Scarlett Johansson Down in the Bayou

Scarlett Johansson Down in the Bayou
When word first leaked in late 2006 that actress Scarlett Johansson — who had just been immortalized as the hottest hottie of hotropolis by both Esquire and FHM magazines — was planning an album of all Tom Waits covers, it sounded like a hipster comedy sketch from Andy "Dick in a Box” Samberg. Comely young celebutante + America’s weirdest/ greatest/ crotchetiest living songwriter = viral hilarity. Sure, she’d crooned karaoke with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation — though her take on the Pretenders’ "Brass In Pocket” was more flirtatiously adorable than, y’know, good — and even done a decent enough cover of Gershwin standard "Summertime” on some charity compilation.

Still, nobody paid the project much mind — not with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton records still piled high in remainder bins — until Coachella 2007 when Johansson unexpectedly appeared onstage with a reunited Jesus and Mary Chain to sing backup on "Just Like Honey.”

Was a gauntlet being thrown? Could this actress-slash-singer be demonstrating — egads! — musical taste? Did she, in fact, have musical aspirations beyond starring in Bob Dylan and Justin Timberlake videos? If these answers were affirmative, then perhaps Johansson might not simply churn out yet another dance-pop atrocity about the perils of paparazzi.

Of course, that hardly kiboshed the scepticism that haunts all actors who dare to step inside a recording studio — and not without reason. God-awful albums from the likes of Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Russell Crowe, Kevin Bacon and that dude who played Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life have soured the public’s appetite for such gluttonous exercises in vanity.

Hipsters, haters and Perez Hilton were pooh-poohing the project long before the tape ever rolled, but Johansson claims to have been unmoved by such mockery.

"I have a very dim perception of how people feel about that,” she says, her husky voice caressing the phone line from New York City. "A lot of singers who I love, even Tom Waits and David Bowie have had their fair share of screen time. Think about singers like Judy Garland or even Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. It seems like a seamless transition that actors would sing or singers would act or painters would write or musicians would sculpt. Creative people, at least for myself, like to explore different outlets for that creativity. Why limit myself?”

Why, indeed. Zooey Deschanel has gotten away scot-free with a similar dual role this year because a) she’s not all that famous; b) she had already blown minds singing "Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Elf; and c) her collaboration with M. Ward is called She & Him, not "Zooey Deschanel.” (Milla Jovovich also released an unexpectedly cool album — 1994’s Divine Comedy — but that proved an aberration as the model/zombie-slayer she never attempted a second.) Johansson, on the other hand, inhabits a mansion far higher up in the Hollywood pantheon. She may have starred in indie classic Ghost World, but she was too pretty, too curvy, to ever be a Winona Ryder or a Parker Posey (or a Zooey Deschanel, for that matter).

She has largely avoided the paparazzi-plagued club scene and is no TMZ fixture, but she does model for L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton. Plus, she’s famous enough to garner reams of press over her recent engagement to bland Canadian boy-toy Ryan Reynolds — which means famous enough to be dismissed by the cynical masses as a narcissistic hack, even if a Waits cover album could only be considered a celeb cash-in in Bizarro World.

So let’s get this out of the way off the bat. Johansson is no Amy Winehouse (though who would want to be these days?) and her somewhat limited vocal skills alone would not likely have gotten her a record deal if she weren’t already well known. And yet, Johansson has defied (low) expectations and emerged with Anywhere I Lay My Head, an exceedingly eccentric, surprisingly dark and, yes, rather wonderful album.

Produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek with David Bowie on backing vocals and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner on guitar, Johansson’s detached Nico-esque singing is not necessarily the star attraction. Yet you will find yourself drawn in by it as she croons Waits’ indelibly evocative lyrics, her low voice floating dreamily through Sitek’s acid-soaked atmospherics reminiscent of Cocteau Twins-era 4AD (whose legendary label founder also happened to handle the sequencing).

Perhaps Anywhere works so well because Johansson is something of a muse. She’s certainly elicited invigorating work from the likes of Bill Murray and Woody Allen. Dave Sitek has proven similarly inspired, creating a Gothic soundscape so defiantly odd you can actually imagine Tom Waits spinning it in his workshop (though you’ll never imagine what he’s building in there). So yeah, ScarJo ain’t no LiLo.

"I had this golden opportunity to record and thought I would do maybe an album of standards, because I’m not a songwriter. I’m a vocalist,” says Johansson. The folks at Rhino records had earlier enlisted her to sing "Summertime” on Unexpected Dreams: Songs From the Stars, a compilation raising money for MusicMatters that handed a mic to film and TV stars, including such potential punch-lines as Lucy Lawless, Jennifer Garner and John Stamos — not exactly the line-up that would rid moonlighting actors of their singing stigma. Rhino proved impressed enough to offer her a record deal, on their revived Atco imprint, and attached almost no strings.

"I can’t believe the freedom. They were just like, ‘We love your voice and we’d love if you would ever consider doing a full album’ and left it at that. They had a very hands-off approach, which I appreciate — especially as an [actor] working for a studio, it’s nice to have that kind of creative freedom.” Though her starlet peers have taken the dance pop route — or, in the case of Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus, pop rock — Johansson’s never even considered going in such an obvious, expected direction.

"I could never do music that I hadn’t made for my own lifestyle,” she says. "Had I been more of a pop music enthusiast, I would have chosen a completely different story to tell. It would have been a more poppy kind of album. But that’s not the music I really respond to.” The project would evolve considerably over the next few months. Her initial decision to include the Tom Waits-Bette Midler duet "Never Talk To Strangers” soon snowballed into an album of all Tom Waits covers. Alas, her first stint in the studio fizzled, though in hindsight, this would prove rather serendipitous.

"I had the project for a year before I ended up producing anything worth anybody’s time. I didn’t know how to do it. It was a whole new world for me. I had a vision. I could hear the sound in my head and I knew what I wanted — but I didn’t know how to get there. I tried doing sessions with some very talented studio musicians but it was almost like recreating the Tom Waits vibe, but singing it in this weird voice, my voice, a female baritone, and it just sounded terribly bad,” she says of the overly faithful interpretations. "Like café music.” Following this failure montage, the second act begins with the appearance of Dave Sitek, musical mastermind behind TV on the Radio, which, thank the gods, is the kind of music Johansson really responds to.

"I realised what I need was a collaborative partner to bounce ideas off of — someone who was enthusiastic, like a mad scientist, a weird magician,” she says. "I was looking for, like, a Kevin Shields, someone who would have this massive sound.” Sitek had heard about Johansson’s dilemma through a mutual friend who thought he might prove a good match. Unconvinced at first, Sitek told her to swing by his Brooklyn studio. Then he made her sing, a capella, in the hallway. That was enough. "She had this very weird Debbie Harry or Cocteau Twins-y vibe, especially in the lower registers, which I was more interested in exploring,” Sitek recalls. "I wasn’t trying to make believe that she wasn’t an actor. We kind of approached it like she was in character depending on what the lyrics were — the premise was to treat this as if we were shooting a movie.” But in order to do so, they had to "film” on location because, as Sitek notes, "a lot of Tom Waits songs are set in places very unlike New York.” So late last spring Sitek and Johansson rented a car and drove down from Los Angeles to Maurice, Louisiana, in the bayou outside of Lafayette. They cranked the stereo, blaring everything from Serge Gainsbourg to Scott Walker to New Order, just getting to know each other.

"It was such a special experience — it was almost as if we were getting away with something, like we’d tricked our parents into thinking we were sleeping over at someone’s house,” Johansson giggles. "It was such a beautiful, inspired experience. I think the ambient humidity, that heaviness, that intoxicating air in Louisiana is a common thread through all of these songs. You can hear it throughout the whole album.” Scarlett, Sitek and his multi-instrumentalist cohorts — including Zinner, Celebration’s Sean Antanaitis, TvotR’s Jaleel Bunton and Tall Furs’ Ryan Sawyer — holed up for five weeks at Dockside Studios, a sprawling riverfront estate in Cajun country, with a full studio, plenty of vintage gear and enough sleeping space for everyone.

During the hot steamy days, they ate pancakes and BBQ. Watched birds and wandered about the swamps and farmland. Floated in the pool and boated up and down the vermillion river. The TV stayed off. "It was like camp,” Sitek says, "without a counsellor coming around the corner saying knock it off with those fireworks.” When the sun went down, though, they would get down to work. "Most of the stuff was a giant question mark,” he continues. "I didn’t have a specific plan but I did know that I consciously wanted to stay away from trying to emulate [Waits’] sound. There would just be no point. The last thing I wanted to do was have Tom get all pissed off and beat my ass in a bar for doing a b-rate impression of him.”

As they rebuilt the songs from scratch, band members traded instruments back and forth, while Sitek handled "trickery, tomfoolery and childhood pranks” (read: synthesizers, drum machines, tape loops, etc.). Inspired by the sound design of Blade Runner, Sitek said the goal was to create a "cinematic backdrop.”

Though Anywhere covers two decades of Waits’ skewed catalogue, the album is connected by Johansson’s gentle, husky voice, which sounds wrapped in gauze as it flits in and out of Sitek’s unconventional production — a woozy, sparkling morass of sounds, effects and echoes, sleigh-bells, click-tracks and cicadas, creating what he rather aptly dubbed a "Tinkerbell/cough syrup vibe.” The first hint that expectation would be upended is immediate as they daringly use an instrumental — and a funereal one, at that — to kick off this supposed starlet vanity project. The languid organs and cacophonous horns of "Fawn” (Alice, 2002) bleed into the similarly strange sounds supporting the dour "Town With No Cheer” (Swordfishtrombones, 1983) as Johansson’s sorrowful baritone sings of trapped hummingbirds and closed-down canteens. The mood lightens ever so slightly for first single "Falling Down” (Rain Dogs, 1985), in which Scarlett harmonises with Bowie — who also lends his coos to the blissfully foreboding "Fannin Street" (Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, 2006) — as the organ swells are sweetened by xylophone plinks and chimes and perhaps a banjo.

The slow-burning title track (Rain Dogs) takes another uplifting turn with drum machine blips, trombone blasts and a proud declaration that "I don’t need nobody” while on "I Wish I Was in New Orleans” (Small Change, 1976) she boasts of drinking us under the table even as the song is re-imagined into a breathy lullaby sung to the tune of a music box — one can’t help but picture a spinning plastic ballerina wearing Mardi Gras beads. The result is not a requiem for the drowned city but a star-borne wish that it could somehow be dreamed back to glory.

The album peaks with "I Don't Want to Grow Up,” turning Bone Machine’s unlikely 1992 chart hit into a synth-pop gem with an insistent drum machine beat set against the distant-sounding singing of a 24-year-old on the verge of doing just that (and what sounds like a children’s choir coming from even further away).

"We didn’t have any pressure or any suits standing around us,” Johansson recalls. "We really had a lot freedom to record stuff and then trash it, make stuff even wackier. Like discovering a loop pedal was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” Though Johansson never aspired to be a songwriter, the possibility had come up during their car ride down. So they allotted time. Just in case. It was the final day, everyone else had already headed out, and so Scarlett and Sitek stayed up all night working on what would become the album’s soft-focused psychedelic centrepiece, the original composition "Song for Jo.”

"It was magical to see a song, to watch it from birth and see it build over a couple hours. It was a cool, organic experience I had never had before. It was a real bonding experience and it just felt really good.”

"We just wanted to document our time there,” says Sitek. "Just us. Not the Tom Waits project. Just us being there with all these microphones on.” They didn’t even know if it would be on the record at all. All their tapes had been gathered up and mailed off to 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, in deference to his label’s sonic inspiration and because Sitek considers him "probably the greatest record sequencer of all time.” Without even realising it was an original, Ivo put "Song for Jo” in the middle of the album, as opposed to tacking it on the end as a bonus track. While not the album’s highlight, it adds a welcome personal connection to this collection of covers and in no way sounds out of place. It was only after leaving the bayou that David Bowie bestowed street cred on the album by singing backup on two songs (additional backing vocals were handled by TVotR’s Tunde Adebimpe). Scarlett had actually run into Bowie at a dinner just before they left for Louisiana. He’d heard she was recording with Sitek and she, jokingly, invited him down to the sessions. Though Bowie, not surprisingly, never materialised on their Louisiana studio doorstep, Sitek did drop some tapes off at his house after returning to New York.

"[Bowie] listened to the songs and said ‘this is far-out and not what I was expecting.’ So he showed up at the studio while I was mixing and just cut the vocals right then and there,” Sitek says. "He’s into bizarre things and risky things and unpredictable things. I think he saw something magical and different and unexpected in it. He gave it a chance, and if that guy gives it a chance maybe others will, too.” More than that, Bowie proudly told the press Scarlett’s performance was "mystical and twice cool.” Johansson, at this point, was in Spain filming the new Woody Allen movie when she got the good news. "Dave called me up and said ‘guess who’s in the studio.’ I was like, ‘no way!’ [Bowie] used his voice in that incredibly magical way and you almost didn’t realise the song was unfinished until he laid down his vocal tracks, which became such instrumental accompaniment. It was pretty cool. It was more than pretty cool. I’m playing it down. I was over the moon. I, like, peed myself.”

And now, after all these months, the album is out. The usual suspects will continue their snarky pot shots, blog comments will fill with envious bile and many music fans will never even give Anywhere the benefit of the doubt. Music critics, however, have been largely duly impressed, albeit surprised at being so — New York magazine summed it up with their headline "Dammit, Scarlett Johansson’s Album Might Be Good,” later followed by the backhanded compliment "Confirmed: Scarlett Johansson Makes Best-Ever Album by an Actor.”

No one knows if Anywhere’s songs will ever be taken on the road — though Scarlett did say it would be a shame if they were never played out — but this unusual mélange of experimentation and stardom deserves, at the least, to be taken seriously, regardless of Johansson’s day job.

As for how Tom Waits takes it, well, she hasn’t played it for him personally, but he did give the A-OK before they started and is reportedly rather pleased with the final results.

"Which makes me happy,” Johansson says, sounding genuinely relieved. "Now I don’t have to watch out for him in a crowded venue with some kind of shiv.”