By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Famous Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson has made an album, and right away you’re probably thinking something snarky, say, along the lines of, “Oh, so now she’s a musician.” Well, it’d be a shame if Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head suffered that cynical fate, because if it did, you’d miss out on the solid pleasures and genuine musical intrigue of a fully legit album that is, track for track, chock-full of amazing, idiosyncratic music.
Photo by David Andrew Sitek
(Click to enlarge)
The singer, in her galoshes, contemplating her next album, perhaps?
Produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio — who recorded the disc’s 11 tracks to sensually surreal effect in a little shack studio down in the sultry swamps of Louisiana — Anywhere is a fascinating idea for a record as well, one that took quite a bit of bravery on Johansson’s part to undertake: It is an album comprising, for the most part, cover versions of Tom Waits songs, for cryin’ out loud.
Anyway, I for one feel relieved to be able to confirm the album’s general excellence, and I tell Johansson this over the phone.
“Were you nervous about it?” she asks me, laughing.
“I was a bit wary,” I say. “You know, an actress gets to make a record, it could have been cheesy. But yours is actually not just credible, it’s so different, and full of surprises. It’s great.”
“Thank you,” she says, with seemingly genuine pleasure. “I’m glad that you liked it. It was an incredible journey recording it, from beginning to end. It’s been such a personal, kind of raw experience that I kind of forgot that it was gonna come out, somehow.” She laughs again.
I’d seen Johansson warbling with the Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella last year, and then I heard she was at one point slated to do a remake of The Sound of Music. So I knew she had an interest in music, at least as an aficionado.
“Actually, ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had this fantasy that I was gonna be a musical-theater star — and of course I was, like, 8 years old [laughs], and there’s this little blond, pigtailed girl singing Annie or whatever.
“When the offer came to do The Sound of Music, it was really exciting for me — it opened up this fantasy. But then I realized that that show was just a stretch for me; it’s like rearranging the music to bring it down an octave, and the whole idea of prancing around in a big skirt ... I don’t know — musicals need to be kind of dark for me to connect with them.”
Johansson doesn’t come from a particularly musical family, apart from having a grandmother who used to sing to her when she was little, a jazz-enthusiast dad and a mom who saw Hendrix play when he was still known as Jimmy James and who used to hang out with the Moody Blues.
“I come from a family of music lovers,” she says, savoring the memory. “I always had a lot of music playing in the house growing up.”
The idea that her debut album would attempt to interpret the songs of the redoubtable Waits seemed a bit far-fetched, yet after having heard how it works in such interesting ways, I didn’t find it all that strange. And if you’ve seen Johansson onscreen, you’ve probably noticed that kind of low-key lazy cool she brings to her varied roles; it’s a kind of quiet confidence that fits the smoldering sadness of Waits’ songs quite naturally.
Mainly, Johansson loves to sing, and it just so happens that among her favorite and most deeply felt songs number several compositions by Waits. So she contemplated an album of standards. “The only song that I knew that I really wanted to do was Tom Waits’ ‘I Never Talk to Strangers,’ which I think is a real modern standard, in a way. But placing that alongside Cole Porter and Gershwin songs would have seemed out of place. Then I thought, Maybe I’ll try having a few Tom Waits songs on it. Then, I don’t know, maybe my mind kind of expanded — I kept thinking of all these Tom Waits songs that I’d love to do, and could imagine, and that’s how the album was born.”
Johansson says she can just plain relate to Tom Waits’ tunes, in which she finds a similar emotional response to the wistful songs of Leonard Cohen, or Chet Baker. But the cinematic quality of Waits’ songs appealed to Johansson the actress as well. “I can imagine his stories, the way he creates,” she says. “I think a lot of his songs are fantasies, and poetic, and visual. I was attracted to that aspect of it.”