A-lister hopes to avoid being lost in translation into music biz

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Dilettante. wannabe. vanity project. MSure, the actress-turned-singer career path gets mocked all the time, perhaps understandably, by folks who put in long hours and hard work looking for a record deal without the critical benefit of connections in the entertainment industry.

But the truth is that the notoriety that comes from first working in another entertainment medium — be it film, TV or as paparazzi bait — does help sell records, at least when the performer is just starting in the music business.

The latest A-lister to follow this route is Scarlett Johansson, who on Tuesday will release "Anywhere I Lay My Head," a Tom Waits covers album. It's a dreamy, atmospheric album that bucks the traditional starlet mode by eschewing tracks that easily could be worked to pop radio. Instead, the singles will be sent to college radio, and an extensive online campaign is planned to promote the album.

"There's not a whole bunch of bells and whistles," Johansson says. "I've been waiting to have something to show for a long time, and it's finally able to spread its wings and fly."

After receiving the blessing from Waits to proceed with the project, Johansson recorded the album in the summer in Louisiana under the guidance of TV on the Radio's David Sitek.

"It seemed like I could really reimagine (Waits') songs," she says. "I thought it would be interested to put a young, female voice to them."

Atco/Rhino approached Johansson to record an album after she recorded a version of George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime" for the label's 2006 lullaby compilation "Unexpected Dreams: Songs From the Stars."

"It was a beautiful song," product manager Liuba Shapiro says. "That's kind of how the process started — I personally am a big Tom Waits fan, and with Scarlett and David, we thought that might be an interesting re-interpretation."

For her part, Johansson realizes that she's fortunate to get the record deal and took pains to think of it as another means of creative expression instead of a side-door entry into the music industry.

"When I first got approached to do an album, it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," she says. "I have friends that would kill for that — it's like, 'Here's a golden ticket!' "

Ann Donahue can be reached at adonahue@billboard.com.
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