The Sodajerker boys meet British songwriter Joe Jackson, in the wake of his critically acclaimed recent long player ‘Fast Forward’
British songwriter, solo artist, bandleader and composer Joe Jackson burst onto the music scene with the international hit Is She Really Going Out With Him? in 1978, and has maintained a loyal fanbase ever since. In October, he released the album Fast Forward, his 13th in a career that’s also seen him compose the score for numerous movies.
Born in Burton-on-Trent in 1954, Jackson grew up in Portsmouth where he studied violin and piano at school. At the age of 18 he won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied Composition, Piano & Percussion and formed his first ‘proper’ band, a proto-punk combo called Arms & Legs. When Arms & Legs split up in 1976, Jackson set about recording the demo for what would eventually become his debut album Look Sharp.
Over the next few years, Jackson would experiment with various styles from reggae to swing, while scoring further hits with It’s Different For Girls in 1979 and Steppin’ Out in 1982. That would be it for solo hits – though he did appear on Suzanne Vega’s Left Of Centre in 1984 – but Jackson would continue to experiment throughout the late 80s and 90s, recording a string of albums with wildly divergent line-ups and musical themes. In 2004, his alma mater the Royal Academy awarded him a Fellowship, while the University of Portsmouth gave him an honorary doctorate.
During the course of his career Jackson has worked with many esteemed musicians including Rickie Lee Jones, Todd Rundgren, Joan Armatrading, Ben Folds and, er, William Shatner. In 2012 he gathered together a diverse coterie of artists including Iggy Pop, ?uestlove, Sharon Jones, Regina Carter and Steve Vai to record Duke, an album that saw the eclectic collective reworking 15 songs by Jackson’s musical hero Duke Ellington.
Which brings us neatly up to Fast Forward, which was originally conceived as a series of four EPs, each recorded in a different city (the cities in question being New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and New Orleans. And that’s where Sodajerker’s chat with him begins…
Fast Forward sounds fantastic – we love the way you’ve organised the songs according to the cities. Are the cities important to understanding this collection of songs?
“I think it’s more about the musicians than the places. To some extent it’s about the places, but I wrote the songs before I thought about where to record them. In some cases they were connected, though. I mean, Kings Of The City is definitely a New York song, and If I Could See Your Face is a Berlin story, and I was thinking of New Orleans when I wrote Neon Rain.
“These are all places that I know well, and that have had some sort of significance in my life. But mainly, I’d just done a lot of writing and was sitting on a huge pile of songs, looking for a way to organise them.
“It’s funny, because when I recorded the album Rain in Berlin, a lot of people said ‘Oh yes, we’ve been listening to your album and we can really hear the influence of Berlin.’ And I had to laugh, because I’d written most of it before I even went there.”
Do you work in quite a technical way, where you actually notate parts on paper, or are you more likely to just record something on your phone?
“No, I don’t really do that… I basically write in my head, and to some extent with a pencil and paper, sitting at a piano. Actually writing chord sheets or notes is something I do as and when I have to, for other people to read.”
Do you mainly trust your own judgement when you’re writing? You’re not playing ideas to other people to get feedback, that kind of thing?
“No, I don’t really like presenting people with things that are half-finished. I like to get it as far as I can, and then I’m interested in what other people think of it: how they react to certain songs, how they interpret them or misinterpret them or whatever. I’m a bit of a solitary mad professor, working in my lab… trying to bring life to dead body parts.”
Are there any particular songwriting habits you have? Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain chords, for instance?
“Yeah I think I probably do, that’s only natural. But even if you’re trying to avoid clichés and repeating yourself, sometimes you repeat yourself because you’re still yourself, you know? So certain things become like little trademarks, little components of your style. But it’s hard to talk about it objectively.”
Did songwriting for you come about as a result of you learning to play the piano?
“No, it was the other way round, actually – I learned the piano because I thought it would help me to write. Because I started off on the violin, and that’s like a torture device from Hell. So I gravitated towards the piano, firstly because it was easier and secondly because, although I was only about 13, I was already interested in the idea of writing music. The piano was a tool.”
“I decided I was going to make a whole album by myself”
You went on to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Was that with a view to becoming a songwriter, or were you looking more in a classical direction?
“No, I think by the time I got to the Royal Academy I was definitely more interested in songwriting. In my early teens I was a bit more in a classical direction, but to be honest I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music. I was interested in jazz as a teenager, for instance… which made me almost of a misfit as being interested in classical music!”
And it wasn’t long after that, that you’d recorded a demo of your first album…
“Yeah, I decided I was going to make a whole album by myself. I financed it by doing a lot of cabaret work, playing piano for people, and recorded it on eight-track. I had a lot of bravado at that time, it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make this album by myself and it’s going to be as good as anything anyone, anywhere could possibly do. And if no record company wants to put it out, I’ll put it out myself.’ Of course I had no clue how to go about that, but luckily it got heard and one thing led to another.”
It’s interesting what you say about the piano being a tool, a means to an end, because that first album isn’t actually very piano-centric at all, is it?
“No, the first three albums have very little piano. At the time, I was interested in making music with the absolute bare essentials, guitar bass and drums, but making the bass the lead instrument instead of the guitar. This was very much a thing of the time: it was 1978 when I made that album, and I was only 23 and very influenced by what was going on around me, which was the so-called ‘new wave’. It just seemed to be a time for stripping everything down to bare essentials.
“But then a little bit later, when I made the Night And Day album, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s time to put the guitar aside and really bring the keyboards out now.”
Many of your early songs still seem very relevant today – songs like Cancer or Sunday Papers could have been written last week! So in terms of lyrics, you’ve already talked about avoiding cliché –do you also tend to avoid autobiographical stuff?
“I’m not sure I’ve ever thought it through quite so systematically as that, but I think very little of what I’ve written is autobiographical or confessional. I don’t particularly like that. John Lennon once said, ‘Why shouldn’t I write about myself?’ but as much as I admire John Lennon, something about it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. So I don’t really do that… but then of course at the same time it’s all written from my point of view.
“An element of humour is important, too… I don’t want to come across as too self-important or earnest.”
In terms of your songwriting routine, do you sit at the piano every day, or do you find you write better when you’ve got a deadline?
“No, I seem to work in bursts, I’ll write nothing for ages and then I’ll start working on something and I’ll get on a roll for a while. I can write to a deadline to some extent, like some of the film scores I’ve done were very much about working to a deadline and I wasn’t bad at it, actually. But the great thing about that is you’re not dealing with writing lyrics, because that’s always the hardest part.”
One song in particular we wanted to mention was It’s Different For Girls… any particular memories of writing that one?
“Not really, I just remember having the general idea, taking a familiar phrase and seeing it from a different angle. It’s the age-old theme of the battle of the sexes, the couple not understanding each other, but I tried to come at in such a way that the girl’s saying all kinds of stereotypical things that you’d expect a guy to say, and vice versa.
“That was the general idea, and I think I pulled it off up to a point… I mean, I still like that song, anyway.”
“Musical magic is created by human beings”
Another song we wanted to ask about was Steppin’ Out, which has that great synth-oriented production. We wondered what steps were involved in coming up with that?
“You know what, I honestly don’t remember. I know it’s the sort of thing people like to hear: people are always looking for something outside the music to explain the music.
“I recently watched a documentary about Muscle Shoals, and it was pretty interesting, but there was an awful lot of bullshit in there… people talking about how the magical spirit of the river rises through the mud and into the studio or something! Whereas in actual fact, musical magic is created by human beings: learning their craft, trying things out, practising. A lot of it’s boring stuff to talk about. It’s not boring to do, it’s fun to do, but it’s boring to talk about.
“So people are always looking for some kind of story to make it interesting or glamorous, but a lot of the time that’s not what it is: you’re just working away at something, trying to make it work with whatever skills you’ve managed to build up over time, and then beyond that, somewhere, there’s some other magic you can’t explain. So on the one hand, it’s just going through the practical steps that you’ve got to go through as a craftsman, and then on the other hand you’re dealing with something that’s very intangible. There’s a huge area of mystery and magic to it, but it’s not usually where people look for it.”
Are we right in thinking you’ve suffered from writer’s block on occasion? Do you have any advice for songwriters on moving through those less-productive periods?
“I have once or twice, yeah. Advice? Well, it’s something that’s easy to say and very hard to do, but don’t worry about it. The more you obsess about it and worry about it, the worse it becomes. Do something else for a little while – enjoy being alive! There is life beyond music.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 45-minute interview with Joe Jackson – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.