10 Questions: Tom Jones on Songwriting, Getting Older, and Recording a Bob Dylan Album

Photo by Rick Guest / Missing Piece Group PR

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

On “Not Dark Yet,” Bob Dylan scans regrets and other reflections in a confrontation with death—I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal / There’s not even room enough to be anywhere. Off Dylan’s 30th album Time Out of Mind (1997), the acoustic track, and its refrain of It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there stuck with Tom Jones, a devout fan of the songwriter since he first heard it but felt it was too soon for him to sing when it was released in 1997. 

On Jones’ 2021 release, Surrounded By Time, the Welsh singer revisited some of his favorite songwriters, first with another Dylan cover of the Desire track “One More Cup of Coffee,” and other stories he’s connected with, some more than several decades. Working on the album as he turned 80, Jones began reflecting deeply on his life and his own mortality and returned to the album less than a year later to add two more tracks to an expanded version on Surrounded By Time – The Hourglass Edition. 

Produced by Ethan Johns, who has worked with Emmylou Harris, Ray LaMontagne and Jones on his three previous releases Praise & Blame in 2010, Spirit in the Room (2012), and Long Lost Suitcase in 2015—the former two also featuring Dylan covers—The Hourglass Edition also features an interview with Jones on the making of the album during the pandemic and four live tracks recorded at Shepherd’s Bush Empire London, and explores a life well lived with the addition of Welsh artist Katell Keineg’s wistful ballad “One Hell Of A Life”—When I’m dead Please don’t philosophize or feel regret / Just remember me when I said / I had one hell of a life—and it was time for that Dylan track.

For Jones, Surrounded By Time was partially autobiographical, told through songs by Cat Stevens (“Pop Star”), Tony Joe White (“Ol’ Mother Earth”), Michael Kiwanuka (“I Won’t Lie”), Terry Callier (“Lazarus Man”) and more, along with the Bernice Johnson Reagon-penned “I Won’t Crumble with You if you Fall” reflecting on his wife of 59 years, Melinda Rose Trenchard, who passed away in 2016 and Bobby Cole’s more somber 1967 ballad “I’m Growing Old, which Jones says the singer offered to him when he was in his 30s. 

“I said ‘I love this song, but I’m not old enough yet,” Jones told American Songwriter of Cole’s song. “So I thought if I ever get there then I’ve got to do it.”

Now nearly 60 years since Jones released his debut, Along Came Jones, and more than 40 albums into his career, the singer who has mostly interpreted other artists’ songs, continues to meditate on those writers that impacted him and continue to do so. Jones talked to American Songwriter about the passage of time, the real root of rock and roll, recording in his home country Wales for the first time in his career, and why he would love to record an album of Dylan covers.

American Songwriter: You obviously had more stories to tell on Surrounded by Time with the addition of Katell Keineg’s “One Hell of a Life” and Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.” Many of these songs were in your life for some time. Why were they connecting with you more strongly now?

Tom Jones: I was trying to think of songs that represented me through my life and where I am now. Ethan [Johns] said to me, “if have you got anything that you that you’ve had that you’ve held on to, or that you’ve thought of, now would be a time to do it now that you’re old.’

AS: Then there’s Dylan. You already had a Dylan cover on Surrounded by Time (“One More Cup of Coffee”) before adding “Not Dark Yet.” What’s your deeper connection to Dylan?

TJ: I love Dylan. I love his songs, and I’d love to do a Dylan album. Dylan songs are fantastic, but it’s just trying to find a different way, if possible, of doing them from what he’s already done. That’s the thing with Bob Dylan. He’s a writer. He’s not a singer. So there’s a lot of scope there. The first Dylan cover I did was “What Good Am I?” on Praise & Blame. I love Dylan’s stuff but arrangement-wise, when I sing it, it’s going to sound different anyway. “One More Cup of Coffee” on the last album was more or less the same arrangement as he did. It’s just me singing it, but that makes it different.

AS: You’ve covered so many songs throughout your career. What’s your secret to connecting another writer’s lyrics to interpret the songs as truthfully as you can?

TJ: I get inside the song. What is the song all about? What is it saying? What’s the message? Then I try and feel it as much as I can. If the song is big, I go big, but if it’s not, I go smaller. I try and be as natural as possible. I just put myself into it like an actor does with a part. When an actor reads a script, they have to live that part, become that person. It’s the same thing with a song, but it’s a much shorter thing as opposed to a movie or a play. You’ve got to get it into three minutes, but it’s still a story. You still have to live it, and that’s what I try to do. That’s what appeals to me with songs. The song “One Hell of a Life,” that’s true for me now. If I hear a song that I think a younger person should sing, at my age, I can sing it, but it’s not going to sound real. 

Songs are life stories, a part of your life anyway, and you’ve got to live them.

AS: Surrounded by Time plays out like a snapshot of your life now and centers heavily around getting older. “One Hell of a Life” seems like it was written specifically for you. Is that how most of these tracks feel to you and where are you at this particular point in your life, and the types of songs you’re gravitating toward?

TJ: If I recorded everything I wanted to, I’d have to start now and do a record every day for the rest of my life because I’ve got so many songs from my entire life since I was a kid. A song like that [“One Hell of a Life”], you can’t be too young to sing that. I couldn’t have done that. When I started off—same thing with “I’m Growing Old.”  There are certain times where it fits, but you’ve still got to be able to do it. You still have to deliver the song. Words mean different things to you in different parts of your life.

AS: Has being a coach on The Voice UK inspired you in any unexpected ways?

TJ: When I’m coaching on The Voice, I love the blind auditions. I love to listen, and it’s always about singing. That’s why I love the show. I always listen to voices. When I hear somebody’s voice and think “there’s a hell of a voice there. That girl or boy, man or woman is not copying. They’re not repeating something that’s already been done.” There’s something coming out of them that they’re thinking of, and that’s as inventive as writing a song yourself. You can auto-tune but you can’t really create the voice. The voice is still part of the body. It’s part of your being, as opposed to an instrument is an extension of your body. Your voice, it comes from within you, and that’s the most natural form of making music ever.

AS: Speaking of vocals, how have you kept yours so healthy all these years?

TJ: Thank God. I notice with older singers, the vibrato slows down, and you’re struggling to hold it or speed it up because it gets slower. You’ve got to be aware of it. Don’t hang on notes and let your vibrato take over because it’ll get out of control. I never thought of that when I was younger, but the flexibility is still there. I don’t feel any different. I don’t think “Oh, I could have done that then but I can’t do it now.” My voice is deeper. When I started, I was a tenor but now I’m a baritone. The whole range has come down. My lower end is much stronger now and much richer than it was when I was young. Those things change, but the quality of my voice, thank God, is still there. 

Also, I do like to talk. Welsh people, we talk a lot, so I’m always using it. If I’m not singing, I’m talking. I’ve always gone out and done live shows all my life. I’ve said in the past, and it’s truth, I left the house in ’65 and I haven’t been home much since. I’ve never taken any time off, so my voice has always been used. They say “if you don’t, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

AS: Thinking back to your debut in 1965, is there anything you would change up on some of the earlier songs?

TJ: I’ve listened to those early songs, and I thought my God, how could I get away with doing  “Autumn Leaves” and “Memphis, Tennessee” on the same album?  There’s a similarity there because songs that I have loved, that I hadn’t recorded yet, I recorded on that first album. Just like now with Surrounded by Time, I’ve recorded songs that I’ve had for a long time, so it’s still basically the same process. I’m surprised, to be honest with you, when I listen to “Autumn Leaves,” I was only 24 when I recorded it but it sounds like somebody that’s lived longer than that. I surprise myself and I think how do they come up with that in the phrasing and the notation? I love listening to stuff that I’ve done in the past, just to see. I’ve also overdone some things. I recorded a song called “Dr. Love” on my third album [A-tom-ic Jones, 1966] and I just over sang it. I just ripped the shit out of it. I thought “why did you go so mad on it? You could have taken it easy.” Well, I was young. I had a lot of energy.

AS: You seem to have this ever-present lifeline of songs surrounding you. Who are some artists you continue to revisit today?

TJ: I’ve got to be careful because I’ve got such a collection of ’50s rock and roll like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis—singing and piano playing together. Good God. So if I hear something new, I think “well, let me just compare this to them.” If you listen to Chuck Berry, he was like Dylan. He’s a rock and roll Dylan because his words are fantastic. He invented a style that was not there before, and it hasn’t happened since of that magnitude. Then you get Elvis Presley. No white person had ever attempted to do black songs before. They were R&B songs he was singing, the only difference was he was white, and the songs were ones that he genuinely liked to sing. That’s what made it different. He was the first one to do that, and to be sexy with a guitar. There are other people who played the guitar before but they never presented themselves like Elvis Presley did.

The boogie-woogie from New Orleans, that’s the beginning of it for me. If you listen to Professor Longhair and Mead Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson, it’s tremendous. They’re the forerunners of rock a roll as far as I’m concerned. Then, I put on a Chuck Berry record and Little Richard … good God.

AS: For Surrounded in Time, you finally recorded in Wales [Monnow Valley Studio] for the first time in your career. What took you so long?

TJ: When I got to Monnow Valley, I remember outside the studio, the Welsh flag was flying, the dragon, and that’s when it hit me that I never actually recorded in Wales before, so it definitely gave me a lift. I thought this is going to be different because it’s a different environment. In the ’60s, everybody went to London. There weren’t any regional places then. There were no recording studios in South Wales. You had to go to London to get a record deal anyway, and the studios and everything were there. The Beatles came from Liverpool to London. Van Morrison came from Belfast to London. Everybody came from all over the British Isles to London to get a recording contract and record if you were lucky enough to get a contract.

AS: Recording and publishing was a different monster back then. Now that you’re back in the studio yourself, what direction do you think you’re moving in with the new music?

TJ: We’re just going to sit and try some things out. Recording now is different to what it was when I first started because when I started you would do you get with an arranger, get the songs, then you’d set the key and the arrangements. Then by the time you got into the studio, you’re all set to do it. Now, it’s not as cut and dry a situation as it used to be, so it gives you more freedom.

Who knows what we’ll come up with. Dylan would be a great place to start.

Photo: Rick Guest / Missing Piece Group PR

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