Sounding Board

Scarlett Johansson’s Implausible Debut LP And Indie Rock Hollywood, 10 Years Later

For as long as there’s been a recording industry and a movie business in America, actors have been making albums. In plenty of cases, especially in the decades when pop musicians were looked at as entertainers more often than as artists, there was just too much opportunity for synergy — if you had a popular show, why not cash-in elsewhere with a popular song? Of course, there’s the other version, the one in which actors want to scratch some itch, want to have that other type of stardom, too. From Keanu Reeves’ grunge band to Robert Downey Jr.’s piano-pop album, chances are you’ve forgotten about a lot of these moments — after all, they’re mostly (often rightfully) merely tolerated as vanity projects. But every now and then, something more unique comes along.

The premise is unlikely: A young, celebrated actress seeking a side hustle in pop music is nothing new, but a young, celebrated actress choosing to do so by paying tribute to a cultishly-beloved, ramshackle singer-songwriter is something else entirely. I mean, here you have an actress that had a string of indie hits and high-concept blockbusters with the likes of Sofia Coppola and Christopher Nolan respectively, but who had also starred in a characteristically noisy sci-fi outing from Michael Bay. And she finds time to record an album, and she chooses to do a bunch of Tom Waits covers. As improbable a scenario as that still seems today, that’s exactly what happened 10 years ago this week when Scarlett Johansson released her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head.

For every auteurist celebrity who can work in multiple forms of media and have their output in each embraced and loved somewhat equally, there are far more where people put up with the detours while waiting for them to get back to their “real job.” It’s a two-way street: Eyerolls could just as easily greet a rock musician diverting their time into writing a novel or staging an opera. But there was always a more dubious veneer to actors trying their hand at pop music. Most often, it seemed like a lark, a dalliance that could simply amount to a person being bored and figuring hey, why not add a pop hit to my resume. But if you were one of the skeptics who insisted ScarJo’s musical debut slotted into a long lineage of celeb vanity projects, you’d have to at least admit, then and a decade later, that it was a deeply eccentric and idiosyncratic vanity project.

Anywhere I Lay My Head did not exist in a vacuum, however. It was quick on the heels of another actress’ first real foray into music — the preceding March, Zooey Deschanel had embarked on her side career with the first She & Him album, a project with M. Ward that would continue on, spawning another five albums so far. (Previously and afterwards, she often sang in conjunction with her films.) The next year, Ryan Gosling would release, um, a Halloween-themed collection of wheezy indie-rock backed up by a children’s choir. The project and album alike were called Dead Man’s Bones; Gosling used to talk about a second LP, but it has yet to materialize.

These were, in the grand scheme of things, still aberrations, but they also played into and were representative of a larger moment in the late ’00s. A handful of more alternative-minded releases from actors and actresses did not mark a sea change in such crossovers. But they did all coincide with the general mainstream ascension of indie in the second half of the ’00s, the era in which Williamsburg and “hipster culture” and retro-fetishism would all become buzzy signifiers in characterizing a certain slice of generational experience. The era in which Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear would have car commercials and movie trailer syncs and co-signs from legacy names.

As far as actors go, you could certainly consider Deschanel and Gosling to have been the hipsters in the crowd, as nonsensical as that term generally was. Even with the folk-pop of She & Him’s debut angling a little more traditional than Dead Man’s Bones or Anywhere I Lay My Head, it’s another document of this particular intersection of the indie film world and the indie music world.

Often deemed precious, She & Him was one of the factors in Deschanel helping define the more twee corners of ’00s indie, as well as her status as a certain pernicious female indie stereotype that shall not be named. The following year, she’d marry the singer of Death Cab For Cutie and star in 500 Days Of Summer, a movie that used the Smiths as a plot point but, in a perfectly 21st century free-for-all, managed to also feature a break-from-reality dance sequence to Hall & Oates. For his part, Gosling had already starred in Half Nelson, a movie scored by Broken Social Scene, and was close to giving us one of his defining performances in Drive, a movie scored by an ’80s fever dream.

All of which is to say: None of these were exactly Lindsay Lohan trying to garner a club banger. These were people who came from a more indie background themselves, and participated in projects that would fit right in with the zeitgeist of the times. But these albums were also one side narrative that underlined the general rise of indie that occurred last decade. And within it all, Anywhere I Lay My Head was still a strange one to wrap your head around. It’s one thing for Ryan Gosling to link up with his buddy and craft an album of endearing “Monster Mash” balladry. It’s another for ScarJo to pay tribute to Waits and get not one, but two, guest vocals from David fucking Bowie.

Johansson also had her indie bona fides. After years as a child actress, one of her first adult roles was in Lost In Translation, opposite a soundtrack dominated by My Bloody Valentine and Jesus & Mary Chain and also opposite Bill Murray, who was then an aging-yet-budding party-crasher hipster luminary (and who released his own inevitable debut album last year). One of her first musical endeavors was singing “Just Like Honey” alongside the reformed JAMC at Coachella in 2007. Despite the signals Johansson had sent before, the initial reactions to Anywhere I Lay My Head were befuddlement — stuff akin to “Oh, surely this celebrity couldn’t have gotten into Tom Waits on her own?” Many of the album reviews subsequently nodded to the fact that her selections were predominantly deep cuts from more difficult albums later in Waits’ career.

Movie star/musician crossovers of this sort are always greeted with some degree of suspicion. But Anywhere I Lay My Head never registered as the cheap and/or uninspired distraction so many actor albums do. It’s half-shocking to recall that Johansson was just 23 when it came out, considering the breadth of her work to that point — the feeling that we’d been watching her forever already and the feeling that she was always older than she actually was. This was a young person, a young artist, exploring another facet of herself, figuring out if this other thing could make her tick as much as the job she’d already been doing since childhood.

Johansson’s album also came with some implicit co-signs from pretty serious names. Anywhere I Lay My Head was produced by TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek; his bandmate Tunde Adebimpe appeared in the background on “Song For Jo,” the album’s sole original, co-written by Johansson and Sitek. Nick Zinner played guitar on a bunch of tracks. And there was the aforementioned presence of a legend like Bowie, whose weathered voice added gravity to “Fannin Street” and especially the album’s lead single, “Falling Down.”

Of course, as much as these collaborators were known for good taste, if you wanted to be cynical you could still chalk it up to the pull and connections of fame’s reach. Naturally, the album was still divisive. Johansson was a respected actress, but people are always primed to view such moves as dilettantism, particularly when said celebrity is taking on an artist as storied, singular, and cherished as Waits (especially considering the extent to which Waits is those things specifically for music writer types).

There were critics who found Anywhere I Lay My Head daring, who found its dense atmosphere to be an accomplishment and a worthy reinterpretation of Waits’ work. More commonly, reviews leaned towards judging it a noble failure while puzzling over its existence. Some appreciated the subdued rasp of Johansson’s voice; others found it inexpressive. Some found it created a whole different world for Waits’ compositions to exist within; some felt that Sitek’s production was impressive but suffocating.

There was also a common thread of discussing the work as if Johansson was simply another instrument employed by Sitek, rather than one of the people actually driving the thing. Sometimes this inevitably skewed sexist — it’s always striking to go back just 10 years and find how flagrantly people would write about an album like Anywhere I Lay My Head in terms of Johansson’s physical appearance and her status as a sex symbol. The other factor is that you had the perception of an inexperienced singer working with a producer who — following TV On The Radio’s alien Return To Cookie Mountain and just preceding the apocalypse funk of Dear Science — was operating at the height of his powers.

Sitek had also provided one crucial line to the elevator pitch for Anywhere I Lay My Head, a quote that would dominate its press cycle. In describing the sound they’d crafted, he said he’d been aiming for “Tinkerbell on cough syrup.” From the toy music box melody that dominated “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” to the narcotic haze that coats the album, it’s a pretty fitting summation. The aesthetic of Anywhere I Lay My Head is often that of a strung-out, haggard dreampop; it’s frequently beautiful, but also has this festering distortion at its edges. It’s alluring, but the “cough syrup” thing is dead-on: Listening to it too much leaves you with that dulled, thickened feeling of a bad head cold.

The other day in New York, as I was walking around listening to Anywhere I Lay My Head, a foreboding storm swept in over Manhattan. It was one of those surreal storm days where all the sudden it looks like the middle of the night outside but when the storm passes it doesn’t feel like any definable time of day. Every source of light reflects off every slick surface, underneath a sky that alternates between a blank, vivid white and flares of violent orange. That’s the sort of world Anywhere I Lay My Head feels as if it takes place in: a psychedelic noir, humid with sounds and steam crushing together.

So, how does it hold up? Has it proven itself, 10 years later and removed from its original context, to be the treasure some writers asserted it would become known as? There’s no question that its stature hasn’t increased over time; Anywhere I Lay My Head hasn’t become a cult classic or anything. And in terms of context, Scarlett Johansson just appeared in one of the biggest movies of all time. There’s no way something like Anywhere I Lay My Head could be anything but a footnote when you’ve since become one of the faces of the Marvel monolith.

That being said, there are often rewards and revelations across Anywhere I Lay My Head — and not of the “Whoa, this is weird for an actress!” variety that pervaded back then. Some of the interpretations Johansson and Sitek made together leave their own mark. “Falling Down” still stands tall above the rest of the album; its lush rainy-day lament is easily the most evocative thing here, and it was the best vehicle for the smokiness of Johansson’s vocals at the time. Similarly, the title track and the rendition of “Fannin Street” are also perfect balances of the album’s specific world and Johansson’s specific low-key melancholia in reading Waits’ songs. Later on, her take on “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” sounds like a synth-pop classic as heard from underwater.

The latter quality is something that actually runs throughout Anywhere I Lay My Head. Its overarching feeling is that of a broken-down transmission — one person’s vision of another person’s art, refracted through a few different time periods at once. There are still weaker links here, and the difficult territory of covering Waits might still leave this as unconvincing for some diehards as it was then. But overall there’s a captivating listen if you wade in, a battle of organic and artificial elements that make the album sound like otherworldly nature swallowing up human structures.

Though Anywhere I Lay My Head was an outlier in many ways, it wasn’t a total outlier for Johansson; music has dotted her career ever since. A year after her debut, Johansson would explore a very different version of musical expression, partnering with Pete Yorn for an album of acoustic singer-songwriter pop. The duo are actually about to return with an EP titled Apart in a couple weeks.

In between, Johansson delved into music for a few of her movie projects like Deschanel has done in the past. She also started a band called Singles with Este Haim, Holly Miranda, Kendra Morris, and Julia Haltigan that took inspiration from Grimes and the Go-Gos. After a decent synth-pop single, a cease-and-desist from another band called the Singles, and a cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” after rechristening themselves Sugar For Sugar, it never really went anywhere. None of it was quite as fascinating — or, thanks to all the distinguishing details, quite as explicitly what the shit — as Anywhere I Lay My Head. But Johansson’s also never been out here embarrassing herself like some of her peers. (Looking at you, Oscar-winning thespian Jared Leto.)

It’d be hard for Johansson to maintain a robust life as a musician on the side at this point, anyway. She was a star in 2008, but now she’s coming up on almost a decade of being in Marvel movies — that’s a whole different level. And it’s something that might render Anywhere I Lay My Head even less legible, make it seem like this bizarre lost chapter to those who weren’t around when it came out.

So, maybe that means it is the curiosity people relegated it to at the time; maybe that’s almost invariably the fate of such projects. But even if the album was a tangent, it’s a strange gem from earlier in Johansson’s career — dusty and fractured, sure, but still maintaining its own bit of obscured beauty. Maybe more importantly, though, is that it’s one of those things that feels as if it would simply not be replicable today. Not just in this moment of her career, or because of where all her collaborators were at that time. But because it feels as if it only could’ve happened in the exact moment in the late ’00s, that it was only the collisions of those exact years that could’ve birthed this. It’s just one more way in which it sounds like a wayward transmission, crackling in from multiple pasts.