A powerful voice, dynamic piano-playing and an unyielding commitment to songcraft are the hallmarks of Joe Jackson’s eventful 30-year career. On the eve of his first studio album release in five years, he spoke to David Davies about his musical “foundation”, the need for a retreat amidst a world gone mad, and the pleasures and pitfalls of the theatre world
Having been thrown rather crudely into the New Wave media catch-all upon his emergence with Look Sharp! in 1979, Joe Jackson has gone on to a career of almost unprecedented diversity. Swing (Jumpin’ Jive), elegant jazz-pop (Night & Day), classical composition (Symphony No. 1) and minimalist dream-pop (the hugely underrated Night Music) have all entered his orbit during a three-decade career that has also provided the opportunity to pen film scores (Tucker) and an absorbing memoir of his early musical life (A Cure For Gravity).
Most recently, he reunited the original Joe Jackson Band for a strong album of new material, Volume 4 (2003), and an accompanying tour. The years since have been occupied by work on a musical theatre piece (more of which anon), campaigning activity against public smoking bans (check out the exhaustively-researched article on his official website), relocation to Berlin after more than 20 years spent primarily in New York, and the writing and recording of what by TM-Online’s reckoning is Joe’s 15th studio, non-soundtrack album. Entitled Rain, the 10-ten track set features long-term cohorts Graham Maby (bass) and Dave Houghton (drums) – both of whom were members of the original JJ Band – and an immediate, dynamic sound that puts the emphasis firmly on Joe’s voice and piano.
“I’ve become interested in writing songs that are so strong there is no way to fuck them up,” says Jackson of the album’s back-to-basics approach. “A lot of these songs can be done with just a piano, so adding bass and drums makes them sound really big to me.”
Rain’s ten robust songs – fertile in melody, unexpected tangents and brain-bristling lyrical imagery – were the result of a protracted writing process. “I’ve become a lot more patient,” says Jackson. “In the early days I was like a younger writer without an editor. I’ve gradually become my own editor in recent years, and a pretty tough one at that.”
Lyrically, Jackson is characteristically acute, whether he be addressing the pitfalls of pre-packaged fame (‘Good Bad Boy’), the potential of a single moment to alter the course of a life (‘Rush Across the Road’) or the need for a retreat as “the temperature rises” and all manner of global calamity unfurls (final track ‘A Place in the Rain’). “It’s about wanting to escape from all the crap in the world that drives you crazy and go to some special place, maybe with just one other person – a lover,” says Jackson of a song that ends the album with a cluster of gorgeous chords and the sound of rainfall. “It might be an imaginary place, somewhere in your mind. I also like the idea of a place in the rain rather than a place in the sun.”
The need to retreat from inhospitable surroundings has clearly been on Jackson’s mind a great deal lately. “There were various reasons why I left New York, but it was mostly to do with the fact that the city changed a lot,” he says. “I was there on 9/11 and the week or so after that was absolutely terrifying… There was a huge question of where the city was going to go and what direction it was going to take. [Unfortunately] it went in the opposite direction to what I would have hoped for and has really lost a lot of its soul. But it has still got some great things about it and in fact I seem to keep going back… It’s like in The Godfather Part III where Al Pacino is trying to get out of the Mafia way of life – ‘they keep dragging me back in!’”
Having committed Rain to 24-track in Berlin’s Planet Roc studios on the back of a six-week tour (“we were really smoking!”), Jackson is now looking forward to hitting the road again in the company of his two long-serving colleagues. “Graham and Dave are old friends and I love working with them,” he says. “They really haven’t changed since I’ve known them – they are incredibly consistent – and as I continue to evolve and experiment and do different things, they are like a solid foundation.”
In addition to a European/US tour scheduled to run ‘til mid-May, Jackson is also trying to arrange financial backing for a theatre piece based on the life of Dracula author Bram Stoker. “When you see the kind of logistical challenges involved and see how much it all costs, it is amazing that anything ever gets produced,” he marvels. “But we’re hoping for the best – there seems to be a lot of interest in it. The piece is set in 1897 so I have tried to create a style which sounds like it could have happened in 1897. Some characters sing and some don’t, although never in that horrible Broadway style – they sing in their own natural voices. It is hard to describe… it might all sound like a load of bollocks! I think it is a great piece, though, and am hoping that it might get staged next autumn.”
Joe Jackson’s new album, Rain, will be released by Rykodisc on 28th January and followed by a concert at London Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Sunday 2nd March. See Joe’s website for more information.