The Lowdown with Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson reflects on the life lessons from his 40 year career

September 24 2019

Singer, songwriter and multi-talented musician Joe Jackson burst onto the pop scene in 1979 with his debut single, Is She Really Going Out with Him?, a smash hit that propelled him into the charts, and launched a career that has taken in 19 albums, Grammy award nominations, and a huge array of musical styles. His latest album, ‘Fool’, was released earlier this year.

He Reflects on the life lessons of his 40 year career .

People often ask if I make records or myself rather than an audience, but I suppose it’s both. I’m hoping to reach an audience, obviously, but I’m not trying to just give them what they want. How am I supposedly to know what that is, or how to do it? No, it has to start with me being excited about something, and then hopefully I can communicate that to other people.

When talking about music, the hardest questions are always the ones that start with ‘why’: why did you write this song, or make this record, or do it this way. I don’t know why! Because it seemed like a good idea, because it felt right, because it was fun! I think people assume you start with some kind of plan, or agenda, and then create something to fulfil that. But it’s much more intuitive than that. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other until I feel like I’m getting somewhere interesting. I only have one rule, which is that if it starts sounding like something I’ve done before, or heard before, I scrap it or do something to mess it up.

Singer, songwriter and multi-talented musician Joe Jackson burst onto the pop scene in 1979
Singer, songwriter and multi-talented musician Joe Jackson burst onto the pop scene in 1979

In this business a lot of people are bat-shit crazy, or just neurotic anyway, but I think I’m reasonably sane. There’s something about being any kind of artist, especially in what you might call a popular medium, that breeds neurosis. I think it’s because it’s not an exact science; no matter how talented you are, so much is beyond your control. You write a song, you have no guarantee you’ll ever be able to write another one. You have a hit, that’s even worse, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever have another one. You could write a better song, but then the whole scene has somehow shifted and no one’s interested. That happens to almost everyone who sticks around for more than a few years. So, you can get messed-up in all kinds of ways.

For better or worse, technology has changed everything in music. I mean, it’s fantastic that more music is more accessible to more people than it’s ever been, but… well, I’m not sure how to put it. Maybe it’s just that for my generation, music was incredibly important, but sometimes now, it feels like it’s been cheapened or something. It’s certainly much harder for anyone to make money out of it – I’m lucky that I had some success at a time when quite modest recognition, especially in the States, still meant you could sell a lot of records. But for a lot of younger artists, it’s tough. The whole business has pretty much collapsed. All the biggest movers and shakers in what’s left of the music industry are running around like headless chickens trying to figure out what to do. The only thing I can do is focus on making the best music I can.

You just can’t evaluate yourself by numbers – record sales, chart positions, and so on. I’m not saying I wasn’t happy to have a couple of hits, but I certainly never counted on it. What’s even more amazing to me is that I’m still able to make music and do shows I can feel good about, and have an audience. Seriously! Some days I wake up thinking, “my God, I’m still getting away with it!” I didn’t have to go and work in the salt mines! It really doesn’t matter if the glass is half-full or half empty anyway, so long as there’s whisky in it.