Howard made his mark in the '80s with a fresh synth-pop sound to frame his intricate songwriting. He come along right around the time MTV started, which was when pop music - especially the video hits - were extraordinarily shallow. But Jones' music had real depth and feeling, which is why much of it still resonates today – long after all the colorful outfits and wild hair from that era have long since faded into history.
Howard Jones: Well, it's keyboards, really. I sometimes write at the piano, but other times I write with keyboards. Sometimes I don't write with any music at all, I just work with the computer and work with it graphically. So it just depends.
Songfacts: You played Freddie Mercury's piano, is that right?
Songfacts: Was there any magic in that keyboard?
Howard: No. (laughs) No, it's what you bring out of it, isn't it?
Songfacts: In the '80s you were credited with being a part of the whole synth-pop movement, but I hear a lot of older influences in your songs. I was listening in particular to "Pearl In The Shell," and I thought about bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and some of the different bands that used horns in particular. What kind of an inspiration did those kind of bands have on you?
Howard: I had a big influence from '70s bands - I was really into Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire I used to absolutely love. People like Keith Emerson were a huge influence on me. And bands like Little Feat - actually, when I was really young, and Fagan and Becker were a huge influence on me. I was in my teenage years during the '70s so I was hearing a lot of that music. I loved synthesizers, and that was my kind of genre, and my musical influences came from the '60s and the '70s, I guess.
Songfacts: So you really sort of filtered the '60s and '70s into an '80s musical mind set.
Howard: Yeah, because I've always been a songwriter at heart, so the synthesizers were a way of orchestrating my songs and giving it a different sound. But the song has always been the most important thing to me. And I think you're going to hear that all through my work.
Songfacts: Let's talk about "No One Is To Blame." Is that one of the songs that you recorded a second time with Phil Collins?
Howard: Yeah, that's right. It was originally on the Dream Into Action album, and it's quite stripped down. And I always thought I could probably get more out of the song. It was suggested I work with Phil, and I'd worked with Phil on the Prince's Trust concerts here in England. And I've been in a band and so I knew Phil. So it was really great working with him. But I'll tell you what, the fans all like the original version best.
Songfacts: Why do you think that is?
Howard: I think it's because it's less slick and it's got more emotion in it. Personally, I prefer the Phil Collins version. But I understand why they like the first one. On this tour when we're playing the song, I play the original version. I don't do the second one.
Songfacts: Interesting that you worked on it with a great musician like Phil Collins but like the original version better.
Howard: Yes. Yes. It's always great to work with great people and have different things. But it's interesting, isn't it, what gets to people's hearts sometimes isn't the best technically, but it's the version that's a bit rougher and it's got a bit more grit in it, really.
Songfacts: Was the song based on one of your relationships?
Howard: Well, I think we can all relate to the main theme of the song. But I was in San Francisco, and I was doing a promotion with the local record company guy, and we were crossing the street to go to the radio station, and he said to me, "Howard, what do you think of all the amazing women here in San Francisco?" And I said, "Yeah, they're great, they're fantastic." And he said, "Well, you can look at the menu, but you don't have to eat." And I've never actually heard anybody say that before. And so that was it, a good spark for a huge idea coming for a song.
Songfacts: What an odd inspiration. And really, to me, it doesn't seem like a very sensitive songwriter kind of a moment.
Howard: (laughing) No, that's right. But it was the start of a kind of protest. (laughing)
Songfacts: I've always thought that you songwriter types, you just think differently. You hear ideas for songs in places where mere mortals like myself would never consider.
Howard: I suppose we're always on the lookout for something that captures our imagination in words and lyrics, yes.
Songfacts: When I think about your music, I associate it with the beginnings of MTV, and I still see videos in my mind when I hear your songs. Tell me about some of the songs that really got you your start, such as "New Song." Do you remember writing that song and what was going through your head when you put it together?
Songfacts: Is that the song that has a line, "Bend your brain"?
Howard: Yes. That's right. "Bend your brain, see both sides, throw off your mental chains." Yes.
Songfacts: That seems like a great visual. I'd never heard that before up to that point, the idea of bending your brain. Were you quite amazed with yourself when you came up with that?
Howard: Well, no, not really. Because it's just a language you're thinking in at the time, and so it's just natural. If you look at the lyrics of that song, they're pure philosophy. They're not like pop lyrics at all. But that was the irony of it. It's a very pop song. But the lyrics are pure philosophy. What happened is the people who really got me, got what I was trying to do, they understood. And then people who only see things on the surface didn't get me. And I've always had that - either you like Howard Jones or you don't, there's no in between. Which I like. I'm happy with that. (laughs)
Songfacts: Did you mentioned that you're a very positive songwriter - were you ever questioned about why you didn't explore a darker place in your songs?
Howard: No, I never really got challenged on that. Because, honestly, music journalists don't go that deep. I swear to you, they don't. Well, they didn't do then. I mean, you might. (laughing) But they don't go that deep. They just look at the haircut and the clothes. There was never any challenging of the lyrical content. (laughs) But for me it was always the most important thing. If you haven't got anything to say, then shut up and don't write songs. If you haven't got anything to say, then wait till you have. That's always been my credo for songwriting.
Songfacts: Speaking of hair, you had pretty puffy hair back then. Do you have any regrets as to hairstyle?
Howard: No. I don't at all. Absolutely not. I'm absolutely so proud of it I can't tell you. Do you realize how brave you have to be to walk into a pub with hair like that? You have to have guts. You really do. And people used to pick fights with me and throw beer at me and stuff like that. I mean, you've got to be pretty brave to have a look like that.
Songfacts: Speaking of positivity, the song that sort of questions good things is the song "What is Love?" You were talking about how your songs are pure philosophy, and that sounds like the question of a philosopher. That's a pretty heavy question for a pop songwriter. Do you remember the experience of writing that and what made you ask questions like that?
Songfacts: Do you think you've come close to understanding, or is it still sort of a mystery to you?
Howard: Well, no. I feel the same as I did then, which is that for a relationship to work, to be really in love with somebody, you have to know who you are. And they have to know who they are. And then you kind of face the world together, rather than you clutching to the apron strings of the other person for their support. This is my philosophy about that, really. You can't be dependent on another person. You have to know yourself so that you can then stand on your own. Only then can you have a great relationship with somebody. So that's really what that song is indicating. I can articulate it now better than I could then.
Songfacts: Let's go on to "Everlasting Love." Is it possible to find a relationship that will stand the test of time and last as long as two people are together?
Howard: Yeah, I believe that. But the song fleshes out those caveats about which is don't be looking for a pretty face, don't be looking for the latest style, don't look for the superficial things. You won't be happy with that. Yeah, I do think it's possible to find everlasting love, but I think you've got to spend some time thinking it through.
Songfacts: Have you found true love in your life?
Howard: Yeah. I've been married to my wife, Jan, for over 30 years. And our relationship has just got better and better as we got older together. So it is the thing that gave me most joy in my life. Like, absolute pure joy. And it's my relationship with Jan.
Songfacts: How wonderful. Congratulations. In pop music, that's unheard of.
Howard: Yeah, I know. Because I listen to my own lyrics, you see. (laughing)
Songfacts: You were talking about how you had like a manifesto of the kind of songs you wanted to write, but you really practice what you preach.
Howard: Well, I try to. I think if you're going to have any critics - people are going to believe in you as an artist, they have to feel that you are genuine. And people can spot sincerity and genuineness a thousand miles away, they can feel it through the radio. So I really believe in that. I think your music and your lyrics are going to carry any weight then you have to be what you say in it.
Songfacts: Do you remember touring with the Eurythmics, because I think when I saw you you opened for the Eurythmics at the Greek Theater and they were the hottest thing on the scene at the time. Do you recall those nights at the Greek Theatre?
Howard: I do. And I gave them such a run for their money every night. (laughing) Because I'd just released my own music. That was great. They tried to cut down my songs, you know (laughing) You're not supposed to be that good competition to the headliners. But I really enjoyed that and I think they really enjoyed it. But the tour manager, you know, he wanted to get me off as soon as he could. It was a great tour for me, it was really fantastic.
Songfacts: In retrospect, you really had a lot in common. Because even though a lot of the Eurythmics music was very synth-pop related, Annie Lennox, let's face it, she's a soul singer. So it was soul music, but it was sort of filtered through what was going on.
Howard: That's right. I got on really well with Dave Stewart. We hung out a lot on that tour. We had a great time together. It was great fun, that. Brilliant.
Songfacts: One of the songs that many people can really relate to in these economic times is "Things Can Only Get Better." I'll bet that you can probably sing that with just as much gusto now as you did when you first wrote it.
Howard: That's right. We're talking about the second album, now, and I'd had great success with the first one. I thought, People are listening to me, so what can I give them that is really going to help? And everyone goes through shit. Everyone goes through bad times. Every single person on the planet goes through bad times. And it's great sometimes to have somebody say to you, "Come on, even if it gets so you lose everything and everything goes horribly wrong, you can still pick yourself up and go forward, and you can make it right, you can make things get better." I'm so glad that I can stick to those sentiments now. And they're just as relevant, really. I think pop music, one of the things it should be is like a cheerleading song that helps you get through a bad time and pick you up a bit when you're feeling a bit exhausted and glub. And that's what I really wanted to do.
Songfacts: Your music, like you say, has been a cheerleader, something to pick people up. What do you turn to in music to pick you up?
Howard: That's a good question. I think if I could only have one band's music, it would be anything that Donald Fagan is involved in. His lyrics are the opposite of mine; they're dark and they're quite cynical and they're very intellectual. And yet that's the music that I just love to put on and I love what he does, and I love what Steely Dan has done. I don't play that kind of music, but I love what they do and I love the journey that you can go on with Fagan's intricate lyrics.
Songfacts: Have you ever met Donald Fagan?
Howard: No, I've met Walter, though. I've met Walter and I've spent two hours chatting with him I a studio in L.A. and I really, really got on well with him. We had a great time. But I don't know if it would be the same with Fagan, and I don't expect to meet him, but it's probably better that I don't and I just can enjoy his music.
Songfacts: Have you ever covered any of the Steely Dan songs in concert?
Howard: Yes, I covered "I.G.Y." because it was the song that I could sing and although I know Fagan's singing it in a totally ironic fashion, I could sing it in a more positive way. I could put a positive slant on it, so that's why I chose that one. And I did a really good job of it, actually. It wasn't a hit, but I was really pleased with that.
Songfacts: So you recorded it?
Songfacts: Which album is that on?
Howard: It's actually not on any of the albums. I did it as a separate project and I did it as a single. I think it's on a "Best Of," but it's probably not available in America. You have to hunt that one down. (laughing)
Songfacts: I have my homework cut out for me. Speaking of America, do you still enjoy touring?
Howard: Yes, I absolutely love it. I was just in Las Vegas ten days ago. I played a big gig there out in the street. It was Fremont Street, there were thousands of people, and it's absolutely brilliant with all that neon going on. So I love coming to America. I really like Americans and America has been my biggest country to support me through my career. I'm also very grateful to America, because they still play my records on the radio and people come and see me, and I have a debt of gratitude.
We spoke with Howard Jones on September 15, 2011. For more, browse over to howardjones.com.
More Songwriter Interviews