On A Tom Waits Covers Album, Women Transform A Classic Catalog

Nov 24, 2019
Originally published on November 25, 2019 4:14 pm

"I think that Tom Waits is an artist who makes art for the sake of making art," singer Allison Moorer says. To commemorate the esteemed singer-songwriter's 70th birthday, Moorer — along with a slew of female artists including Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin, Rosanne Cash and Phoebe Bridgers — have released the compilation album Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits, produced by Warren Zanes, wherein they cover some of Waits' canonical songs. Moorer and Zanes joined NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the album and Tom Waits' legacy.


Interview Highlights

On their relationship to Tom Waits' music:

Allison Moorer: I am a major Tom Waits fan. He's one of the few artists whose entire catalog I have in my iTunes. He's a go-to for me.

Warren Zanes: Not to plug your station, but [my mother] heard on NPR "The Piano Has Been Drinking," and she assembled her children around the dining room table and insisted that we hear it. I was a preteen and I felt like I was hearing a song that could have been written on a stone tablet and sung by someone from the Paleolithic Era. It didn't feel close to me, so the first experience I had of Waits was an attention to the lyrics, and then a kind of unknowability that surrounded him.

Courtesy of the artist.

On what women artists bring to Tom Waits' lyrics:

Moorer: Heart.

Zanes: I think over the years, Waits got more and more involved in the grit and the growl. He went deeper into the back of the cave, and sometimes I think people fail to see the very classic nature of the songs because of that "trash can" aesthetic. We viewed it as "His 70th birthday is coming, and it's a feast day, and we're gonna take these songs and we're gonna give them all the sweetness that we can." There's something about the female voice that's associated with a kind of vulnerability and a kind of emotion that we really wanted to breathe in these songs.

Moorer: I agree with you. I think that the "trash can aesthetic" allows people to miss that and that's what I'm looking for when I listen to Tom Waits — this classic form. And then I get excited about what he's gonna do with it.

On Tom Waits writing about people we know:

Moorer: He does seem to draw up marginal characters a lot — people who are either stuck in life or we don't consider them people that we see. He exposes the everyday.

Zanes: If you're interested in songwriting and you want to have the widest view of its possibilities: this is a man to study.

On Tom Waits' "Georgia Lee:"

Zanes: It's got that line "Why wasn't God watching?" And I just think that if you're a writer and that's the only line that you write in your entire career, you should be studied in universities.

Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits is out now on Dualtone.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tom Waits has a voice and a musical style that both mesmerizes and makes you laugh. The songs are short stories about romance and heartache.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OL' 55")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) Well, my time went so quickly. I went lickety-splickly out to my old '55.

SIMON: To mark Tom Waits' 70th birthday, a group of artists gotten together to record "Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OL' 55")

ALLISON MOORER AND SHELBY LYNNE: (Singing) And now the sun's coming up. And I'm riding with Lady Luck.

SIMON: Those women include Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Shelby Lynne and her sister, Allison Moorer, to whom we're listening right now. Allison Moorer joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALLISON MOORER: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And from New York, musician and writer Warren Zanes, who produced the album, thank you for being with us.

WARREN ZANES: Thanks for having us both.

SIMON: Allison Moorer, let me begin. You - it was struck by something you've said about Tom Waits. Quote, "he is what we all want to be, a fully integrated artist who seemingly sees the whole picture at once and knows how to present it so that we do, too." What is that gift?

MOORER: Well, I think that Tom Waits is an artist who makes art for the sake of making art. I perceive Tom Waits - and I've never met the man (laughter); I do not know him. But I perceive him as being an artist who's very much in the moment in doing the work for the sake of doing the work.

SIMON: You've never met Tom Waits?

MOORER: I have not.

SIMON: I bet you could pick up the phone right now and make that happen.

MOORER: (Laughter) I kind of have a rule about not meeting my heroes. So it's all right.

SIMON: Warren Zanes - wonderful essay you've written in which you say your mother who first introduced you to Tom Waits.

ZANES: Yes.

SIMON: Well, what was your mother hearing that swept her away, you think?

ZANES: Well, she actually - not to plug your station, but she heard on NPR "The Piano Has Been Drinking" from the small...

SIMON: I'm sorry. Where did you hear your mother say that?

ZANES: (Laughter) And she assembled her children around the dining room table and insisted that we hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PIANO HAS BEEN DRINKING")

WAITS: (Singing) The piano has been drinking. My necktie is asleep.

ZANES: I was a preteen. And I felt like I was hearing a song that could have been written on a stone tablet and sung by, you know, someone from the paleolithic era. It didn't feel close to me. So the first experience I had of Waits was an attention to the lyric and then a kind of unknowability that surrounded him.

SIMON: You refer to him also as a (laughter) punk rock Louis Armstrong.

ZANES: That's how I came to see him, you know? In the liner notes, I said, you know, when punk rock came along, we had more opportunity to find a place for the misfits of music. And that's what Waits was. And he started to make more sense, and I don't know if it was me getting older or us giving more time to understand this anomaly.

SIMON: Let's get back to the music. Here's Aimee Mann's version of "Hold On."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

AIMEE MANN: (Singing) They hung a sign up in our town. If you live it up, you won't live it down. So she left Monte Rio, son, just like a bullet leaves a gun.

SIMON: Allison Moorer, what is there in Tom Waits' music you think invites women in particular to sing it?

MOORER: Heart.

SIMON: You know, that's the best possible answer. I'm wondering if you can...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...Just because we're in an audio medium...

MOORER: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...I'm - wonder if you can expand on that.

MOORER: No, you're not going to get away with that, Moorer. Uh, crap.

SIMON: You know, let's just take it as it is. You can't improve on that. What do you think about that, Warren Zanes? What does a great female artist bring to Tom Waits' lyrics?

ZANES: Well, I think over the years, Waits got more and more involved in the - kind of the grit and the growl. And he just went deeper into the back of the cave. And sometimes, I think people fail to see the very classic nature of the songs because of that kind of trash-can aesthetic. And, you know, we viewed it as his 70th birthday is coming, and it's a feast day. And we're going to take these songs, and we're going to give them all the sweetness that we can. There's something about - the female voice is associated with a kind of vulnerability and a kind of emotion that we really wanted to breathe in these songs.

MOORER: I agree with you. I think that the trash-can aesthetic allows people to miss that. And that's - you know, I think that that's what I'm looking for when I listen to Tom Waits, is this classic form. And then I get excited about what he's going to do with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTY GRIFFIN'S "RUBY'S ARMS")

SIMON: Another song we'd like to introduce now - Patty Griffin sings "Ruby's Arms."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY'S ARMS")

PATTY GRIFFIN: (Singing) I will leave behind all of my clothes I wore when I was with you.

SIMON: Patty Griffin says she loves this song because it makes her think of the people in her family. Allison Moorer, is that part of the appeal of Tom Waits - he writes about people we're pretty sure we know?

MOORER: He does seem to draw up marginal characters a lot, people who are either stuck in life, or we don't consider them people that we see.

SIMON: Yeah.

MOORER: He exposes the everyday.

ZANES: If you're interested in songwriting, and you want to have the widest view of its possibilities, this is a man to study.

SIMON: I wonder, Allison Moorer and Warren Zanes, what's a Tom Waits song on this album you might talk about for us to play on our way out?

ZANES: I might point to Phoebe Bridger's "Georgia Lee." And it's got that line, why wasn't God watching?

MOORER: Jesus.

ZANES: And I just think that if you're a writer and that's the only line that you write in your entire career, you should be studied in universities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA LEE")

PHOEBE BRIDGER: (Singing) Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?

SIMON: The album, "Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits." Allison Moorer and Warren Zanes, thanks so much for being with us.

ZANES: Thank you for having us.

MOORER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA LEE")

WAITS: (Singing) Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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