Tom Jones is a national institution.
Those classic hits are part of our daily lives, while his current role on The Voice guarantees tabloid coverage of his every word.
But the past 10 years has also witnessed the Welsh singer take incredible risks, going back to his roots for a series of albums with Ethan Johns.
Exploring the blues, gospel, and country aspects of his work, Tom Jones challenged both himself and his audience, writing a fresh chapter for his storied history.
New album 'Surrounded By Time' is out on April 23rd, and it continues the icon's relationship with Ethan Johns. Containing new material and re-imaginings of some of his favourite songs, lead single 'Talking Reality Television Blues' was a genuinely daring return, viciously exploring the vagaries of fame while allowing the now 80 year old singer to speak his truth.
Follow up 'No Hole In My Head' is a biting statement of independence, one that finds Tom Jones pushing back against the weight of expectation.
Speaking to Clash from his home in London, Tom Jones takes time out from admiring the city's annual 24 hour snowfall to talk about his forthcoming album, dealing with his past, and why every recording session is a learning curve.
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‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ is a fantastic return, a really creative piece of music. Did it strike you as something special when you recorded it?
It did, yeah. Thank God we did it before the shit hit the fan with this COVID thing! We did it at the beginning of 2020. So we recorded down on Monow Valley in Wales – actually, that’s the first time I’ve ever recorded in Wales. I’d never recorded there before! We started there, and ended up in Real World in Wiltshire… where my grandmother came from, funnily enough – so there’s a connection!
When we were doing it, I had long talks with my son – who is also my manager – and with Ethan Johns, the producer. So we thought, what do we do now? We’d done the trilogy of American roots music, so what next? Ethan thought, for the next one we should go with experimental sounds… as opposed to just straight ahead instruments. We incorporated them – we used real instruments – but he added a lot of stuff that was electronic. So that was it. Then we started looking for songs. And we sought out songs that represented parts of my life, that would reflect things that I’ve experienced.
I held on to a song from the 70s – I was in my 30s then – and a fella came by in Vegas called Bobby Cole, who was a lounge singer. He was Sinatra’s favourite lounge singer, actually – he had a piano trio. He used to write songs, and he came to me with this song called ‘I’m Growing Old’. I said, well Christ – I’m only 33 or whatever I was at the time… it just wasn’t the time. But I decided to hold it because I really liked the song, but I couldn’t sing it just then as it was a song about a man who had lived a life, and had experiences, and now he’s coming to the end of it. There’s certain times in your life when you should record songs and when you shouldn’t. So this is the way I felt about ‘I’m Growing Old’ - now I can do it. So we looked for songs that I’d observed through the years.
I’d always liked Hank Williams – he did a bunch of songs under another name called Luke The Drifter. Instead of singing the songs, he spoke them. He took on this other name, so they wouldn’t associate him with his other songs. He spoke everything, and I always liked it. We were looking for things like that, and then we came up with ‘Talking Reality Television Blues’.
I saw the beginning of TV when I was a kid – it was a brand new thing in the 50s. Well, I refer to Milton Berl in there, because he started all this off in the States, and I met him – I knew him well, when I was in the States a lot. I knew what he had done for television, he was huge! Everything I’m talking about in the song I’ve experienced. The moon landing. And Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk – walking backwards, and eventually too far. Reality killed that video star! And then Donald Trump comes on, this old guy with a combover who sold us the moon. And then there we are: reality killed by a reality star… because that’s what’s fucking happened! Excuse my French.
And then with Cat Stevens… well, I’ve always liked him. We started about the same time, and we used to do TV shows together in the 60s. I always liked a song that he did called ‘Pop Star’ - when he wrote it, it was more of a piss take. They wanted him to be a pop singer, but he wanted to do more interesting music than that. But for me, it brings back the experience of going on TV for the first time, my first gigs as a professional. Look at me ma – I’m on TV! All that stuff. At the end of the song, though, he still goes home… and that’s true. You always want to go home. Even after you’ve been out on a long tour, you always look forward to going home. All these songs represent me. Every one. We hand-picked these, and they represent a part of my life.
The material you’ve made over the past 10 years feels very, very true to you – do you feel that’s when you thrive as a singer?
I’ve worked with different producers during different parts of my life. Some have been successful, and some haven’t. In the disco time, there was a guy called Johnny Bristol – who had some hits himself – and I thought, I’d love to do an album with him. And I did! But it wasn’t that successful because it just didn’t gel as much as I thought it would. Sometimes it’s a hit or miss situation. Sometimes you’ll have an idea about songs and who’s going to produce them, and sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re not.
Like my original producer – Peter Sullivan – he really got me. We did ‘It’s Not Unusual’ together. He understood what I was doing at that time. So, I try to seek out producers that can do things for me at different times in my life. And then Ethan Johns came up in the last 10 years, and he said: “I feel that there are parts of you that haven’t come out yet. I hear in your voice these blues and gospel stuff that you haven’t really come to grips with.” I had touched on it from time to time, but I hadn’t done a full project like that.
See, years ago – in the 60s – you didn’t have that much studio time. The arrangements were all done in the rehearsal room or in your house. First you’d get the song, then you’d get the arrangement, and sometimes you didn’t hear the arrangement until you got into the studio. It could be really hit and miss. When I did ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’ I wanted to do it like Jerry Lee Lewis had done it – but the arrangement changed, and I didn’t actually hear it until I got into the booth. The full orchestra starts up, and I thought: what the fuck have they done to this simple country song…? But it was the right arrangement for the time, because it turned that little country song into a big pop song.
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Sometimes you just have to get a bit lucky with the people you’re working with. And with Ethan Johns, he said: I think we should go into the studio just with a rhythm section, and pick some songs, and we’ll try ‘em out. And we did! We went to Real World – the same place that we did part of this last one – and we got in this room where everything was in there. There was no seperation with anything. You couldn’t go on TV with a backing track because it isn’t one! It was all live. But we captured something that was new! It was back to basics again.
So much so, that one of the first tracks that we did was a song called ‘What Good Am I’ - a Bob Dylan song – and he liked my rendition of it so much that I was invited to perform on a Music Cares television showcase by Dylan himself. We got the call, and only 10 people were invited – Bob Dylan loved it. It’s strange. You do things because you want to, and then things happen. You work with the best available producer and musicians. The repercussions sometimes – like that – can be amazing. For Bob Dylan to like was – for me – a massive, massive compliment. A lot of people have done it, but he wanted me to sing it at that event.
With this one, I knew I wanted Ethan Johns to sing it because he knows me. My son helps too - he’ll bring songs to me sometimes that I’m not even aware of. And Ethan sits down with us, and we work out what instrumentation we’ll use to get the best out of this song. Like, there’s a Tony Joe White song I’ve always liked called ‘Oh Mother Earth’ and the first time we tried it I sang it, and Ethan said: the words are really ringing true, but there’s not much in the melody… so what about if you just speak it? And I said sure, I’ll try it! So we did, and then it clicked. So it’s trial and error – but you know it, when you hear it back, whether you got the best out of it or not.
‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ takes a look at fame. You’ve had a remarkable career, with a great deal of success – does it become easier to handle the intrusions of fame as you get older? Or does remain quite challenging?
It’s always challenging, as far as I’m concerned. I’m always challenged by it. The way I sing now, you see, because of all the experience I’ve had through life – and I’m lucky enough to still have a strong, flexible voice. And I sing differently now, because that comes with age. And hopefully I’m better! As I’ve gained a lot of experience – you listen to songs differently… I do, anyway! And you sing them differently. And now, more than likely, I wouldn’t have sung them with as much reality as I would have done 30 – or even 50 – years ago. I would have approached them differently. When you’re younger, you do… you’re gung-ho and you charge into stuff. Now I think about things much more before I sing them.
What lies behind 'No Hold In My Head'?
It’s the same thing. When I first came from Wales to London, The Beatles had happened. I’m sure this still goes on now – when something is successful, record labels want more of it. So they went to Liverpool, to look for all these other groups because The Beatles had opened the door. And in London they had the Rolling Stones. You had to have a certain look – you had to have lank hair, you had to be skinny, and you had to look like a boy… as opposed to a man. And here I come along – even though I was the same age as John Lennon, they looked at me as this macho guy from Wales with a busted nose. Like, how the hell is he going to happen?
And I got told, look this Elvis Presley bullshit is gone, it’s passe. All the moving around when I sang – I got told to forget it! And curly hair doesn’t work any more, they said that too. That it couldn’t happen in England. I said, look: Cardiff is only 160 miles away, I played all the venues throughout the Welsh valleys, and we went over a storm! People were digging the shit out of it. And you’re not telling me that English people are that different to Welsh people, for goodness sake!
They tried to change me. They told me to straighten my hair – which I tried once, and said “fuck this, it’s not working!” They told me to stop moving around, they told me to stop this and that… and I said, look: excuse me, if I can’t do this the way I want to do it, then there’s no point to this, I’ll just go back to Wales! There’s no point to it. But I persevered with it, and I had Gordon Mills as my manager, and he saw what happened in Wales when I sang there, so we decided to stick it out. Then we got ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and then everything changed. But sometimes the powers that be want to mould you into something that you’re not. And that’s what this song represents.
People thing that when my head opens up it’s full of nothing. They want to put their own special stuff in. Full up the space with candy wrappers. Take out sex and revolution. But there’s no hole in my head. Too bad! If you don’t see it then fuck you! And that’s it. So it’s a fuck you song!
You’ve always kept looking forwards to the next challenge – is that a natural thing for you?
Yes it is. Even when we do the hits, I’ve changed the arrangements on them. I don’t just copy what I’ve done. I don’t do ‘Delilah’ the same way as when we recorded it – we start it off as a ballad now. And then you realise what a good song it is – that’s the sign of a real good song, when you slow it down and do it in a good way. You think: shit, this is a meaningful lyric here! It takes on a different thing.
I’m always changing. Even if people want the hits – and rightfully so, I understand that – I can match that duty to the public by shifting them around. And I’ve never had any complaints. No one ever comes up to me and says: oh, you don’t do ‘Delilah’ the same way! And that, again, is learning… and it only comes with time. And that’s why we called the album ‘Surrounded By Time’ - it’s incredibly important.
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It’s remarkable to hear you’re still learning…
Always. When I’m on the Voice, and I hear something I haven’t heard before – in phrasing, for example – I think, shit, that’s clever! Or someone who sounds different, with a different sound, and a different way of handling songs… it comes across. Especially when you can’t see them during the blind audition. You just use your ears, you’re not looking at anything.
Every time I go on there I’m learning. I’m listening to these young singers, I’m hearing things, and I’m thinking: wow, that’s – to use a will.i.am expression – fresh! Because they’ve got a fresh approach! They’re not copying the records. And that only confirms something I’ve always known, which is that you’ve got to put your own stamp on something rather than just copying something that’s always been done.
Did you feel that on ‘Surrounded By Time’ you were doing something that you hadn’t done before?
Oh yeah. Definitely. Even on ‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ - I’ve never narrated a song before. I’ve always sung them. But I always liked those Hank Williams records – I’d think, Christ, sometimes you get the words over more when you speak them, than when you sing them. That in itself made me think: can I actually do this? And both my son and Ethan said: of course you can, give it a shot! And we noticed that when I talk, it doesn’t sound false – it’s like a conversation. I’m not doing it in time, I’m just saying it as though I was saying it to someone else. I was learning something – and I didn’t realise I even had it in me until I listened to it back.
One thing about your speaking voice is that you’ve kept your accent after all this time!
I love accents. Some are really strange… but I’m always interested in ‘em! Words are very important to me, so getting them across is important. I remember when I first came to London, my manager said to me: you’re speaking too fast! Because the part of Wales that I come from, we all speak quickly. So he said: the English won’t understand you, you’ve got to slow down. So then I go onstage one night, and I go: well… good… evening… ladies… and… gentlemen… it’s… a… pleasure…
And he said: wait a minute, Tom. The English just won’t understand you, they’re not stupid! And I said: oh, really…? (laughs)
One last question: does it hurt not to be able to get out on tour and perform to people?
Yes. Yes, it does. Definitely. That’s the thing that all performers will tell you. It’s the thing that COVID has done. Thank God we can go on television and do some kind of music in that respect, but the actual getting up in front of a live audience is nothing like it, y’see. And if you’ve experienced it – and I have for many, many years – then nothing takes its place. Because something unique happens each night – it’s always changing! There’s different things that can happen, and that comes from the audience. You sing a song, and the reaction is different one night compared to another night. And you feel differently.
There’s a live thing that happens that you can’t get on record. It’s a thing that happens there. It’s in the air sometimes! You’ll think: what the fuck happened here tonight?! Especially at an open air gig. You think: something must be in the air because this has really taken off! And it’s the audience that does that. And collectively they become a thing unto themselves. And that only happens when you’re live. That’s what any entertainer will tell you.
I actually feel sorry more for young people who are trying to start off and get some experience from doing live shows. It’s all very well being in your front room making videos and then getting straight on to television – like sometimes it happens on the Voice, where they’ve never been onstage before. So this COVID thing, it’s really stifling singers and bands who want to get out there, and get some experience, and get the feedback from the people. And they can’t get that at the moment.
I know what that feels like. At least I know what I’m missing… but some of these kids don’t know yet. They haven’t had the opportunity to experience it.
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'Surrounded By Time' is out on April 23rd.
Photo Credit: Rick Guest
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