Joe Jackson: Catching up with the maverick singer-songwriter

Joe Jackson has fled to Berlin, tired of celebrity-obsessed Britain and infuriated by the smoking ban. James McNair catches up with the maverick singer-songwriter

These days, Joe Jackson's local is a quiet bar in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. When we meet there at dusk, he is a little jet-lagged, having just returned from New York. The Portsmouth-raised Englishman orders a wheat beer in his tidy German, and starts to list some of the merits of his new home city. One of these, it seems, is the degree of anonymity it grants him.

"I'm sick of celebrity mania in Britain," he says. "Artistry and celebrity aren't the same – people seem to have forgotten that. I like applause and respect, sure, but it's not about being famous. As a songwriter, I enjoy observing rather than being observed." This theme is explored on the lead track of Jackson's new record, Rain, a stripped-down album masterfully arranged for piano, bass and drums. In "Invisible Man", when Jackson sings, "Now I'm almost free / Disappearing / Don't cry for me", he is clearly presenting himself as indifferent to the vicissitudes of a fickle music industry.

It was largely ever thus, and at 53, the tall, dapper singer still has plenty of the contrary spirit that fired his 1979 hit, "Is She Really Going Out with Him?", and which led him to take rock critics to taskin his acclaimed 1999 memoir/meditation upon all things musical, A Cure for Gravity. Even Jackson's vacating his home in New York (he still has a place in Portsmouth) in 2006 had an air of protest about it: the singer was objecting to the ban on smoking in public places, and wrote on the subject in his diligently researched, widely quoted paper, Smoke, Lies and the Nanny State.

"I'm fed up talking about it," he says of the pamphlet, "but the argument in a nutshell is that whatever dangers there are in passive smoking are hugely exaggerated. There's no good evidence that second-hand smoke harms anyone, and the reasons why the ban is happening clearly have a lot more to do with politics than they do with health."

I'd expected Jackson to be puffing furiously throughout our interview, but in fact he's only a five-a-day man. Enigmatic and a little touchy over personal questions, he seems to have fallen in love with Berlin and the idea of losing himself within it. "It's a big, relatively empty city with an abundance of real estate and a great sense of freedom", he says. "You don't have a CCTV camera in your face everywhere you go, so why the hell can't it be like that in England?"

Berlin also attracted Jackson for financial reasons. He says his current home affords him three times the space he had previously for half the rent. Making Rain there was cheaper, and an adventure to boot: Jackson and long-term collaborators Graham Maby (bass) and Dave Houghton (drums) recorded in a cavernous former East German radio station. Part of the building that now houses Planet Roc studios remains derelict and architectural curios bear testament to the past. "One room has this little flight of stairs that leads nowhere," says Jackson. "It was where the radio station's sound-effects department recorded people walking on different surfaces."

Asked about his blueprint for Rain, Jackson says he wanted the songs to be "bulletproof", to be convincing even if played solo at the piano. Ushered in upon gently modulating arpeggios, "Solo" certainly fits the bill, but Jackson – who has never married and still lives alone – isn't about to expand on the song's stark and portrayal of loneliness. "It speaks for itself," he says, flatly.

He's happier talking about Horace Silver, the US jazz pianist who was the inspiration for his playing on the more upbeat "Downtown Train". "Yeah, it's a tip of the hat to Horace and other 1960s Blue Note artists, such as Ramsay Lewis," he says. "The guys who moved from bebop to something a bit more soulful."

Jackson was born in Burton upon Trent but grew up in a council flat in Portsmouth. A Cure for Gravity records that he was an asthmatic child who was twice hospitalised, and "a bit of a loner". The first record he ever bought was Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, hardly typical for a working-class 14-year-old. He did play pop and rock cover-versions on the local pub and working men's club circuit, and won a scholarship to study composition at London's Royal Academy of Music while still in his teens.

The polar extremes of his apprenticeship go some way towards explaining the diversity of Jackson's subsequent career. His spiky 1979 album, I'm the Man, tapped into the New Wave zeitgeist, but 1982's Night and Day, featuring the hit "Steppin' Out" – was somewhat indebted to Cole Porter. Later, having signed to Sony Classical in 1997, Jackson won a Grammy for his 1999 release, Symphony No 1.

A new project that Jackson has had on the back burner for the last two years may prove to be his most fascinating yet. His trip to New York, it transpires, was to fine tune his music and lyrics for Stoker, a musical-theatre production focusing on the untold story of the novelist Bram Stoker. "It's partly about how he came to create Dracula, and all the things in his own life that fed into it. The script is great and the production is like a re-enaction of a Victorian melodrama, where you have music accompanying action and speech, as well as songs that exist independently.

"I didn't know anything about Stoker until I read the script," Jackson goes on. "I didn't know he was Irish, or that he was a theatre manager, or that he managed Sir Henry Irving, the great actor of the day. He was also friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, and knew most of the literary and dramatic world of London, yet nobody took him seriously as a writer until Dracula was published."

Although Stoker is almost finished, Jackson says the tricky bit will be finding financial backing and the right venue. A couple of producers are on board, however, and he's optimistic and excited about the project. In the meantime, it's back to his day job: releasing and promoting Rain.

Does he worry that the world might have moved on while he's been away? "Actually I'm way past worrying about how I'm perceived. I go by the Samurai code: expect nothing, but be ready for anything. When I started, the most I ever hoped for was to be able to pay the rent and not have to work in a factory, so I feel fortunate that I'm still doing music. This year we'll be touring for five months, in places I've never played before, such as Israel and South Africa. It's a great life."

Joe Jackson plays London's Shepherds Bush Empire on 2 March (0844 477 2000)

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links