Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tom Waits: Bad As Me

Photography: Jesse Dylan
Tom Waits recorded his new album Bad As Me, his first collection of all-new studio recordings in eight years, in his studio, which he calls "Rabbit Foot" for good luck. The space, a converted schoolhouse, still has class pictures dotting the walls of each classroom.

"I never had my own place before," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross [Note: This post is a re-post of Tom Waits: The Fresh Air Interview]. "[In a studio], you know there was a band before you and you know you have to pack up at the end of your session because there was a band behind you. You have to photograph the board so no one changes your settings. Now, this is my own rig. It's my own trailer."

Bad As Me, Waits' 20th album, references the people he normally sings about: loners, losers, drunks and eccentrics. The "poet of outcasts," as The New York Times once called Waits, romanticizes loneliness, the city of Chicago, death and love, among other topics. 

The album also pays homage to some of Waits' favorite singers, including James Brown, Peggy Lee and Howlin' Wolf.

Howlin Wolf
 "I've always looked to [Wolf] for guidance, and probably always will," Waits says. "He does have a voice that is otherworldly. It should be in a time capsule somewhere. When you're a kid and you're trying to find your own voice, it's rather daunting to hear somebody like Howlin' Wolf, because you know that you'll never achieve that. That's the Empire State Building. You can scream into a pillow for a year and never get there."


One of the torch ballads on Bad As Me is called "Kiss Me," and has opening chords reminiscent of "Cry Me a River." The title, Waits says, was inspired by Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Gene Wilder's book about Gilda Radner.


"As soon as I heard it," Waits says, "I said, 'That's a tune waiting to be written.'"

To make the recording sound older, Waits added the sound of vinyl pops and clicks — using a piece of chicken barbecuing on a grill.

"It sounds exactly like vinyl if you hold the microphone up to your barbecue," he says. "It's the same sound, actually. ... I wanted to go back in time a little bit and give it a feeling like you're alone in a hotel with a record player."

For the words in "Kiss Me," Waits says he drew inspiration from songwriters like Peggy Lee, Julie London and Bessie Smith.

"For a songwriter, you don't really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they're made of, and wonder if you can make one, too," he says. 

 "And you just do it by picking up the needle and putting it back down and figuring it how these people did this magical thing. It's rather mystifying when you think about songs — where they come from and how they're born. Many times, it's very humble and very mundane, the origin of these songs."

Waits says he also grew up listening to James Brown and Ray Charles, whom he admired for his ability to sing in falsetto. Waits takes his own turn singing in falsetto in "Talking At the Same Time," which he says was inspired by Charles, as well as Marvin Gaye, Skip James, Prince and Smokey Robinson.


"Sometimes the magnetism of a song is impossible to ignore, and it demands that it be sung in a certain way," Waits says. "And that's really your job as an interpreter, to discover: 'What is the way in? Do I growl this? Do I eliminate all my growl and try to do it like a younger man? What does this song mean?' You're more like an actor."


But Waits says performing night after night on the road takes its toll on his voice.

"I bark my voice out through a closed throat, pretty much," he says. "It's more, perhaps, like a dog in some ways. It does have its limitations, but I'm learning different ways to keep it alive."

Related NPR Stories

Live in Concert
Glitter And Doom: Tom Waits In Concert

The Fresh Air Interview
Tom Waits: A Raspy Voice Heads To The Hall Of Fame

Music Interviews
Tom Waits: How The Skid Row Balladeer Found His Voice

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