24 Hours With Tom JonesPosted on: 28 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
The Voice talks about his new album and career.
Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Jones is back. And though it may seem an incredulous thing to suggest of a singer who has spent the better part of five decades making music, 24 Hours, his new album, might just be his best yet.
It is certainly his most fully realised, and also his most intimate by far. There are reasons for this: the man who is arguably the best interpreter of any song he chooses to sing irrespective of genre has now, at last, turned songwriter. For the first time in his career, Tom has had a major hand in writing many of the songs collected here.
"It's all very well just singing songs," he considers now, "but for this record I really wanted to get properly personal. I've been getting reflective recently, looking over my journey through life, and I wanted to get that down on song. You know, I've done fluff, I've done cabaret, I've done Sexbomb and all the rest of it, but this time I wanted to make something that was all about me, my stories, my life. In other words, you listen to this album and you get the real me."
Tom Jones Video
The genesis of 24 Hours began, as perhaps all great journeys should, in a nightclub after dark. This one was in Dublin, it was long gone midnight, and Tom was drinking with a new friend, Bono.
"Right there and then, Bono started interviewing me. He asked me about my life, my early years, my old hopes and expectations and ambitions, and he took notes all the while."
That conversation, ranging from his early days of digging ditches in Pontypridd to becoming a twinkling-eyed megastar and which is summarised in the snake-hipped moment of celebratory self-awareness that is the album track Sugar Daddy, written especially by Bono and The Edge for this album, gave Tom a new sense of self-awareness that led him to, for the very first time, getting involved in writing his own songs.
Surrounding himself with a clutch of new and up-and-coming songwriters - "all of them women," he points out, eyebrows raising, "I can't think why" - Tom set about creating songs that would be big and impassioned and cinematic. Inspired by the kind of soul-searching that, he says, comes to us all sooner or later, much of 24 Hours concerns those subjects closest to Tom's heart - his family, his grandchildren, life and death, and the power of memory.
"I was adamant, though, that I didn't want this just to be an album of old memories, but rather to somehow convey the sense that I am still very much in the present tense here, I'm still as large as life, and busy making new memories all the time."
One song that perfectly encapsulates the intimate tone of so much of this record is The Road, a wonderfully impassioned ballad about man’s one true love, his voice filling every note until it comes close to cracking.
"That song is about my wife," he says, almost bashfully, "about how the road always leads back to her. You know, she may not have always liked some of the things I've done along the way, but I've always come back to her, and could never be apart from her. She is my rock, and has been for the past 51 years now. The Road is my tribute to her."
He played it for her recently. Did she like it? "I bloody well hope so!" he booms.
Tom Jones is that very rarest of things, a living legend. In that popular Hollywood parlour game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it is suggested that the square-jawed actor can be linked to practically anyone in the film business in just six neat moves, such was his workrate and popularity.
With Tom, you could shave off at least five degrees, because here is someone who has befriended, collaborated and hung out with practically every key character in showbiz over the past 50 years. Who else do you know can be so effortlessly linked with Elvis Presley, various Rat Packers, Robbie Williams and the Queen? Not to mention seminal music maestros Portishead, songwriter extraordinaire Burt Bacharach and, even the fictitious icon that is James Bond?
Has there ever been a more malleable entertainer, someone who can play Vegas one moment and Wembley the next? Who can appeal to young and old, black and white, cool and cutting edge alike? Tom Jones was one of the great performers of the 20th century. He is now one of the great performers of the 21st.
His has been a career that has never peaked only to wane, but one that has rather continually climbed upwards. After sustaining himself with a string of classic hits throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Tom effectively reinvented himself in 1999 with his Reload album, in which he duetted on new songs with a succession of modern-day artists, including The Cardigans' Nina Persson, Catatonia's Cerys Matthews and Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield. It became one of the biggest hits of his career, but not necessarily quite the curveball many considered it to be.
"Back in 1986," he reminds, "I had a hit with The Boy From Nowhere, a proper ballad in the grand old tradition. But the next year, I was back in the charts with my version of Prince's Kiss. In terms of style, the two couldn't have been more different, and yet they were both very much equal parts of me. I've never liked to stick to just one particular type of music. Good heavens, why should I?"
No wonder he sounds so continually replenished, so full of beans. Where so many of his former peers have fallen by the wayside, Tom remains as popular as ever. Just ask the man on the street.
"It happened again today," he says with glee. "I was crossing the road from the restaurant back to the hotel, and at least a dozen horns honked at me: bus drivers, taxi drivers, and all of them were men. So it's not just women of a certain age that like me. I can't help but find that terribly encouraging."
It sparks his creative puff as well, and with each new album, he says, he simply wants to prove himself all over again: "To myself, my audience, and as many new fans as I can get my hands on."
Take a look at them. They are huge hands.
24 Hours, his first album for Parlophone/S Curve, was recorded in Los Angeles throughout last year, and was produced by Future Cut, the drum ‘n’ bass outfit who have previously worked with Lily Allen, Dizzee Rascal and Goldie. It includes the shirt button-popping I'm Alive, a boisterous floor filler that Tom sings in a manner that suggests he might just be nuclear powered, the sophisticated soul of first single If He Should Ever Leave You and the pop genius of Give A Little Love, which comprehensively proves that white men can dance. But we all know Tom can do upbeat, floor-filling party songs.
However 24 Hours is so much more than that. His version of Bruce Springsteen's The Hitter is remarkable, the sad tale of a boxer on his last legs, Tom conveying the man's broken resolve with a sense of drama redolent of Richard Burton at his Shakespearean best. This air of reflection continues with perhaps the album's pivotal moment, a song called Seasons in which he confronts his past with an unflinching eye.
"There's a reason for passing time," he sings. "These are the seasons of my life."
And the sense that this is an historic Tom Jones album, one that brings the true substance, grit, strength and age of the man is best exemplified by the title track; a spine-tingling gaze into the abyss, delivered with sublime gravitas.
That someone of his august years could ring in with such a late-coming classic as this is testament to what Tom has always been about, and always will be: the power of the song, the power of The Voice. In so many ways, he is the godfather of modern soul, a man without whom the likes of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, Joss Stone and Duffy would never have existed.
At the age of 68, and a recently anointed knight of the realm, Sir Tom Jones is still firing on all cylinders, still a huge music fan, still a genuinely great artist. ‘24 Hours’ is about to send him back up to the top of the charts, and into the nation's arenas and hearts.
Or, in his own more humble words, "I'm just opening up shop again. Let's see who comes in through the door. "
24 Hours is released on Monday 17th November 2008. You can purchase the album at all good record stores, or online from Amazon for £8.98.
Tom Jones' official website: www.tomjones.com
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