Title: Tom Waits: The Whiskey Voice Returns
Source: All Things Considered, episode 123. NPR radio show (USA). November 21, 2006. By Robert Siegel. Transcript from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library. Copyright 2006 NPR
Date: aired November 21, 2006
Key words: Orphans, soundtracks, voice, Beats, fans
Accompanying picture
Source: Anti promo picture for Orphans, as published on Anti official site October 2006. Also printed on Now Magazine (Canada) November 16, 2006. Date: 2002(?). Credits: photography by James Minchin III


Tom Waits: The Whiskey Voice Returns


RS: In december Tom Waits, the singer-songwriter, will turn 57. Over the years he's given up whiskey for family life and a productive songwriting partnership with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. But the flavor of the whiskey is still in the voice, and the lyrics still invoke the poets of the Beat Generation.

(Bottom Of The World)

RS: This is Bottom Of The World. It's one of 54 songs on the new three-CD album from Tom Waits called Orphans. There are some old songs, some new songs, mostly songs by Waits and Brennan. With plenty of covers too. Tom Waits has written a lot for the movies. And we talked about that, especially a song for an Academy award winning animated short called Bunny. The movie is about a rabbit, a moth and the afterlife. The song he wrote for it is called Bend Down The Branches(1), and it doesn't mention any of those subjects.

TW: I don't know what connection the song had, but it worked, you know. Sometimes it comes in at a right angle. Sometimes... If it's too long people won't pay attention. And uh, you know, songs for movies, you know, it's usually: they're out of money, and they're out of time and they're out of patience. And they usually have a problem with the film they want you to fix.

RS: You mean the song is supposed to uh..

TW: The song is supposed to fix their problem! (laughs)

RS: I see! (laughs)

TW: And they don't have a lot of money, and they want it by the weekend. That's always how it works. So...

RS: (laughs) But at that time do you sit down and try to write to order, or do you look through the drawer and see: "What have we written already that might conceivably be adapted and fit that?" Something unpublished, say.

TW: You mean: "Do we need fresh material, or do we have something in stock?"

RS: (laughs) Yeah, do you have a drawer full of stuff that's almost ready to go, but it's not quite finished?

TW: Well, my theory is: if you got a song left over from a project, I usually cut it up and use it for bait.

RS: (laughs)

(Bend Down The Branches)

RS: This song that comes uh right after Bend Down The BranchesYou Can Never Hold Back Spring...

TW: Alright.

RS: ...you sound to me like Louis Armstrong.

(You Can Never Hold Back Spring)

TW: That was a song for Roberto Benigni, who did a movie called The Tiger In The Snow(2), about the Iraq war. And uh, the movie's kinda built around the song. It's played several times during the movie.

RS: Had you actually been able to see the movie when you wrote the song, or did you read the screenplay?

TW: No... No, I just had to write a good song (laughs)

(You Can Never Hold Back Spring)

TW: You hope that there's a... that when you dock the whole thing it's gonna match up, you know?

RS: But you said something interesting before about writing music for movies, which is: "If it's too literaly on, what the movie is about, it can be too much, that can not work." It has to be elusive in some way, or come at least from the right angle, then you can get it.

TW: Well, it's like when two people know the same things, one of you is unnecessary.

RS: (laughs)

TW: I think as song is kind of a movie for the ears. So if it's just underscoring and restating what you're already experiencing visually, I think you just kinda bat it away like a fly. Unless it has some kind of a nurishment from another dimension. So, that's what you try to do with a song.

RS: Your rendition of Heigh-Ho, Heigh Ho, it's of to work we go, never have the seven dwarfs seem more miserable to me then. Were utterly exploited, then in the way you would have them sing about mining for diamonds and rubies.

TW: (Laughs)


TW: Actually, Disney tried to sue us after the record came out, cause they said: "You may have changed all the words."

RS: No those are.. I went and gone back at the lyrics, and those are the lyrics! Those are the lyrics actually.

TW: They are the same! Exactly what we were saying. So I thought, that was kind of ironic. And then uh...

RS: I'm not surprised they tried to sue you though just the same because you did... you did sort of strip the song of it's cheery whimsical quality! (laughs)

TW: I guess you could say that, and ...?... on the money, yeah. But sometimes that's what a song needs in order to survive the time it was born in. It worked, and uh.. the other thing I find interesting is that when I listen to it, it doesn't sound like I'm saying: "We dig in the mine", it sounds like: "We're digging in our minds." And that even takes on another quality to it. "We dig in our minds all day long. Dig, dig, dig, that's what we like to do. Ain't no trick to get rich quick. If you dig, dig, dig, with a shovel and a pick." You know, we ARE all digging in our minds. And uh, so that was a hoot.

RS: (laughs) Yes I bet it was! Just ...?... a certain cavelier quality to the Heigh-Ho

TW: Yeah, it took the skip out of their step. yeah...

RS: (laughs)


RS: Was there a particular song or album of songs or singer whom you heard as a teenager, or even younger and you heard that and you said, having heard that: "I wanna write songs."?

TW: Well, sure there's always that moment where you say: "Oh, maybe I can do this." Uh, well of course when I was a teenager, you know, I was listening to James Brown, and Bobby Blue band, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. I think most singers when they start out, are doing really bad impersonations of other singers that they admire. You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there waiting for you to grow up, and then it meets you. I don't know. What about your voice? You must have started out like a singer, you know?

RS: Being very imitative. Uh,

TW: Yeah.

RS: Like many young people in radio, always wanted to sound older then I was.

TW: Ah, yeah.

RS: And I'm now old enough to want to sound younger then I am.

TW: So, I went the same way. I wanted to sound like an old man when I was a kid. Till I became an old man (laughs).

RS: Yeah, who wants to sound like that!

TW: Uh... yeah that's interesting...

RS: The uh... of course Ray Charles and Bob Dylan who were both people who demostrated that you could be a great American singer, as Louis Armstrong as well, and not be a velvety crooner. There's a lot of room for somebody whose voice had a lot of rough edges to it.

TW: Yeah, right.

RS: And you certainly uh...

TW: I pushed it to the limit?

RS: (Laughs) Pushed it to the limit, yes!

TW: But I try to make different kinds of characters out of my voice. You know, I have a falsetto, and I try to sound like a cherry bomb, and a clown and an oldfashioned crooner.

RS: And sometimes you'll actually purposely degrade the quality of your... in the recording I mean.

TW: Well that's the fun, yeah.

RS: You go for distortion

TW: Oh yeah, it's like, it's an instrument you know? After a while you learn the different stuff that you can do with it.

(On The Road)

TW: The Beat poets were very, were very influential for you, were very important for you.

TW: Yeah. They were like father figures, I think, for me. Because uh, you have to have someone you really look up to and uh they were like pirates. They were all buccaneers. They struck out on their own, made names for themselves and...

RS: Uh Kerouac, Ginsberg, uh Lawrence Ferlinghetti was he someone who?

TW: Oh yeah, Ferlinghetti no question about that.

RS: Were you a big fan of Coney Island Of The Mind?(3)

TW: Oh yeah, yeah, I really liked that book. I got it signed when I was a teenager, I took the train to San Francisco, there's the bookstore(4). And uh, you know, I went to a bar nearby and, where I heard that he hung out, gave it to the bartender, said: "Well, if he comes in here have him sign it for me, will ya?" And he did! Yeah, that's one of the great pieces and uh it feels very uh... current. Despite the fact that it's probably 50 years old now.

RS: So how do you deal with the idea that you'd start of determined to be from the outside and to be different and to be avant-garde. And you're at serious risk of being, you know, "Tom Waits popculture superstar" here.

TW: You need a scandal I guess. You know, every now and then (laughs). Or you gotta just disappear for a while. I try to keep my audience a little hungry, you know uh, "Don't feed the dolphins." is my word. Next time you go out they'll poke a hole in your boat.

RS: (laughs)

TW: So they don't need to be fed every day.

RS: No.

TW: That's the thing about uh, your audience.

RS: Well, you've given 'em quite a meal this time though.

TW: Yeah, yeah. I'm gonna have to really cut back from here on in!

RS: (laughs) Okay!

TW: This is the last thing you're gonna hear from me for a long time.

RS: Well. Tom Waits: thank you very much for talking with us.

RS: Good talking to you Robert.

RS: I hope it's not the last time we hear from you.

TW: Oh, no it won't be.


(1) Bend Down The Branches: further reading: Bend Down The Branches

(2) The Tiger In The SnowLa Tigre E La Neve. October 14, 2005 Italian movie directed by Roberto Benigni TW: actor, composer. On soundtrack: "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" (first release)

(3) Coney Island Of The MindA Coney Island of the Mind (collection of poems), Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Published in 1958. A "sequel" A Far Rockaway of the Heart was published in 1997.

(4) BookstoreCity Lights Books in San Francisco. Independent bookstore founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. Further reading: City Lights official site