Actress Scarlett Johansson reminisces about her musical passions starting with her toddler years, from a blue-eyed crooner that launched her ambitions as a singer to the California band she identified with as a secretive teenager, and a cinematic artist specializing in strange stories. Scarlett recently released an album with singer Pete Yorn on Rhino Records called The Break Up. She'll also be appearing in Iron Man 2 which opens next year.
Dan Wilcox: Well hello there, this is Dan Wilcox from KCRW and I have the extreme pleasure of sitting here with actress and singer Scarlett Johansson. We're going to be playing excerpts of songs that have inspired her over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Scarlett, welcome.
Scarlett Johansson: Thank you very much.
DW: So let's dive right on into it. What did you bring for us today?
SJ: It was very difficult to come up with a list of only five songs. I had a bit of an aneurysm last minute but, I guess the first song that I'll talk about is maybe the Frank Sinatra song called "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." When I was a little kid my favorite singer was Frank Sinatra. I thought that maybe when I grew up I could sound like Frank Sinatra.
SJ: I love the instrumental in the beginning and Frank's voice is super dreamy in this song. I have to say that he was a huge part of my childhood and my excitement about singing and music when I was a kid.
DW: Like how old are we talking about?
SJ: Like three. (both laugh) But you know the thing is that -- I think what happened was my parents had a lot of tapes, like a lot of cassette tapes, and I remember having this Fisher Price little tape player thing. It had a microphone attached to it. You know, I used to pop in the Frank Sinatra cassette and I became absolutely obsessed with the "Best of Frank Sinatra," and I would sing into the microphone with it.
Also, when I started taking vocal lessons when I was around seven…. I started acting because I thought I was going to do musicals on Broadway. I was obsessed with Rogers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter, Gershwin -- and Frank Sinatra seemingly fit right in there, I guess. So I remember "New York, New York" was one of the songs that I would practice with my vocal coach for auditions and stuff like that. I just loved Frank Sinatra.
Song: Frank Sinatra's Polka Dots and Moonbeams
DW: Alright, that was Frank Sinatra's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and what else do you have for us here today?
SJ: The next song that I have, kind of in that same vein, is a Beach Boys song called "In My Room." The reason why I picked this song was…well, part of it was because a lot of the music that I listened to when I was younger was music that my mom listened to. You know, my mom was kind of a teenager in the 60's and she was living in Manhattan and hanging out in Greenwich Village and seeing Jimi Hendrix play when he was Jimmy James and the Moody Blues and Richie Havens and she also, of course, listened to a lot of the Beach Boys and stuff. When I was younger, she used to play the Beach Boys a lot. This is a song…a couple of years ago I went to a Brian Wilson concert in London and I would have to say it was maybe the best concert I've ever been to; it was amazing. Part of that was just watching him sit up on the stage alone -- with his band behind him of course -- but he was really front and center and the first half of the show he played you know some of the Beach Boys' greatest hits and then the second half of the show he played the entire "Pet Sounds" album.
DW: Wow, nice.
SJ: It was fantastic.
Song: Beach Boys' “In My Room
SJ: I have to say that when he played this song, I cried. I cried. I don't think that I've ever cried that hard at a concert before. I find his whole story very touching and this song, really, the lyrics were very poignant. I think that a lot of people have that when they're a teenager, where their room is really sort of their safe haven and they can hold all their secrets there. Certainly that was my experience, anyway, so this song really spoke to me when I was a teenager, as well as the Beach Boys in general just being a big part of my musical library as a young person.
DW: Alright, that was the Beach Boys' "In My Room". I'm sitting here with Scarlett Johansson, who has a number of songs to share with us today. What is next for us?
SJ: The next song is a New Order song called "Your Silent Face." When this song came out, obviously, I was probably really irritating my older brother. But when I found it, I was in high school and I started listening to a lot of New Order and Depeche Mode and The Cure and also Nine Inch Nails. I think that this song was … it's a very kind of ambient album and certainly this song is very ambient. I think it has the kind of qualities that are sort of cinematic. And I just loved it. I remember sitting on the train in New York with my backpack and my giant headphones and probably doing some serious damage to my eardrums, listening to New Order and certainly to this song.
DW: How giant were these headphones? I'm just trying to get a visual --
SJ: Just about as giant as the ones we're wearing right now. I'm talking cans here
DW: Wow. She knows the jive speak. That's good
SJ: Hey, you know, it's the movie talk - it's the movie talk, I spend a lot of time at the sound cart.
Song: New Order's “Your Silent Face”
DW: That was New Order's "Your Silent Face." What else do we have to get into?
SJ: The next song would be "Staring At The Sun." This is an alternate version and it is TV On The Radio. The reason why I picked this particular song is that this is a really great version of this song that's kind of pared down and you can really hear the depth of the vocals and brilliance of the songwriting, as opposed to the other version of the song which is much more produced and the vocals are kind of right up there in front, but alongside the music as well and the beat. This song shows another side to the band, that really shows the brilliance of their songwriting.
Song: TV On The Radio's “Staring at the Sun”
SJ: There's an ambient quality to their sound, I think, and also a sound that's huge. It's so multi-layered. They're sort of orchestral and have this kind of grandness to their sound that's both big and full and then at other times, kind of hollow and haunting. When I use the word ambient, I mean there's sort of like a whole vibe in personality to their songs that I think are all encompassing and what -- to me -- music listening is all about.
DW: Let's see what's next--
SJ: The next song I have is a Tom Waits song. When I was about 12, a friend of mine and I, we would take trips. We would take driving trips with her father. We would drive to Maine or wherever from New York, but long driving trips and stuff like that. And her dad listened to all different kinds of music, a very eclectic group of different types of artists and everything, but he loved Tom Waits. Often we would only listen to Tom Waits for hours and hours and hours while we were driving. At first my friend and I were sort of like 'Oh, your Dad listens to such weird music' or 'My Dad's a freak,' kind of thing.
I think because Waits' songs often - I think they really appealed to us as kids, because they are beautiful stories and strange stories and the sounds can often be, I don't know, there's a certain big top quality to some of the songs and then others are just really dark and spooky and some are just beautifully melodic. We just ended up -- after such a long drive and only listening to Tom Waits the whole weekend and the drive back and everything -- we both were completely mad for Tom Waits and I've listened to him ever since then.
It's such a beautiful song and the lyrics are so heartbreaking. It sort of reminded me of Last Picture Show kind of -- it's just got this -- again, I will say, a cinematic quality to it that is just heartbreaking and I absolutely love. And his voice is so beautiful in it. Even when I work on a film, I often listen to a lot of music and I always go back to Tom Waits. I just love him. So I have picked "Burma Shave" to share with you today.
Song: Tom Waits' Burma Shave
DW: Well, listen Scarlett, thank you so much for coming down here.
SJ: Thank you
DW: and sharing all this music with us here on KCRW.com. For a complete track listing and to find these songs online, go to KCRW.com/GuestDJProject.
Scarlett Johansson and Pete Yorn