Tom Waits is a strange guy. Undoubtedly one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our generation, his repertoire consists of ventures into some of the most diverse facets of music. His tunes range from sad, tender and beautiful ballads to experimental, percussion-heavy howls-and-growls that would make Captain Beefheart check under his bed before going to sleep.
An acquired taste, Waits has been around for decades producing a very large body of work, with songs you’ve probably never heard of (Sins Of My Father , All The World Is Green ), songs you might have heard of (Tom Traubert’s Blues , Ruby’s Arms ) and songs you had no idea he wrote (Ol’55, Jersey Girl, Downtown Train)
Indeed, he’s written some songs that others turned into big hits. But it wasn’t just The Eagles, The Boss and Rod Stewart who covered this highly respected and appreciated songwriter. There are many more covers of Tom Waits songs out there by lesser-known artists, some of them being women. As a rule, Tom Waits songs are very hard to pull off and Springsteen, Stewart and the Eagles had it easy, covering three songs that were uncharacteristically simple and straightforward, crafted for a large audience that Waits himself has been neither able nor willing to reach. But most of his music is extremely difficult to appropriate. Even before his game-changing Swordfishtrombones that brought about the experimental music he would become famous (and win Grammys) for, the delivery of his songs was always heavily reliant not only on his unorthodox growl but also on the character he had created for himself – a booze-soaked down-on-his-luck musical hobo – through which he delivered his sound.
For this reason it is immensely difficult for an artist to cover a Tom Waits song and make it his own (I just can’t imagine Justin Timberlake doing The Piano Has Been Drinking). Johnny Cash managed to do that with Down There By The Train but that’s why he was one of the greatest musicians of all time. Not many have managed this task and it gets infinitely more difficult if the vocalist is female. Just try to picture Celine Dion doing Red Shoes By The Drugstore and you will understand why.
That is not to say that no female singer has managed to produce a good Tom Waits cover, and for every Scarlett Johansen (who meant well but managed to completely slaughter some of Waits’ better songs) there are some musicians you might have never heard of who managed to do wonders with those songs. Here is a list of the 7 best Tom Waits covers sung by women.
7. Norah Jones – The Long Way Home
Probably the most well-known artist on my list, Norah Jones is famous for producing some great music and for winning 5 Grammys with her debut album Come Away With Me. A very talented singer-songwriter in her own right it comes as no surprise that she managed to produce a very good cover with The Long Way Home. Her lovely voice fits the track very well and the slight country spin she gave it is charming.
6. Diana Krall and Clara Bakker – Temptation
I tried to avoid picking songs that were very “easy” and lacking in Waits’ distinctive delivery since there are many versions of Ol’55, I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You and San Diego Serenade out there and most of them are decent. Instead, I tried to go with the “harder” ones, the ones that had something “unique” and Temptation is not part of that list. It’s one of the most covered Tom Waits tracks, especially by women (for reasons not very difficult to deduce) but Diana Krall and Clara Bakker have really done a great job making the song their own. Krall’s version is, as expected, very “jazzy” and with a vocal delivery that is the embodiment of sexy perfection while Dutch singer Clara Bakker attempted a cover that’s a bit farther away from the original but also distinctive, equally charming in its vocal delivery and beautiful instrumentation.
5. Chiara O – Dog Door
Chiara O is an Italian singer whose online presence is so great that I had to conduct investigative journalism just to track down the song (that can’t even be found on Youtube). Nevertheless, here it is:
I picked it first and foremost for the artist’s proverbial balls of picking one of the more obscure songs in Waits’ already obscure repertoire. Her delivery is great and her attitude is spot on. It’s a shame that this artist isn’t more well-known as a singer (her main activity is design, as can be seen on her homepage http://www.chiaraonida.com/).
If you want to find out more about her music, try her myspace page:
4. Christine Collister – Dirt In The Ground
I chose this one because it’s one of my favorite tracks by the Waits/Brennan duo and because it’s a difficult track to cover as some have tried and failed miserably. The failure stems from the artist trying hard to be as “creepy” as they perceive Waits to be. The thing is, Waits doesn’t perceive himself as creepy and delivers his music the way that comes natural to him. If an artist tries to go toe-to-toe in that respect, they will fail. Manx songwriter Christine Collister has taken a safe approach and presents a jazzy-bluesy version of the song and so far the only decent cover I’ve heard.
3. Cibelle – Green Grass
Brazilian musician Cibelle sings a very good cover of this easy-to-fuck-up song. This song might not seem very hard to play at first but there is a quality of sadness and profound melancholy in the original which is the deciding factor in the impact that it has on the listener. To go into the detail of that impact I must specify (and am not ashamed to admit) that the original track is one of only three songs that completely make me lose my shit. I hear “Green Grass” and I break down and weep like a little girl. That is the result of Waits’ distinctive delivery and it’s very hard to put your finger on what exactly it is about the song that elicits such a reaction. So far Cibelle’s version is the only one I’ve heard that comes close to evoking the feeling of the original.
2. Joan Baez – The Day After Tomorrow
The Day After Tomorrow is one of the very few songs of a “political” nature that Waits has produced and it’s also one of the most appreciated in his discography. Joan Baez is an American folk singer who is an activist for human rights, peace, and environmental justice and when she sings this song about the hardships of war, her delivery comes off as absolutely honest and intense (“Tell me how does God choose/ Just whose prayers he will refuse”) A very beautiful rendition of this track that probably made the old man proud.
1. Astrid Seriese – Blow Wind Blow
This is the only song on this list where I feel the cover artist has actually surpassed the original. I was never a big fan of this song until I heard Seriese’s version of it which is the perfect example of what a great cover song should do as the Dutch Jazz singer has taken this song and made it entirely her own. Her version is faithful enough to the original to keep the song’s vibe intact but different enough to be its own entity. Her Jazz take on the tunes sounds fresh, the instruments are spot-on and her voice is absolutely perfect. Truly a delightful artist who has covered other of Tom’s songs as well and, while they all sound good, in Blow Wind Blow she effortlessly shines.
Tom Waits’ music undeniably has a whole different dynamic when sung by a female vocalist and these eight tracks stand as proof that one can create entirely new and original art by putting a different spin on an old tune. I hope you enjoy the tracks and I’m looking forward to hearing your opinions on them.