Howard Jones | The Art of Dreaming into Action

“Nobody can be free of problems, but it’s all in how you deal with it and learn from it.”


He seemed to be a near-constant presence on MTV, the blonde Englishman with the soothing voice and the maker of unbelievably melodic synth pop, bopping around in videos with his mime friend, Jed Hoile. Whether he was on the Grammys jamming with Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder, and Herbie Hancock, or harmonizing in the studio with Phil Collins, Howard Jones was one of the artists kids instantly gravitated toward when adolescent drama threatened to chase the sun from an ever-darkening sky. If you were a high-schooler anytime during the 1980s to early ’90s, and in close proximity to a radio or a Walkman, chances are Jones supplied the sonic Vitamin D your heavily burdened teenage soul desperately craved.

Now, over 30 years into his career, Jones is getting ready to embark on a North American tour that kicks off May 25 in Stratford, Ontario, and ends up at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles July 24. A good chunk of the tour will find him on the road with Barenaked Ladies and his old friends in Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark.

“I opened for OMD back in ’84 on a couple of dates,” Jones tells me by phone from his home in the U.K. “I’ve known [Andy McCluskey] and Paul [Humphreys] from OMD since that time. It’s very exciting. I was always a big fan, and I get along really great with them. I saw Andy recently, and we’re both excited about touring across America this summer.”

Hard as it is to believe, the upcoming 44-date tour will be Jones’ longest jaunt ever. “I love being at home, taking the time to think of new musical ideas, and writing songs. But at a certain point, I get anxious, and I have to get out of the house and play music for people!”

Whether the parameters were self-imposed or dictated by market demands, not every artist from the Friday Night Videos era has been able to successfully evolve their signature sound into the 21st century. Jones, a synth pioneer with 15 Top 40 singles to his name, has managed to do just that: release albums his fans have picked up; even if it’s only the older tracks still riding the airwaves.

Last year, the musician put out a brand new album, Engage, replete with all the positive lyrics and sharply crafted melodies that first endeared him to audiences. Old fans looking for a nostalgia trip, however, may be surprised to hear that the music itself more than holds its ground in the here and now.

howard-jones-2l50“When I did Engage, I wanted to give myself a chance to do something different,” Jones recalls. “I thought of it as a live show, as opposed to a 10-track album with four-minute songs.” The album, the result of a Pledge Music campaign, had its conceptual roots in all of the creative passions he’s gathered over the years. “The idea was to include different art forms, and put them together,” he says. “It had influences of film music, electronic pop that I love, even philosophy. I really didn’t know how I would do it, but it came together really well.”

Sounding like a guy who clearly has no interest in stamping his passport to Retirementville, Jones says he is already making plans for more records. “There are three more albums that I’ll be doing, and it’s sort of ambitious, but it’ll be geared toward pulling in all of those musical and nonmusical influences that mean so much to me.”

Besides the large venues Jones will be playing this summer, he’ll also be sprinkling in a few intimate headline shows at smaller clubs. St. Louis is one of the lucky cities that will be able to experience this, and Jones is as thrilled as his fans. “It must have been decades since I’ve been in St. Louis,” he says excitedly. “I’m really looking forward to the date, because I’ll be playing my full set. I’m playing things from Human’s Lib, all the U.S. hits, and some things off Engage. I’ll also be playing a song I contributed to the Eddie the Eagle soundtrack, and an extended version of “Hide and Seek” in the acoustic section of the show, much like the one I did at Live Aid.”

After allowing myself the luxury of slipping through a YouTube rabbit hole to check out some of his recent live work, I tell Jones how impressed I was that he still manages to maintain a palpable energy, coming out from behind his keyboard and engaging the audience. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he notes. “When I started out, I was a one-man band, and early on I realized that the best way to put across the songs is to really reach out to the audience directly.”

According to Jones, part of keeping the energy up is simply being surrounded by a good group of people. “Touring now is more enjoyable,” he says. “I have a great team around me that I’ve picked up over the years. They make everything really easy and comfortable so I can focus on playing music. When I started out, things were a bit more thrown together, as they say”

Like many longtime artists, Jones has gone the independent route, no longer requiring the need for label support—or the label intrusions that inevitably follow. “I’ve been an indie artist, really, since the beginning of the ’90s,” he explains. “It’s nice, because I can set my own agenda. I just make sure I keep writing material that keeps the band interested. I also don’t have to have a label telling me, ‘You have to do this,’ or ‘You have to do that.’ Plus, back when I first started, we didn’t have a way to really communicate with fans like we do now with the internet.”

Being an independent artist is also what led to his involvement with Featured Artists Coalition, an organization that assists artists in navigating the increasingly complex world of the music business. “I don’t put as much time into it as I would like,” Jones says. “What we do is help guide people, including many new artists, through the music business, so they can hopefully make music full time. The industry has changed so much, so it’s important to have people who can help them through it.”

Guiding new artists has always been a passion for Jones, so I ask about any contemporary musicians he enjoys. “I’m working with a young jazz artist named Jumaane Smith, who plays trumpet for Michael Bublé. He reminds me of Miles Davis. I think I prefer working with new, up-and-coming artists than I do big, established names. I enjoy helping them get going in the business.”

Jones is no stranger to the concept of giving, an essential ingredient of his everyday existence. “I’ve been practicing Buddhism for 23 years, and it’s a big part of my life,” he relates. “It’s really affected my perspective, how I look at the world. I learned that happiness doesn’t come from not having problems. Nobody can be free of problems, but it’s all in how you deal with it and learn from it. It’s about knowing how to create value from [problems]. It taught me to respect people, and to treasure others.”

howard-jones-tourOne fellow artist Jones treasured deeply was the late Keith Emerson, who was one of his biggest influences. When I ask Jones if he was ever in a band that played progressive music like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, I was surprised to hear that he was. “Yes! I was in a progressive band,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I was a huge fan of Keith Emerson, and had always felt a huge connection with him. I had formed a band at school, and I played a borroelectric organ and a piano. We made a hell of a racket. We had 20-minute songs, but I eventually realized I wanted to say something with them, so I started focusing more on songwriting.”

Jones took his fandom to the next level when he found himself playing alongside Greg Lake in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band in 2001. “Because I was such a fan, to be able to play ‘Karn Evil 9’ with Greg Lake and Sheila E., and to be able to play something so difficult, it was kind of a tribute to Keith. He came to my house one time, and we got to spend some time talking about music. I’m still reeling from his death; it’s such a loss.”

Of course, now that I brought up his time in Ringo Starr’s band, I have to ask what it was like working with a real Beatle. “I have a lot of affection for him,” Jones says earnestly. “He’s so open with how he’s feeling, and he always had great Beatles stories. He told me he always had me turned up in his monitor; he’s a big fan of keyboards. I was glad he wanted to hear me so loudly in the mix!”

Of course, Ringo wasn’t the only Beatle who had an impact on Jones and his music. I was curious if anyone had the ability to lift his spirits with music, just as his own songs did for so many others, and his answer was surprising. “It’s more about people who influenced me in a more philosophical way: I’d have to say John Lennon. Even though he had a cynical side, you listen to songs like ‘Imagine,’ ‘Woman,’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ and they’re wonderful, positive statements. I thought, this is the sort of message I would like to convey.” | Jim Ousley

Howard Jones’ 2016 Spring/Summer North American tour dates are below. Visit his website for more information.

05.25 | Masonic Hall, Stratford ON
05.26 | Woodbine Casino & Raceway, Toronto, ON
05.27 | Empire Theatre, Belleville ON
05.28 | Daryl’s House, Pawling NY
05.29 | Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry NH
06.01 | Old Rock House, St. Louis
06.03 | The Cabooze, Minneapolis
06.04 | Starlight Theatre, Kansas City
06.05 | Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver
06.08 | Rose Music Center at the Heights, Huber Heights OH
06.09 | The Pavilion at Ravinia Park, Highland Park IL
06.10 | DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston MI
06.11 | Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, Cleveland
06.13 | Rumsey Playfield/Central Park, New York
06.14 | Artpark Amphitheater, Lewiston NY
06.15 | Filene Center at Wolf Trap, Vienna VA
06.17 | Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Bethel NY
06.18 | Mann Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia
06.19 | Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston
06.20 | Stage AE, Pittsburgh
06.22 | House of Independents, Asbury Park
06.24 | Maine State Pier, Portland ME
06.25 | Toyota Oakdale Theatre, Wallingford CT
06.26 | Pier Six Pavilion, Baltimore
06.28 | Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, Alpharetta GA
06.29 | Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre, Charlotte NC
07.01 | Volvo Cars Stadium, Charleston SC
07.02 | St. Augustine Amphitheatre, St. Augustine FL
07.03 | Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh NC
07.05 | Ascend Amphitheater, Nashville
07.06 | PNC Pavilion at Riverbend, Cincinnati
07.08 | Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park, Indianapolis
07.09 | Henry Maier Festival Park, Summerfest, Milwaukee
07.12 | Hawks Memorial Stadium, Boise
07.13 | UT Red Butte Garden, Salt Lake City
07.15 | Big Sky Brewing Company, Missoula
07.16 | King County’s Marymoor Park, Richmond WA
07.17 | McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheater, Troutdale OR
07.19 | The Mountain Winery, Saratoga CA
07.20 | Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre, San Diego
07.22 | Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, Las Vegas
07.23 | Outdoor Amphitheater at Thunder Valley, Lincoln CA
07.24 | Greek Theatre, Los Angeles

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