love what I do – I always wanted to make records and write songs. That was always my passion and fortunately it’s still burning strong after all this time, and I’m looking forward to new things that I’m going to do – new songs and albums I’m going to write. I think that’s the secret – once the passion goes, you really should stop.

You’re always making new music, whereas some acts from the ‘80s just rely on their heritage. You’ve constantly changed and moved on…

That’s what I do – I write, I make records and I do shows. That’s the natural way to be for me. You’re right, and that’s why I’m still here doing it now.

Your music has been used on TV soundtracks, including Breaking Bad and Stranger Things, which helps to attract new fans, doesn’t it?

Yes – that’s really exciting for me because it means the music is reaching people who’ve never heard it before.

When Stranger Things comes out, I see a big spike in my streaming… All these younger people are starting to listen to my music, which is incredible.

Let’s talk about the new box set – Celebrate It Together. It’s not compiled chronologically – instead, the four CDs are themed: Popular Hits, Electro, Chill and Curiosities. What was the thinking behind that?

As it was going to be a comprehensive look at 40 years, I wanted to divide it up into four different themes, and, because my outlook has been so varied, you’d be thrown around by all these different emotions [if it was done chronologically], so I thought it would be good to have them in four different groups.

Howard Jones - by Simon Fowler
Howard Jones – by Simon Fowler

There are the popular songs, the electro-dance things, the more chilled work, which is ballad-based, and then curiosities – some really unusual things. It was a lot of fun fitting the songs into the different categories.

I have a fantastic adviser called Glenn Kelly – he’s been a fan from day one and he knows more about my music than I do. It was great working with him, as he would have suggestions that I wouldn’t have thought of. I got great support from him.

The title track of the box set, which kicks off the Electro disc, is a new song that was written at the time of the pandemic.

It has funky guitar and reminds me of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.

It’s musically upbeat and, like a lot of your music, it’s a positive song…

It was written during lockdown. I was thinking that once the pandemic was over, we could finally look into each other’s eyes and meet each other again – we could celebrate the fact that we’d got through it and survived.

I wanted to make it the most upbeat and positive song I’d ever written – I actually set out to do that.

A lot of my musical DNA is about great funk – I love it!

There’s an amazing French remixer who goes under the name Lifelike. He did a version of it and I absolutely love it – he stripped it all back to its basic elements. We’ve been playing it live on tour and it’s gone down really well – people think it’s one of the old songs, but it’s brand spanking new.

I was listening to some of the early songs in the box set.

‘Things Can Only Get Better’, which was a single from 1985, has a real US soul and R & B vibe, with slap bass and horns.

I tend to think of your music as being European and electronic, but there are lots of other influences too, like disco and funk…

Artists who emerged in the ‘80s had to be influenced by the ‘70s. I loved Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder – groove-based tracks using lots of keyboards. Nile Rodgers played on one of my songs, on the One to One album.

I’ve always had a big connection with that genre.

There’s a brand-new remix of your debut single, ‘New Song’, in the box set. I think it almost has a Kraftwerk feel to it…

I don’t generally like remixes people have sent me of my stuff – I normally say no to them, but this one I really liked. It had a fresh feel to it, so I decided to include it – it’s by Elephant Talk.

There are some interesting rarities on the Curiosities CD, like the Simlish version of Things Can Only Get Better that has you singing in a fictional language from the Sim video game…

(Laughs). That came about because one of my long-time American friends, Steve Schnur, who used to go round with me to radio stations in the ‘80s, when we were working the records, is now head of music for EA [Electronic Arts]. He asked me if I would do it and, of course, when one of your best mates asks you to do something, you always say yes. It was good fun to do it.

Image by Martin Shaw
Image by Martin Shaw

There’s a song called ‘I Don’t Hate You’ on the Curiosities CD, which hasn’t been available before.

It was from 1998, around the time of the People album, and it’s a big tune, with a huge riff…

(Laughs). I went off it at the time – it didn’t fit, so I didn’t put it out.

Then I went back to it again and thought, ‘this is actually quite good…’, so I included it.

The Havana version of ‘Collective Heartbeat’ you’ve included is fun – you’ve been to Cuba a few times and been inspired by the local music scene, haven’t you?

Yeah. I love Cuban music – I listen to it a lot. When I’ve visited Cuba, I’ve been able to jam with Cuban bands – people play music everywhere there, in restaurants and hotel foyers.

It was amazing that they knew quite a lot of my songs. Florida’s only 90 miles away from Cuba – people were picking my music up on the radio. I was able to do songs like ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ with them. Cuban music is part of my DNA now.

A lot of your songs are themed around hope, positivity, and the human condition. Do you think a song like ‘Hide and Seek’, which you played at Live Aid in 1985, is even more relevant now because of the current state of the world, than it was when it was written?

I think ‘Hide and Seek’ is even more relevant now because of where we are as a world.

It’s very easy to give up on things and resign yourself to doom, but it’s very important to feel hopeful and positive about the future. That song is definitely about hope.

Revolution of the Heart, the title track of your 2005 album, has a similar theme, and saw you return to your roots

Yeah – I’ve been fortunate that my fans have been happy to follow me doing all kinds of different things through the 40 years.

Sometimes I feel like making a very electronic record and other times a more organic, acoustic-sounding set of tunes. It’s just part of me and I guess if I was with a major label, I wouldn’t have had quite so much freedom.

Cherry Red are such a great company and so supportive of my ideas. I love working with them – I don’t know if many artists can say that about their record label.

I have to say my time with Warner Bros was brilliant as well, because I had such good friends there and the team was behind me from day one. I’ve never really experienced a bad time with labels.

You’ve always embraced new technology. I know that many artists are concerned by their rights being  lost, but how do you feel about AI in music?

I’m very excited about it – I think it will be a huge, new creative source for artists. My friend BT, who I’ve collaborated with quite a lot, is building me a Howard Jones AI voice based on all my previous recordings, right back to the early days.

So, if I ever lose my voice, when I have a bad throat and can’t sing, I’ll be able to use the AI version.

I can also use it to create a choir from my own voice, or make it sound like a female. There will be people who use AI badly to rip people off – you’re always going to get that…

Just imagine when sampling first happened – everyone was freaking out and then it became an integral part of how people make music and it created new sounds that people had never heard before. When there’s something new, someone will always freak out and say, ‘This is the end of music…’

No – it’s only the end if people don’t see the creative possibilities in it.

You’re currently touring . What can we expect?

My thinking with this tour is to show people where I’ve got to with my live work – I’ve got the best band I’ve ever had. Nick Beggs is on bass and the Chapman Stick, and Robin Boult is on guitar.

We do an acoustic part of the set and I play stuff from pretty much my whole career. I’m saying to people, ‘It started with ‘New Song’ and this is where I’ve got to now.’ I try to tread a fine line between playing some new things but also all the things that people love, because they’d be disappointed otherwise. I think I’ve got it right.

So, you won’t be singing in Simlish?

Not on this tour.

Music Interview: Howard Jones, Music Interview: Howard Jones

Celebrate It Together – The Very Best Of Howard Jones 1983–2023 is out now on Cherry Red Records.

It’s available as a deluxe four-CD set (64 remastered songs), as well as a double LP and a two-CD version.

Howard Jones is touring the US in August.


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