An unrepentant sex bomb showing his spiritual side? It’s not unusual

Tom Jones’ record label asked if he’d consider recording an album of gospel hymns—something nice and pretty that the company could sell around Christmastime. What he gave them was something very different. Praise & Blame is indeed an album built on spiritual themes, but its gutbucket blues-based rock sound is hardly holiday easy-listening fare. Jones and producer Ethan Johns recorded live in the studio, the Welsh-born singer and his small backing band bashing out the tunes together. “It was all done in one room, there wasn’t even a control booth,” Jones says. “Even the engineers were working in the same room as we were.”

The result demonstrates Jones’ determination to continue evolving as an artist, just as he has for 45 years. He established himself in the 1960s and ’70s as a swinging sex symbol essaying orchestrated pop songs like “What’s New Pussycat?” and “It’s Not Unusual,” then veered into country music in the 1980s before returning to the pop charts with his version of Prince’s “Kiss.” Since then he has remained thoroughly engaged in modern music. Who else could have enjoyed a massive worldwide hit with a sleek dance track called “Sex Bomb” at age 60? Now Praise & Blame shows us yet another new facet of Jones’ talent. “I think some people will be surprised, yes,” says Jones, now 70. “This is a deeper, more spiritual thing.” We caught up with Jones at home in California to discuss matters spiritual, secular and even sexual.

How was the recording experience?

I don’t think I’ve ever recorded that stripped-down before. I’ve stood in the middle of a rhythm section and sung from there, but usually the producer wants separation [among the instruments] so that in case you make a mistake you can just punch it in. Ethan didn’t care about separation. If it wasn’t right, we’d do it again. That was it. I used an old microphone that I’d never used before, a fantastic RCA that looked like a big square mic you’d see used in old radio shows, and the other instruments were bleeding into it sometimes. We didn’t use headphones, either. It was all in the room.

Did that change how you sang?

There is a difference. When a track is laid down [before the vocal], you have to sing to that track. You can’t improvise much, you can just move forward or back a little. Ethan said, “Even if you don’t sing it exactly as it’s written, if you cut out two bars or if there’s an odd bar, we’ll watch you and listen and come with you.” That makes you feel more free. You feel like you’re creating something from a plain canvas, if you like. When you are painting something, you’re starting from scratch, and that’s what this felt like. If somebody wasn’t feeling it, they would say so. The drummer would say, “I’m not feeling right yet, maybe we could slow it down.” We were all putting our two cents in. We worked more as a group as opposed to as a singer with some musicians. I don’t think you can do all kinds of music like that. You need pop records and dance records, and sometimes it’s better to have an artificial sound than a real sound. But for this we all felt we wanted to get as real as possible.

What drew you to these songs?

I’ve always been a lyric man. I love lyrics. I love story songs. We knew they could be slow or uptempo, but they needed to be songs that made you think. Lyrics are very important. I don’t think you can put this album on and just have it as background music. The lyrics will make you say, “Oh, what’s that?”

Are you a religious person?

I’ve always been God-fearing, always. There’s a song on the album called “Did Trouble Me,” and I’ve experienced what that song says—that when you’re feeling a little too sure of yourself, God will give you a slap. Something will happen to make you think. It makes you feel that you’re not invulnerable. People say, “Tom, your voice is as strong as ever,” and I’ll think, “It is strong.” Then I start to get a little laryngitis and I think, “I got too bloody cocky there.” God is giving me a little, “Hello, excuse me!” You have to have confidence, but you’re still not completely your own master. There’s somebody else that you have to answer to, and you can’t take all the credit.

Can a spiritual song have an element of sensuality?

I think so. The tone of your voice, the way you sing, it still seems sexy to me. It doesn’t sound bland or mechanical—it’s human. Sex is part of humanity, sex is a human feeling, and it’s got something to do with that. There is a warmth in it that makes you feel good. A song like “Don’t Knock” has a message but there is a certain amount of sex involved. Gospel music is like that. In gospel churches, when people start jumping up and down and passing out and stuff, I think it’s got a sexual element to it.

How does it feel to be 70?

I’ve never been 70 before, so I don’t know. (laughs) I feel great. A little slower, you know. But I don’t feel different. My attitude is basically the same. I’ve learned more over the years. I remember Frank Sinatra was worried about me. He said, “You don’t have to sing that hard all the time.” I said, “But that’s what I do.” He said, “Hey, you don’t have to believe me.” But he was right. I did run into trouble here and there because I was singing too hard, too much. If you relax on certain songs, you can be more faithful to the song than if you tried to hammer it. There’s a time and place for light and shade.

How has your voice evolved?

It’s become deeper and richer. Life itself, the experiences that you have, that all comes out in your personality—and your voice is a part of your personality. I don’t think this record would have been the same 30 years ago. I don’t think my voice would have been right for the lyrical content.

What are your hopes for the future?

I want to try different things. You never know where the next thing comes from, and I like that. If something comes up that I like and that I feel like I can do, I hope that I’m allowed to do it. I’ll be happy as long as I’m not pushed into one corner or looked at for just one thing. You do one “Sex Bomb” and that’s it, some things overshadow everything else. When I started off I thought my versatility was going to be an asset, but sometimes people get confused by it.

They say, “What is Tom Jones? He’s ‘Sex Bomb.’” I didn’t realize that was going to happen. Then again, people say, “Why do you wear your pants so tight?” and I can’t say I didn’t mean it to happen. You’ve got to take the blame, which I do. As long as my talent gets through, I can’t ask for much more than that.

–Chris Neal

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