How Warren Zanes Got Aimee Mann, Corrine Bailey Rae, Phoebe Bridgers And More To Celebrate Tom Waits

How Warren Zanes Got Aimee Mann, Corrine Bailey Rae, Phoebe Bridgers And More To Celebrate Tom Waits

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PEN Song Lyrics Awards

Tom Waits turned 70 years old this past December 7. It may not have gained national attention, but in music circles it is an unofficial holiday, an opportunity to celebrate a man considered by musicians and music lovers one of the greatest living songwriters in the world.

Musician Warren Zanes, who also is an academic in music and a former vice president at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, is one of those music geeks who swears by the genius of Waits.

He celebrated that fandom by putting together the recent Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits, a tribute album featuring  Aimee Mann, Corrine Bailey Rae, Joseph, Patty Griffin, Phoebe Bridgers, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Roseanna Cash, Iris DeMent, Angie McMahon, Kat Edmonson, Courtney Marie Andrews and the Wild Reeds singing Waits songs spanning more than 40 years of his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame career.

In assembling the collection he found a lot of people share the same admiration for Waits. “You say Tom Waits is at the top of your list. You are not alone,” he tells me. “The level of reverence for Waits has the depth of the reverence people have for Dylan. It may not be as widespread. But it’s as deep.”

I spoke with Zanes about why Waits is so beloved by his fellow musicians, bringing together artists from indie to Americana to R&B to cover Waits and how when putting together a compilation album like this it takes on a life of its own.

Steve Baltin: As a massive Tom Waits fan, I love that the album covers all eras of Waits’ career, from mid-’70s like “Ruby’s Arms” to 2000s such as “Take It With Me” and “Georgia Lee.”

Warren Zanes: It was tricky with the choices. Like I said in the liner notes, I could only do so much directing because when you’re talking about one artist picking one song they’re going to go for the ones they’ve got that deeper relationship with. And when I threw out ideas sometimes that would steer the conversation, but they’d ultimately come back to the one that emotionally weighed the most to them. That’s why it’s geared towards ballads. But the fact we got that range across his career is just dumb luck.

Baltin: As people got into the selection process were there songs that surprised you by their inclusion?

Zanes: “Come On Up To The House” was one that I felt with that trio [Joseph] singing it opened it up in a special way. And I also thought making those lyrics come from female voices did something to it that was really significant. That one just started to breathe in different ways for me. But “Georgia Lee,” I felt like Phoebe Bridgers really got. Again, having it in the hands of a younger woman took it beyond what it was for me previously. It’s interesting. You don’t want to essentialize gender in any way, but something does happen when you take a song from a man and hand it over to a woman. Is it what we project onto it? Is it a character of the female voice in general? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know something happens. Some of these songs did start to resonate more and differently for me certainly.

Baltin: Of course that makes sense. “Georgia Lee” is about a young girl who is killed, so hearing it from the point of view of a younger woman has to change it.

Zanes: Listening to Phoebe’s track I can’t help but be aware of some identification between the singer and the protagonist in the song. So I start thinking about that identification more than I do about the songwriter. But I do think Waits sometimes gets too narrowly associated with a kind of production style and people do forget how expansive these songs are. And I agree with you that some of the later songs, it’s almost like they could be dropped into the Great American Songbook even more easily. “Take It With Me” just has this feeling of both a standard and a folk standard. But it’s really such well-built stuff. I think sometimes when we think too narrowly of him in terms of his production aesthetic we fail to see how well built this material is.

Baltin: Take me through how you found the artists that got involved in the project.

Zanes: I’ve done, not as recordings, a lot of multi-artists projects. In particular when I was at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and we did large week-long tributes to artists in the American Music Masters series. You would start with your dream list and you’d be through your dream list in about a week. Then you’d do about two months of seeing who you could get. So I’ve never heard of anybody, maybe Bob Dylan could write up his dream list and actually get it (laughs). But I certainly couldn’t. So the project is like making a documentary, pretty soon the thing is gonna take on a life of its own because what happens in the process dictates where it’s going. It’s absolutely true with this. So there were artists like I really wanted Regina Spektor to be a part of it. She was really trying some stuff out and she just didn’t feel like she found the song. I tried to get Chrissie Hynde to do “Clap Hands,” I just thought it would be amazing. Reached out to Mavis Staples about…I wanted “Ice Cream Man” on there. I knew my tempos were mid-tempo to ballad quite often and so I was trying to pull it out of that. And I couldn’t . So there is no master to these kind of projects. Start with that dream list and then the thing takes you to where it’s ultimately gonna go. You can’t force this emergence.  Angie came in late and I didn’t know her. So someone mentioned her name, I started listening and there’s a kind of toughness and vulnerability to her voice that I liked. And she knew that was the song she wanted. I like when an artist says, “This is the one. If I’m gonna be on this project it’s this one song.” I love that kind of vision (laughs).

Baltin: What are some of the keys to covering Tom Waits successfully?

Zanes: With Waits you gotta be able to understand those words to a pretty good degree. There can be some slur in there, but generally you’re wanting to know what this man is saying. It’s not “Purple Haze.” It’s all somewhat mystical to me. That is not the best answer for you writing a piece, but these projects have a pulse of their own and I’ve come to expect that. I was doing a Sam Cooke project in Cleveland and kind of from nowhere Aretha [Franklin] came in. With Aretha this whole thing happened in her wake that made this the right event. But I can’t look back and take credit for it. With the Waits project, yes, you do your work; you make your calls and you try to guide production. But at the same time it’s going to tell you what it is at the end of the day. And I just don’t think any of us would be as interested in it at all if that wasn’t the case.

Baltin: Was there one artist early on that kind of jumpstarted the project? Like for example every artist loves Aimee Mann.

Zanes: Aimee was very important, and Corrine Bailey Rae was important because Aimee can go into an Americana world and fit. And she can go into more of an indie world and fit. She’s got a versatility to her, so she was a draw to people from different worlds. Corrine Bailey Rae doesn’t get associated with Americana. She gets associated with the deeper world of jazz standards. And so she kind of made this thing resonate in a way. I had to steer away from Americana just a little bit. Not because I wanted to get away from it, but to attract artists from outside that framework. And so Corrine was really important. Phoebe Bridgers was important. A lot of people respond to her. People have this sense of Phoebe being exciting to watch.

“>

PEN Song Lyrics Awards

BOSTON, MA – SEPTEMBER 19: Tom Waits is honored and performs at the PEN/Song Lyrics Awards for … [+] Literary Excellence honoring John Prine and Kathleen Brennan & Tom Waits at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on September 19, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Tom Waits turned 70 years old this past December 7. It may not have gained national attention, but in music circles it is an unofficial holiday, an opportunity to celebrate a man considered by musicians and music lovers one of the greatest living songwriters in the world.

Musician Warren Zanes, who also is an academic in music and a former vice president at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, is one of those music geeks who swears by the genius of Waits.

He celebrated that fandom by putting together the recent Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits, a tribute album featuring  Aimee Mann, Corrine Bailey Rae, Joseph, Patty Griffin, Phoebe Bridgers, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Roseanna Cash, Iris DeMent, Angie McMahon, Kat Edmonson, Courtney Marie Andrews and the Wild Reeds singing Waits songs spanning more than 40 years of his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame career.

In assembling the collection he found a lot of people share the same admiration for Waits. “You say Tom Waits is at the top of your list. You are not alone,” he tells me. “The level of reverence for Waits has the depth of the reverence people have for Dylan. It may not be as widespread. But it’s as deep.”

I spoke with Zanes about why Waits is so beloved by his fellow musicians, bringing together artists from indie to Americana to R&B to cover Waits and how when putting together a compilation album like this it takes on a life of its own.

Steve Baltin: As a massive Tom Waits fan, I love that the album covers all eras of Waits’ career, from mid-’70s like “Ruby’s Arms” to 2000s such as “Take It With Me” and “Georgia Lee.”

Warren Zanes: It was tricky with the choices. Like I said in the liner notes, I could only do so much directing because when you’re talking about one artist picking one song they’re going to go for the ones they’ve got that deeper relationship with. And when I threw out ideas sometimes that would steer the conversation, but they’d ultimately come back to the one that emotionally weighed the most to them. That’s why it’s geared towards ballads. But the fact we got that range across his career is just dumb luck.

Baltin: As people got into the selection process were there songs that surprised you by their inclusion?

Zanes: “Come On Up To The House” was one that I felt with that trio [Joseph] singing it opened it up in a special way. And I also thought making those lyrics come from female voices did something to it that was really significant. That one just started to breathe in different ways for me. But “Georgia Lee,” I felt like Phoebe Bridgers really got. Again, having it in the hands of a younger woman took it beyond what it was for me previously. It’s interesting. You don’t want to essentialize gender in any way, but something does happen when you take a song from a man and hand it over to a woman. Is it what we project onto it? Is it a character of the female voice in general? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know something happens. Some of these songs did start to resonate more and differently for me certainly.

Baltin: Of course that makes sense. “Georgia Lee” is about a young girl who is killed, so hearing it from the point of view of a younger woman has to change it.

Zanes: Listening to Phoebe’s track I can’t help but be aware of some identification between the singer and the protagonist in the song. So I start thinking about that identification more than I do about the songwriter. But I do think Waits sometimes gets too narrowly associated with a kind of production style and people do forget how expansive these songs are. And I agree with you that some of the later songs, it’s almost like they could be dropped into the Great American Songbook even more easily. “Take It With Me” just has this feeling of both a standard and a folk standard. But it’s really such well-built stuff. I think sometimes when we think too narrowly of him in terms of his production aesthetic we fail to see how well built this material is.

Baltin: Take me through how you found the artists that got involved in the project.

Zanes: I’ve done, not as recordings, a lot of multi-artists projects. In particular when I was at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and we did large week-long tributes to artists in the American Music Masters series. You would start with your dream list and you’d be through your dream list in about a week. Then you’d do about two months of seeing who you could get. So I’ve never heard of anybody, maybe Bob Dylan could write up his dream list and actually get it (laughs). But I certainly couldn’t. So the project is like making a documentary, pretty soon the thing is gonna take on a life of its own because what happens in the process dictates where it’s going. It’s absolutely true with this. So there were artists like I really wanted Regina Spektor to be a part of it. She was really trying some stuff out and she just didn’t feel like she found the song. I tried to get Chrissie Hynde to do “Clap Hands,” I just thought it would be amazing. Reached out to Mavis Staples about…I wanted “Ice Cream Man” on there. I knew my tempos were mid-tempo to ballad quite often and so I was trying to pull it out of that. And I couldn’t . So there is no master to these kind of projects. Start with that dream list and then the thing takes you to where it’s ultimately gonna go. You can’t force this emergence.  Angie came in late and I didn’t know her. So someone mentioned her name, I started listening and there’s a kind of toughness and vulnerability to her voice that I liked. And she knew that was the song she wanted. I like when an artist says, “This is the one. If I’m gonna be on this project it’s this one song.” I love that kind of vision (laughs).

Baltin: What are some of the keys to covering Tom Waits successfully?

Zanes: With Waits you gotta be able to understand those words to a pretty good degree. There can be some slur in there, but generally you’re wanting to know what this man is saying. It’s not “Purple Haze.” It’s all somewhat mystical to me. That is not the best answer for you writing a piece, but these projects have a pulse of their own and I’ve come to expect that. I was doing a Sam Cooke project in Cleveland and kind of from nowhere Aretha [Franklin] came in. With Aretha this whole thing happened in her wake that made this the right event. But I can’t look back and take credit for it. With the Waits project, yes, you do your work; you make your calls and you try to guide production. But at the same time it’s going to tell you what it is at the end of the day. And I just don’t think any of us would be as interested in it at all if that wasn’t the case.

Baltin: Was there one artist early on that kind of jumpstarted the project? Like for example every artist loves Aimee Mann.

Zanes: Aimee was very important, and Corrine Bailey Rae was important because Aimee can go into an Americana world and fit. And she can go into more of an indie world and fit. She’s got a versatility to her, so she was a draw to people from different worlds. Corrine Bailey Rae doesn’t get associated with Americana. She gets associated with the deeper world of jazz standards. And so she kind of made this thing resonate in a way. I had to steer away from Americana just a little bit. Not because I wanted to get away from it, but to attract artists from outside that framework. And so Corrine was really important. Phoebe Bridgers was important. A lot of people respond to her. People have this sense of Phoebe being exciting to watch.

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