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Women Take On The Music Of Tom Waits

Is there any rock singer more distinctly male than Tom Waits?

I don’t mean in terms of a macho attitude or a male-centric worldview — lord knows, there’s scads of men with that -- but simply in terms of voice. Over time, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and two-time Grammy winner’s gravelly baritone has become more of growling, harsh bark.

“I like to stomp and scream into the microphone while waving my hands,” Waits told me 20 years ago, talking about his style. “It allows me to vent my spleen.”

With “Come On Up To the House: Women Sing Waits,” a 12-artist tribute album — featuring, among others, Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Rosanne Cash, sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, and Iris Dement — all that is upended. Produced by Warren Zanes, the goal of the album is to uncover the melodic beauty of Waits' voice and the pathos that lurked within his songs. Zanes also curated the list of singers to collaborate on the album.

Album art for "Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits." (Courtesy)
Album art for "Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits." (Courtesy)

“I think Tom Waits is so associated with his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, what I wanted to reveal was the profoundly sturdy nature of this material,” says Zanes, who as a teenager in the '80s cut his teeth playing with the Boston roots-rock band Del Fuegos. “More than any writer of his generation, he’s the one that I feel like he’s our Cole Porter, our George Gershwin. He’s one of the most coverable [songwriters], but because of the character of his own production, sometimes people fail to see that.”

On the phone during a Thanksgiving break, Zanes, a former executive at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, says, “I feel like few songwriters have the sympathy for their characters like Waits does. When Waits writes a song, he falls in love with every single character that inhabits that song no matter how much they’re on the losing side of life. Because of that affection, I feel like he’s got an openness to the male and female experience that rings true.”

The album’s title song is sung by the three sisters in the Portland, Oregon folk-rock group Joseph. “It’s a comforting song,” singer-guitarist Natalie Schepman says via email. “It's a song inviting you to set all your troubles down and rest. It doesn't diminish the horror or heaviness; in fact, it blows them up bigger and it doesn't provide any shallow cliché or false hope that everything will turn out fine.”

Zanes says he tried to take a light touch with production, asking the singers to make their own choices about songs. He wasn’t looking for an A-to-Z retrospective spanning Waits’ career, or equal weighting of his various phases.

Waits has a tendency to remove the "sweetener" from his material, Zanes says. "In this, I wanted to bring the sweeteners back in, to make these thing sound real pretty."

Griffin, who sings the mournful breakup ballad “Ruby’s Arms,” says “Sweetness isn’t necessarily built into the female voice — not in my experience. We can paint with all the colors, too. But Tom Waits’ vocals are definitely in contrast to pretty melodies and he has lots of them.”

Griffin feels that Waits often writes about women in "a film noir kind of way" — which is high praise from her.

Schepman and her younger twin sisters, Allison and Meegan Closner, weren’t familiar with Waits’ music before being asked to participate. That said, Schepman adds, “We listened and the lyrics instantly connected. So many lines that hit me square in the chest.”

During the earlier phase of Waits’ career, throughout the ‘70s, he was a poetic skid-row chronicler with a Springsteen-ian rasp. Along about 1983, with his “Swordfishtrombones” album, his voice had coarsened, mutating into that husky growl. Some credit or blame his past overindulgence of cigarettes and whiskey — he’s been sober now for years — and others think it’s more of a theatrical affectation.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that Waits can be riveting but can also make for some hard listening if you’re not firmly in his camp. His later music tends to be less mellifluous — he penned “Ol’ ‘55” covered by Eagles in 1974 and on this record by Moorer and Lynne — and he’s explored a more serrated and ramshackle sound, with clanging and jarring arrangements.

As Rob O’Connor put it in a Rolling Stone review of 1992’s “Bone Machine”: “His drunken bluster to the fore, Waits tramples melodies with an ear for twisting clichés. The music matches Waits’ hollers with plenty of upright bass, late-night piano and over-the-top percussion.”

Griffin says she didn’t take to Waits right away. He was way beyond her “Beatles-loving ears” for a while, but after a couple of years she caught on. Speaking of the song she covers, “Ruby’s Arms,” she says, “I don’t know what he had in mind when he wrote it, but it’s a story that reminds me of people I’ve known — wild people who can’t ‘do’ home and its requirements without feeling completely suffocated there. It feels true to me.”

Zanes’ longtime friend Aimee Mann signed onto the project early, singing “Hold On.” Five artists — Mann, Joseph, Dement, Phoebe Bridgers (“Georgia Lee”) and Angie McMahon (“Take It with Me”) — chose songs from the 1999 album, “Mule Variations.”

Unfamiliar with the album, Schepman took the time to let the entirety of the album sink in. "The more I listened, the more I felt like I was sitting on a grandfather's porch after a long day's work. His voice feels like a worn-in pair of coveralls and smells like some combination of gasoline and tobacco and firewood. It's trustworthy. It's very rugged and masculine by a traditional definition, so it was exciting to provide a yin interpretation to his very pronounced yang. If the original is grandpa on the porch, I hope our version is grandma in the kitchen.”

Waits, who turns 70 this weekend, hasn't said anything publicly about the tribute album. But, Zanes makes sure to point out that Waits posted Griffin's version of "Ruby's Arms" on his social media channels and website — which is as good as a stamp of approval these days.

"We wanted to bring an offering," says Zanes, "a happy birthday card that we all put our names on, to tell him we loved him and have lived with him for a long time.”

Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for The ARTery.

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