Tom Waits on finding his voice: 'I don't really think there is anything genuinely new under the sun'

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Tom Waits opens up about the mystery of songwriting and the melting pot of influences he draws from.

If you’re subscribed to the Take 5 podcast, you would have received a little bonus in your feed over the past couple of days.

With Tom Waits’ brilliant first seven records being reissued throughout this year, and a special run of his Brawlers, Bawlers and Orphans collections coming out for Record Store Day this Saturday, we thought it was time to share the very special Take 5 chat between Zan Rowe and Tom Waits in 2011.

Subscribe to the Take 5 podcast here, or listen to the interview here.

Waits is one of popular music’s most singular, incomparable figures. Very few (if any) artists have a more unique approach to creating and performing. No one sounds like him, and most people who try just end up embarrassing themselves.

But Waits says that this approach is just a mashing together of his most profound influences.

You get to be king of the glove compartment or king of the fishbowl for a while, and then you're gone.

Tom Waits

“It's all a melting pot, really,” he said. “Whether it's Mabel Mercer, or Tiny Tim, or Dick Shawn, or Lee Marvin, or Ernest Borgnine, or Nick Cave, or Bill Hicks, or Hubert Sumlin, or Ricky Jay, or John Jacob Niles - it all gets stirred up at a certain point and hopefully what comes out is your own voice, amidst all that.”

You might call Tom Waits a true original, but Waits himself would argue that there is no such thing.

“I think you start out trying to sound like somebody else,” he said. “Even Ray Charles was trying to sound like Nat King Cole, but there already was one. So, he really had to dig deep and find out if there was something on another level that he was yet to discover.

“At the same time, I don't really think there is anything genuinely new under the sun. You get to be king of the glove compartment or king of the fishbowl for a while, and then you're gone.”

An artist’s quest to find their one true voice, the channel through which their wildest and most creative ideas are fed to their audience. But Waits contests that no artist can have just one voice, and that’s what drives him – and his peers – to continue creating.

“I found a voice. I think there are other voices in there and I'm still looking for it,” he said.

 

“It's more like an actor – I play a lot of murderers or husbands. Someday I'd like to play a coal miner or a snake charmer or something.

“I think inside every song there are other songs. But I also think, inside your voice, there are other voices that you have yet to discover and that's kind of why you are here.”

RELATED: Why Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs is a masterpiece

Even for someone with a body of work as immense and influential as Tom Waits, the way that songs appear is mysterious and mystical.

“When people write songs, you're just looking for the tail,” he said. “You just want to pull on the tail.

The pops and clicks you get from vinyl is almost exactly the sound of chicken barbecuing on the grill

Tom Waits

“I dunno, it's hard to define. It's a rather mysterious process. I think some songs come out of the ground just like a potato and you wonder how it was so simple. Somebody told me songs are either really easy to write, or they're impossible.”

Given the rich sounds that have been woven around the arrangements of Waits’ songs over the past four decades, his love of sound – not necessarily music – in film isn’t a huge surprise.

Even less surprising is how wonderfully rich the examples he offers are.

“I used to love the Foley guys who'd do sound for films,” Waits said. “It's really amazing what they'd use to create sounds that we're really familiar with in film.

"Like bones breaking. They'll take a pack of Lifesavers and put the mic really close to it and chomp down on the Lifesavers and it's the sound of breaking bones. 

“You know the pops and clicks you get from vinyl is almost exactly the sound of chicken barbecuing on the grill.”

Despite contesting that there is so much he doesn’t know about the way songs come about, Waits still offers a brilliant piece of advice that

“Sometimes you groove for a while until something happens,” he said of how a song can change in the studio.

“Until a song's recorded it isn't really finished. Regardless of what your plan is, the song itself has a plan of its own. You need to be sensitive to that. Sometimes you need to get out of the way. You need to know when to duck.”

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