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