There's always been an undercurrent of beauty propelling the songs of Tom Waits across his five-decade career in music.
Oftentimes, you gotta scour through the grime of that avant-garde kitchen sink from which the brilliant rhythmic clatter of the music accompanying his lyrics rises. Then there's Waits’ Howlin'-Wolf-gone-Kurt-Weill wail at full tilt, which has been a playground of sonic mud in which everyone from Keith Richards to Les Claypool to the late, great Larry Taylor of Canned Heat got their hands dirty. But even when Waits goes the opposite and lays on the orchestral accompaniment to the lonely barroom balladry of his Asylum Records years throughout the '70s and mid-'80s, it arguably takes a true blue fan of the man to listen beyond the scouring scowl of his distinctively gruff vocal delivery.
This is precisely what makes Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits such a revelation for anyone who has welcomed Waits into their home. Produced by Warren Zanes, the Tom Petty biographer and former guitarist for Boston garage rockers, The Del Fuegos, the 12-track collection—out today, Nov. 22, on Dualtone Music Group—brings together a breathtaking cross-generational collective of artists to reinterpret their favorite Waits tune.
The album, which comes just weeks ahead of Waits’ 70th birthday on Dec. 7, enlists an all-female roster of artists, including Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Phoebe Bridgers and others, to reimagine tracks from the legendary singer's expansive canon. (Nearly half of the tracks are from 1999's Mule Variations.) The women-led cast makes for a wonderfully distinctive album, as their renditions replace Waits' growl with the grace of the female voice.
"With Waits turning 70 this year, I felt it was time to truly salute him as a major American artist," the album’s producer, Warren Zanes, tells the Recording Academy. "Sometimes I feel like we don't tip our hats to him quite the way we should. Why not have the party while he can still attend? And we don’t want to imagine, looking back over our lives, not having these songs. They made a difference, and lets say ‘thank you’ and lets do it musically."
The Recording Academy spoke with several of the artists featured on Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits to discuss their perspectives on the project and their connection to Waits' music.
Joseph, "Come on Up to the House"
Natalie Closner-Schepman (of Joseph): What I love about Tom Waits was his snarly, jagged-edged voice that made me trust him because it gave me the impression he doesn't care about what doesn't matter. It's not precious or perfected. It made me lean in for some ancient, grandfatherly wisdom, and I got some in-lines like, "There's no prayer like desire," or, "The dice is laughing at the man that he throwed."
The ultimate truths Tom is serving are genderless. To me, they feel timeless and human. That said, they're presented in colors and textures that can be gruff, but only in the way that your blue-collar grandad is a little gruff. I imagine a tobacco-and-clove-smelling, coverall-wearing guy with rough white whiskers and leathery skin telling us all about it on a porch at the end of the day.
That's the kind of work-worn tenderness I feel, and that's the scene I imagine when he tells us to "come on up to the house." What is comforting about that scene is comforting coming from a maternal voice as well. That's what's exciting to me about hearing these songs through a woman's voice: You got your pat on the back, and now here is a set of arms to wrap you up. My sisters and I are young, but when we sang the song, we tried to channel that ancient, sorrow-enduring, no-bullshit mother wisdom as we did our best to deliver a deep, spiritual invitation to feel seen and held.
Aimee Mann, "Hold On"
Warren Zanes (album producer): [Aimee and I] knew one another from way back on the Boston scene. Before Til' Tuesday, she played in a band called The Young Snakes, and they toured with The Del Fuegos. I knew I wanted her on this because I know it's not just me who is affected by her voice in a particular way. She's got an emotional depth and an ability to go into film auteur kinds of emotions more than singer/songwriter emotions. And I thought that made her a perfect fit, especially to do "Hold On."
Phoebe Bridgers, "Georgia Lee"
Phoebe Bridgers: My dad played the more atonal, evil Tom Waits songs at a deafening volume to piss off my mom, so it's incredible that I can listen to it at all. Then, I downloaded every record onto my iPod at some point when I was a teen, and I couldn't listen to anything else for years. I would sleep with my headphones on and get nightmares about [his 1999 song] "What's He Building?"
My grandparents are from the Bay Area, close to Petaluma, and I remember the Polly Klaas kidnap and murder story. It was horrifying. This song is about the [less-known] murder of a black 12-year-old-girl named Georgia Lee Moses. When her body was discovered, no one even knew she'd been missing.
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, "Ol' 55"
Allison Moorer: An artist like Tom Waits has such a deep body of work and is also completely unique. So all I can tell you is that my sister and I were honored to participate [on this album]. We picked the song that we thought we could bring something special to with our way of singing together and our harmonies. I think "Ol' 55" is an incredible love song. It's a song about a car that's not about a car. But then again, most songs about cars aren’t really about the car. [Laughs.] The reason why I listen to Tom Waits is because the songs are, at bottom, deeply romantic—in the tragedy, in the longing, in the depth, in the looking for truth in an everyday experience.
Angie McMahon, "Take It With Me"
Angie McMahon: In regards to getting into him, it was maybe when me and my dad were comparing the Tom Waits version and the Bruce Springsteen version of the song "Jersey Girl," or it was maybe when a pirate sang "Little Drop of Poison" in the Shrek 2 film. Regardless, I chose "Take It With Me" because it's my number one Tom Waits song and is on my list of favorite songs ever recorded. I didn't think I would cover it initially because I didn’t want to ruin it for myself, but the melody evokes so much that I didn’t really have to do anything. I think that he's one of the pillars of inspiration and storytelling standards for so many songwriters.
Corinne Bailey-Rae, "Jersey Girl"
Corinne Bailey-Rae: It's so hard to say exactly what I love about "Jersey Girl." There's a poignancy to it, something charming about the modest promise by the narrator to take his girl "on all the rides." I love how the song evokes a carnival and speaks about the early days of love when you feel time spent with anyone else is wasted and you can't wait to see your baby. Waits is a masterful songwriter, and I found myself in tears doing the takes as the lines unfolded their secret meanings to me.
Patty Griffin, "Ruby's Arms"
Patty Griffin: I started singing "Ruby's Arms" at my shows years ago, and then I didn't do it for a long time. So when it came up to do this album, I decided to go for that one again. The reason I was drawn to it in the first place was that it's about poor people, for one thing. That's a very powerful subject for me, because those are my people who I grew up with. It's really, truly compassionate without being super sentimental, though it does make me think of people in my own family and makes me think of all of the people you know that are in your life who just can't settle into civilization. [Laughs.] It’s a very non-Hollywood story.
The quality of Tom's work is so dense that you can go back and find something else to love that you hadn’t heard before over a period of nearly 50 years. That's what's so cool about him. Everybody loves him. [Laughs.] We're all just very, very lucky to be alive with all these great gifts he's given us over the years.
Rosanne Cash, "Time"
Rosanne Cash: What an honor to sing a song like "Time." Many years ago, I recorded it just for myself, for the pleasure of singing those words. Maybe I seeded the notion in the deepest part of the creative ether, the place from where these songs travel through Tom. For whatever reason and from whatever source, I'm just thrilled to be a part of this album. There is no other songwriter in the world, past or future, like Tom Waits.
Kat Edmonson, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring"
Kat Edmonson: I first discovered Tom Waits when I was 24. I felt late to the game because I'd been hearing about him for years. I remember being in a bar one night and two guys were having a competition to see who could recite the most Waits lyrics. It was then that I began to understand how prolific of an artist he was, and I soon went exploring on my own. I chose "You Can Never Hold Back Spring” because it's my favorite song of Waits. It's pure and hopeful, and I feel like its message is a part of me. I'm inclined to sing about hope. Tom Waits is very good at breaking your heart, not only through his writing, but through his delivery.
Iris Dement, "House Where Nobody Lives"
Zanes (album producer): It was just by pure chance that Brad Jones had worked with Iris Dement on this song we got to include here. It actually got the whole ball rolling on the project. I had made four solo records after the Del Fuegos, and Brad had a hand in all of them. He is somebody I have worked with a lot through the years.
Courtney Marie Andrews, "Downtown Train"
Courtney Marie Andrews: "Downtown Train" is a perfectly written song about longing. Waits paints a beautiful image of someone who is just slightly out of reach, and he always has a brilliant way of writing poetic pop songs, which is no easy task. His language makes me want to see someone I long for on a downtown train. That's why it's easy to sing Tom Waits songs, because you can easily imagine yourself as one of his characters.
The Wild Reeds, "Tom Traubert's Blues"
Sharon Silva (of The Wild Reeds): Phoebe Bridgers' [version of] "Georgia Lee" on [this album] is so amazing. The track listing for this whole album is incredible. At first, I was intimidated to see we were the last song, because I always put a lot of stock into whatever the album closer is when I listen to records. But I was like, "Wow, it worked!" It worked lyrically, and it worked as a bookend to the opening song that Joseph does.
We were in between doing "Tom Traubert’s Blues" and "Downtown Train," but we didn’t know who had dibs on what yet. Between the three girls, we are constantly ping-ponging ideas back and forth for a while. But we [chose] "TomTraubert’s Blues" because of the chorus and the way it feels super empathetic and really nostalgic.
For our version, we sped it up quite a bit because we wanted to change the rhythm of it and thought it would sound best for heavy harmony that way. I personally connected with this song on a very deep level. It felt really real and really dark in how it just reaches out and touches you when you feel like you’re at your lowest point.