Scarlett Johansson's Album of Tom Waits Covers Doesn't Suck
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.
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.”
Recording the album took two or three tries. It was a daunting task, and initial efforts just didn’t satisfy. “I didn’t just want it to be an album,” Johansson says. “I wanted it to be an album that I would listen to, and an album for my own lifestyle, I guess. It would’ve been so much easier just to do a kind of paint-by-numbers kind of thing, but I never wanted to do that.”
She had an idea of the sound that she wanted but didn’t know how to capture it, and after a year of trying to re-create this sound in her head with studio musicians, “it was impossible,” she says. “It sounded awful, like bad Tom Waits covers. I needed someone to share the same music and actually, physically produce what I heard when I listened to the songs, how I imagined the songs.”
Sitek brings a real credibility to this project. He’s bursting with ideas about the possibilities of resonant sound in a meeting between Scarlett Johansson and Tom Waits. He drapes much of the material in a Phil Spectorish wall of reverbed sound laced with a billion tiny shards of unidentifiable musical texture.
“When I listen to Waits,” says Johansson, “there’s such a dreamy quality about his songs, like being in a whole other world, and I wanted to create a world I called my own. Then someone suggested Dave from TV on the Radio, and I was just such a huge fan of that massive sound they did, and I thought I’d like to see what his take would be on it.”
Sitek and Johansson worked out a lot of the concepts for the album during a drive from L.A. to Louisiana, listening to a lot of Sigur Rós, Scott Walker and, of course, Waits.
“That’s how these songs got born, in a way,” she says. “We had an understanding by the time we got down there.”
The album has an overriding sexy haziness about it, and naturally, Johansson credits “that inescapable stickiness and intoxicating humidity, that otherworldliness in Louisiana. It was impossible to escape; every time you opened a door, the life happening outside the studio just became a part of the album.”
While recording and mixing came together quickly, a few tracks were a bit more difficult to get right.
“‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,’” she sighs. “I don’t know, it was harder. It’s much different when you’re sitting there with an eight-piece band, with those lyrics, and there’s a story you’re trying to tell there, with a mysterious quality, I think. And then other songs, like ‘Town With No Cheer,’ were just harder to sing, because they have strange melodies, or the timing is strange, and you end up having lyric sheets with you, trying to get the performing intonation of the song right.”
While interpreting Waits’ tunes is similar to what she does as an actress, don’t assume that Johansson was merely adopting a persona for each of these songs, merely looking for motivation. She does, however, concede the similarity in approaches.
“There are certainly more similarities than there are differences,” she says. “In a way, living with these songs and these words, and applying your own personal stories to these songs, is very similar to creating a character. As you familiarize with these songs, you think of the world in a very private, particular way. With most of the artists I love, whether Marianne Faithfull, Billie Holiday or Leonard Cohen, in the kind of characters they play or the stories they’re telling, there’s such humanity in their performance that I feel connected to.
“I don’t think it’s such a stretch for actors to sing. It’s storytelling, really.”
Scarlett Johansson | Anywhere I Lay My Head | Rhino
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.