Legendary singer and raconteur draws on wealth of life experience for covers set Tom Jones has been making music for six decades now, but the famous Welshman attacks the material on his 40th album, "Spirit in the Room," with the brio and relish of a newcomer. He sinks his teeth into stripped-down covers from songwriters as diverse as Leonard Cohen and the Low Anthem with the full life experience of his 72 years, cackling maniacally on Tom Waits' "Bad as Me" and growling menacingly on Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man." The follow-up to 2010's "Praise & Blame" once again pairs Jones with producer Ethan Johns, and many are comparing their growing body of work to Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash's seminal series of albums.
Unlike the frail Cash, however, Jones is still incredibly robust, splitting his time between his adopted hometown of Los Angeles; London, where's he's a judge on the British version of "The Voice"; and concert stages around the globe.
Jones is as great a raconteur as he is a singer, and it doesn't take much prompting, if any, for him to launch into an amusing story about splashing around with Elvis Presley in Hawaii or how magical it still feels to be onstage after all these years. The legendary artist starts a U.S. tour on May 11.
MSN Music: What kind of spirits did you feel you conjured up in the room as you were recording this album at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios?
Tom Jones: We were in a place called Box, in Wiltshire [England]. My grandmother was born there [before] they moved to Wales in the late 1800s. It used to be an old water mill, and I was walking around and I thought, she must have walked around here. Box is very small. She couldn't have been born in another part of town. So [after recording the] first album went so well, I thought, "I wonder if she is still floating around here?" When we got here to do the second one, it felt the same kind of feel as it did when we did "Praise & Blame." I said, "It feels like there's a spirit in the room," and Mark, my son, said, "That's a great title!" My grandmother's father [was] a stone mason. He [could] have been one of the men who built this bloody place.
How did the theme for this album come about?
Ethan said, "Let's do some songs from some of your favorite songwriters, not like a well-known song, something that would suit you." I wanted to do Leonard Cohen's song ["Tower of Song"]. I love that because of the lyrical content. The opening line is "my friends are gone, my hair is gray ... I was born with the gift of a golden voice." Jesus Christ, if I could have written that, I would have.
Was that the first song you recorded to help you get the tone for the album?
No, I think the first one that we did was "Soul of a Man," because we were listening to a lot of old blues stuff as well and I know a lot of old blues, country blues, gospel-type stuff.
On that and Tom Waits' "Bad as Me," you're unleashing some demons. You're looking for people who can sin just as well as you and then you have to go seek redemption in some of these other songs.
Well, that's it. We thought we'd mix it up. That Tom Waits song, Jesus Christ!
It sounds like you take absolute delight in singing it.
Yeah. It's another side of me. It's like, "You're as bad as me ... You think of all these crazy things ..." I've always loved Tom Waits. I was looking for stuff by these people that I could relate to that was touching me. "Tower of Song" is as true as "Bad as Me."
Do you think you could have sung these songs even 20 years ago, or do you need all 72 years of life that you bring to them?
I think different times of your life things happen and I don't think it could have happened before.
You and Ethan are already working on a new album. What's on that?
I love '50s rock 'n' roll and old bluesy kind of stuff and I love country music. I love Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love me Like You Used to Do," so we did that. We also did "You Pretty Thing," the Bo Diddley song. Maybe we'll do three albums and put them in a box set: do an album of '50s rock 'n' roll, an album of all blues and do an album of all country, and keep them separate.
You seem to still get amazing enjoyment out of singing. Do you feel like you're 25 again?
Oh, it's unbelievable, it's just the fire that's in there ... you know we're all sort of ripping the s--- out of it. [Laughs] And I said to Ethan, "You know what, the people that are on this record, why don't we just go out as a band? I wonder if we could get away with it? Maybe just say it's a band and not saying it's me."
Speaking of, you start a limited U.S. tour on May 11. What does it feel like still to be onstage after all these years?
It's a fantastic feeling. When I'm there, I give my soul. I pour myself out. I just get all the emotion out of myself when I'm onstage, and it's a wonderful experience. I think I'm going to do this until I can't do it anymore because I would hate to retire or to not do it and then think to [my]self, "Why did I do that? Why did I stop? Why? When people want to hear me and I still want to sing?"
"Just Dropped In" is probably the only song here that most people will already be that familiar with. That was a hit for Kenny Rogers & the First Edition right around the same time as "Delilah" was a hit for you. What made you decide to record it now?
It was written by a man named Mickey Newbury and he was the one that put "An American Trilogy" together.
For Elvis Presley.
Elvis did it, but I was doing it at the same time. Elvis beat me to the punch and recorded it, but I was doing it live onstage.
I was in Hawaii with Elvis in '69, I was doing shows there and he had rented a house, so I was out at his house and we were in the ocean just fooling around there on the beach. We were both singing lines from Jerry Reed's songs and parts of "An American Trilogy," and I said "Well, I'm going to do it" and Elvis said, "Well I'm going to do it." "And I said, "Well, OK, that's all right, I don't mind," and he said, "Go ahead." That was it, so we were both doing it 'round about 1970, 1971, but Elvis recorded it and I never did. Once Elvis did it, I thought, "Well, now if I record it, they'll think I'm doing Elvis Presley," which I wasn't, but that was it. [Then] I was listening to Mickey Newbury and I heard his version of "Just Dropped In" and I thought, "Jesus! What a great song," so I wanted to do it, and as I'm thinking about it, Kenny Rogers recorded it.
And then there's the famous story of your not getting to record "The Long & Winding Road" after Paul McCartney approached you because the timing wasn't right.
That's why I did the Paul McCartney song ["(I Want To) Come Home"] on this album.
You lost some good songs over the years, but all in all, it's safe to say it's turned out OK for you.
Yeah, exactly, so I can't mourn too much, I can't say "S---, if I had been there!" because some singers always miss the boat and they never get one. Thank God, I did get some, I didn't miss that many.
In some ways, you're making good 40 years later: You've got Mickey Newbury's song on here, you've got McCartney's song on here ...
All I need to do now is "An American Trilogy" and I've got it.
You'll be caught up.
I don't think I'll ever catch up, but I'll try.
By Melinda Newman Special to MSN Music