Sir Tom Jones is taking on water in the Groucho Club, ahead of a healthy lunch of tiger prawns. Enquiring on his health seems almost superfluous, given the glow emanating from his tanned features. "I'm good!" he says, not unexpectedly, in a full throated voice. "Everything's happening, there is lots of stuff going on, and I like it like that. It's great." Before we can ask, he moves immediately on to the first subject up for discussion - Spirit In The Room, a sequel of sorts to his well received previous opus Praise And Blame. "With the album I wanted to work with (producer) Ethan Johns again, and he wanted to do it as well, so when we finished Praise And Blame we agreed we had to do something like this again, if Island would go for it, which they did."
The stripped back format has sparked a new, rich vein of creativity in Jones's output. "Yeah, it's something that I haven't done before. It's different - again. I've gone in to another area, or style of recording if you like, that I used to do in Wales when I was starting off with the group I had down there. It's like going in to a rehearsal hall, trying stuff out and recording it." Is it a case of the less the accompaniment, the better? "Exactly. On Spirit In The Room it was often only Ethan on guitar, and Richard Causon on different keyboard instruments, a harmonium and a squeezebox and other old instruments. It was about making it as authentic as possible, and trying not to flower it up too much."
Perceptions of Jones as a kitchen-sink bellower don't tally with this album. "We wanted it as raw as possible, so that we could get that out of me, so it was just him, Richard and a drummer from Warpaint that we got in for a few tracks. We wanted to get Jeremy Stacey who was on Praise And Blame but he saw this girl, Stella Mozgawa, on the Jools Holland show and called Ethan, and said "If you're looking for a fresh drummer try and get hold of her." So she flew over from LA and did it, and it was tremendous, we did four or five tracks with her. It was in the same room we were in before. Real World kept it before turning those rooms in to offices."
Jones smiles when we mention the lengths he's going to with his voice now - or, more accurately, the depths of the notes he sings these days. "Yeah, there are some low ones in there," he grins. "What's happened, as with most people, is that your voice drops as you get older, so I thought we'd use the rich part of it. One of the bonus tracks, Long Pilgrim, is where we tried it as low as we could."
Bad As Me, meanwhile, explores new emotional territory. "Well, I love Tom Waits, and I love the album Bad As Me, so I listened to it to see if we could do one of the songs off it, and then Ethan said, 'Do you want to have a go at the title track?'. I said what could we do to even make it sound more wicked than he has, you know? So we did it very basically, and he gave a Middle Eastern, eerie feel to it. I laughed a lot on it, and tried to sound as evil as I could, but not in a cheeky way. It reminded me of Jerry Lee Lewis, he did a song, Mean Woman Blues, where he sang 'you're almost as mean as me' and that's what I thought of when I was doing this."
Jones agrees the song taps in to a mischievous streak that forms an important part of his character. "When I did Kiss I felt like that. When Prince did it, it was all in falsetto and a pretty light. I wanted to give it power. It's like that cheeky, naughty side." But is the new format of recording more emotionally taxing, when recording for a day? "No, it lifts me up actually, when we do something. With the actual recording you've got to get in to the mood of the thing, but then when you hear it back, like Charlie Darwin for instance, I heard the record and liked the song, but when I sang it and heard it back I thought good 'God, that's very moving', but in a good way. It worked. So that's what happens to me, when I do something I maybe haven't done before. It sounds real to me, and I'm the one singing it, so hopefully it'll have that effect on other people."
Jones and Johns unite in choosing the songs. "We try them three or four times, until we've captured the feel. Nine times out of ten I've agreed with him on what we should do and how." It has not always been that way with producers, mind. "When we were doing Reload, with everyone that I worked with I used their producers. When I was with Mick Hucknall (the pair recorded Ain't That A Lot Of Love) and I heard the song back, the weight of it was not there. So I said to his producer, 'I don't hear my voice as I should, it doesn't sound like me'. And he said, 'Well it does to me,' so I said, 'Well let me sing right at you!' So we were in a booth and I sang the song at him, and he said 'I've got it now, I hear you!'"
On Spirit In The Room, Jones sings Tower Of Song, one of Leonard Cohen's finest. "I've never met him, but I've always liked him," says Jones of the septuagenarian songwriter. "I always thought he was very interesting. I think of him as a lyricist, like Bob Dylan, more than a melody man. I wanted to do one of his songs. That's how this album came about, Ethan saying to me 'What songs from what songwriters would you like to do'?'. So I said I'd like to do a Paul McCartney song, because I missed The Long And Winding Road that he wrote for me, I let that slip through my fingers. This one was similar - I've been there and I've done this, and now I want to come home. So it reminded me of The Long And Winding Road that leads you home."
And the Cohen choice? "The obvious song was I'm Your Man, as it talks about whatever you want me to be or do, I'll do it, but Ethan said that was a little too obvious. So we kept listening and found Tower Of Song, because if I could write that I would. You know, 'my hair is grey, I ache in the places that I used to play, and I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on'. And the piece about Hank Williams, where he said 'I hear him coughing all night long', because he died of his chest, you know. So it was all real. And the bit where he said 'I was born like this', I've said that to people, because I've got this voice. I had no choice really, that's the road I had to take! So when I read that I thought I've got to do it."
Inevitably this leads to talk about The Voice, where Jones has stamped his personality on the BBC show's judging panel. Has its method of 'blind auditions' changed the way he listens to music? "Not really," he says, "Because the voice is still the first thing that hits me, before any arrangement, the basic voice is the thing that attracts me to records. Seeing the programme in America, I liked it, and I thought what a great idea to have your back turned during the audition. It's like hearing a record on the radio for the first time, and you don't know who that person is. You can have no preconceived idea of that person looks like, so you're not getting swayed. Your eyes sometimes take in more than your ears, so it's just the voice. I was asked to do it, and I wanted to know who the other three coaches were of course, but I thought if I can come across as real with this, if I can say what I feel, because some shows try to manoeuvre you, and they said that's what we want from you, to be honest. So I was!"
It helps that Jones keeps up with music that appeals to both young and old. "I've listened to a lot of people. Phrasing is all well and good; a lot of kids put a million notes in to it because they feel that's what should be done as a style of singing. Sometimes it works; Jessie J and Christina Aguilera are great at it. But I'm not looking for it, that's not a thing that sparks me off, for me that's something you can learn. The basic tone and honesty of a person's voice, I don't think you can learn much about that, it has to come through, and that's what I've been listening for."
In auditions, Jones has consistently been the last of the four judges to make up his mind before pressing the button and turning his chair to look at the singer. "I like to listen to the whole thing and press as late as possible," he explains, "because you never know with a singer, they can start off strong but start to crumble half way through, or they can start off shaky, and then I want to see if they get hold of the song as it goes on. You need to hear as much of it as possible."
He feels keenly his responsibility as a mentor. "The hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life, and I said that on the show, was to send somebody home, because I've never ever had to do that in my life. All of my career, when I've been making decisions it's been about me. In the battle scenes (a 'sing off' with one of his singers pitched against another) I explained as best I could, but I said it's got to be a good duet. But I had to do that, and it's not something I particularly like, as I don't like to be the bad guy. I thought I was over with it, but now I've got to do it again, I'm not through with it yet. But it's got to be done. I told them, don't think of me as a bad guy, you're all great singers - you've not failed an audition, and you've sung in front of millions of people. Take it as a positive if you've got to go, it's a step forward."
As you might expect, Jones's memories of auditions are many and varied. "We used to have these things called Go As You Please, in the clubs in Wales, so you'd be up against a guitarist or something. I remember this woman beat me once, she was a bloody ventriloquist, and she wasn't very good either! I got up there playing the guitar and singing, and she won it! I thought how can that happen?"
Jones is more than happy to talk about relative failures before the big break. "I went to do an audition in the YMCA and sang a Conway Twitty song, Only Make Believe. I didn't have any music for it, and I couldn't take my guitar because I didn't have a case, and it was raining. I thought I'd sing it for what it is, because it's a simple song - only three bloody chords in C. I thought musicians were more hip, but a lot of people if they don't have the music in front of them they can't play! So I thought that's bloody crazy! So I walked in and he said, 'So where's the music?' And I said it's Conway Twitty - it was Number 1 at the time. So he said 'Oh, I know', and sang it - but it was the wrong one. I thought people were hip! It was a rock 'n' roll song as far as he was concerned, and most musicians in the '50s hated it. So I said 'Well just play the chord of C then, don't do anything else!' So he did, and I started singing, and felt I was ripping the shit out of it, but there were some girls with big tits going to come on, and all of a sudden the fellas were looking over at them, so I thought - that's it - not going to happen. So I know how they feel!"
Does he still get nervous, especially now his voice is more exposed? "No, it's the other way around really, because that's the way I started in Wales. I started singing and playing the guitar, so I love doing that and getting my thing across. It just so happened that when I recorded It's Not Unusual, with a band, that it takes you on a path. I've always been critical, it's the placing of the voice, where it is, not the instruments on the track. Now that Praise And Blame was accepted so well, and the reviews were saying what I hoped they would say, that they could hear me, and the quality of my voice - not the arrangement - I thought it worked there so let's see if we can do something of a similar nature. So when I get on stage it's back to square one."
Jones, a knight of the realm of course, will be singing for the Diamond Jubilee. "We're doing a lot of festivals, and we finish The Voice on Saturday night, we rehearse on Sunday, and then we do the show on Monday. We haven't nailed it down yet, what to do! We're on with Jools Holland, and I know him very well, so we might have to do a '50s rock & roll song or something, but we don't want to be too obvious either."
He loves the Queen, having met her on a number of occasions. "I've always been a royalist. Holding on to the royal family the way the British people have is a wonderful thing, and it shows in America especially. It's something they don't have. They broke away at the time, and rightfully so, because they weren't being treated fairly. King George was a fuck up, and he let it slip. It would have been nice if we could have held on to the colonies, and they could eventually have had their independence anyway, like Australia and Canada have, but they fought for it and won it, and God bless them. The British descendants are still attached to Great Britain, and a lot to do with it is still there - the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace. In the Second World War, when Europe crumbled, we held on to that, and I think the royal family stands for that. So I've always been a royalist. I love all the pageantry. As long as the people go with it, mind! We've all got to be in for it. And getting the knighthood, too; that was all fantastic."
The food is ready, so Jones takes a final glug of water before getting ready to head downstairs, checking that the morning's special delivery - several bottles of his favourite Brains ale - is by his side. After half an hour in his company it is impossible not to feel some affection for one of Britain's most enduring of talents, reinventing himself even in his 71st year.
Tom Jones's Spirit In The Room is out on 21 May 2012 through Island.
by Ben Hogwood http://www.musicomh.com/music/features/tom-jones-2_0512.htm