As the old phrase goes, fashion fades but style is eternal. The line is generally attributed to Yves Saint Laurent, but it might as well belong to another man who’s known to look sharp — Joe Jackson. Shortly after breaking into the musical mainstream with his 1979 hit “Is She Really Going Out with Him,” Jackson defied conventions with a string of stunningly original albums marked by daring stylistic shifts.
Exhibit A: At a time when the musical landscape was dominated by new wave rock and hair metal in the early ’80s, Jackson released Jumpin' Jive, a collection of Depression-era swing and jump blues covers. He followed it up with 1983’s Night and Day, another curveball that fused a century worth of New York City sounds, showcasing melodic inspiration from George Gershwin, lyrical wit in the mold of Cole Porter, and rhythms owing as much to the Latin percussion of Spanish Harlem as the electro beats of the downtown club scene. Despite the fact that (gasp) there wasn’t a guitar to be found on the disc, it would become arguably his most famous after the single “Steppin’ Out” went Top 10 and the video made him a star of the MTV set. Fruitful excursions into the jazz, salsa and classical were still to come, as were innovative live albums and evocative soundtrack work. All told, longtime fans have come to expect the unexpected.
Now 64, Jackson observed the 40th anniversary of his debut LP Look Sharp by simultaneously looking both backwards and forwards. In January he released a new studio album, Fool, recorded in Boise, Idaho — not the most obvious musical Mecca — at the end of his U.S. jaunt last summer. Brimming with poignancy, humor, and a requisite touch of cynicism, it’s the work of a songwriter at the peak of his craft. He’s also plotted the Four Decade tour, with a setlist that will focus largely on one album from each 10-year chunk of his career. In addition to Look Sharp and Night and Day (the ’70s and ’80s, respectively) Jackson will draw from 1991’s Laughter & Lust, 2008’s Rain and his most recent offering. It’s a fascinating exercise for an artist who eschews nostalgia almost as much as he eschews predictability.
Jackson spoke to PEOPLE about the new album, classic songs, the upcoming tour, fame and what keeps him chasing his muse.
First and foremost, congratulations on Fool. It’s an amazing album — your 20th, I’m told?
I don’t know about that, but I do know that we’re putting it out in January because it’s the 40th anniversary of Look Sharp coming out in January 1979. That is a fact that I can’t deny. [laughs] Even though I still can’t quite get my head around it. I still can’t get used to it, but there it is. But as far as how many albums I’ve made, that’s a tough one because I’ve tried to count and come up with different numbers! Because, to me, they’re not all one thing. If I was gonna count how many albums I’ve done, I would put them in three or four different categories, because they’re pretty diverse. But if people have decided that it’s my 20th album, then okay, that’ll be it. [laughs]
On Fool there are two complementary sides: The tragedy and the comedy. And a lot of times it sort of felt like they were intertwined. Like the opener, “Big Black Cloud”; I can’t tell if it’s the happiest sad song or the saddest happy song.
Yeah, I think they are entwined. I think that’s life. I think the best comedy has some tragedy in it, and vice versa. “Big Black Cloud” isn’t quite a dark, angry song but I think there’s a sense of defiance in it. And there’s maybe a little irony going on. I think that the second side is definitely accentuating the positive more, but like you said, there’s a little bit of tragedy in there as well. You know, there’s a little bit of sadness in “32 Kisses.” There’s nostalgia. But overall I think it’s sweet, or maybe it’s a little bit bittersweet.
“Bittersweet” is the perfect word for it, especially on something like “Dave.” That’s one of my favorite songs on the album. I feel like we all know a person like Dave. What does “Dave” means to you?
It’s a bit of nostalgia for my hometown where there seemed to be a lot of guys called Dave. [laughs] I mean, in my age group anyway. I think there was a Dave epidemic at one point. There’s not quite so many young Daves now. But it does sometimes seem, when I’m there, that almost everyone is called Dave. I just think it’s funny.
But it’s also partly based on a true story about a guy — a real character — I met in a pub who was talking about how he got an offer to go work abroad. It was actually in Germany, but I changed it to Spain because it worked better in the lyrics. But he was all set to go and he said he was homesick and he hadn’t even left yet. A friend of mine [later] told me that this guy had never been out of town in his life. I find it pretty funny, but sort of endearing in a way. I find that I can’t judge people harshly who basically stay where they started and don’t really go anywhere. Maybe they aren’t interested in traveling. I think that, as the song says, I’m not convinced that I’m better off than them because I’m always traveling around the world. You know what I mean?
In the song, it sounds like you’re slightly envious of them.
Yeah, that’s it exactly. In some ways I am a bit envious of someone like that — someone who’d be happy just staying where they are.
And then the flip side would be something like “Strange Land” with [lines like] “Is this a strange land, or am I the stranger.” Do you feel you write better when you feel like an outsider? Either by moving to New York or Berlin, or just by taking the perspective of an outsider?
Well, that’s what every writer has to do: be an outsider. Otherwise, you’re not gonna be able to write anything. It’s an interesting subject because when I wrote my book [1999’s A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage] I think that one of the real recurring themes of it was feeling like a misfit, and growing up feeling like you just didn’t fit in. I was really amazed at how many people told me that they related to that. And after a while, I started to think maybe everyone feels like a misfit. At least at some time in their life, or in some way. If feeling like a misfit’s such a common thing then maybe no one’s really a misfit. Or everyone is — or something! [laughs] I can’t really figure it out.
Growing up and listening to “Is She Really Going Out with Him,” “It’s Different for Girls,” or “Real Men,” it was enlightening and sort of comforting to hear a male perspective in music that had a degree of emotional sensitivity.
A lot of it came from wanting to avoid clichés. Which is one of the few guiding principles that I have. Sometimes I’ll deliberately turn clichés on their head, with something like “It’s Different for Girls,” for instance. I guess I’m still doing it. I’m always trying to find something to write a song about that no one else has done — or not in quite the same way, at least. Any time I’m working on something and it’s starting to remind me of something that’s already been done by me or someone else, then I generally scrap it. Or I do something to screw it up and see what happens. [laughs]
Even on the title track, “Fool.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Long live the jester” as the refrain to a song. It’s a beautiful sentiment. We really need those figures.
Yeah, right? He’s a superhero. The jester, the clown, the fool — I made him into a superhero in this song. He wears a silly costume, and he has an amazing special power, which is to make us laugh. And know what? You can’t kill him. No one can kill him. Every dictator in history has tried to suppress humor because they can’t bear to be mocked. And it never works, in the end. I had this idea a while ago to write a song about the importance of humor, and I didn’t really know how to do it. And then I settled on this idea of the fool, the Shakespearean fool or the jester, being kind of a superhero.
I actually find it’s very important because I’m actually amazed at how humorless most people are in this business. I really am. The lack of humor in people’s work, and the way they present themselves, the lyrics they write, the themes that they tackle, and even the way that people like you guys talk about it as well. I mean, it’s the whole thing. I’m not pointing any fingers particularly, but I’m often surprised that humor isn’t more important than it is. I think it used to be much more. Going back to the 1930s, songwriters were writing very witty lyrics. I mean, who does that now? People like Louis Jordan were doing songs that were full of humor and fun. And maybe a bit corny, but actually kind of cool and clever at the same time.
So what I’m interested in doing now is writing songs from the perspective of someone who’s 64 years old, and not trying to be 20. And you think more as you get older about what’s really important in life and what isn’t. And something which might seem trivial, like a joke, I think more and more is really important.
Very much so. Even on something like “Is She Really Going Out with Him.” I know it earned you this “angry young man” label, but I always found it tremendously funny.
Yeah, it’s so true. To me that’s a Monty Python sketch, “the Angry Young Man.” I could imagine someone like John Cleese would do a great job. [laughs] This guy who wakes up every morning in a fury.
Tears off the sheets, throws the alarm clock…
Right, yeah. He throws the alarm clock across the room, eats his breakfast in a blind rage…The funny thing about punk was how seriously it was taken. I remember once I had a beer with Joe Strummer, and he was a great guy. He was telling me about how when he and Mick Jones were writing lyrics for the Clash, they were just cracking each other up all the time. Then the album would come out and they would read reviews to each other and be cracking up even more because of how seriously people were taking it. There obviously was some seriousness in what they did too, but it’s always the humor that people miss. And I find that very strange and interesting. I think that most people have a sense of humor, but there are whole industries and art forms that don’t have a sense of humor. It’s really odd.
You recorded Fool at the end of a tour in some place I never would have expected: Boise, Idaho. What was that process like?
I know. [laughs] I’m not the only artist to have ever said this by a long way, but when you write a bunch of songs and record an album and then go out on tour, you find after a while that it always gets better. The band’s playing better, you know the songs inside out, and everything gets better. I find I’m singing better. You wish that you could record the album now instead of back when you did.
So I always wanted to do a tour and then go straight in the studio, like the day after the last show. And we finally did it. We did a fairly short tour. We’d already been playing some of the songs on the previous tour, actually. There were three of the songs that we were playing — “Fabulously Absolute,” “Strange Land,” and “Dave” — even on the previous tour. We did a tour that was long enough that we got to play all the new songs a lot, but not so long that we’d be exhausted at the end of it. We toured for a month, and wherever we ended up, we were gonna go in the studio the next day. It turned out to be Boise, Idaho, which I think is great because everyone I tell says, “What? Where?!” I just think that’s great. Everyone records in L.A. and New York and so on.
It feels very much like a “band album.” You’ve got [longtime bassist] Graham [Maby] obviously, and [guitarist] Teddy Kumpel, and [drummer] Doug Yowell. The energy between you all really comes through. It’s extremely tight.
Yeah, it is a band album. It’s my first real band album for a while. One of the reasons this album got finished and released when it did is because of the band. I’ve been working with this lineup for about three years and it’s one of the best I’ve had I think. We’re just having a great time. So you can definitely hear that in the album. Actually, it’s very much like the way I made my first album: Really fast. I mean, we recorded it in a week and a half. Everyone was so on top of their game from all the touring we’d done that we were getting really great takes, really quickly. I think there are a couple of first takes on the album, actually. I know there’s nothing on there that we did more than three or four takes.
Now you’re about to go back out on the road again for the 40th-anniversary tour. You don’t seem like the kind of person who likes to look back too much — what was it like revisiting all of your material and choosing the five albums for the pillars of your set?
I was looking for some way to organize the set with so much material, and I thought the idea of concentrating on one album from each decade was quite a nice idea. They were really obvious immediately to me. The first two really had to be the first album and then Night and Day, my most successful album. Those were kind of no-brainers. Laughter & Lust was really the only album that made sense from the ’90s that would fit in with the other stuff. I think it’s a pretty good album, but later in the ’90s I went through my phase of really kind of losing interest in pop songwriting. That’s when I did things like Night Music and Heaven & Hell — the stuff that, you know, no one bought. [laughs]
So really the only question was moving into the next century. It was kind of between Volume 4 and Rain, and I think that was not a difficult decision either. Volume 4 belongs with the first three albums, and with that band. And Rain, I think, is a stronger album in terms of songs. I think it’s one of my best, actually. I think that’s when I really started writing…I don’t know how to put it but, timeless songs. I like to think, anyway. I hope!
But [covering] Rain also meant that we could do something a little bit different with it because we have a different lineup. We were able to add the guitar and reinvent some of those songs a bit. That’s something we’re just working on right now and I’m really liking how they’re coming out with this band.
There’s that famous story about Neil Young — when Harvest became a hit he said it brought him into the middle of the road and it was boring and very unfulfilling for him. Did you feel that way with Night and Day and the success of “Steppin’ Out”? What was that period like for you? Was it overall happy, frustrating, or mixed?
It was very much a mix. I think as a time in my life it was somewhat unsettled. I had this success that I really didn’t expect with that album. I mean, it still surprises me, actually. But I don’t have a problem with success. [laughs] Let’s put it this way, I don’t have a problem with reaching an audience. I want to reach an audience. I want people to like what I do and get some kind of pleasure and some kind of joy from it. I really hope for that. What doesn’t interest me is celebrity — being a celebrity and all that fame business. I don’t particularly like that. So the peak of my career was the mid-’80s when I was on MTV and things like that, and I was being recognized all the time. I didn’t like it much, to be honest with you. I just tried to handle it as best as I could.
There is a really interesting essay you wrote a few years back in which you said that rock ‘n’ roll (and the music industry as a whole) valued youth culture and rebellion over innovation. I was wondering if you still felt that way.
It always has to be young and new and rebellious, and yet I think that’s an old idea, actually. I don’t know if it really works anymore. I don’t have kids, but I have a lot of friends who have kids, and quite often there are situations where the parents and the kids both like the same music, or sometimes you get kids that are not really interested in music but the parents still are. Also, sometimes it’s vice versa. But pop [and] rock music representing the youth in opposition to older people, I think, is an idea that’s gone. Trying to still talk about it like it’s important seems a bit silly to me.
One good friend of mine has an 18-year-old son who’s really interested in early jazz and loves Louis Armstrong. This is amazing to me, you know? I’m kind of fascinated by that. And I think it’s pretty fair to say that it would not have happened without the internet. He’s discovering stuff for himself, and if he likes something, he’s interested in it and he doesn’t care that it’s old.
Not everyone’s alike — you’re still gonna get people who only really care about fashion. But the thing is, it really is only just fashion. It’s not some kind of cultural movement, or counter-cultural movement, or something like that. I personally don’t care. I’m kind of interested in things that are more universal and timeless. I have a horror of being trendy so I try to avoid it. [laughs]
I have never asked this question to anyone in an interview, but I’m genuinely curious because your influences are so vast: What are you listening to now? What does a Joe Jackson playlist look like?
Oh, Jesus. Well, it’s all over the place. But I’ll tell you one thing, there’s really not a lot of contemporary English or American pop in it. Apart from that, what I’m listening to more than anything is music from Colombia, from Cuba and from various African countries — especially Benin. And also classic New Orleans funk, like the Meters. Stuff like that. I like funky rhythms and a joyful spirit, you know? It’s weird because this goes back to what we started off talking about, about being taken too seriously a lot of the time. It surprises people that the music I really like is joyful music, uplifting music, as opposed to bands who stand around staring at their shoes.
Of course, when I try to do something joyful and funky myself, it doesn’t always work. It doesn’t always suit me. I seem to be better at the bittersweet. But that’s the kind of stuff I like. And early jazz, as well. I listen to a lot of early jazz. Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton. I hear a joyful spirit. It’s funny, I have a friend who says, “Oh, you’re always listening to old geezer music.” To me, when I listen to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, or early stuff by Sidney Bechet and Earl Hines and people like that, I hear young guys. They’re full of life, inventing a new form of music and having a great time doing it.