Interviews

Tom Jones: “I make the songs my own, and it’s as if I wrote them” – Interview



The Welsh legend on his new album Surrounded By Time, the challenges faced by The Voice contestants and treating Mother Earth with dignity

Tom Jones

Tom Jones (Photo: Rick Guest)

When we arrive for our third interview with Tom Jones, he’s still riding the crest of his musical renaissance. It is a rebirth now more than a decade old, an alliance with producer Ethan Johns yielding the albums Praise & Blame, Spirit In The Room and Long Lost Suitcase. In that time Jones’s sound has undergone a striking overhaul, one that suits his voice in the manner of a radical haircut.

With the new music, and his continuing presence as a judge on reality singing show The Voice, Tom has much to be positive about as he moves in to his 80s. “I’m on the balcony overlooking the Thames, and we have a bit of sunshine already,” he says with evident satisfaction. We begin by considering the personal investment he has made on new album Surrounded By Time, the next instalment of his work with Johns. “I’ve written some songs before, but nothing to speak of,” he says. “I take songs that I’ve liked, and that’s what I do. It’s my interpretation. People say ‘You’ve covered this, and you’ve covered that’, but I say ‘Wait a minute, would you say that Laurence Olivier covered somebody else when he did Othello, or Macbeth?’ It’s your own version of it. It’s the same with orchestras, you get a conductor who will conduct a piece his or her way, and they will sound different to how somebody else does it. It’s like that with me as a singer. I make the songs my own, and it’s as if I wrote them.”

Surrounded By Time shows that when Jones has finished with a song it can bear almost no resemblance to the original, so thorough is his investment in it. Talking Reality Television Blues, a song by Todd Snider, is a prime example. “The thing that got me with the talking side of it was an album I have by Hank Williams, as Luke The Drifter – called Beyond The Sunset. As you know Hank Williams was a great country star, and he had a certain image, so he took on this other persona so that he could speak these songs, and people wouldn’t think of him as being Hank Williams. I thought with Talking Reality Television Blues that’s what I would do, take what I’d heard and just reflect on what I found.”

The song is a conscious dialogue on small screen development over 70 years. “I remember TV in 1952, when I was 12, which is when we had our first television set. We watched the first Coronation on it. I had tuberculosis, and I was in bed for two years, so TV was very important to me – I knew what influence television had and still does on me. I still love to watch television, and it’s an important part of life that I’ve lived through, like with Milton Berle. We didn’t know who he was in the 1950s in Britain, but then I went to America and I got to know him very well. He told me about when he first went on TV you know he was called Uncle Miltie, Mr Television. I got to know him very well – and I got to know Donald Trump – when I was singing at clubs in Atlantic City.

“And Michael Jackson. I knew Michael when he was a kid, all the way up from The Jackson Five until when he died. He used to come to my house in Bel Air in Los Angeles.” Can Jones recall ever singing with him privately? “I didn’t sing with him, no – but he used to come round to my house in Bel Air, because he was recording with Quincy Jones at the time. He was looking at my pictures one day on the wall, of my TV show when I was doing duets with everybody. This was 20 years ago at least, and he said, ‘Wow, you’ve had a great career haven’t you?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m having a great career!’ He thought it was wonderful to see the pictures.”

Personal involvement in his songs is key for Jones. “I knew the people that I’m singing about! I saw the moon landing on television in 1969, I watched it live in America on TV. I try to find songs that I can relate to, a song that says something to me that I can then portray in my own way to the public. At the end of the day, if the audience doesn’t like it, then you may as well forget it. I’ve learned over the years to be honest, and to do it the way you feel it. People know that, they come to my shows and they see honesty. I get young people coming up to me and saying ‘You’re tremendous, because you are what you are and you’re not claiming to be a young person. You’re an older person, but you’re still delivering and putting it out there’. Kids see through you in a minute, so I try to take all of that on board, and I listen to what people have to say about me on The Voice, and the songs I’ve done in the past. The audience is all important; you cannot short change the public. When you get on that stage you need to deliver, or you may as well not bother, as far as I’m concerned.”

One the album’s calling cards is the remarkable song There’s No Hole In My Head, a song (and video) that pins its listener up against the wall. “Exactly,” says Jones with some satisfaction. “I’m ramming it down your throat! The original is by Malvina Reynolds, who was a protest singer, but if you visit the original it’s a lighter version, and she sang it a bit like a school teacher. She’s saying to younger people, ‘Be yourself’ – you know.” He loosely quotes from the song. “There’s no hole in my head. Don’t try to fill it up with candy wrappers. You’re trying to keep out sex and revolution, you can’t do that with me! I’ve got to speak my mind. It appealed to me and I thought, ‘When I do it I’m going to ram it down your throat!’”

Does music need to be more upfront in this way, to tackle some of the issues we face today? “Yes, I think so,” he says emphatically. “You’ve got to state your case. That’s why I did Ol’ Mother Earth, the Tony Joe White song. When I heard that I thought, we’d better straighten up, because Mother Earth, she can only give us so much. You can’t keep taking from the Earth, and it’s proven now even more than when he wrote it in 1972. Nowadays, David Attenborough of course talks about it, and it’s like the plastic bottles in the ocean, you know, for goodness sake. How many signs do we need with global warming? We’d better straighten up, or we’re going to destroy ourselves. Songs like that are very important to me – and to be yourself, like There’s No Hole In My Head. You’ve got to get out there, don’t lie down. If you’ve got something to say and you feel strongly about something, get out there and say it!”

“When I told jokes it used to be about 70-year-old men, and now they’re at least 90!” – Tom Jones

On a more local level, has he noticed any changes in the environment in Wales? “Yeah, in Wales as much as the rest of Britain. I used to say to my father, who was a coal miner, ‘How much coal do you think is in here?!’ He said ‘I’m just working in it, I don’t want to philosophise!’ He did say at the time though, ‘You’ve got to find other means of power. You can’t take all this home, it’s not going to last forever.’ He was aware of it then, he was a very bright man my father. He was a coal miner, but he thought more than that, about the environment, and how much can the Earth take – all the abuse we’re pushing onto it the whole time.”

Considering these issues, could it be that a song like Green, Green Grass Of Home, one of Jones’s first hits from 1967, has acquired a greater meaning now than it had then?  “Another thing about getting older is that I’m listening to things differently from when I was young,” he says. “I used to attack things when I was young, and sing them because they sounded good. I was more concerned about the way I was singing them than the meaning of the song. I look at things closer with age than I did when I when I was young. Green, Green Grass Of Home appealed to me when I first heard it. It was a very important song, I felt it then. At the time, Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys was Number 1, and I knocked them off with Green, Green Grass Of Home, and stayed there for a long time, too.”

Given the lengthy gestation period for some of the songs on Surrounded By Time, are there still songs Jones feels he is not quite ready to sing yet? “Not really.” He laughs. “I’m Growing Old is about admitting that, that I stumble when I walk! I don’t want to harp on about that. That’s why we didn’t finish the album with it, and we finished with Lazarus Man instead, which is a rebirth.” Vocally and emotionally, it is one of the strongest songs on the album. “Definitely,” he agrees. “It’s about this old guy, and I’m taking two parts in this. I’m Lazarus, man – I’ve been on the ocean and I don’t know when I was on land last, but this is what happened to me. He gets to walk out of his tomb, and that appealed to me. I’m not dead, I’m back again – I’ve kicked the sheets off, and here I am! He quotes from the song. ‘I’ll tell you a story as quick as I can, I’ve got nothing but time, I’m Lazarus man!’ That’s the truth – we’re back to the truth again.”

Jones speaks warmly of the effect producer Johns has had on his musical life over the last 10 years. “I can only go by what it did for me personally. When I first talked to him, he said, ‘I want you to go back to when you first started off with a rhythm section in Wales. You were not singing with a brass band or strings, you just did it with the guitars and the drums and you were doing more earthy songs’. He was right – I would pick these songs and we would do them in these working men’s clubs. That’s a great training ground, you see? A lot of kids that I talk to, when they come on The Voice, some of them have never been out of their front room. It’s all in at the deep end. It’s completely different from when I started. You didn’t go on television until you had a record to go on with. Now, they’re in the deep end to try and get a record contract, the reverse to when I started.”

“How many signs do we need with global warming? We’d better straighten up, or we’re going to destroy ourselves.” – Tom Jones

We return to the album and its most meaningful song for Jones. I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall begins Surrounded By Time, a direct message to his now-departed wife Linda, who urged him to keep looking forward as she was dying from cancer. Was it a cathartic song for him to sing? “I was with her for the last 10 days of her life, in a hospital in Los Angeles. My son was with me, and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do – I don’t think I’m going to be able to sing, it’s just going to stick in my throat.’ She said, ‘Well you have to – you’ve got to! Don’t follow me – I’ve got to leave. It’s not my choice to leave but I’ve got to, and you don’t have to’. So when I heard I Won’t Crumble that’s what I thought of, because of the lyric ‘I’ll do anything for you, but I won’t crumble with you if you fall’. ‘You can’t fall with me,’ she said, ‘you’ve got to carry on’. Jones’ voice is remarkably strong and steady at this point. “She said, ‘Just think of me when you get on that stage, and think of my laughing – don’t think of me sad’. So I do.”

Linda is a presence throughout the album too. “I think of her when I sing I’m Growing Old, and change the words slightly – I wish I’d done it on the record. It says, ‘I save a lock of hair but I seldom dream about my wife’. Well that’s not true, so I changed it when I do it live now, and sing, ‘Though I don’t save a lock of hair, I often dream about my wife’. I should have done that on the record, but I’m making up for it now.”

Jones’ vocal style is markedly different now from the 1960s. “I’ve seen interviews that I did then, and they asked me how long they thought I could keep this up, with my voice being so strong. I said, ‘Until I’m about 97!’ Why I said that, I don’t know – but it looks like I’ve got another 17 years! A lot of young people think that when they get to 50 they’re ancient. When I told jokes it used to be about 70-year-old men, and now they’re at least 90.”

It might come as a surprise that Jones has never recorded an album in his home country until now. “We went to Monnow Valley. In the 1960s they didn’t have any recording studios in Wales. It was the same thing with The Beatles, they had to come to London. They couldn’t record in Liverpool because there were no recording studios, and it was the same thing for Van Morrison in Belfast. We all gravitated to London in the ‘60s because that’s where it was, and still is I suppose. Now of course you’ve got recording studios all over the country.”

“A lot of kids that I talk to, when they come on The Voice, some of them have never been out of their front room. It’s all in at the deep end.” – Tom Jones

Recording in Wales was special. “Oh definitely, it was great. I stayed in the Celtic Manor in Newport, which I love, and we went to Monnow Valley from there.” Yet the live arena still holds the main attraction for Jones, and he is excited that performing live may not now be too far away. “My booking agent said that with a fair wind, it could be the middle to the end of July. We’ve already booked a bunch of things in September.”

He is still vocally active in the meantime. “I was just doing visuals on the album – we went back into the studio with the rhythm section and filmed things. I’ve just finished The Voice, the final was last week, and this last weekend I was in Wiltshire doing the tracks on the album. So I’ve been busy right until now – and now, I’m taIking to you!”

Doing promo, in spite of Surrounded By Time being his 41st studio album, he approaches it as though it is the first. “It’s always a proving point with me,” he explains. “I want to do different things, but I’ve never had any complaints. For instance, when I do a live show now, I’ll do different arrangements. I do still do Delilah, Green, Green Grass Of Home, and What’s New Pussycat? I still do those songs, but I present them in a different way. If you play the records, yes – you’ll hear a difference in the sound and the instrumentation. But when you play them on stage, with a rhythm section as I do now, they play all that. They can sing as well so I have the vocal backing, the fellas do that. We use a squeeze box for What’s New Pussycat, more like a French song, you know – because that’s the way it was written. When I do Sex Bomb it’s more of a blues song, we start that way and go in to how we would know it. I never get complaints, people saying, ‘Why don’t you do it like you did then?’ As long as you do the songs and they are really fresh, it’s always a proving point – in the studio, or television, or live shows, I’m there 100%. I want people to go away and say, ‘Tom is still knocking them out!’ I don’t want people to say, ‘He’s not what he was!’ Once that happens, I’m packing it in.”

Tom Jones’ album Surrounded By Time is out now through EMI. Tour dates and further information can be found at tomjones.com


buy Tom Jones MP3s or CDs
Spotify Tom Jones on Spotify


More on Tom Jones
Tom Jones: “I make the songs my own, and it’s as if I wrote them” – Interview
Tom Jones – Surrounded By Time
Tom Jones – Spirit In The Room
Tom Jones: “The voice is still the first thing that hits me” – Interview
Tom Jones: “The only thing I didn’t like about my working class background was that I had to work!” – Interview