Scarlett Johansson has always been a lover of music. She beautifully performed “Brass in Pocket” as Charlotte for Lost in Translation and recorded the jazz classic “Summertime” for Unexpected Dreams: Songs from the Stars. In October 2006 Scarlett announced plans to record Anywhere I Lay My Head, whole album of songs by Tom Waits, one of the premier singer-songwriters in the business and one of her favorite artists. It was released May 20, 2008 via Atco/Rhino. She surprised everyone by announcing in 2009 the releasing of Break Up, an album of duets with friend, singer and composer Pete Yorn. The album had been recorded back in 2006 before Anywhere I Lay My Head but it was kept by them as a small project between friends.
Break Up, by Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson
A truly one-of-a-kind album, Break Up brings together critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Pete Yorn and the multi-talented Scarlett Johansson. In this deeply emotive yet hook-filled song cycle, Yorn and Johansson reenact the tempestuous course of a love affair on the rocks in captivating detail. The album contains eight original compositions by Yorn, ranging in tone from the lilting opener “Relator” to the disarming, retro/futuristic “I Don’t Know What to Do” to the climactic “Someday.” Completing the collection is a powerful interpretation of the art-rock classic “I Am the Cosmos” by the late Chris Bell, co-founder of the quintessential cult band Big Star.
The album had its genesis in the aftermath of—you guessed it—a breakup. The time was 2006, and Yorn was in a state of acute emotional distress. As he prepared to go out on a headlining tour behind his third studio album, Nightcrawler, he found himself in the throes of a brutal bout of insomnia. After not being able to sleep for a week, he finally dozed off, only to wake with a start just minutes later. What had awakened him was a dream. “I sat up in bed, and the whole thing was in my head, fully formed,” Yorn says, sounding as if he still doesn’t quite believe it. “I suddenly felt like I really needed to make a record in the style of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Not that it had to sound like that, but it had to be a guy-and-girl conceptual thing. So then I asked myself, ‘Who’s Brigitte Bardot today? It’s Scarlett Johansson.’”
Revitalized by his concept and thrilled by the prospect of bringing it to life, Yorn gave Johansson a call. Intrigued by his out-of-the-blue invitation, she decided to go for it. ”Pete told me that he’d had a dream that we recorded an album together,” she recalls, “and with that momentum, he had written eight songs that he’d wanted to record pretty low-key. I’ve always loved Pete’s voice and have been friends with him for some time. It sounded like an interesting little adventure. He used the Serge and Brigitte recordings as reference for the ambiance he was trying to capture. He liked the idea of two people vocalizing their relationship through duets.”
In a flash, Yorn had worked up a dedicated batch of songs and reworked others that had called out to him in the context of the concept. He then called upon his cousin, Max Goldblatt, a bright, talented guy nine years his junior. A “renaissance man,” in Yorn’s words, Goldblatt had become an invaluable part of the artist’s musical and personal life, doing everything from manning the merch table and shooting video footage during tours to acting as an insightful sounding board for song ideas. They had wanted to work on a project together, and this one, so close to home in an emotional sense, provided the perfect opportunity. Goldblatt then suggested they bring in Sunny Levine, an emerging artist and producer (you’ll want to seek out his 2005 debut album, Love Rhino), who was full of inventively offbeat sonic ideas. Levine comes by his considerable chops naturally—his father is producer Stewart Levine; his grandfather is Quincy Jones.
In Levine’s garage studio, the three collaborators worked up the tracks around Yorn’s vocals and acoustic guitar, with Levine creating the beats and treating the sounds until they were exotic and sometimes otherworldly, but unfailingly accessible. They brought in guitarist Robert Francis (who’d been mentored on the slide by Ry Cooder), bassist Giuseppe Patane and violinist Amir Yaghmai for the particular flavors they could bring, and the tracks grew organically. Finally, they were ready for Johansson.
When she arrived at the studio, Johansson learned the songs “on the fly,” Yorn marvels. “I just played them for her on the acoustic, and we went for it. Scarlett is a quick study.”
“I didn’t really think about the songs at the time of recording,” Johansson acknowledges. “I was so focused on getting the harmonies solid and singing with the right intention that I didn’t have the perspective to see the album as a whole. It wasn’t until after the production was completed that I could hear what Pete and I sounded like together and how catchy and whimsical the songs were.”
“I’ve loved the album ever since I heard it completed,” she continues. “I like to listen to it from beginning to end, because it’s brief and all sweetly wrapped up. It perfectly captured where I was in my life at that time—a sort of cosmic coincidence. I never thought that anyone else would ever hear the album; I always thought of it as just a small project between friends.”
Predating Johansson’s debut album by nearly two years; Break Up was conceived and recorded in 2006. “When I went off to record Anywhere I Lay My Head,” explains Johansson, “it was such a completely different experience, a different sound and wildly different material that I couldn’t really use the recording of Break Up as a point of reference. When we recorded Break Up, I sang to compliment Pete’s voice and to be the female counterpart of a duo whereas when recording the solo album, I was covering Waits tracks and never much cared how rough I sounded; I wanted to get the point across of how I felt when I read his lyrics.”
It’s precisely the intimacy and immediacy of this “small project between friends” that makes Break Up seem so real, and sound so magical. Whether listened to individually or in the intended sequence, these songs and performances are utterly timeless and universally relatable . . . at least to anyone who’s ever fallen in—or out—of love.
He’s Just Not That Into You – Soundtrack
Scarlett contributed to one of the tracks, called “Last Goodbye” (a cover of the Jeff Buckley song) on the original motion picture soundtrack for He’s Just Not That Into You. Scarlett’s character in the movie, Anna, was a struggling singer.
You can listen to the sample on Barnes & Noble.com.
Anywhere I Lay My Head
The album, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head includes 10 Tom Waits covers and one original, “Song for Jo”, composed by Scarlett and TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek. Anywhere I Lay My Head will be released on Rhino Records’ Atco label on May 20, 2008. Johansson, who has been singing since she was little but doesn’t consider herself a songwriter, was offered a record deal a while back – but delayed recording until she could come up with the right songs to cover. She had originally planned to record an album of standards, then changed her mind after adding “I Never Talk to Strangers” to her repertoire. “I wanted to do ‘Never Talk To Strangers’, a duet between Bette Midler and Tom Waits,” she said. “People were like, ‘You’re going to do a Tom Waits song with a bunch of Cole Porter songs? That’s kind of strange.’ It turned into ‘Hmm, maybe a few more Tom Waits songs. Actually, I’ll do a whole album of Tom Waits songs.’”
Scarlett spent 33 days in Maurice in May-June 2007 recording her debut CD at Dockside Studio. Owned by Steve and Wish Nails, Dockside is a 12-acre recording complex hidden along the Vermilion River. Scarlett worked from 6 PM to 6 AM daily in the studio with producer Sitek. Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Celebration also performed on the recordings, which Steve Nails describes as cinematic rock. “It’s like theater, big screen,” said Nails, who sat in on all the sessions. “Lots of heavy bass tones in it. Without a bass guitar, we used all kind of different instruments to create these sounds. It was a great experiment. Very avant garde.” Sitek comparted Johansson’s baritone voice to Debbie Harry while Nails commented that she sounds like Marilyn Monroe.
Days before recording began, Johansson found herself sitting next to David Bowie at a party – Bowie also co-starred with her in The Prestige but they shared no scenes together. “He said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re working with Dave Sitek,’” Scarlett says. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m super excited.’ In my mind I was thinking ‘If you get a chance come down to Louisiana, we’ll be down there for five weeks.’” Bowie never made it down, but while Scarlett was filming Vicky Cristina Barcelona in Spain Sitek called her to say Bowie had just dropped by during mixing and cut vocals for “Falling Down” and “Fannin’ Street.” “It was the best phone call I ever got,” Scarlett says.
No live shows are planned to support the record, but Johansson hopes that will change. “It would be sad to not get everybody together, whether it’s at a festival or somewhere fun,” she says. “I think to be in a environment that’s user friendly and get everybody together and do some of the songs live would be great. There are no plans now, but it would be a shame not to.”
Scarlett says that musician friends in high school brought Tom Waits’ music to her attention, and she remains an avid fan. “I’ve always considered Tom Waits to be kind of a composer of modern standards; he has a lot of beautiful ballads and really heartbreaking songs.” What does Waits himself think of the record? “I’ve heard through friends that he’s very pleased with it and excited about it,” Johansson says. “I didn’t want to go into it without his blessing. I sent him some of the early, early recordings that we did and he was like ‘Go ahead, go forth with it.’”
Unexpected Dreams: Songs from the Stars
Scarlett Johansson was announced in January 2006 to participate in Unexpected Dreams: Songs from the Stars. Accompanied by Los Angeles Philharmonic, Scarlett sang the classic “Summertime” by George and Ira Gershwin. The album was released April 25 2006, and benefits went to Music Matters, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s fund for music education.