“The album reminds me of all the stuff I listened to when I was growing up in Wales," says Tom Jones of Spirit In The Room. It's the veteran singer's second collaboration with producer Ethan Johns, and like their first effort together, 2010's Praise & Blame, the gritty, stripped-down production is light years away from the big and brassy Las Vegas orchestra trappings that attended much of Jones' late '60s and '70s work.
"The music I listened to early on was on the BBC," says Jones. "There was big band music and pop, but occasionally we would hear a more raw sound, and those were the blues records, the gospel records and some country things, too. Tennessee Ernie Ford doing Catfish Boogie and Blackberry Boogie – to me, records like that were the start of rock ‘n’ roll. That stuff caught my ear."
Jones and multi-instrumentalist Johns (the latter is the son of noted producer Glyn Johns) assembled a tight band of musicians (Richard Causon on piano and vintage keyboards, Ian Jennings and Sam Dixon on bass, and drummer Stella Mozgawa) and recorded songs in a loose, leisurely fashion at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in Bath, England. "The whole thing was quite different from how we used to make records," says Jones. "We used to do three songs in three hours, with everything prepared beforehand. With Ethan, we went in and recorded from scratch – it was very free and open. And Ethan is a player, too, so I was talking to one of the people who would be making the music."
The songs, a haunting, soul-enlivening blend of Americana and blues-tinged covers by such names as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Blind Willie Johnson, Paul McCartney, Odetta, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits, among others, (along with the Jones/Johns-penned Travelin' Shoes, based on an original by Vera Hall-Ward) were picked by artist and producer with an eye towards, as Jones puts it, "getting down to the nitty-gritty. You can do that with roots music – there's nothing artificial in it."
Jones' minimalist, unvarnished approach to recording with Johns has been compared to Johnny Cash's late-period work with Rick Rubin, and the singer acknowledges the similarities. "With Johnny Cash, God bless him, he was doing that near the end of his life," says Jones. "The way that they made those records is sort of along the same lines. I think the beauty in what Johnny and Rick Rubin did is that, once you take the bare-bones approach, you get into the lyrics of the songs, the essence, without big arrangements trying to sway you. It really suits me."
Spirit In The Room will be released in the US on 23 April (it came out in the UK last year). On the following pages, Jones discusses the selection and recording process of seven of the album's 13 cuts.