Sir Tom Jones opens up about making new album Surrounded By Time and starting again after the death of his wife...
For a good while, it looked liked 2015's Long Lost Suitcase would be the last we heard from legendary crooner Sir Tom Jones.
A fixture in British pop since the 1960s, it wasn't that the singer was considering retirement, it was simply that after the death of his wife Linda in 2016, he didn't know if he'd be able to sing again.
But, six years later, he is back and embarking on a new phase of a career that has seen him released 41 prior LPs and play thousands of concerts.
His new album, Surrounded by Time, sees Jones reimagining tracks by the likes of Bob Dylan, Michael Kiwanuka, Cat Stevens and Terry Callier, with long-time knob-twiddler Ethan Johns and his son Mark Woodward co-producing the record.
The album, which is hmv's album of the month, is out now and we spoke to Jones about getting up the courage to sing again, how he selected the songs for the record and why he can't get wait to get back on the road again...
It’s your first studio album for six years. Had you planned to make the record? Or did the pandemic give you the time to do it?
“I wanted to do an album. My wife died five years ago and that knocked me off-kilter. She told during the last days of her life: “You must not fall with me”.That’s why the opening track on the album is ‘I Won’t Crumble’. She told me: '"You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing." But I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t know if I could sing. When you get too emotional, your voice doesn’t work. I didn’t know if I could handle it, nothing so devastating has happened to me before, I had no way of knowing how it would affect me. It completely knocked me off balance.”
How did you work past it?
“My son said to me ‘Just try it. Get some of your musicians together, see how you do’. We did it and I discovered I could sing as long as I could get my mind in a good place. We decided to prioritise that and we got on the road and started doing lots of shows. But time creeps up on you, the older you get, the faster time goes and we realised we hadn’t done an album for a long time. So I started to gather some songs together. I wanted to work with Ethan Johns again, he knows me, he knows what my voice is capable of. Mark, my son, was coming up with a lot and suggested he co-produce. We took a couple of years to get everything together, but, in the end, I just finished the vocals before lockdown.”
“Only just in time. We’d gone through all the rehearsals, we’d ironed everything out, we’d gone through all the trials and error with the songs, trying different keys. I like to work things out with a band and work with them. I like to try things and keep things simple. It’s me, drums, bass, guitars and keyboards. Sometimes we add weird instruments to the final mix, but that’s all Ethan. I like a small group and I like to know what we’re doing before we record. Sometimes it’s one take, a couple of the tracks on this are one take. Mostly we worked across 2019, but it bled into 2020. Thankfully we got it done, otherwise, it wouldn’t have worked with the musicians, I like everybody to be close.”
How did you decide which songs would make the record?
“I didn’t have a lot of songs to start with. ‘I’m Growing Old’, I’ve kept that since 1972. Bobby Cole wrote it and he brought it to me in Las Vegas and offered it to me. I told him I was in my early 30’s and not ready for that yet, but I’d like to keep it to use it one day. It’s a bit like Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood movie. When he got given that script, he told them he wasn’t ready yet, he wasn’t ready to be the retired gunslinger they sent for. He had to wait for the right time. It was the same for me and that song. I wasn’t ready yet, the song wasn’t right for me then.”
It’s amazing you’ve kept it all these years…
“I gave it to Ethan and he said ‘I’m growing old, do you want to admit to that?’. I told him it’s about growing old, not admitting you are old! We tried and we had a piano player who worked on the chord structure. It was funny, I’d never actually sung it, although I’ve had it all this time. It took a while to figure it out and flesh out Bobby’s demo. I needed to get into the soul of the music and get the vibe right.”
There’s ‘Mother Earth’ too…
“Tony Joe White did that in 1972 and I’ve always loved it. We’re a long way from 1972 and I feel like we’re destroying the world a lot more now. That’s always bothered me, how can we keep taking from the earth? My father was a coal miner and I remember him talking to me about it, how it had taken millions and millions of years to put the coal in the earth and how we were just ripping the s**t out of it. They were the two songs I really wanted.”
Where did you get the others?
“The others were more suggestions. I’ve always loved ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’, same with ‘Popstar’, I remember Cat Stevens writing that in the 1960s! I saw Michael Kiwanuka on Jools Holland and he thought he was brilliant. I looked him up and Ethan told me about this song they’d just recorded and I just thought it was fantastic. ‘I Won’t Lie’, it has everything, it’s growing up, it’s losing people.”
“‘No Hole In My Head’, I first heard Malvina Reynolds when she did this track called ‘Little Boxes’, then I heard ‘No Hole In My Head’, which I loved. I think it’s incredibly relevant now, it’s a great message for young people, the words are perfect. ‘Everybody thinks my head's full of nothing, wants to put his special stuff in, fill the space with candy wrappers, keep out sex and revolution.’ I had to do that song. I had to do my own spin. I wanted to do it more aggressively. She does it like a school teacher and I’m hammering the s**t out of it.”
Did you have to try a few different versions of things?
“Oh, there was a lot of trial and error. Lots of different instrumentation. ‘I’m Growing Old’ ended up just being me and the piano player. ‘Mother Earth’, I tried to sing it at first and Ethan didn’t think it was working. We tried to work it out and I said ‘Well I can speak it if you like?’ and we tried it. I’ve always liked Hank Williams when he did his stuff as Luke The Drifter, all those spoken-word songs. I tried that and it made the song stronger. When you sing it, people take in the melody, when you boil it down to words only with a nice arrangement, it makes it more poignant.”
Where did you record?
“In Mono Valley, Monmouthshire, it’s the first time I’ve ever recorded in Wales. When I was a kid in Wales, there were no studios in Wales. You had to go to London. In the 1960s when I was trying to get a record contract, that’s what you had to do. The Beatles had to come down from Liverpool, Van Morrison had to come over from Dublin, Lulu had to come down from Glasgow, you had to go to London. Now you can make a record in your front room.”
You’ve done a few records with Ethan Johns now, what is it about you and him that works?
“We were making ‘Praise & Blame’ and the record company said ‘There’s this producer called Ethan Johns and he wants to meet you’. I said yes straight away. I knew Ethan’s father Glyn, he was a fantastic producer, and I knew Ethan’s work, Kings Of Leon, Paolo Nutini, fantastic records. So we met and he told me ‘I hear things in your voice that haven’t been recorded yet’. He asked me to strip it back, to just go into the studio with a small rhythm section. I’m used to working with orchestras and big bands. You get influenced like that, it affects the way you sing.”
“It was like my early days, doing clubs in Wales with a band. We went into Real World Studios in Wiltshire and we just clicked. A record producer, a good one, is like a film director. They’re getting the best out of you. I liked him straight away and I’ve wanted to work with him ever since. This time we’ve got my son too and he wanted to experiment with some different sounds. My son has provided the weird atmospherics. That was added after. I got my vocals down with a rhythm section.”
The pace of making records now is a world away from your early years. Sometimes you’d make three albums a year…
“It was all about the money. You had to get a record out at certain times of the year. I remember in 1966, I was in The Scotch of St James with Paul McCartney and I said to him, 'Paul, do you think you could write me a song?' and he said 'Sure'. He sent over ‘The Long And Winding Road’ and I thought it was great. He told me it had to be my next single or he was going to record it himself. I had this single ready to go, it was called ‘Without Love’, and I told my manager and my producer, I’ve got to do this song Paul’s sent. But they said to me, ‘Everything’s printed, everything’s ready to go. We could stop everything, but it’ll take at least a month to do’. I gave in.”
“Things were more restrictive then. I’ve got freedom now. Then they’d want four albums a year if you could. Quite a lot of the time you were just doing the popular songs of the day, I wasn’t getting much original material sent to me. An album to follow every hit. I had ‘Delilah’, it was a hit, there’s an album called ‘Delilah’. I had ‘She’s A Lady’, there’s an album called ‘She’s A Lady’. Now making albums is much satisfying. You need a link and a story. It’s more fulfilling. When you’re young, you’re full of piss and vinegar, you’re selling albums, you’re doing well and you just want to go bang, bang, bang. At my age, you want to take a bit of time.”
Do you still like to work quickly?
“Oh yes, quite a lot of my songs are done in one take. ‘This Is The Sea’ is one take. Me and a rhythm section. One take. We listened to The Waterboys’ song and we did it. I turned to Ethan and said ‘You wanna go again?’. And he said ‘No, we’ve got it’. I can do that. I listened to the song for a while, and then, once I’m in the studio, I can just go.”
Those days in the studio must be fantastic…
“It’s why I like working with Ethan. It’s cracking. Everyone’s there. Wherever we’re working we all stay there. In Mono Valley, we all stayed together, same with Real World, where we finished it off. You work as a unit. Although it’s a Tom Jones record, you become a band and it’s great to be in and amongst it.”
When did you decide that Surrounded By Time was the right title for the album?
“I was constantly saying throughout the making of the album ‘How much time have we got now?’. I was loving it, but it felt like it was always about time. I felt surrounded by it. I’m always asking about time, I feel like it defines everything. I can’t make a move without thinking about it.”
You’ve got a busy summer of live shows planned, you must be looking forward to getting back out there…
“Definitely. That has been the biggest pain of the whole Covid thing. I’m one of the lucky ones and people have got much bigger things to worry about than Tom Jones concerts. I’m 80 years old and I was first in line for the jab. I remember thinking in the first lockdown about just how long was this going to take? Could I be off the road for five years? Time again, I’m running out of it. Though it has been an advantage in getting the vaccine, I’ve had both now. It’s my musicians I feel for. I’ve had the same band for a few years and they’ve not been working. They’ve got mortgages and they need to work. I really can’t complain. I’m excited to get out and sing and I know people want live entertainment. The sooner we get things rolling the better.”
You’ve got 12 songs on this new record competing with a pretty hefty back catalogue when it comes to your live set, how will you decide what goes in?
“I’d like to put them all in, but you have to put yourself in the mind of the audience member. What would I like to hear if I went to a show? You want to hear some new songs, but you want the hits. I will always do ‘Delilah’, I will always do ‘It’s Not Unusual', I will always do ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’. The good thing is the band I’ve got now gives their own spin on those tracks. I try to do different arrangements and take different approaches to the songs. I want to keep those songs alive. I don’t sing ‘Delilah’ the same way as I recorded it. I keep the essence of the song and try and inject some new life into them. We went back to Real World to do some videos live on stage and we did the new songs and I know they work in that arena.”
You’re booked to play all sorts of different places, arenas, racecourses, do you love the challenge of different crowds?
“It’s a different mindset for every show. If you’re walking out into a huge outdoor crowd at a festival, you know they’re not necessarily there to see you. If you get a young audience and you win them over, that’s one hell of a kick. I like the intimate places too, it’s like being stripped bare. But it’s all about getting as much as you can out of a song. That doesn’t change with the size of the crowd.”
Finally, you’re booked through the summer and then what’s the plan?
“I think we’re going to do The Voice again. I’ve not had it confirmed yet, but I’d like to do it. I love it. The coaches now, we’ve got the perfect combination. will.i.am is great, always has been. Olly Murs fits that chair perfectly, then we’ve got Anne-Marie, this fresh wide-eyed pop singer. I’m the old godfather, I like that. We get on really well. Showbusiness, Saturday night. That’s the stuff.”