Anyone who thinks “It’s Not Unusual” or “What’s New Pussycat?” when they hear Tom Jones’s name hasn’t been paying attention to the music the Welsh singer has been making for the past decade. Since he began collaborating in 2010 with producer/multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Ethan Johns for the album “Praise & Blame,” Jones has been doing anything but rest on his laurels, taking a turn through rootsy highways and byways of American music on that album and its two successors. He has maintained the partnership with Johns for his marvelous new release, “Surrounded by Time,” but has thrown another change-up, forsaking that rootsy orientation for a much fuller, constructed, keyboard-prominent sound. We reached Sir Tom by phone in London to talk about the latest entry in his decades-spanning career.
Q. You have reached 80 years of age and you’ve put out over 40 records. What keeps you going?
A. First of all, my voice is still strong and flexible. The only thing that has happened to me vocally is I’ve gone from a tenor to a baritone. As well, I’ve lived now for 80 years, and you learn along the way. You treat songs differently. I do, anyway. I read into them more now than when I was young. When you’re young, you’re gung-ho and full of piss and vinegar. But when you’ve lived a while, you really get insight into songs lyrically, and you have more experience in what you’re singing about. One of the songs on the record, “I’m Growing Old,” I got that song when I was in my 30s and I said, “I’m going to hold this song.” I wasn’t old enough to sing it in my 30s.
Q. Your voice hasn’t really suffered by the change you mention.
A. I think I’ve gained a lot from it. What I’ve lost on the top end I’ve gained on the bottom end, on the notes I can get there now. The bottom end of my vocal range is much more powerful, much warmer now.
Q. This is the fourth record in a row that you’ve made with Ethan Johns. What does that partnership bring, from your point of view?
A. I liked what he said when I first met him. I didn’t know much about him and then when I looked at the list of people that he had recorded, like the Kings of Leon, Ray Lamontagne — I liked the records he’d made with a lot of them. At that first meeting, he said to me, “I hear things in your voice that I haven’t heard on record yet. They’re there in the records you’ve done, but you’ve always had full arrangements. I would like to get down to basics, just go in there with a rhythm section and see what happens.” So I said OK, fine, let’s do it.
Q. How do you think that this record differs from the previous three you made with him?
A. The sound of it. Ethan said, and my son Mark, because he was very involved as well, they said, “We need this one to sound different from the previous three, because those were basically American roots music and they’re very real and very live.” I said as long as my voice sounds like me, we can experiment with sounds. So we were all involved, but the sound thing really came from my son. He said, “I’ve got a lot of sounds in my head that I think can go with songs.” And Ethan said, “Look, I want to create an atmosphere before you open your mouth. There’s got to be something going on to take the listener into a place on each track.”
So all these songs are carefully crafted to take them away from the original recordings. We didn’t want to copy. Take the essence of it, yes, but try to inject something that maybe was not there before.
Q. You’re covering a wide range of material on “Surrounded by Time” — songs from Dylan, Todd Snider, Cat Stevens, the Waterboys, Tony Joe White, and others. What is it that holds all of these songs together?
A. All the songs on the record had something to do with my life; each song means something from or brings to mind a different part of my life. There’s a reason for all of them. They’re telling you something that I want to say. So the first song, “I Won’t Crumble When you Fall,” when my wife was dying of cancer, she said, “I have to leave, but you don’t have to. Don’t follow me, you know, don’t crumble, don’t collapse.”
Q. The most striking song on the record might be the extended talking-blues song “Talking Reality Television Blues.” Here’s this guy known for his huge, powerful voice, and what is he doing? He’s just talking, telling you a story.
A. I realized that the spoken word is sometimes even stronger than if you sing it. People listen to you when you sing things, the sound of your voice, the way that you sing things, but if you speak it, the words are driven home even more. With this song I thought, this is fantastic, because I was there at the beginning of TV. I had tuberculosis, and I was quarantined in my house for two years. My mother and father bought me a television set, the only one in the street where we lived. I lived through the things the song talks about, I saw the moon landing live on television, and I knew all of the people the song talks about, Milton Berle, Michael Jackson, and of course, Donald Trump. I got to know Trump in Atlantic City when I was singing at three of his hotels. He’d come to the shows and want to be introduced. Who knew what was going to happen? And there he is at the end of the song: “Reality killed by a reality star.” So all of these things attracted me. I had to do that song.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org