“I don’t like sitting around too much,” states Sir Tom Jones as he welcomes me to the hotel lounge that will be his press-hosting home for the day. “Something to drink?” he offers hospitably as he generously fills a glass. I thank him and place it on the table, knowing full well that I’ll be far too nervous to ever touch it. It’s a miserable London day outside, drizzly, grey and dull. And in front of me is Tom Jones, dressed entirely in black save for a handsome grey scarf, his LA/St Tropez tan radiant against the darkness of his attire.
Where does one even start when looking to write an introduction to Tom Jones? Would it be best to begin with the illustrious body of work that he’s produced during his (very nearly) 50 year long career? How about the innumerable collaborations and celebrated friendships, which see every person that comes into contact with the Welsh crooner being placed within two degrees of separation from his ol’ pal Elvis? Of course, his off stage antics and reputation as the ultimate ladies’ man are worthy of a mention, with every band that’s ever had a pair of knickers thrown on stage at them owing something to the jovial gentleman sat in front of me today. Above all though, it’s that voice. That unmistakable, soul filled husk of a Valley voice that’s adorned stages around the world, adverts for anything you’d care to think of, sold more than 100 million records and soundtracked everything from Edward Scissorhands and The Simpsons, to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He’s currently starring as a judge and guru on BBC1′s The Voice and at 71 years old, has just played his first major role in a tv show, King of the Teds. So no, he really isn’t one to sit around. As many projects as he may have on the go, today we’re talking about Jones’ first and truest love, the reason that he does what he does, the music.
“We did it in the same studio as we did Praise and Blame, which was my last album, with the same producer, Ethan Johns,” Tom explains of putting his most recent album Spirit in the Room together, his sentences bathed in his trademark Welsh lilt. “We used basically the same process – a small amount of musicians, no headphones, no separation, all in one room. Except for the drums, we had to put the girl that played them in a room because drums spill. Then when I talked to Ethan about it, we thought we’d just kick it up a notch, we’d spread it out more than Praise and Blame, which was more of a gospel kind of thing.”
Spirit in the Room, remarkably Jones’ 39th studio record sees the singer release his second album of covers in a row, this time angling more towards rock and blues influences than the gospel and soul of his previous release. ”Well I thought, what if we pick a song from songwriters that I like to listen to? And then I thought about which ones they’d be. [We recorded a track by] Bob Dylan which didn’t make the ten but will be released as a bonus track, and Tom Waits, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, then some old blues. Odetta’s track ‘Hit or Miss’ is on there, which is one of the few songs that she actually wrote. She was a folk-blues singer, Odetta, and she wrote this song which I thought was great because it’s all about being yourself. You’ve got to do it your own way, hit or miss. Whether you succeed or not, you’ve got to do it your own way. We looked for meaningful songs that would sound real coming from me, not to do something that wouldn’t sound true.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done. By selecting a mixture of humble and relatable tracks, Spirit in the Room is about as true an album as they come. It marks a comfortable spot where Jones feels happy to create what feels most pure and honest to himself in his current position. Gone are the days of dying his hair and clinging on to the rapture of youth, this is an album for the grown up Tom Jones.
“We looked for real songs, like Leonard Cohen’s. I like him. With ‘Tower of Song’, we were thinking about either doing that one, or ‘I’m Your Man’ was another one. But we thought maybe [the latter] would be a little too… cliché. I’ve done macho songs before, so, you know… But ‘Tower of Song’ is about as real as I can get, it’s about what I do!” says Tom, before going on to emphatically quote the tracks lyrics. ” “My friends are gone and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play!/And I’m crazy for love, but i’m not coming on…” (laughs) If I could write that well, I’d write that. And then he sings about Hank Williams, and I always liked Hank Williams. “I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does he get/Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet/But I hear him coughing all night long…”, it was all very meaningful. The reviews for Praise and Blame, which was released two years ago now, were really great and they said, ‘Now Tom is stripped down, you can really hear what he’s wanting to say…’, thank God for that! [The idea] worked so well, so why not stay on the same track but widen it?”
Although getting a bit more serious on this release, there’s still a tinge of that trademark humour and playfulness flowing through the record, found most prominently on Tom’s cover of a Tom Waits track. “I love [Tom Waits’] new album which is called Bad As Me, so I thought I wanted to do one of those songs as there are so many great songs on it. Ethan suggested ‘Bad As Me’ and I thought… Christ… he’s already done such a good job of it himself anyway, and I don’t want to be blasphemous, because there’s a few ‘Mother Superiors’ on there… But I thought, as long as I can do it convincingly enough, with the laugh, the chuckle, then it could work. And it did. So with the arrangement, we tried to make it more floaty, with an almost middle eastern feel to it. And we pulled it off… I hope! A lot of people like it. I’d love to hear a dance mix of it, because the beat it really strong on there. That could be screaming in a club.”