Joe Jackson: 10 Things You May Not Have Known

Music Features Joe Jackson
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1. Even after he recorded his landmark Look Sharp! debut in 1979, he was none too pleased with his singing voice.

In retrospect, Jackson’s bratty, nasal bark—which caught the public’s ear via his breakthrough Look Sharp! single, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”—was certainly an unusual style, but one that perfectly embodied the jarring, iconoclastic punk/New Wave movement. And even now, as the Brit releases his jazzy new Duke Ellington tribute The Duke, his opinion hasn’t changed that much. “It is a weird voice, and I don’t make any great claims for myself as a singer,” sighs the five-time Grammy nominee at 57. “And I never really wanted to sing—I got interested in writing songs, and when I first started I would always get someone else in whatever band I was trying to put together to sing them. But I never liked the way they sang—the phrasing always seemed wrong. So I started singing myself out of desperation, really.” He struggled through his first three albums, then got serious about his craft and studied with several vocal coaches.

2. The keyboardist has gotten comfortable with not singing, as on 1999’s Symphony No. 1 for Sony Classical or The Duke, which employs other vocalists, like Iggy Pop, Sharon Jones, plus Lilian Vieira (who trills “Perdido” in Portuguese) and Sussan Deyhim (crooning “Caravan” in Farsi).

“On the new album, I thought that I was going to sing three tracks, initially, but I ended up singing on four, and that was pushing it for this project,” he says of his clever reworkings of the Ellington standards “Mood Indigo,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” his duet with Pop. “But I wanted a lot of different colors on it, and I’ve always wanted to have a few different voices doing things I couldn’t do.”

3. Jackson isn’t bandwagon-jumping with The Duke, which also features guitarist Steve Vai, violinist Regina Carter, drummer Ahmir ”?uestlove” Thompson and bassist Christian McBride. He was into Ellington long before he became a punk.

As a kid in Staffordshire, then Gosport, Jackson recalls becoming obsessed with music at 10 or 11. First it was classical (he even won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music at 16), then jazz. Then he began to study Ellington and his adventurous skill with arrangements. “I started with music really early—that’s just the way I always was,” says this apple that fell far from the familial tree. “I didn’t grow up in a musical environment at all, so I didn’t have anyone telling me ‘This is what you should listen to’ or ‘This is what you should, or shouldn’t, do.’ And looking back, I actually think that’s a good thing.”

4. Jackson is proud to be such a musical omnivore. Otherwise, he might never have made the stylistic leaps of 1981’s big-band-swing experiment Jumpin’ Jive or Night and Day his surprise-hit exploration of the Great American Songbook the following year.

The aesthete still chuckles over how nervous he was prior to Night and Day’s release. “I thought ‘No one’s going to like this, it’s not going to get played on the radio,’” he says. “But it turned out that it did really well—it’s my biggest-selling album of all time. And it’s not so much a ‘vindication of his genius’ or something,” he adds, humbly. “A lot of it was circumstantial and had to do with time and place, how well the record company [A&M] was doing at that point, and the fact that they wanted to make it a priority album. Plus, we toured for almost a year, solid, so there were a lot of different factors. And I still think it’s a good album, but it wouldn’t be possible to bring out the same album now and have the same kind of success with it.”

5. Jackson’s eclectic taste allowed him to approach Ellington classics in a whole new way.

For the staccato syncopation of “Don’t Mean a Thing,” he traded drum loops via e-mail with Vieira’s Brazilian/Dutch outfit Zuco 103 until they hit quasi-swing paydirt. He used e-mail to map out Pop’s vocals, as well; they were never in the same studio together, and the Iguana sent him a file of 12 sinister takes. “So we had a lot to work with—he was very generous,” says Jackson, who has a makeshift home studio with keyboard, computer and computer-sequencing program. His take on “Mood Indigo” had an even odder inspiration: the slapback rockabilly of Gene Vincent. “I always loved that sound being applied to a classic ballad, with that kind of echo on my voice and getting into falsetto on certain notes,” he explains. “And it was one of the few songs that I did think I could do a decent job of singing.”

6. Joe Jackson mainly resides in Berlin these days. And he loves it there.

And don’t think Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire film when you think of Berlin, Jackson says. The skyline is completely different now, as is the feel of the city itself. “It still has that sense of freedom, and it’s very laid-back and very green,” he elaborates. “And it’s cheap compared to a lot of other big cities, so I think that gives you a good mix of people, and a good quality of life.”

7. Jackson still looks sharp.

He was a sickly teenager, incredibly ill, he reveals. “But it seems like I got all my sick shit out of the way early on, because I’m healthy as a horse now!” he declares, proudly. “It’s partly luck, and it’s partly the fact that I exercise quite a bit and I do a lot of walking.” Does he carry a microcassette recorder on his Berlin strolls, in case another compositional light bulb goes off? He snickers. “Nah. I tried that once and I never used it. I figure if I have a good idea, and it’s really good, then it’ll stay with me.”

8. Jackson has a huge CD/vinyl collection, but not on an iPod.

He isn’t pro- or anti-iPod, he wants to clarify. He simply doesn’t own one. “I don’t like the idea of walking around a street with music jammed in my ear,” he growls. “So that I can’t hear anything else that’s going on around me. That might seem strange to some people, but that’s how I feel. I like to hear music in the air. I like to feel the airwaves vibrating, and I like to hear music coming through speakers. Not just shoved in my ear.”

9. Jackson unspooled a lot of great yarns in his 1999 autobiography, A Cure For Gravity. But he’s still dumbfounded by what he learned reading about Ellington.

His favorite story: “Apparently, on the road sometimes, Ellington liked to compose in the bathtub,” he says. “He’d be in a hotel, and he had a valet who kept him supplied with fresh hot water and scotch while he would lie in the tub and compose. Then he would have somebody else write down what he was composing, then these pieces of music would get passed down the corridor to different musicians’ rooms, so you could hear little fragments of the composition taking shape.” Has Jackson tried this curious method? He laughs. “It doesn’t work for me, I must admit. I do enjoy my bath, but that’s quiet time as far as I’m concerned.”

10. The chap who once proclaimed “I’m The Man” now knows his place in the grand scheme of things.

That’s why The Duke was always such a role model for him, says Jackson. “He was also a big-picture kind of guy. I’m not a brilliant singer, I’m not a brilliant piano player, I don’t really play the guitar. But I think that my talent really is for having a vision of the whole thing, and knowing what part everyone should be playing, and how to work with musicians and arrangements and stuff. And that’s what Ellington was brilliant at.”