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Spirit In The Room: A Conversation with Tom Jones - The Huffiungton Post

A Conversation with Tom Jones Mike Ragogna: Tom, welcome.

Tom Jones: Thanks, mate!

MR: You have a new album, Spirit In The Room, on which you take songs by artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and you make them your own. How did you choose this batch?

TJ: Well, first of all, I wanted to do songs by some of my favorite songwriters. Ethan Johns, the man that's producing me, said, "Tell me what songwriters you really like," and we'd listen to stuff that they'd done, and hopefully find one that we could do. That's what we did. We listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, a lot of Paul McCartney, Odetta, Paul Simon, Blind Willie Johnson, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Bill Hall Ward, Vera Hall and Low Anthem. It's basically songs by songwriters that I like.

MR: The approach you and your producer took on this was so personal and intimate, and it was recorded in a wooden room.

TJ: Yes, it was done in a place called Real World, which is owned by Peter Gabriel. It's a little place called Box in Wiltshire, and the only reason I had ever heard this name before is because my grandmother had been born there and then moved into Wales. Box is a very small place, but Peter Gabriel has built a studio there, the studio is why we called it Spirit In The Room. I felt something...I don't know whether it was because my grandmother is from there. The studio is a very old building and I began to wonder if my grandmother had ever been in there.

MR: I also have heard that from other artists who have worked there, that there is something special about the "feeling" in that space.

TJ: It's an old place. It's an old building in an old village. It's something more than just a recording studio.

MR: Let's talk about some of these songs, like the couple of Tom Jones originals.

TJ: Yeah. Well, Ethan and I were listening to all these songs, and we kind of used a part of one and a part of another and created some new songs as well. That was interesting.

MR: It takes a good relationship with somebody to comfortably be able to go into a room and start making music.

TJ: That's why I like working with Ethan--you start from scratch. We had to bring the tape machines into the room--that's how funky this room was to record in. It's like being in a rehearsal room somewhere, or somewhere you like to get together with a bunch of musicians that isn't a recording studio. Ethan picked this place on purpose so that we could try things out. Nothing was written in stone and the there were no songs pre-picked like I've done in the past. All this is from scratch. We talked about songs that we like and we tried them out different ways until they sound as real as we can possibly make them, and we go with that.

MR: Tom, let's talk about "Traveling Shoes." How did it come about?

TJ: Well, with "Traveling Shoes," he started off with the riff that is on there. It's like a Chuck Berry type of thing. Then I started singing some of the words to "Traveling Shoes," which I had heard before.

MR: "Tower Of Song" sounds like it came right from your soul.

TJ: To me, it could have been written about me: "My friends are gone and my hair is grey," which is true. "I ache in the places I used to play." [laughs] It's uncanny. There's another verse that gets a little braggy: "I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice." I thought, "My God, I could have written this," or I wish I had. That's the kind of song we were looking for, songs that felt real coming from me, that could be about me.

MR: You have just come off another collaboration with Ethan, Praise And Blame. That album had the same sort of personal approach. Having recorded together already, I guess you guys old pals just easily jumped into the process.

TJ: Yes. That's exactly what happened. We thought like, "Does lighting strike twice?" We went to the same room in Real World, and that was it. We knew that the feeling we got from the first record was something that we wanted to capture again--different songs, slightly different instrumentation, but the same stripped down, real feeling.

MR: Listening to "When The Deal Goes Down," it captures this organic, old-time carnival setting musically.

TJ: Exactly. When I heard the structure of the song, it was a lot like the songs that I heard in this club in Wales I used to go to. There were a lot of old-timers and old coal miners there that my father had worked with, and they had old songs that they knew from the turn of the century. It reminded me of that, and it sounded like some of those old songs that they would song. It sounded, to me, like a song from a different time, so we tried to record it like that. We tried to get it to sound like it came from the days of the music hall and gas lamps. It was the structure of the song that drove us that way.

MR: Tom, I have to say that personally, this is my favorite collection of songs you've ever recorded. It seems like it's less of the icon Tom Jones and more the man Tom Jones.

TJ: Right. That's what we tried to do. We tried to get a part of me that people hadn't heard on record before. Songs that I didn't get a chance to do when I was younger, and some of the songs fit more now than they would have when I was a young man, you know what I mean? So I think the time is right now for me to do more soul searching. Less performance and more as if I were singing them to myself.

MR: I'm sure at some point you sat and listened to this album from top to bottom. Is there anything that you learned about Tom Jones as you did that?

TJ: Yes, that it's me. It's what I sound like without big arrangements or without anything that you would do if you wanted to make a pop record. That's what I've done in the past with producers who want that. But Ethan said, "Look, why don't we just make a record that we like, that we love doing, that means something to us. Then, hopefully, that will translate to the public and they'll feel that." Luckily, so far, so good.

MR: Do you see yourself doing more albums like this in the future?

TJ: Yes. In fact, I'm going over to London and we're going to try some songs out for about a week, just to tread the water and see. It's a different studio, though. It's in Wiltshire, the same county, but it's another studio that Ethan has found and says is similar to Real World. Some of my favorite musicians are going to be there, and we're just going to try some things out and see where that leads us.

MR: I really wish you good luck with that because this approach fits you so well.

TJ: Well, thanks.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

TJ: First of all, to listen as much as possible to different things. Don't copy. Try not to listen to one person or to one style of music and copy it because then, you're going to sound like somebody else. Try to find yourself, what you really want to do, the way you really want to sing, and stick to that. Be true to yourself because there is only one of you and you've got to be true to yourself. If you're not, then you'll always fake it, and then you won't enjoy it. If you're true to yourself, you'll have a ball. It's a great business to be in if you are yourself,

MR: And what was the best advice that you ever received?

TJ: The first advice was when I was working in a paper mill as a young boy. This old man said to me, "I hear that you can sing." I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, why don't you give it a shot?" I said, "I am, I'm just trying to figure out how to get into it." This old fellow said, "Look, you go out there and give it the best shot you possibly can because you can always come back and do this. You'll kick yourself if you don't." He had been in the British Army and been all over the world and had a great life, and he said, "When you're old like me what you have left are memories. Make sure they're good ones." That's the advice that I took from this old chap, and I still believe that. I would say to any young performer who isn't sure, "Yes. Try it. Give it your best shot, and if you fail, you fail, but at least you tried."

MR: That's beautiful, Tom. I'm so glad that we got to talk again, all the best with the new project, your new studio sessions, and everything.

TJ: Oh, that's all right, mate. Nice talking to you. Thank you.

Tracks: 1. Tower Of Song 2. Bad As Me 3. Traveling Shoes 4. All Blues Hail Mary 5. Lone Pilgrim 6. Hit Or Miss 7. Dimming Of The Day 8. (I Want To) Come Home 9. Love And Blessings 10. Soul Of A Man 11. Just Dropped In 12. Charlie Darwin 13. When The Deal Goes Down

By Mike Ragogna

The Huffington Post

22nd April, 2013

Tom Jones talks blues, roots music and latest album, Spirit In The Room with Music Radar

"Tennessee Ernie Ford doing Catfish Boogie... records like that were the start of rock 'n' roll" Tom Jones talks blues, roots music and his new album, Spirit In The Room “The album reminds me of all the stuff I listened to when I was growing up in Wales," says Tom Jones of Spirit In The Room. It's the veteran singer's second collaboration with producer Ethan Johns, and like their first effort together, 2010's Praise & Blame, the gritty, stripped-down production is light years away from the big and brassy Las Vegas orchestra trappings that attended much of Jones' late '60s and '70s work.

"The music I listened to early on was on the BBC," says Jones. "There was big band music and pop, but occasionally we would hear a more raw sound, and those were the blues records, the gospel records and some country things, too. Tennessee Ernie Ford doing Catfish Boogie and Blackberry Boogie – to me, records like that were the start of rock ‘n’ roll. That stuff caught my ear."

Jones and multi-instrumentalist Johns (the latter is the son of noted producer Glyn Johns) assembled a tight band of musicians (Richard Causon on piano and vintage keyboards, Ian Jennings and Sam Dixon on bass, and drummer Stella Mozgawa) and recorded songs in a loose, leisurely fashion at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in Bath, England. "The whole thing was quite different from how we used to make records," says Jones. "We used to do three songs in three hours, with everything prepared beforehand. With Ethan, we went in and recorded from scratch – it was very free and open. And Ethan is a player, too, so I was talking to one of the people who would be making the music."

The songs, a haunting, soul-enlivening blend of Americana and blues-tinged covers by such names as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Blind Willie Johnson, Paul McCartney, Odetta, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits, among others, (along with the Jones/Johns-penned Travelin' Shoes, based on an original by Vera Hall-Ward) were picked by artist and producer with an eye towards, as Jones puts it, "getting down to the nitty-gritty. You can do that with roots music – there's nothing artificial in it."

Jones' minimalist, unvarnished approach to recording with Johns has been compared to Johnny Cash's late-period work with Rick Rubin, and the singer acknowledges the similarities. "With Johnny Cash, God bless him, he was doing that near the end of his life," says Jones. "The way that they made those records is sort of along the same lines. I think the beauty in what Johnny and Rick Rubin did is that, once you take the bare-bones approach, you get into the lyrics of the songs, the essence, without big arrangements trying to sway you. It really suits me."

Spirit In The Room will be released in the US on 23 April (it came out in the UK last year). On the following pages, Jones discusses the selection and recording process of seven of the album's 13 cuts.

1 Tower Of Song - Originally recorded by Leonard Cohen

“I love Leonard Cohen; he’s an incredible writer. With this song, I connected with it as I would with anything when I hear it and say, ‘Hey, that could be me.’ I’m singing about myself, my experiences, what I feel. That’s what I thought when I heard Tower Of Song. ‘My friends are gone and my hair is gray.’ Well, that’s true: Most of the friends I grew up with are dead, and my hair is gray. Those words really hit home.

“When we recorded our version, Ethan said, 'I want to get this as live as possible.' The microphone was wide open; it wasn’t a directional mic. There’s a great room sound, very ambient, as if you’re walking in on a band rehearsing.

“Of course, you get a good sound when you’re at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. We did both this album and Praise & Blame there. A very natural-sounding room.”

2 (I Want To) Come Home - Originally recorded by Paul McCartney

“I know Paul, and I’ve asked him over the years to write me a song. He’s tried it – he sent me one, but I was recording with Wyclef Jean, and the song he wrote me didn’t fit in with what we were doing. But I’ve always wanted something by Paul McCartney.

“Actually, here’s a story: When he wrote The Long And Winding Road, he gave it to me. I was talking with him one night in London way back, and I said, ‘I’d love for you to write me something, Paul,’ and he said, ‘I will.’ But what happened was, we had a record coming out, and I couldn’t stop it. Paul wanted me to do The Long And Winding Road, but he wanted it to be my next single. So we just couldn’t do it.

“From then, any time I see Paul, I always ask him about a song. Ethan heard this one, and he loved it. Everything that Paul has done is so popular, but this song, which was in a movie, wasn’t that well known.

“I listened to it, and I said, ‘That’s fantastic.’ Again, it applies to me. It could be me, my life. The production is minimal, and it works very well with what we wanted to do with it."

3 Dimming Of The Day - Originally recorded by Richard Thompson

“I’ve sung Richard Thompson songs before; I’ve always thought that he was a powerful writer. When we were getting ready to do this album, I definitely wanted to see what else of his might work. A few other people have recorded Dimming Of The Day, so I listened to what they did to see if I could take it somewhere else, which I think I did.

“We put a very simple beat to it, a natural style of production. The key to this song, and this whole album, is that you don’t want to over-arrange. That gets in the way of the song, gets in the way of what I’m trying to put across. For me to deliver a song like this well, it’s got to sound like I wrote it myself. Getting the right production can make a big difference.”

4 Traveling Shoes - Written by Tom Jones and Ethan Jones, based on Traveling Shoes by Vera Hall Ward

“Ethan and I were listening to some old blues songs, and I said, ‘Why don’t we elaborate on some of these?’ These kinds of songs have been done before, but the trick is to move things around; you take what was originally there in some form and change the pieces here and there. With a lot of blues, it’s hard to even say what the original of something is sometimes. They’ve been done and redone so much, but that’s how they continue to live on.

“I play guitar when I write, if it’s in a certain key. I’m not a great guitar player, but I do enjoy playing, and I know a few keys. Ethan is a far better guitarist than I am, so I let him take over in the recording."

5 Love And Blessings - Originally recorded by Paul Simon

“I know Paul. I’ve listened to a lot of his songs, and I knew that I wanted to do something that he wrote. He’s such a beautiful writer. Ethan played this one for me and asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘I love it.’

“We did it in the same rhythmic pattern as Paul, but we changed it quite a bit in the middle section – he had himself singing with the background vocals. Ethan played a real rock guitar, quite bluesy, which sounds incredible.

“I’m a big guitar fan, especially when it comes to the blues. Ethan is a great blues player. He’s got a bloody wall full of guitars. What's great about him is, you can talk to him about your ideas on how the guitar should go, and he gets it. He’ll try things out until you say, ‘That’s it. That sounds good to me.’”

6 Charlie Darwin - Originally recorded by The Low Anthem

“It’s a message song, but it's not morbid. It’s telling you about the world and the kinds of things that Charles Darwin was warning us about. I’m a historian – I love history – and when I heard the part about the Mayflower coming across, I could see it. These desperate people looking for a better world... It struck a chord in me.

“When I did it, it sounded so real. There’s a big piece in the song – it happens twice – and I said, ‘I hear English church singers in these parts.’ It’s not a gospel choir; it’s an English church choir. So that’s what we did – we went to a church and recorded a choir singing those parts. I had that sound in my mind, and I’m so pleased that we got it across. We kept the song, but we brought it somewhere new.”

7 When The Deal Goes Down - Originally recorded by Bob Dylan

“To me, it had the feeling of an old music hall song. That’s how I heard it. It reminded me of what I used to hear in pubs when I was growing up in Wales. The people would sing songs that were much older than them, things from the First World War and even before that. It had a structure as if it was from a very different time.

“That’s the sound we tried to get. We did it with a old pipe organ – you have to pump it with your feet as you play. That’s Richard Causon playing it, and he sounds incredible.

“I’ve never met Bob Dylan. For some reason, we’ve never been in the same place at the same time. I’ve always been a fan. He’s one of the best lyricists who ever lived. It’s never flowery with Bob Dylan – he says just what he means. On the Praise & Blame album, I did What Good Am I?, which he wrote. You can take a Dylan song and do it your own way, because the way Bob records, he does it very sparse. God bless him.”

By Joe Bosso March 27, 2013

To read the full review at click here


51-v1AbOBnL._SL500_AA300_ Tom has signed with Rounder Records and on April 23, the label will release Spirit In The Room, Tom’s latest recording. [...]