Spirit In The Room
Release date: April 23, 2013
Sir Tom Jones is on a roll. At 71 years of age he’s all set to deliver Spirit In The Room, his most eagerly anticipated album in a long time. With its predecessor, 2010’s Praise & Blame, the peerless British singer has achieved only the latest of many gravity-defying turnarounds in a career that is now into its sixth decade.
On that remarkable record, Sir Tom deployed all his passion and versatility across a smoldering, gritty collection of vintage blues and gospel songs, which included compositions by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Bob Dylan.
“I never expected Praise & Blame to be as accepted as it was,” the pop icon muses, with his familiar humility. “I just thought, ‘This is a real album, I’m baring my soul here, so hopefully a few people will like it and buy it.’ And they did. Such was the power in his performances, that Praise & Blame scaled to No. 2 in the UK charts – higher than you’d ever normally find a “roots” album, and higher than Jones himself had been this century. Indeed, only Dylan has outsold it with a new album at this stage in life and career.
With every justification, Sir Tom felt that he was back on the right path again, getting back into the music he grew up with in Treforest, South Wales – the music that inspired him to sing in the first place. The album’s unforeseen mass popularity became even clearer as he and his band toured the songs around Europe’s festivals to a rapturous reception.
So, once the dust had settled on that campaign, he called up Ethan Johns, his producer on Praise & Blame, who had subsequently been awarded a Brit for his work with Jones and Laura Marling, and talked about working together again. Rather than merely knocking out a sequel, they set about taking things further, going deeper-and-down into the essence of popular song. The result is Spirit In The Room, another landmark development in Sir Tom’s recorded legacy.
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Spirit In The Room has a different kind of magic about it. Here, recorded in the intimate “wood room” at Real World Studios in Bath, and often with the most minimal accompaniment, Jones’ commitment and ability as a singer is tested to the max. Much as each of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings albums with Rick Rubin has its own feel and character, so this partnership is starting to shape up as equally exploratory, feeling its way from one session to the next.
“The reason I like working with Ethan is, it’s a new day for him,” Jones reasons. “He doesn’t want anything like the stuff I’ve done before. So we were trying to find songs that dug deep, to get something out of me that I hadn’t had the chance to express yet. This time, we really got down to the nitty-gritty.”
Ethan, whose father Glyn worked as an engineer/producer for all the big names in ’60s/’70s rock (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, The Eagles) worked with Jones in sifting through hours of music, and together they whittled it down to a few dozen songs to try out.
The idea of reconvening again in the studio at Real World, where they’d made Praise & Blame, was initially scuppered because Peter Gabriel’s staff were doing some work on the studio. They were working a few things out at another facility near London, but were struggling for the right vibe, when Real World called to say they could use their room after all. “It’s just a room,” says Tom, “just old brick, and old beams. There’s no sound booth—it’s just playing in a room, all facing each other. Once we got back in, everybody felt something happening—there was definitely a spirit in the room.”
The band was as minimal as could be for a live-in-the-studio recording. Johns took up the guitars for every tune as well as a range of other eclectic instruments. They were joined by Richard Causon on piano and vintage keyboards, Ian Jennings and Sam Dixon on bass, and on drums, Stella Mozgawa from Californian all-girl combo Warpaint, who was drafted in after the last album’s stickman Jeremy Stacey, then touring with Noel Gallagher, spotted her on Later With Jools Holland.
“The actual recording took two weeks,” Jones recalls, “and nine times out of ten the takes were between noon and seven in the evening. A lot of producers like to have everything in the track prepared, then have me just turn up and sing. With Ethan, everything happens on the day we actually record. We work out everything together on the spot, then record it live – each time from beginning to end, so the performances you hear are real performances.
But in that process, sometime things don’t happen easily or just don’t happen at all, so you just move on. We’d play them through together, often a few different ways but it all had to sound absolutely right. Ethan would say, ‘Let me try that again, I can do better than that.’ Then he’d try it, and it was like, ‘No, that wasn’t better!’ Sometimes there’s a simplicity in the first time you try it. You just get ahold of a song, and you do it the way you feel it. Ethan listens. He’ll say, ‘I’m telling you, that first take, or the second one – you’re more real than you’ll ever be again. Don’t try and clean it up, because you lose the essence.’ I’ll say—a little skeptically— ‘Oh well, if you really think so...You need somebody you can trust, that’s why I like Ethan.”
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Through these spontaneous methods, Johns indeed elicited some remarkable performances from Jones, revealing depths which perhaps have remained hidden during his tenure as a titan of British pop – until Praise & Blame.
As on that album, there are stomping gospel/blues tunes like Vera Hall Ward’s “Traveling Shoes,” where Jones’ tenor stretches and resounds with all the force of a freight train thundering down the tracks. His reading of Odetta’s “Hit Or Miss” has a wonderfully breezy, down-home country vibe. Yet, there are also startlingly unusual moments like the opening reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song,” where the performance is all about restraint and nuance, reinforcing the subtlety in the lyric.
Among the songwriters showcased this time are Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, and Tom Waits, whose “Bad As Me” (from last year’s album of the same name) Jones tackles with a maniacal cackle, which makes even its author seem straight-laced. “I’ve always been a lyrics man,” Jones confesses, adding with a chuckle: “Melody’s always handy, a good thing to see it through, but songs I relate to are always lyrically strong. These songs here now, they can relate to a lot of people, you don’t have to be in a certain profession or live a certain lifestyle in order for them to mean something to you. It’s some great stuff!”
For Jones himself, the songs are laden with meaning. Where in “Tower Of Song,” Cohen originally sang about being “born with the gift of a golden voice,” he was having a wry joke at his own expense. In Jones’ hands, those words obviously have a more direct resonance, and later he alters the songwriter’s original image of being “tied… to the table” to “…the stage” – more pertinent for one of the most successful and in-demand live performers of the post-war era.
The second track, meanwhile, finally solders a writer/singer partnership that almost became established way back in the late-’60s. As The Beatles approached their final manic days, Paul McCartney had been in a hurry to find a top singer to record “The Long & Winding Road,” and get it on the charts pronto. Jones was his first port of call, but he already a single of his own recorded, which would have delayed McCartney’s plans by a few weeks. Of course, the song ended up on Abbey Road instead. All these years later, Johns found him a recent Macca composition, “(I Want To) Go Home,” with which the singer feels a huge empathy at this point along his own long and winding road.
“The message of it is,” he says, “I’ve done this, I’ve done that, it was great at the time. I was out there, tried to do it on my own – done this, had success with that, but now I wanna come home. So it can mean home literally, or home, to myself, rather than being out there trying to prove something.” He pauses, and concludes: “They’re all very meaningful songs to me.”
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In his time between takes at Real World, Sir Tom Jones would wander the streets of the surrounding village, Box, in rural Wiltshire, which, he notes with a smile, “only has one main street with two pubs on it.” By coincidence, this village was home to his paternal grandmother before she married and moved to Wales. “My nana always spoke with a West Country accent,” he remembers. “I used to say to my granddad, ‘Why does she speak funny?’ And he’d say, ‘Because she’s from Box.’ To me, it seemed like it must be a little town in the middle of nowhere.”
Wandering the village’s hilly little streets decades later, Jones couldn’t help but be reflective about his life. “Getting older, you think more spiritually,” he reflects. “I think children think these things too, but we lose all that once we get into our working lives.” Spirit In The Room is essentially his reconnection with that part of himself: the wondering, questing spirit, which routinely gets brushed aside in a life lived to the full.
Throughout the album, there is a sense of Jones coming full circle. On songs like “Love & Blessings” and “Traveling Shoes,” you can hear the rattle-and-thrum of the late-’50s rock ‘n’ roll which electrified his childhood, layered with the specter of gospel and R&B which re-entered his narrative on Praise & Blame. The album will doubtless return Sir Tom to the upper echelons of the charts where his recording career began.
Newly revitalized, this indefatigable force of nature has found time to record a 45rpm single with Jack White in Nashville. White, who operates in much the same momentary vein as Ethan, called Jones into his Third Man studios, and the two tracks, including a take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” segued with elements from The Doors’ “Wild Child,” were cut in one afternoon. “He likes to work live, with everyone there in the room, which certainly fits with what I’m doing. We were done in three hours!”
Seemingly at the opposite extreme, Sir Tom has also been a huge hit on primetime UK TV, as a coach on BBC1’s The Voice. “When we did the album, and then they asked me if I would consider doing this show, I thought, ‘Well I hope the one doesn’t clash with the other. But I really think there is a connection, because when I listen to singers, I’m listening for individual voices – pure voices, that are not copying someone else, that inject something that’s real – something that comes from the soul.” Sir Tom smiles. “It’s not that far removed from what I’m doing.”
It’s ultimately a mark of the man himself that he can span these seemingly conflicting worlds, while in each being totally himself. That he has also managed, at this exciting juncture, to deliver one of his finest and most profound albums is little short of miraculous. We, the listeners, can only marvel at the spirit in the room.