In recent years, electronic music pioneer Howard Jones has been focusing his energy on live shows rather than new albums. His last release, “Engage” (2015) was part of a larger crowd-funded multi-media project. But having taken a break from touring to focus on new material, Jones is back with “Transform,” his first regular album in almost a decade. “Transform” showcases Jones fully embracing his electronic roots but within a modern context. It features three collaborations with BT, whose project All Hail the Silence will be opening for Jones on his upcoming tour.
Howard Jones emerged in 1984 with “Human’s Lib,” an album featuring such hits as “New Song” and “What is Love.” At the time he took his electronic instruments on the road and toured as a one-man band, with mime artist Jed Hoile providing an additional visual component. More albums and hits such as “No One Is to Blame” and “Everlasting Love” followed. Over the years Jones has kept things interesting for himself and audiences by utilizing different types of instrumentation; at various times he’s performed with a full electronic band, an acoustic line-up, and solo piano.
Last time we talked, you mentioned how live performance has become the focus for you and that it is difficult to make the time for a new album.
Howard Jones: Yeah, well, I mean, I really did have to take off time from touring and give myself the space, because it takes me forever to make a record. It’s just like endless weeks and weeks of stuff. So I didn’t do a summer tour, and I headed down to the studio. That was a sort of direct effect. Obviously, I’m really excited now that the album is done with. We just did production rehearsals for the tour and for putting it all together for doing it live. That’s been a lot of fun. There were a lot of problems, as well, to solve.
Are you able to work on new music while touring?
Howard Jones: I have done it in the past. The whole of “Dream into Action” was written on the road because I was busy the whole time, every single day. I have to have a little studio with me backstage in the dressing room, and I wrote most of the album there. I do it when I have to if you know what I mean. I like to focus on just being, performing and getting plenty of rest and making sure my voice is in reasonable condition. BT is coming out on this tour with us for the States, and so he is definitely bringing in a little rig with him. There definitely will be things written on the road. This tour is going to be different and fun.
You’ve been doing different types of performances, such as all electronic, more acoustic, and with just piano. When you’re making an album, are you thinking about what type of live arrangements it will fit into?
Howard Jones: That’s a good question. Obviously, with this album, it is 100% electronic; it’s all programmed drums and bass, so that’s the way we’re going to play it. I’m not bringing a drummer on this tour because I program the drums, and I spent weeks on the basslines and everything like that. We play loads of stuff right over it live, and we loop stuff. They’re almost like remixes of the album, the live shows, because we can manipulate the sound a lot. So I’m thinking, “No, this is an electronic album,” and so it’s going to be an electronic band, and that’s what we’re doing.
How did you come to work with BT?
Howard Jones: I’ve been a big fan of his for many years and followed his career, and I’ve loved everything he’s done. I’ve seen him as an electronic pioneer, which I totally believe he is. We heard that he was doing this gig down in Miami with an orchestra and electronics together, which was something obviously really up my street. So we said, “Well, we have to be there. It’s a one-off gig, we have to be there.” So we went, and then he gave me a name check from the stage because he found out I was there. It was a bit embarrassing but very nice at the same time. I got to meet him afterward, after the show, and he invited me to his studio, up in Maryland. We started messing around in the studio with him on modular synths, and I said to him, “Man, you know, we really should make some records together. This is like the perfect combination.”
He’s such a fan of great music, of great electronic music of the ’80s, and I’m a huge fan of his. So we said, “Yeah,” and we actually did. We didn’t just say we’re going to do it; we actually did it. The three tracks that I did with him, I’m so happy with them, so pleased, and he brought his BT magic to them. It was the really perfect collaboration. It’s really rare for me to do that. It’s only people that I totally admire and think, “Oh, wow, this guy is like the bomb.” It worked out really well, and we ended up mixing the tracks at his place, in his amazing studio. It’s turned out well.
Was there any different with the musical technology used on this “Transform”?
Howard Jones: The technology is developing so fast. There are so many amazing young companies doing incredible things to manipulate sound. It started off with really great synth sounds and then we added another layer of manipulation on top of that. I think that’s really probably what you’re able to do that’s different now. It’s the first time you are able to get one of your old hardware synths and hook it up to the software and have an emulation of exactly what your hardware synth does in the software and to be able to do all the knobs and sliders in real time, to manipulate the sound just like you would’ve done in the early ’80s when that’s basically all you had; it was just coming out of the synth. That’s a big development. The sound-manipulation side of it has really developed.
When creating new music, are you consciously thinking of fan expectations?
Howard Jones: I knew the fans really wanted me to make another full-on synth album again. They never put pressure on me to do. They’re all so polite; they’re just brilliant. But I sort of got the idea. I was asked to do a couple of tracks for the Eddie the Eagle film. The film’s set in the ’80s, so the brief was, it’s got to feel like and have a ’80s flavor but be a contemporary song, a contemporary take on that. I wrote those really quickly, and it sort of seemed like quite a good direction for an album, so I just continued with that thinking, really. That’s where Transform came from, really.
I make my music for people. I have to feel it’s the high standard from my department, but I’m very much thinking about how people will feel and react and be emotionally moved, and that’s why you make music. So, I got some of my really close, super fans to come down to the studio and have a listen as I was nearing the ending of the album. I asked, “What do you think? Am I on the right track here? Do you think people are going to like it?” Because, contrary to popular belief, artists don’t necessarily feel 100% secure about their work at any time. But I got some great affirmation from them. They said, “Ah, this is just what the fans are dying for.” So that gave me encouragement to get it finished and put extra energy into it.
The track “Mother” reminded me about how your mom ran your fan club. And I remember meeting your parents when there were on tour with you around “Working in the Backroom.” Could you discuss the effect that their support had on your career?
Howard Jones: It’s just beyond words really because they always supported me. It goes back to the days when I was only thirteen and we were living in Canada. We moved back to the UK as a family, and I had no piano, and I said to them, “Look, I’m going to die if I don’t have a piano.” And it wasn’t far from the truth, and, bless them, they just went out. My parents were never wealthy or well off. They were always on the edge financially. But they went out the next day with me to Oxford and they bought a second-hand piano on high purchase, paying weekly for the piano. There are countless examples of that.
When things took off for me, we used to get, literally, sacks and sacks of mail every day, delivered from the post office, and I couldn’t possibly reply. So my mom set up the fan club and had a team of ladies who would reply to the fans. It was amazing because she was like this big auntie figure. When kids would write about problems they’re having in their teenage world, she would write back to them in the most compassionate way. I was being so beautifully represented by her in particular. My father was a great support as well, even to the point where fans used to come and visit them. They used to pick them up from the local station and bring them back to their house and show them family photos and have pictures taken. Honestly, it was like, how amazing is that? So, I think they had such a big input into how my career went, and my connection with the fans. People still bring letters to me that my mother wrote to them 30 years ago. It’s amazing.
For more info, tour dates and to purchase music, visit howardjones.com.