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

Monday 11 February 2008 01:00

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.

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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)

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