LOS ANGELES — Tom Jones sits in a cozy booth along one wall of a favorite Beverly Hills restaurant. At 72, his curly hair and neatly manicured mustache and goatee are more salt than pepper after his decision to give up black hair dye a few years ago. But Jones appears dapper as usual, ultra-tan and fit in his smart black suit and dark, ribbed crew-neck shirt.
The era-spanning entertainer is here to talk about his new album, “Spirit in the Room,” out this week. His latest work continues a career rejuvenation that kicked off in earnest three years ago with “Praise & Blame,” a collection produced by Kings of Leon producer Ethan Johns. That album revealed Jones as the powerhouse gospel and soul singer many long felt had been overshadowed by his sexy show-biz hunk public persona.
At the moment, however, he can’t help taking in the young folk-pop-jazz singer on the restaurant’s small stage as she offers up versions of songs from the early-‘70s singer-songwriter bible created by James Taylor and Carole King. He nods approvingly, if not enthusiastically. When the singer delivers one of her own songs, he perks up. “Now that sounds more like it’s coming from her — I really like that one.”
Had the singer known she was being assessed not only by one of the most recognizable singers of the last half-century but also a vocal coach for “The Voice UK” reality competition series, she understandably might have been intimidated.
But Jones wasn’t concerned this night with passing judgment on someone else’s career, just reflecting on his own, which exploded in 1965 with the punchy, horn-driven pop-rock hit “It’s Not Unusual.” The song vaulted the South Wales native (born Thomas Jones Woodward) into the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Forty-eight years later, in the opening track of “Spirit in the Room,” the first words out of the mouth of one of pop music’s quintessential sex symbols are, “Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray/ And I ache in the places I used to play/ And I’m crazy for love but I’m not comin’ on.”
The lyrics are from Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” and like all the material on “Spirit in the Room,” the message is one Jones feels in every pore.
“When I heard it, I thought, ‘This song could be written for me.’ My friends are gone, and my hair is gray, which is a fact; most of my friends anyway…. There’s another line in there: I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.
“When I hear songs like that, the first thing I think is, ‘How can somebody come up with something like that? ... They’re songs I wish I could write myself. But ... if I hear something and I feel like I can put myself into it, then it’s my song anyway. The big difference is,” he says with that hearty Welsh laugh, “I don’t get the royalty payment.”
Elsewhere on the album, Jones reaches back as far as Blind Willie Johnson’s existentially inquisitive “Soul of a Man” and as far forward as the Low Anthem’s “Charlie Darwin,” stopping in between with deeply probing songs from Richard Thompson (“Dimming of the Day”) and Paul Simon (“Love and Blessings”).
He also sings Paul McCartney’s “(I Want To) Come Home,” which has never been included on a McCartney album. He’ll be touring the U.S. more extensively with the new album than he did with “Praise & Blame.”
Producer Johns, who has also worked with Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris and Rufus Wainwright, surrounds Jones’ voice with bare-bones instrumental support, adding subtle but evocative production touches: a gently picked acoustic guitar for “Tower of Song,” Pops Staples-like tremolo-drenched electric guitar lines on “Soul of a Man,” eerie sustained keyboard notes underpinning “Love and Blessings.”
Johns has all but done away with the polished stage orchestra treatments that characterized, and sometimes hampered, Jones’ work through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
“Once we sat down and talked about the fact they wanted to make a spirited, honest recording, rather than a produced affair, and we started talking about the kind of music he wanted to do, I thought, this could be great,” Johns said. “It looked like a really good opportunity to do something he’s never done.”
Jones’ work with Johns on “Praise & Blame” would do more to stretch his image than the singer’s 1999 dance-floor hit “Sexbomb” or his 2008 album with Wyclef Jean. It upped Jones’ artistic credibility and elicited comparisons to Johnny Cash’s victory-lap run with Rick Rubin — with one key difference:
Where Cash’s voice was slowly deteriorating over the course of his decade’s worth of recording with Rubin — a powerfully moving component of the resulting performances — Jones’ double-barreled vocal cords sound every bit as potent as when he was in his 20s and catching part of the wave of British Invasion rock led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
His genuine passion for songs becomes apparent when he starts quoting various lyrics. “There’s a song on the ‘Praise & Blame’ album ... ‘If I Give My Soul’ by Billy Joe Shaver,” he said. “It’s saying, ‘If I give my soul, will my son love me again?’ Because the man messes up in his life, playing the devil’s music. He succumbed to rock ‘n’ roll.
“That one again, that could have been me. I could have gone down that road, but I didn’t, thank God. I held onto my wife, and I held onto my son,” he said referring to his wife of 56 years, Linda, and their only child, Mark Woodward. “He put some great lines in it — ‘Please put new boots on my feet’ and ‘If I give my soul to Jesus, will you stop my hands from shakin’?’ Things that I can relate to.”
Some of the songs’ writers couldn’t agree more.
“Tom played me his take on ‘All Blues’ just after he cut it — though I did not know beforehand that he was aiming to,” Joe Henry said of Jones’ version of “All Blues Hail Mary.” “You can’t imagine how strange — and wonderfully so — it is to hear that come off his tongue.”
Jones is managed by his son and his son’s wife, Donna. Mark also offers his suggestions on song choices, along with Johns.
“Ever since he was a kid he was always suggesting or wondering why I’d do certain things,” Jones says, chuckling. “But kids are kids. As you get older, of course, I realized he knew what he was talking about.”
The experiment that has turned into at least a trio of albums — Jones was off immediately after the interview to record basic tracks in England for a third CD with Johns — began after Island Records signed Jones to a multi-album deal in 2010.
“You’d have to be kind of deaf and insensitive to music,” Johns says, “to not get how astounding his vocal performances are on ‘Praise & Blame.’ It’s so evident he’s inhabiting a world that is natural to him, and doing it in a way so few people historically have done it. He has a real facility for it. There aren’t that many people around now who can genuinely sing that material the way he does — and it’s not just the sound of his voice, but the way he phrases, his swing.”
It would seem a natural turn for a singer in his 70s who grew up loving American blues, gospel and R&B, but Jones says bemusedly, “No one ever asked me to do a record like this before.
“I just thought of this: Because I’m of a certain age and I’ve been around a long time, maybe I can take advantage of that. Maybe I can not have to chase pop music or trends. Maybe now I can just do what I want — as long as people like it. It has to appeal to people, you know what I mean?”
But that’s not to say you’ll never see Tom Jones, the “What’s New Pussycat?” sex symbol, shake his hips ever again.
“I still get fired up by old rock tunes,” he said. “I still love to sing ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.’ When in doubt: ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ Those songs still resonate. If I was at a party and there’s a piano player there,” he says with a mischievous chuckle, “at the end of the night ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is gonna be in there.”