A Conversation With Tom Jones
Mike Ragogna: Your new album Praise & Blame has a very stripped-down sound. What was your philosophy going into making this record?
Tom Jones: Well, I've been wanting to do something like this for a long time, and some of the albums I've done in the past, one or two tracks sometimes have been like this--stripped down. I've always liked that...not for all songs, but for songs of this nature especially. I feel you don't need a lot on them musician-wise. I think this is the best way to approach it, for me anyway. And I think it shows the voice off, and you can hear the tonal quality of the vocals. We took a lot of time picking the keys to get them in the right keys. We wanted to do some of the slower songs low because my voice over the years has become lower and richer.
MR: Your very first track, "What Good Am I," seems to pull off its big message with even more emotion than the original.
TJ: First of all, to approach it the way we did, the only version I had heard before that was from Bob Dylan. I wanted to slow it down and give it more depth. The lyrics already had them. The depth was already there, but the tonal quality...
So, we did it in a low key, and Ethan Johns said, "Look if you think it will work, sing it as softly as you can. Don't push it at all, and let it come out very natural," and that's what I did. Normally, when I sing, if I start to go up in the register, I get louder. That's what happened. But with this, you try not to control it, so that's what I did, it's what we ended up with.
MR: Can you go into the recording process?
TJ: We recorded it in Peter Gabriel's studio in Wilshire, so we were trying it out in the afternoon. We broke for dinner, and normally, once we do that, we wait until the following day to have another go at it. So, when we were having dinner, we were talking about it and I had had a couple of glasses of wine and I said, "You know, I think I've got it now in my mind. Maybe we should go back and try it again." I think everybody felt more mellow--maybe it was due to the red wine. But I definitely felt more relaxed, and everybody seemed to be like that. We just let it flow...not to over do, over sing, or punch it too hard--just to sing it as quietly and as breathy as possible. And then when we listened to it back we realized that this was it. We had it. You know, normally I don't drink before I sing. I like to keep a clear mind, but it was just a glass of red wine that might have helped.
MR: That brings us to that mega-voice of yours. I was told you had to record quite a distance from the microphone for some of the rockers on this album.
TJ: Yeah. Well, I think the difference with my voice today is that it's richer than it used to be. So, I think if I had done it 30 years ago, it may not have had as much weight to it. So, I think this definitely benefits from experience and the tonal quality of my voice. But the material itself...
MR: What went into the song choices?
TJ: I used to do songs like this in Wales growing up. If I went to Sunday school at 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon, to the Presbyterian Chapel, we did a lot of gospel hymns which I didn't realize was gospel until later on. Not as much as they do in the Southern states, but the songs are definitely there with the gospel element.
For instance, when I was in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley--God bless him when he was still alive--we would hang out at night in his suite and we would sing mostly gospel songs because he loved gospel, and he would start to sing these songs and I would join in. He asked me, "How come you know these songs?" and I said, "Well, we sing them in Wales, not exactly as you do." Now I do, but not when I was a kid so much. But the songs were definitely there.
MR: Are there songs on this record that do come from your childhood?
TJ: I knew "Run On." Of course, I got that one from Elvis. But I got a lot of the gospel things I have done before. The Mahalia Jackson tunes were on BBC radio when I was growing up in the '40s and '50s. I think Mahalia Jackson was the biggest gospel singer that we had heard from the States...and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
MR: Praise & Blame also puts rock 'n' roll into the gospel mix.
TJ: Well, there you go. We heard songs that other people had done, like The Staple Singers. We had heard some of the things they had done and again. Getting back to "Run On" that Elvis had done, when we tried it the first time, we did it in the same key as Elvis did. It sounded very similar. I wasn't doing anything to this song that hadn't been done already. Elvis had already done it. I mean, Christ, I would have come off as a second hand Elvis here if I did it the same way. So, we had to change it. I said, "What about if we lift the key and put it in a higher key. I can put more effort into it in a higher key, and it won't sound so smooth.
So, Ethan Johns said yeah, and we started looking for a guitar riff by listening to a lot of other records that had been done, then Ethan came up with that guitar riff. So, between that riff and me singing in a higher key, we just let it rip. I rip into it as opposed to doing it the way Elvis and The Jordanaires did it. Actually, I am not sure if it was them, but it was definitely a choir doing the answer phrases.
So, I thought, "Let me just sing the whole thing, and I'll just sing the answers as well." Ethan said, "If you are going to do the whole thing, maybe you shouldn't do it as long because it goes on." So I said, "Lets do it and see where it ends up. I did the whole song because it was going so well, but I think that guitar riff had a lot to do with the pushing of the song.
We tried to get things, as you said, more rocky, more gospel, more old gospel, hot gospel like it would have been done in the South when some country blues players would do a gospel song. That's how I imagine it would have been done.
MR: How did you come up with the concept?
TJ: Well, I am always thinking what am I going to do next because I love so many different kinds of songs. There are certain areas in pop music that I wouldn't try and go into, but there are a lot of areas that I like and the way of recording them. The question is always there in terms of where do I go, what move do I make next musically.
But this one is very natural to me as I know these songs. These are the kind of songs that I sang in the pub in Wales growing up, so it was a natural thing. But the idea that gave us license was when Island Records asked me to do an album of hymns for last Christmas. I thought, "Now I wonder if I can really dig into this rather than just do hymns, although hymns would be very nice with an orchestra and a choir...very nice." I think that's what they wanted.
But it gave me the opportunity to dig deep, do some gospel stuff, and combine it with a Rock element. Hot Gospel--like that. Make it more raw, don't polish it up or smooth it out. Then I talked to Ethan Johns as we were thinking of who was going to produce it, and so he said he wanted to try a couple of tracks. Island Records didn't want to commit until they heard something first, and what kind of thing we were going to do. So, we cut two songs first: "Did Trouble Me" and "Run On." He presented them to Island Records, and they loved them so they said okay. So, that gave us the opportunity to look into gospel songs that I knew or that we felt would sound good.
MR: Then you recorded the rest of the album which ended up having a real live feel to it.
TJ: Setting the keys is a big thing because some songs don't need to be sung high. You need to get more warmth in them, so they don't always need to be set in a higher key. That's what we did...we tried to get the keys right and work on it from there. Then there was just the rhythm section and it was Ethan, the drummer, the bass player, and myself, and we just did it live. The other instruments you hear later on, Ethan overdubbed them. I just worked with Ethan Johns; Dave Bronze was on bass and Jeremy Stacey was on drums.
MR: It seems to be all about spontaneity, and everything functioned so tightly in this environment.
TJ: That's what we wanted to do. We wanted to get it as alive and natural as possible. The studio that we did it in...you know Peter Gabriel has quite a few studios there. He has a big proper studio, but we didn't want to use that because we wanted to just use the rhythm section. This room that we used, they brought the tape machines in because it's analog so there was no control booth. I have never recorded in a place quite like that before because there was always a control room.
MR: Where was the engineer's placement?
TJ: Right there in the same room. It was a couple of tape machines and a couple of engineers, and they would be walking around putting little plastic partitions in, especially around the drums. But with me, we couldn't overdub anything because it would leak. So, I was singing into what looked to me like an old, square RCA microphone. I asked the engineer, "How old is this microphone?" and he said, "Oh, it's really old...like 1939 or 1940." Well, that's the same age as me, so he went on about how old this mic was.
MR: Good mic-ing is half the battle.
TJ: It was a reconditioned mic, of course, but it was fantastic. It picked up everything. That's why I can sing so lightly on some of them. Picked every breath up. It was tremendous, but then again, you have leakage from the other instruments. We recorded every one live, so you couldn't. If it didn't happen then, we would do it again.
MR: Nice, the way music was originally recorded.
TJ: This is it. It was like going into a rehearsal hall and trying songs out. Let's try it again and see what we can do with this, and the big and only difference with this is that it was being recorded.
MR: So if the vibe is just right and it jiggles just right, that's it.
TJ: That's right. We try it and listen, and if it's not ringing true, then we try it again. But it did all come together very well. Once the ball started to roll and we knew when all the musicians were with me and looking at me, they were facing me, and we were all looking at one another.
MR: And especially with faith at the root of where you started, you couldn't help but have miles and miles of feel.
TJ: Exactly. I don't think you could have laid a track down and then try to put a vocal on top of that, which I have done in the past and a lot of people do when they record. You set a key and they lay a track down and you put the voice on. With some stuff it works, you know, especially dance music. You've got to give the engineer time to overlay things. But with this, I felt that this one needed to be as live as possible.
MR: Right. Now, you've had a lot of different phases or styles in your career. For instance, a younger audience will associate you with your cover of Prince's "Kiss" while an older audience may associate you with "Green, Green Grass Of Home," "Delilah," "What's New Pussycat?" or "It's Not Unusual." It will be interesting to see who comes in on this.
TJ: I have made all kinds of records, but you can still go in there and do them stripped down, unplugged. Really, its just going in there and getting back to basics and not using any of the trickery. There is a lot that can be done today, but sometimes, you need those different sounds like on dance music like I was saying. But not on this one definitely, and it proves that you can do all kinds of stuff.
MR: For an artist, it's great to continue experimenting with music even after you've become successful doing one style over another.
TJ: With some bands and singers, they don't want to step too far to the left or to the right. Once they get success with something, they don't want to wonder away too far from where they are because they feel it's what people want. Well, it's to a certain extent people are like that, but I think people like other things as well. The feedback that I've gotten from audiences is, "Wow, we loved the show Tom, but we didn't expect that. And what a thing that you did on there," and nine times out of ten, it's acoustic. When it's just the guitar or myself or the rhythm section you know, it seems to me the stripped down version--especially when you have a full band on stage--it's good to change and strip it down. There is more impact to it than if you did it all like that.
MR: How can you hear somebody's soul if it's battling a lot of sonic clutter.
TJ: Well, this is it, and it's happened before when I have recorded with a rhythm section and then the producer will start overdubbing. My wife, God bless her, when I played her the roughs on this--just my voice and the rhythm section--she said my voice was fantastic and hoped the producer wouldn't mess it up. As far as she was concerned, this has happened to some of my records before. They just sometimes put too many instruments on, and then you lose the initial idea that was there to begin with. We didn't want to do that, and when Ethan started to overdub stuff, he said, "I want you to listen and see if I have gone too far or not." So then we had to start pulling stuff off or not using as much of it or don't start using the piano yet in the song or bring it in halfway to add color to it but not all at once. I think a lot of the time that Ethan spent was doing that. I didn't want to overdo this as it sounded so good, you know, just the rhythm section and myself. But it needed some coloring, some organ here and some vocals there, just a little bit. So, I think that was the tricky part for him, trying to figure out how far to go.
MR: Was there any other period in your life when you wanted to do a stripped-down project like this, but just did the regular record instead.
TJ: All the time. (laughs) Well, I shouldn't say all the time, but with record companies, I understand that once you get a hit with something, you want more of the same. And you say, "Hey, look, I have an idea for something," and they say, "Oh yeah, we will get to that." I did a live album once and it never came out. There was some live stuff on it, and I remember different record companies that I had been with. You know, I said, "Hey, I have this live album," and (they say), "Oh yeah, it sounds great, and we will put it out, but we need a studio album first before we get there." There is always that element that you are up against. Even with Island Records and this one, they wanted to hear something before they would commit. It's understandable. You can't just give people a free rein because they may take advantage of it. And sometimes it works, but a lot of the time, it doesn't, so you have to know what's going on. I understand that...unless you have your own record company, and you do the whole thing yourself. That is different.
MR: Was there any other time in your career that you wanted to do an album about faith?
TJ: Yeah. When Island Records asked me about hymns for Christmas, and I thought I wanted to go deeper...
MR: When you were having hits with your earlier singles, were there periods when you were thinking, "You know, I just want to make a record of songs of faith that inspired me in my youth"?
TJ: Oh yes. When I was telling you about Elvis Presley, and he was surprised to find out that I knew so many gospel songs when we were in Vegas. We would sing gospel songs at night, and I said, "Yeah, we used to sing these songs in Wales." And he would say, "Well, why don't you record a gospel album?" as he had success with it. I said, "Yeah, I will," but I was then saying what record companies were saying to me--"Oh yeah, we'll get to it, don't worry." (laughs)
So, it's always been in the back of my mind to do it. But like I said, record companies are a little shy of concept albums sometimes. They look at the outlets right away in terms of who is going to play this and what radio stations will play that, and I understand that. If you're going to make a record, you are going to want people to hear it.
MR: For those starting out today wanting to have a great pop music career, what is your advice?
TJ: Well, when you start off, you have to try and get as much experience as possible. I don't think you can make records in the front room of your house and then go on TV with it and think you have an act together. My advice is to get up in front of people as often as you can, whenever you have a chance to sing--whether it's in a club or Karaoke, wherever--get up and get experience wherever you can get people to hear you sing live so that you get experience. Hopefully, when the time comes and you get a hit record, you are prepared to go on the road. I think you need that experience first. It will put you in good stead later on if you have had experience singing in dance halls and clubs. I have heard a lot of young people saying they didn't realize it was going to be so hard.
(Transcribed by Erika Richards)
1. What Good Am I
2. Lord Help The Poor & Needy
3. Did Trouble Me
4. Strange Things Happen Everyday
5. Burning Hell
6. If I Give My Soul
7. You Don't Knock
8. Nobody's Fault But Mine
9. Didn't It Rain
10. Ain't No Grave
11. Run On
12. Praise & Blame