Synth pioneer Howard Jones launched the multi-media project ENGAGE in 2015, and now he has released the third electronic album from the series, DIALOGUE. Thematically, the album focuses on the importance of communication, and being in lockdown afforded Jones the ability to be more experimental on the musical side. Longtime collaborator Robbie Bronniman once again worked with Jones on production and additional programming.
Emerging with “New Song” in 1983, Jones released his first album, Human’s Lib in 1984. That album also spawned the hit “What Is Love?” Performing as a one-man electronic band, his live shows were highly unique for the time. He went on to have such memorable songs as “Things Can Only Get Better,” “No One Is To Blame” and “Everlasting Love.” Over the years, he has varied his approach to performances, including tours with an electronic band, acoustic trio, and solo. He recently wrapped up an electronic band tour where he shared the bill with Midge Ure.
In the following interview, Jones talks about the new album, his early career, the legacy of ‘80s music, and more.
You’ve been putting out a series of singles prior to the album. Did this seem to be the obvious way to release this new music? Also, how might your attitude towards singles have changed since earlier in your career, when airplay and physical releases played a greater role?
Howard Jones: Well, I think you can make up your own rules now about what you release and at what time. My thought was that by releasing four singles before the album actually officially comes out, it gives people a chance to really listen to them. If you just drop an album, it’s possible that people will just listen to the first few tracks, thinking that those are the only ones that are going to be any good, and not give the rest of the album any time. So I was thinking of just giving people around four minutes of music to listen to every four weeks, so that they can really get immersed in the songs. It really didn’t matter to me very much which singles were released. I could have done any of the tracks. It was just enough to give people a great flavor of what the entire album was going to be. So it was mainly to give people a chance to listen to them properly, without rapidly moving on to the next one.
Either with this album or past releases, has feedback on singles ever influenced the final album?
Howard Jones: No. I mean, I think this one is the only one where you’ve been able to have accurate feedback, because you can see the streams that each single is receiving. And I must say they’ve all been really equal. There’s been no sort of outstanding one, and certainly with the first three, there’s been no sort of outstanding winner of them all. They’ve all done almost exactly the same numbers. But it wouldn’t influence the album in any way.
This album is being referred to as the third in a series. Could you speak about that a bit, about how it fits in?
Howard Jones: Yeah, well, when I said that I wanted to do a series of albums, I wanted to commit to them. So I made sure that I did them. If you make a promise to the fans, you’re going to do it, you’ve got to stick to it. It’s a big deal for me to keep their trust and to keep them interested. So I thought, well, it’s a massive effort to make an album. It takes months and months and a huge amount of time and effort. And you know, it’s not like the eighties when we were all selling millions of albums. It’s a very different scene now. But I wanted to keep the quality as high as possible. So making a commitment to do it really has been good for me.
There’s one more to go, which is Global Citizen, which I will do next year. So I will have completed what I said. There’s a theme to them, to the four albums. Engage was ‘don’t be a bystander.’ If there’s something you want to change in the world, then stand up and commit to it. Don’t just be somebody who stands on the sidelines. Then the second album, Transform, was if we want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves and change the way that we treat others and how we look after ourselves. That inner change is so important. And then third, this one, Dialogue, is about how it’s so important for us to speak to each other, and how silence is such a destructive thing. And it leads to people falling apart, so it’s really important to be talking to each other, communicating. And even if we have different ideas about things, we can still find the things that we have in common and really latch onto those. And then Global Citizen will be next year. That will be about tying all those in together, realizing that we are all connected and that everything we do affects everything else. Nobody is unimportant in this, and everyone has something to contribute. So that was the thinking behind it.
Given that it was conceived as a series, has there been any overlap? Have you come up with ideas while making one album that were put aside for the future? How are they linked in terms of the overall creative process?
Howard Jones: The themes inform the lyrics and are always at the back of my mind. It’s been really good because I knew I was going to be doing Dialogue about six years ago. So that was ticking along in my mind about what lyrical themes I would use for the album. It has been very good for me to actually set this target for myself.
Could you discuss the actual making of the album a bit? Were you affected by the lockdown? What was the time frame like?
Howard Jones: Dialogue was completely written during the pandemic, so I was locked away in the studio. I mean, I would go down to the supermarket to do the shopping for the family, but like everyone else, I was deprived of contact with other people and having this sort of nervousness about going out at all, with the masks and getting vaccinated and all that stuff. So I had loads of time to experiment and loads of time to work on things, which was a luxury for me, because I’m normally so busy touring and doing everything. I don’t really have the time to give to experimentation, trying things out. But I had plenty of that, but I didn’t wanna write lyrics because I thought the lyrics were going to be downbeat when I really want them to be upbeat. And so I waited until things started to improve and we could see our way out of this. And then I wrote the lyrics in a very spontaneous, crazy rush. That came right at the end of the process. I think that worked out well. I wanted to write songs that were really encouraging and upbeat and hopeful about the future.
You mentioned having more time to experiment. How do you think that impacted what we hear on the final album?
Howard Jones: Because when I was on my own, I couldn’t involve anyone else in the process. So, it was me and my synth collection and my software and really sort of getting into the synth world. I really enjoyed it. It was just such fun to do. And I would spend sometimes three days just on one sound to be able to make it something special. And that’s what I think was the great thing about having all that time. You could really pursue something to make it the best it possibly could be and really make the sounds outstanding. Because I mean, anybody who’s got a laptop now can have access to all kinds of sounds. So, if you want to do anything a bit special, you gotta put the time in. And so, I had plenty of time to do just that. That was a real benefit, you know? I didn’t use the piano at all; I only used the synths and the synth sounds. I often go to the piano to get chord progressions and stuff like that. I didn’t do any of that this time. I didn’t even know what chords I was using. I was just going purely by instinct and sound. So that’s why it sounds a little bit different compared to what I’ve done before.
Did that present any challenges in adapting the music for live performances?
Howard Jones: We did three songs live on the tour we’ve just done. They translated really well, actually, because we’re working in the electronic realm. The only thing that I change is I usually strip things out for live performances because that works better. When you take things out, it all sounds bigger. Some of the detail that would be on a record is not necessary. So that’s what we did. We just stripped things to the bare bones of the track so that it has a more powerful impact when it’s nice and loud.
At this point, we’ve gone through several resurgences of interest in music that emerged in the eighties. Based on your own impressions while interacting with fans, does anything stand out to you in terms of perceptions from people who have discovered your music at different points over the years?
Howard Jones: At the moment, we are seeing a lot of young people really getting into sounds that we started with in the eighties. Just thinking about Stranger Things, it has a completely electronic soundtrack, and a lot of young people will not have necessarily heard a lot of that before, and they are hearing it and they’re really liking it. And I’ve got one of my songs in season three [‘Things Can Only Get Better’] and recently when season four came out, that song went absolutely insane on the streaming services…like literally went through the roof, the sort of Kate Bush effect. I was thinking, “Wow, you know, all these young people are discovering this music for the first time. It’s just very exciting.” I think it sort of feels like a bit of affirmation, really, for that period of time, because the eighties, for a long time, were dismissed by snobby people or people who just could only listen to rock and roll. Because we were doing something different. It feels like it’s come full circle, and people are really going, “Oh yeah, actually, that was really quite cool, that era.” So it’s nice, but whether that happened or not, I’d still be doing what I’m doing.
Looking back, what was your initial inspiration for getting into electronic music?
Howard Jones: I was playing piano since the age of seven. So anything with keys on it, I was so excited about. When I was really young, I used to go into my local electronic organ showroom on a Saturday afternoon and pester them to play the Hammond organs they had in there. And they kindly let me mess about on them. When I was at school, well, the equivalent of high school, in one of the first bands I was in, the drummer made me a synthesizer from a kit that he got in an electronics magazine. So I had a one oscillator synthesizer in that band, which was amazing. And then I saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 when I was really young. I shouldn’t have been there. And he played the big Moog modular, and it was a mind-blowing sound. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta be part of this.’ So it’s just anything that made a new original, different sound really attracted me, big time. I guess it’s anything with keys that makes interesting sounds. And then I had this idea for a one-man electronic show using sequencers and drum machines and playing stuff with the basses of my left hand and lead lines with my right. And I thought, I don’t think anybody’s done this before. This could be really exciting for people to come and see and hear. I emerged at the right time, really.
So, did it surprise you that nobody else was doing it like that? Did it seem to you like an obvious thing to be doing with the technology?
Howard Jones: No, it didn’t seem obvious. I mean, the reason I did it was because I didn’t really know any musicians at the time that I could form a band with. And I thought, well, what am I gonna do? Somebody lent me a really primitive drum machine, and I started messing with it and playing along with it. And then I got a synthesizer, a cheap one, in London, and by mistake, they sent me another one, which I did pay for. But I had this idea, ‘Oh yeah, maybe I could play bass with the left hand. And so, it all was coming my way. And I thought, ‘Oh, I think this may be a very original thing to do.‘ So I thought I will have a new angle on electronic music if I do this. So that’s what I did.
Are there particular things you learned from that early experience that had a major impact on your overall career?
Howard Jones: As I was developing this idea, I was playing lots of shows. So I was working on stuff in any spare time I had, because I had lots of jobs to try and get money in. And any spare time would be spent working on new material. And then in the evening, I’d be going out and playing shows and as a one-man band, with equipment that was very primitive compared to what’s available. Now, there were lots of gaps, where I had to reprogram things and reset dials. So I had to get really good at talking to the audience in the gaps whilst I was doing stuff. And so I think that really helped me develop that side. Because I wasn’t a naturally gregarious person, I had to develop that side of communication with the audience and tell them what was going on and say funny stories and stuff like that. That really stood me in good for my career because I think that communication is so important.