The 7 best Tom Waits covers sung by women

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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:

http://www.myspace.com/music/player?sid=17859784&ac=now

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:

http://www.myspace.com/chiaraonida

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.


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

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29 responses to “The 7 best Tom Waits covers sung by women

    • Beautiful version of this song. Hadn’t heard it before, thanks for the heads up. I like how her warm voice and nature contrast with the gritty realism of the song. Nice work Marissa!

    • Also a great version. I love Beth’s attitude but I didn’t include it in my list because I felt it was a tad too conventional. But it’s a great song though, especially the acoustic version.

  1. Wow, that’s super-cool, thanks for recommending. I wasn’t familiar with them but they are both amazingly talented and obviously with great taste in music, I’ll keep an eye on them.

    • Indeed, a beautiful cover, though I think it doesn’t quite match the “feel” of the lyrics. Of course, that’s just my subjective opinion and has everything to do with personal taste.

  2. This looks like it was a VERY special concert held at a church in France. Dom La Nena and Rosemary Standley covering All The World is Green.

    • JohnA, thanks for the link and for reading the article. She’s certainly a lovely musician. However, I didn’t include covers of “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” because it’s a song that is very easy to pull off (I think you’ll find that it’s probably been covered the most out of all his songs). I tried to focus more on artists who have taken on the very difficult task of covering songs like “Dirt in the Ground” or “Blow Wind Blow” and have really made them their own. “I Hope…” sort of sounds the same no matter who is singing it.

    • Neko is a lovely vocalist and she pulls off a great song, but I think Christmas Cards is just one of those tunes that loses a bit of its magnetism when sung by a woman. It’s the contrast between the female “perspective” and Tom’s razorblade-motoroil voice that really turns it into something special, in my opinion.

    • Hi Dave,

      So sorry about the late reply. Somehow, the comment flew under my radar with the avalanche of holiday e-mails and everything.

      I know that Holly Cole does a number of Tom Waits covers. Some, I feel, work better than others. I especially like Soldier’s Things and Temptation.

    • Hi Andy,

      First of all, I apologize for the late reply. I had to put The Music and Myth on hiatus for a little while as I’m currently working on a book series and it’s taking up all of my time, but I’m looking forward to posting on The M&M again.

      Secondly, I’ve probably missed a lot of great stuff. I can’t claim to have heard every single Tom Waits cover out there and I also don’t try to hide the fact that these articles are anything other than my own personal opinion (I make special note of this every year when I post the “Music and Myth Awards” article.

      That being said, these 7 are, in my opinion, the best out there. I was aware of this Holly Cole cover and it is indeed fantastic. If I’d have written the article as a Top 10, I would have definitely included it. I just randomly chose the number seven just because there are so many great tracks by some many fantastic musicians out there that I was bound to leave some out probably even if I’d made it a Top 100.

  3. Glad to see this topic is still alive. I’m a fairly new Waits fan, and found this post illuminating. As it happens, I rarely want to hear Waits sung by a man – if I want a different perspective, it should be *really* different, and the female voice provides that.

    But you’ve barely scratched the surface! I’ll list some performances I like, all can be found on YouTube (sorry, too lazy to provide links):

    Solveig Slettahjell, “Take It With Me”
    Paula Marchesini, “House Where Nobody Lives”
    Sarah Jarosz, “Come on Up to the House”
    Jessica Walker, “Whistle Down the Wind”
    Anna Atkinson, “Innocent When You Dream”
    Linda Thompson, “The Day after Tomorrow”
    Tori Amos, “Time”
    Bethan, “All the World is Green”

    • Hi Odradek,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. First, let me apologize for answering so late. The Music and Myth is on hiatus while I work on a book series that takes up all of my time, but I’m glad to see people are still reading the articles.

      I agree that I’ve barely scratched the surface. Like I mentioned in a comment on a previous post, there are many incredible musicians out there putting out cool TW covers. These seven are merely my personal favorites.

      Thank you for the list. A couple of these I don’t know. I’m looking forward to checking them out, especially Sarah Jarosz since Come on up to the House is one of my favorite TW tunes.

    • Hadn’t heard her. Thanks for mentioning, I’ll check out her work. Like I said in a previous post, I can’t claim to have heard all the female artists covering Tom, though I’ve heard the vast majority. Still, there’s bound to be many I’ve missed. Lots of cool new covers have also popped up in the three years since I wrote this piece.

      Also, I apologize for the late reply. I put the website on hiatus while I’m working on a series of books but I’m hoping to get back to it soon. Thank you for reading!

  4. Let me add another female voice dimension in stark contrast with most of the previous covers – Brazilian vocalist/pianist Cida Moreira rightfully deserves to be included in your list of fame, and let me humbly propose her forth

    • Costas, I wasn’t familiar with Cida – thank you for introducing me to her work. Wow! You weren’t kidding that she’s in stark contrast with the others. Fantastic timbre and delivery. I’ll check out more of her work!

      Also, I apologize for the late reply. Like I mentioned in other comments, I’m currently working on a book series and it’s taking up all of my time, but I plan to return to The Music and Myth soon.

    • Peter, please accept my sincere apologies for the late reply. I have no idea why or how your comment fell under my radar. I must have not seen the gmail notification. I had just logged in to approve another comment and saw yours underneath.

      Very interesting version by Sarah indeed. Another poster had recommended her version a few months ago and I really enjoyed her delivery. She truly makes the song her own and has a charming voice and personality. And it is one of my favorite Tom Waist tunes.

      Again, I apologize for the late reply. Thank you so much for reading and commenting and I hope you enjoyed the article. I’m spending a lot more time with the Music and Myth now that my book series is almost finished so hopefully I’ll never miss another comment again.

    • Congrats, Tina. I don’t have a Spotify account (for various reasons) and couldn’t find a link to the track elsewhere but I’m sure you’ve done great work. People generally don’t take on Tom Waits song unless they know what they’re doing. Jesus Gonna Be Here is a pretty straightforward track and I’ve never actually heard any bad version of it. But it’s the kind of song where you really have to nail the attitude, otherwise it can become very flat.

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