As he was approaching a milestone birthday on Feb. 23 of this year, synth-pop king Howard Jones decided to make a grand creative statement. It would involve a lot of behind-the-scenes help that would enable him to bring together various artistic disciplines into one piece. And in the process, he’d turn to his loyal fan base to help fund the whole thing. The end result was Engage, which made its London premiere at Indigo at London’s O2 arena on Feb. 20.
“[Engage] was really about setting myself a challenge to do something that I’d never done before. I really didn’t want to do just another studio album. I wanted to be a bit more ambitious than that because it’s coming up to my sixtieth birthday and I thought it was really important to give it a really good go,” Jones explained from a tour stop in Nashville. “What I should do is all the different kinds of art forms that I really like. Things like contemporary dance, ballet, electronic music, cinema, classical music—all the things that I love I wanted to bring together into one piece. Obviously I needed a team of people to work with. I couldn’t do it all on my own. That was really a lot of the fun of it—pulling it all together.”
While most people know Jones for bubbly alt-pop like “New Song” and “Life In One Day,” Engage is a multi-sensory experience reminiscent of multi-media live experiences like Fuerza Bruta, Cirque du Soleil and any number of electronic music festivals where strobe lights and pulsing music are very much a part of the live entertainment canvas. The UK native upped the ante by launching a free smart phone app that includes an exclusive new track “Human Touch” available only to those who download the app. Audience members are also invited to wear customized clothing and fluorescent makeup as a means of participating. Jones also incorporates contemporary dancers into the mix while also projecting quotes from people he admires, including Albert Einstein and Japanese peace philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, throughout the show. As someone who has practiced Buddhism for more than 20 years and who readily admits its importance in his life, Jones feels the message he’s trying to get across is as important as how he’s doing it.
“I’ve always been motivated by wanting to get across a positive message to people and that’s right from day one. So that’s a big element as well. It’s turned out really well and what’s been great is that my audience has really supported it and really loved it,” he said. “They’re kind of used to me doing different things. But I thought I was challenging them one step further this time [laughs]. But they actually really loved it so I’m really encouraged to keep going.”
This fan support carried through the PledgeMusic fund, which started in October and wrapped up around the release of the project five months later. During this time, Jones wound up taking an old-school approach to stoke the flames of his fans’ devotion. Not unlike how musicians would be commissioned to create pieces for wealthy benefactors during the Renaissance, the Welsh keyboardist came up with different ways to interact with fans who were laying down money to help him achieve his project. They would come to the studio while Jones and creative partner Robbie Bronnimann would explain the technological and ideological aspects of Engage. Other times, Jones would create individual pianos solos for specific fans or even spend an hour with someone trying to get to know them before going off and composing a piece absolutely based on the dialogue he may have had with that person. It was an approach he wound up being very pleased with, particularly given his views on the artist/fan relationship.
“In this new era of music now, it’s about recognizing the responsibility of both parties to each other. The artist is responsible to deliver great work to the fans that really excites them and is pushing forward. And at the same time, it’s the responsibility of the fans to help you do that because you can’t exist in isolation. I think that’s such a great thing and I think that will bear a lot of good fruit in the future,” he said.
When it comes to fan support, Jones does admit that Long Islanders played a major role in helping him achieve his superstardom back in the ‘80s and to this day, the area still holds a lot of great memories for him. He also pointed out that American audiences tend to generally embrace him more than those in the UK.
“Long Island was the first place that absolutely supported me right from when WLIR played ‘New Song’ right from the beginning. It’s always been one of the biggest areas to support me in all of the U.S. and I’ve always had massive affection for Long Island,” he recalled. “I remember doing my first radio interview for American radio and it was probably New Year’s Eve 1984 at the end of 1983 and it was with WLIR. But what’s been great for me is that I’ve been able to come back over the years and keep developing. My records have always been played on the radio consistently throughout the whole time since the beginning. So there are always new, younger people being exposed to [my music] and getting it, which is really something that doesn’t happen in the UK. So it’s very, very different.”
Howard Jones will be appearing on March 19 at The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington, 631-673-7300, www.theparamountny.com and on March 23 at City Winery, 155 Varick St., NYC, 212-608-0555, www.citywinery.com. To check out the official Engage trailer, please visit www.howardjones.com.