Joe Jackson

by Dan MacIntosh

Joe Jackson has a piece of advice for aspiring musicians: "Don't mutilate your foot, trying to squeeze it into Cinderella's slipper."

In other words, be yourself.

It's harder than it sounds, but Jackson boils the process down to two options: either find a genre and stick with it or become something different altogether - become a subgenre of one. He explains in his memoir, A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage:
Taking whatever bits seem appropriate from all the influences around you, you can create your own musical world. In the midst of chaos, you can create an island of order, in which everything else makes sense - at least to you. But maybe that's the best place to start.
As a teenager in Portsmouth, England, Jackson was a budding artist trying to find his identity in a mixed-bag of musical influences. He studied everything from Mozart's sonatas and Beethoven's concertos to Duke Ellington's jazz standards and Jimi Hendrix' rocking guitar solos. He didn't know it at the time, but he was creating his own island.

Decades later, it's the glimpses of chaos that have kept his fans coming back for more. Starting with his burst onto the Punk/New Wave scene of the '70s with his hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and continuing with his current Duke Ellington tribute album, Jackson has become somewhat of a question mark in the music industry.

Critics pegged him as an angry young man who would climb the charts with cutting lyrics and rebellious anthems. Wrong. Further skirting predictability, Jackson achieved his greatest commercial success with Night and Day, his 1982 album that pays tribute to Cole Porter - hardly a poster-child for the hairspray '80s. The album earned Jackson Grammy nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male for the hit single "Steppin' Out." The album also produced the hit "Breaking Us in Two."

Jackson proved he is no ordinary pop musician. His 2000 album Symphony No. 1 earned him a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Knowing what we know about Jackson now, his new Duke album is really no surprise at all.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts) Your new album is a tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, and you play the role of an arranger as opposed to a songwriter. So I'm wondering how different is it for you to switch roles and which one are you more comfortable with?

Joe Jackson: That's an interesting question, because one of the things that surprised me about this project was how little difference there was between working on this and working on any other project of mine. I kind of wear a lot of hats, anyway. Apart from writing, I'm also playing, singing, arranging, producing, band leading. So I'm doing all those things except one on this record, and instead of creating something, I'm re-creating something in a way.

But the process is always very much the same, the same kind of creative process. Don't ask me where ideas come from, because I don't know. I mean, it's a big mystery to me. But you get ideas and then you follow them and see where they lead you. Sometimes they lead you to really interesting places, sometimes they don't and you have to scrap it and start again. And I did quite a bit of that in the early stages of this project, too. But really in almost every way it was very much like making a Joe Jackson record. In fact, it is a Joe Jackson record, actually.

Songfacts: But does the inspiration for an arrangement come from the same place as, say, a song? Like, for example, you might think of something in your mind, like a melody will be going through your head and you'll think, "That sounds like something I could turn into a song." Is it the same sort of mental process with arrangements?

Joe: Yeah, I think it is. I can't really explain it, but it's just a question of using whatever ideas you've got to work with and just going with them. And putting one idea together with another. Just the same as a song might come about, for instance, like I might overhear a conversation somewhere and something that someone says sticks in my mind. I think that could be a song, or that could be the title. And wait a minute, that goes with this little melody that I've had hanging around in my head for the last six months. That kind of thing is always happening.

And I find it very much the same with these rearrangements. I might hear a certain sort of rhythm and then for some reason I would hear in my head a Duke Ellington tune going along with this particular kind of rhythm. And I would think, That's interesting. Let's use that as a starting point and then experiment and see where it goes. So I really felt that it was very much the same kind of creative process.

Songfacts: I would think working with Duke Ellington music would be like asking to rewrite the Bible in your own words. It's almost like a sacred text.

Joe: (Laughing) Yes.

Songfacts: Was that an issue for you, getting over the idea of playing with this original text, so to speak.

Joe: Yeah, that was one of the most important things was getting over that question of am I allowed to do this, is it okay for me to do this? And I think I learned that at some point it just occurred to me no matter what I did, it wasn't going to hurt Duke Ellington. I mean, he's immortal. Even if I make the worst Duke Ellington tribute ever made, it's not going to affect his reputation. So I thought, well, if I'm going to do this, I should really take it as far as I possibly can away from the original verses. Because I felt that was what I had to bring to this project.

Someone asked me recently what was it that qualified me to do this thing, which I found a bit of a daunting question. The only thing I could come up with is ironically I think it might be the fact that I'm a jazz fan and an Ellington fan, but I'm not a jazz musician. I'm coming at it from outside the jazz world, really. And just bringing to bear all of the weird, eclectic stuff that I do. And I think that I'm knowledgeable enough about jazz and about Ellington to not completely screw it up.

Songfacts: You talked about the idea of reinterpreting. Was there ever a point where you said to yourself, Man, am I going too far with this? Were there any songs that you thought you were pushing the envelope too much?

Joe: No, the opposite, actually. There were times where I thought, Am I going far enough? Is there any point in doing this if I can't take it further?

Songfacts: So you thought you were a little too conservative in some places?

Joe: Well, I was fighting that more than I was the tendency to go too far. I don't know what would be too far. I think if the original tunes, the original compositions were no longer recognizable, then I think it would be going too far. Then what's the point, really. But I do feel that out of all the many, many versions that have been done of Ellington songs, I always felt like, Why doesn't someone take it further? So I guess that turned out to be me. But I had a lot of fun doing it.

Songfacts: I'm going to put you on the spot. Today, what is your favorite song on the album?

Joe: Today?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Joe: All of them. I can't possibly pick a favorite. That's like saying which is your favorite child or something.

Songfacts: Okay.

Joe: You'll never get me to answer that question. (Laughs)

Songfacts: Okay. Let me put it a different way. Which track did you have the most fun working on and why?

Joe: The whole thing was a lot of fun, really. Maybe "It Don't Mean a Thing (If I Ain't Got that Swing)" for various reasons. Working with Zuco 103 in their studio and that was a lot of fun. And then getting Iggy Pop on it, as well. And also "Caravan" was great fun. There's just so much going on in there.

There were many, many great moments in this recording. Working with Sharon Jones was fun. The string quartet was a really enjoyable session, too. So yeah, I don't want to really play that game. You're welcome to pick your favorite. (Laughs)

Songfacts: Well, I have two comments on what you just said. Number one, there is no one more fun to watch perform than Sharon Jones. She's is just in charge. Is she like that in the studio?

Joe: Yeah. It went very, very well. I'm very grateful to her, actually, because it was the last thing we did, the last recording we did with her. She kind of came in at the last minute and saved the day. She wasn't my first choice for that song. I'm not going to say who the first choice was, but it didn't work out very well. But I wish I'd gone straight to Sharon first.

Songfacts: And the other comment I wanted to make was I think Iggy Pop is underrated as a vocalist. He's a good singer.

Joe: Yeah. I don't know. I keep hearing strange things about what he's been doing lately. Apparently he's recorded "La Vie en Rose" or a bunch of French songs, something which I can't quite imagine. I haven't heard it yet, so I don't know. But he's a cool guy. He's a smarter guy than people realize, for sure.

Songfacts: I think so. He's got that reputation of being sort of the wild man.

Joe: Yeah. People think he's like a werewolf or something. He's a pretty smart, cool guy.

Songfacts: Since this is for Songfacts and we talk about songs and songwriting, I hope you don't mind if we talk about a few of your songs. I just have a few questions about them.

Joe: Yeah.

Songfacts: The first one is one of your bigger hits, "Is She Really Going out With Him?" Was there a specific couple? I always wondered.

Joe: Now, that is just one of those songs that started with the title. I heard that phrase somewhere and I thought that could be a kind of funny song about gorgeous girls going out with monsters. It just started from there. It was just a funny song, or supposed to be funny. It was a great surprise to me when some people interpreted it as being angry.

Songfacts: Well, you were kind of lumped in with that angry young man thing, which I don't think ever fit.

Joe: You know, people totally missed the humor mostly. And that's still a problem today, actually.

Songfacts: Well, your voice over the phone sounds a lot gentler than I expected. Your reputation does precede you.

Joe: I don't know. People see what they want to see sometimes.

Songfacts: Yeah. Do you ever have couples that come up to you and think that that song was about them? People you know?

Joe: I don't think that's happened, no. Certainly have had people that told me they could relate to it. I'm pretty sure they were all guys. (Laughing)

Songfacts: I want to ask about another song. Where did you get the title, "It's Different for Girls"?

Joe: It was something that I heard somewhere that struck me as a cliché. The sort of thing that someone might say. And again, I thought, What could that be about? And that maybe the idea was to turn it on its head and have a conversation between a man and a woman and what you'd expect to be the typical roles are reversed. So that was the idea of that.

Songfacts: There's one song, and I'm dating myself here by giving you the story behind it. But I was in a Tower Records, and this was many years ago. They were playing one of your albums, and you have a song, I'm not sure of the specific title, but it talks about how everything gives you cancer.

Joe: Yeah, yeah. Cancer. It's called "Cancer." It's on Night and Day.

Songfacts: And I just thought, man, what a smart song. I had heard a lot of your stuff, but when I heard that, I thought, there's something I've never heard before. Tell me about writing that song. Was it a news report, another one of those health reports that got you going?

Joe: Yeah. Probably. I don't remember exactly. I have to say I'm not giving myself too much credit here. But I think I was kind of ahead of my time with that song. Because what I saw was a trend was starting then, and it's really become relentless now. Just a totally paranoid, fearful way of looking at health and risk and pleasure and so on. I think that song's more relevant now than it was then.

Songfacts: I read the paper, and it's like one day they say coffee's actually good for you in many ways, and then the next day, they suspect that coffee/caffeine causes problems. I can't decide what to do.

Joe: Yeah, I know. I think everyone feels like that. Most of what you hear in the media about what's good and bad for you is bullshit. I'm absolutely convinced of that. And if you actually delve into it a bit, do a little research, you see that the stuff that passes as science and news reports and so on is so unscientific. It's actually ridiculous. And it's not doing anyone any good. It's just making everyone more paranoid and stressed.

Songfacts: That's a good word for it. We are paranoid over our health.

Joe: Yeah. It's a really weird thing that I've seen happen during my lifetime. We've gone from being quite a sort of hedonistic society in some ways to a very strangely uptight and puritanical one more and more. That's one of the reasons I'm living in Berlin, is because it's a lot less like that than New York is or London is, for that matter.

Songfacts: The latest thing I read about in New York was that they were going to restrict the size of sodas that you can sell. Did you hear about that one?

Joe: Yeah. They're going to ban, is it 16 ounce sodas?

Songfacts: Something like that.

Joe: But you'll still be able to buy two 8 ounce sodas, I guess. I mean, it's just ridiculous. And nothing that Bloomberg does surprises me anymore. He's got to go.

Songfacts: Well, I read that somebody said that he wanted to ease the restrictions on marijuana, but he wanted to restrict soda. And I'm thinking, what kind of a message does that send?

Joe: Yeah. It's just ridiculous.

Songfacts: Well, you were talking about how "Cancer" was kind of ahead of its time. I think "Sunday Papers," kind of prophetic, especially with the Murdock thing. Does it make you feel kind of good in a sense that you were a little bit ahead of the curve with that one?

Joe: I don't know that I was. I think that what applied now applied then. I think that some of the worst people just got busted, that's all. All that stuff with the News of the World, I think it was business as usual.

Songfacts: I've never spent time in the UK, but it seems like the newspapers over there, it's hard to tell the difference between sensationalist papers and newspapers. Whereas here there seems to be more of a distinction. Is that a correct perception?

Joe: I think in certain cases it is. There are certain publications in the UK that have gone down market, that have gotten trashier. And there are some that are still at least trying to maintain a certain dignity. But yeah, I'm not a big fan of the UK media in general.

Songfacts: I found out that you've worked on quite a number of soundtracks, including Tucker, which was one of my favorite movies.

Joe: Yeah, I really like that movie. And I think it's very underrated, actually.

Songfacts: A great film. Is that something that you would like to do more of, soundtracks?

Joe: If it's the right project, yeah. Because I've had both good and bad experiences working on films. It's all about the relationship between the composer and the director. I think if that's good, then it can be a good experience. But otherwise... I mean, the last film score I worked on, I actually quit, because I just couldn't handle all the studio politics and being nitpicked to death by a committee of eight different people. I just couldn't deal with it. So it really depends on what the project is and who the director is and how we get along.

Songfacts: I always think of you as kind of having sort of a cinematic scope. You sort of have a bigger picture view.

Joe: Yeah. I'm a big picture kind of guy. That's one of the reasons I relate to Ellington, actually. That's one of the reasons he's kind of a role model for me. It's not about being good at one specific thing. It's about having the vision of the whole thing.

Songfacts: And he definitely had that. Tell me, now that you've completed the Ellington thing, you must be itching to record some of your own songs. Do you have something in the works?

Joe: No. The thing is, I'm going to be touring with this. So the next thing on the agenda is working out the arrangements for the live show and rehearsing the band.

Songfacts: How big of a band are you going to take with you?

Joe: There will be seven of us, including Regina Carter, who's on the album. That's really exciting. I actually didn't think she would do it, but she wants to do it. It's really going to be a great band and it'll be a lot of fun. The last few years I've been touring just with a trio, or as part of a trio, which has been great in a different way. But this will be really fun to have a bigger band again. I won't make any money, but it'll be fun, anyway.

Songfacts: Are you going to play any jazz festivals?

Joe: I think we're doing one in Europe. Most of those are in the summer and we decided not to tour this summer, at least in Europe, because of the soccer thing that's going on now and then the Olympics. So we're doing the Rome Jazz Festival, I believe in October or something. But maybe next year, if all goes well. Maybe we can do some festivals next year. We'll see.

We spoke with Joe Jackson on June 25, 2012. Get more at
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 13

  • Bart Miller from ChicagoWhen he wrote "Steppin' Out", did he then become "Shoeless Joe" Jackson? Cue the tomatoes.
  • Lizrios077 from El Paso TexasI think Joe Jackson is quite a unique soul.There's nothing fake about this man.
  • Jj Fan from UsaJoe: Yeah, yeah. Cancer. It's called "Cancer." It's on Night and Day.

    Only his best-selling album. Great job researching a legendary musician, Mr. Interviewer.
  • Morphindel from UkJoe is my uncle. Such a great musician and I really aspire to him. Its a shame we've never been close as he is very shy and a little grumpy
  • Dave from Vancouver BcOne of my all time favourite concerts: I saw him live in 1986 at Expo Theatre during Expo 86 in Vancouver. Three hours of terrific entertainment. During one of his big hits [probably Breaking us in Two?] the audience started raggedly clapping along with 40% of them clapping on the downbeat and 20% clapping on the up beat. He lasted about 30 seconds before slamming his hands down on the keyboard and shouting into the mike: "Clap in time if you're going to clap!!" This was followed by wild applause from the rest of us. A few seconds after the applause died down he started the song over again. The audience refrained from clapping along and we all enjoyed listening to this great artist perform. Perhaps his prickly reputation was deserved, but in this instance it was awesome and appreciated by the many of us that were there to hear him perform rather than listen to people around us singing tunelessly along.
  • Rich from NycNever knew Mr. Jackson lived in nyc for so many years. Would have loved to meet him in person and thank him for sharing his immense talent with the world.
  • Dana from Woodbury, MnI've been a huge fan of his since I was eight years old in 1979, when "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" came out. Underrated when it comes to popular music. I like his biting social commentary on different songs, particularly "T.V. Age".
  • Radioman970 from GaI was hoping Sunday Paper would be mentioned. Love that!

    Always good to know a class act like Jackson is still out there doing stuff. I don't think I've ever read an interview with him. He really has a terrific attitude.
  • Karen G. Kotakthis guy was fabulous as I recall many moons ago...and I'm glad he's still alive and kicking
  • Sniffy from Boston, MaJoe deserves better treatment than this. But I have grown to accept, after listening to him for more than 30 years, that the general public will not get him, which is totally fine by me. As long as he continues to create great music, then I really don't care the Dan wasn't prepared nearly enough for this interview, I only care that Joe continues to gift us with his art.
  • Gerard Pin from FranceSorry guys, but I think most of the questions in this interview are of very little importance, if not rather irrelevant sometimes. Why, if you take the whole history of pop music, there aren't that many singers-songwriters that have written outstanding lyrics - I mean more than just one or two songs - and Jackson happens to be one of them! So I really believe the man should have been invited to comment or give some hints about the best of them, and that means about a dozen tracks with lyrics of far greater quality than "Cancer" - that one could have been penned by millions of adults or even schoolkids.
  • Keith from Buffalo ,nygood interview, but the man has more material beyond 1981, how about material off of Big World, Laughter & Lust, Night Music, etc.?? Do some research!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaAnother great interview! My only real complaint was that it was too short. MY favorite Jackson tune is "Friday". Kinda wished you could have asked him about that one.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & PalmerSongwriter Interviews

Greg talks about writing songs of "universal truth" for King Crimson and ELP, and tells us about his most memorable stage moment (it involves fireworks).

David Bowie Lyrics Quiz

David Bowie Lyrics QuizMusic Quiz

How well do you know your David Bowie lyrics? Take this quiz to find out.

Sarah Brightman

Sarah BrightmanSongwriter Interviews

One of the most popular classical vocalists in the land is lining up a trip to space, which is the inspiration for many of her songs.

Linda Perry

Linda PerrySongwriter Interviews

Songwriting Hall of Famer Linda Perry talks about her songs "What's Up" and "Beautiful," her songwriting process, and her move into film music.

Graham Bonnet (Alcatrazz, Rainbow)

Graham Bonnet (Alcatrazz, Rainbow)Songwriter Interviews

Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai were two of Graham's co-writers for some '80s rock classics.

Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins

Tom Bailey of Thompson TwinsSongwriter Interviews

Tom stopped performing Thompson Twins songs in 1987, in part because of their personal nature: "Hold Me Now" came after an argument with his bandmate/girlfriend Alannah Currie.