“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. 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 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! 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 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.”
It’d be fair to suppose that any young producer tasked with working with Tom Jones may feel a little intimidated at the prospect. But to read the CV of Ethan Johns is to see that the guy is more than qualified to undertake the task. He produced Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker, Demolition and 29, Rufus Wainwright’s Poses, Kings of Leon, Laura Marling, Ben Kweller, Brendan Benson… the list goes on. So how was it to return to the studio with Ethan?
“Great. It’s so refreshing to go into a studio and know you’re going to come out with something that’s going to be really something. And to try things out. Like with Ethan, he’s got a bloody wall of guitars, you know, and he says ‘Let me think… we’ll try this one’ and he tries things out. There were only two musicians really, and the other stuff was added. There was no bass really, to begin with. And the only third person that was there, but not all the time, was the girl [Warpaint‘s Stella Mozgawa] who played the drums. So the tracks where you hear drums, that was live. But apart from that, there was Richard on squeezebox and piano, and then Ethan playing guitar. And that’s how we did it. I wasn’t using headphones – they did, to hear me sometimes – but it was great, and it was at Real World in Wiltshire. Peter Gabriel’s place, the same room as we used before. We tried a few songs out in a couple of London studios, but something was missing. Then we thought we weren’t going to be able to use that room anymore, because they were thinking of turning it into offices. God, that would’ve been a shame. Because the first time, something really happened there. And the second time, something happened too. That’s why we called in Spirit in the Room because there’s definitely something happening in that room.”
In an industry where nowadays, it’s impressive enough to get to the point of releasing even a second album, to have made, released and toured 39 truly is an incredible achievement. The styles have varied, from the big band brass laden anthems found on 1965 albums What’s New Pussycat and It’s Not Unusual to the variety of styles and genres fused together with a broad range of collaborators on 1999′s 4x platinum Reload. As such a fan of music, and with so many reference points on which to draw, settling on a theme for an album must be a genuinely difficult task for Jones. So if the Tom Jones of 1965 were to hear Spirit in the Room, would he be impressed?
“When I used to sing in pubs and clubs, I’d use a rhythm section and sometimes it was just me with a guitar. So I started like that. It wasn’t until I recorded ‘It’s Not Unusual’ which was my first hit, that I’d ever sung with a band, and with brass and everything. So I didn’t come from there, that’s not my training. I’m not Michael Buble! So my thing was always listening to meaningful songs growing up. A blues record would come on the radio, there was a guy called Big Bill Broonzy and I loved that. It was just him playing a 12 string guitar and singing. When I first heard John Lee Hooker, he’d play the same sounds, but it was the way he did it, I just thought… ‘shit’. So when I signed with Decca, I thought i’d be doing something like that, something rock’n’roll. I was always heavily influenced by 50s rock’n’roll music because I was a teenager then, and that was a big part of my life. But because ‘It’s Not Unusual’ was such a hit with that sound, it took me in a different direction but I always tried to stay soulful with my vocal performances, it’s just that the instrumentation was different. So I think if I’d played this album to me when I was young, I’d think ‘thank God I finally came around to it. They finally let me do it.’ Because record companies want commercial, they want what’s ‘happening’. It’s understandable, they’ve got to sell records. But now, thank God i’m in a position to say ‘I’d like to do this’, and they say ‘ok’.”
With a career spanning 50 years, different continents and with a huge variety of stylistic and creative output, how does Tom manage to maintain the enthusiasm and passion for music for which he’s so celebrated today?
“It’s something that I have to do, I have to sing. They’ll have to shut me up!” he replies, before going on to recount a tale of such name-dropping proportions, that I’m left feeling a little breathless. ”There’s a film producer in LA, I go to his house sometimes, he has nice get togethers. Tom Hanks goes and his wife likes to sing, so I was up there with Priscilla Presley and some of the Beach Boys go up there as well – so there’s nice gatherings happen at this place. And of course, he knows what I’m like, so he’s got a piano player! I have to stop myself, because once I start… especially with this one piano player that goes up there, he knows all these bluesy, early rock’n’roll songs… So you know, Priscilla was there the other night and I said, ‘I’m going to sing my favourite Elvis Presley song’, ‘One Night With You’ and she loved it, it was great! But they’ll have to shut me up. I won’t be able to stop that. Katherine Jenkins was there the other day too, I invited her up because I knew she was thinking about going out to do Dancing With The Stars and she didn’t know many people, so I said i’d give her a shout when she came out. So we sang ‘Calon Lan’ together which is a Welsh song – she speaks Welsh so she knew it better than I did. But it was great, so there’s no way that I could not do it. It’d be a very boring life if I couldn’t sing. I’d hate it. I know it will happen, because age will finally catch up with me. I don’t know when that’ll be, hopefully a long way off but my voice is still as strong as ever, so i’m not looking forward to not being able to do it. Hopefully I’ll drop on the stage, and that’ll be the end of it!”
After a brief chat about the relationship between Tom and Jack White, with whom he recorded a 7″ in March (“this kid’s got some fire” says Tom of his collaborator), conversation turns to the industry and whether or not new artists today will find it more difficult to ‘make it’ than the artists on Tom’s generation did when they were starting out.
“I know there are a hell of a lot of people about. There’s loads of singers now,” he comments, ”much more than when I started. So I’d think it is more difficult now, because there’s so many. But the original concept of record companies hasn’t changed that much. They’ve always been looking for young people to record, and when something hits, they want more of it. Like when The Beatles hit first of all, record companies went to Liverpool thinking there was going to be loads of Beatles about. Like when Norah Jones came out, all of a sudden there was a flood of girls sitting at a piano and playing. So those things were like that in the 50s when rock’n’roll first kicked in. They wanted young, good looking people. That part of it hasn’t changed much.”
“But of course the way records are made and the way they’re put out, the way you hear them now is different from actually going out and buying them. I used to like LPs because the liner notes were great and the artwork, it was all part of it, it was a package. But I think hopefully, kids today will still go out and buy CDs because you’re getting more, that whole package. But that’s the record companies’ problem as far as i’m concerned, as long as i’m still allowed to go into the studio… I’m still basically doing it the same way. I’m still standing in front of a microphone, they haven’t changed that much. Guitars are still guitars and drums are still drums. The making of the music hasn’t changed too much. Unless you’re going to make a really pop record, with sequences and autotune. I think record companies think that kids have gotten so used to that sound that they use it even if they don’t have to, as it creates this sound which they think is commercial. Which I don’t particularly agree with. But it all depends on the kind of record you’re going to make.”
And with that, our time is up. The most remarkable thing to take away from this interview is how enthusiastic and excited Tom remains not only about his own career, but about music itself. He’s a fan at the end of the day, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s managed to forge such an enduring and successful career in the music business. He knows what sounds good, he knows what he likes and even after 50 years, he holds the fire, drive and ambition to create new, interesting music and to search for new paths and directions. Humble, thankful and still a a tyke at heart, there truly is only one Tom Jones, who waves us off with the closing line, “as long as I can go in there and do it the way I want to do it, and people still like it, then that’s fine.”