When Scarlett Johansson made a record with Pete Yorn
Movie star Scarlett Johansson has taken a break from acting to sing duets with the well-connected musician Pete Yorn (Published in The Times, June 2 2018)
“People kept sending us texts asking if we were making up yet,” says Scarlett Johansson, smiling and leaning slightly across the enormous advertising billboard dividing her and musical partner Pete Yorn’s director’s chairs. “I got lucky,” says Yorn with a shrug, as if scheduling a recording project with one of the world’s biggest film stars is just a matter of syncing calendars. “She happened to be available.”
The subject of those text inquiries was Break Up, Johansson and Yorn’s 2009 album of Gainsbourg/Bardot-inspired duets, which took the collapse of a relationship as its theme and is the project they return to this month with an EP called Apart. It’s also the reason the three of us are in the penthouse suite of a Manhattan hotel, surrounded by a small army of — in descending terms of hierarchy — executives, management, make-up artists, cameramen and terrified-looking PR assistants.
Johansson, of course, looks as if she was born to be there, heavily made up for camera, smiling and professional in white blouse and jeans. Yorn looks exactly the successful mid-career singer-songwriter he is, and slightly less at ease with the media circus. Even back in the music industry’s big-money days, this wouldn’t be the typical environment to discuss an EP launch, even one with a poppy lead track such as Bad Dreams, which would seem destined for a decent amount of radio play even without the hook of its supernova co-star.
Lyrically, Bad Dreams tells the story of a post-relationship malaise in which two separated individuals nonetheless find it hard to escape each other’s lives. “Pessimistic as it seems, sleep will never come that easy,” they trill to each other on the catchy chorus. “We will always have bad dreams.”
“Any time you have a creative relationship with a director or writer, you are immediately detailing the failures of your relationships, your expectations, disappointments and regrets,” muses Johansson, “and all this really personal, raw stuff comes out. You all hope there’ll be something you can take out of this pool of experience.”
Yorn has commented that, when they recorded the track, Johansson was “going through some stuff that she was really feeling with the lyrics”, by which one can only presume he was referring at least in part to her widely reported divorce last year from the French journalist Romain Dauriac, with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. (She was also married to the Canadian actor and Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds from 2008 to 2011.)
“We were talking a lot about the relationship in this story Pete created,” Johansson continues, “that’s stuck in a syrupy, sticky, nostalgic place, where you find yourself apart from someone you were with . . . Maybe you wake up in the morning and your heart is hurting. But it’s been a long period of time… you’re in between. And while I may not have been in that place literally at the time we made the recording, that stuff stays with you.”
“You wake up in the morning and your heart is hurting… And while I may not have been in that place literally at the time we made the recording, that stuff stays with you”
Bad Dreams is a cover of a track by an indie band called the Echo Friendly, and it caused a bit of drama when that band’s singer, Jake Rabinbach, posted a statement saying that, even though they had signed an agreement, they still felt “exploited” and “like we were lied to a little”. The issue was resolved directly between the musicians. Yorn explains how his cousin Max directed their video in 2012 and sent it to him at the time.
“I was, like, ‘Oh my God, that would be so fun to sing with Scarlett,’ ” says Yorn, with the slight tone of someone following a script. “We didn’t get to it for six years, but what happened with Jake, who is an amazing songwriter . . . The song is obviously a cover. I think he just got fed some wrong information which made him worried, and as soon as we talked and were able to clear it up, we were all good, and that was it. It was just a misunderstanding.”
Despite his low-key appearance, Yorn is something of an industry power player; so much so that in 2014 The Wall Street Journal ran a joint interview with Pete and his two elder brothers, Kevin and Rick, who grew up in Montville, New Jersey, describing them as a “Hollywood dynasty”.
Rick has managed Johansson since she was 12; his client list also includes Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake. Kevin is an entertainment lawyer whose clients include Matthew McConaughey and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as Johansson. Pete’s musical breakthrough came with his debut album, musicforthemorningafter, in 2001, helped by the inclusion of his track Strange Condition on the soundtrack to the 2000 Farrelly brothers film Me, Myself & Irene.
Even as a child growing up in New York, Johansson knew that she wanted to be an actress, and she made her acting debut aged eight in the off-Broadway production of Sophistry with Ethan Hawke (she had two lines). Now aged 33 and having returned from France to the US (she owns homes in Los Angeles and Amagansett in the Hamptons in New York), she has appeared in everything from Woody Allen’s Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, to Spike Jonze’s Her (as the voice of a computer operating system), Jonathan Glazer’s eerie sci-fi Under the Skin, and in Marvel’s relentless series of superhero blockbusters in her recurring role as Black Widow. And she still found time to win a Tony for her 2010 role on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
Unlike Hollywood stars who get the (often embarrassing) urge to indulge their inner-rockstar fantasies on stage, singing has been a passion and sideline for Johansson for some time. There was 2008’s solo album of covers of Tom Waits songs, produced by Dave Sitek of the cult band TV on the Radio, for which David Bowie surprised her by recording a guest vocal (“It was the best phone call I ever got,” she told Rolling Stone at the time).
She formed an all-female group called the Singles (later renamed Sugar for Sugar), which included one member of the west coast all-sister trio Haim, and at Coachella 2007 she stepped out with surly Scottish alt-rock legends the Jesus and Mary Chain to sing the breathy backing vocals of their 1985 hit Just Like Honey. That track had been introduced to a younger generation by its inclusion on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s 2003 hit film Lost in Translation, which featured Johansson’s first adult role — a compelling, BAFTA-winning performance alongside another 80s icon, Bill Murray.
Musically and politically, the world is a very different place from what it was at the time of Yorn and Johansson’s first album. Yorn even wrote a song about America’s political woes in 2008, in which he hoped that things would improve — whether they have is debatable.
“It’s such a different environment than it was ten years ago,” says Johansson. “It’s so hard to have a perspective because we’re in the middle of it all. I try to remind myself, when I feel in moments of great despair, that there’s been trials and tribulations . . . That every time we make a big leap progressively forward, we’re dragged back, and you have to be persistent and patient and keep your eye on the prize. For me, I try to not to get too sucked up into the wormhole of despair that’s the political environment we’re living in right now.”
“Every time we make a big leap progressively forward, we’re dragged back, and you have to be persistent and patient and keep your eye on the prize”
Johansson has been an outspoken champion of various causes, including supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, being a co-founder of the Time’s Up initiative against sexual harassment in Hollywood, and delivering a speech at the Women’s March in Washington DC the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“When we had Obama in office, people became complacent,” she says, “and they weren’t as politically active . . . but that’s when people need to actually press forward, take a stance and keep focus. And voters didn’t, people didn’t, and now we’re in the situation that we’re in with Trump, and it feels that people are dealing with the repercussions of their own inactivity. So, hopefully the conversations now will have staying power and people will be committed to making real, progressive, concrete change.”
Yorn and Johansson are also parents of young children, which has had an impact on the way they approach their work, in music and in film. “Having a child has inspired me to dig deeper,” says Johansson. “I was always discerning and tried to use my time wisely, but even more so now. It’s an incredibly valuable gift children give you, the gift of living presently. I think when you can apply that to your work, it’s awesome, especially for what I do.”
“I know a lot of actors say they wouldn’t encourage their kids to go into the profession,” she continues, “but I grew up in the industry, I’ve been working for 25 years and I love my job now more than I ever did. To be able to follow one specific passion for such a period of time, and feel like I’m better at my job then I’ve ever been . . . I feel really fortunate.” If her daughter had that same passion early on, “I would totally encourage her to follow that”, she says.
Johansson’s forthcoming projects include Noah Baumbach’s untitled new film, alongside Adam Driver and Laura Dern. There are no plans for live music performances, although she and Yorn agree that it would be fun to put something “intimate” together. “I’m not a practised singer in that capacity,” Johansson adds. “So, it would be scary, but I think at this stage in my life maybe it would be a welcome challenge and less terrifying than ten years ago.”
I ask them for their fantasy line-up to share a stage bill with and a slight air of panic takes hold, with eyes darting towards the phalanx of executives watching stonily from the side of the room. Eventually they settle on the non-controversial choice of Beyoncé. They seem relieved when I explain that it doesn’t have to be a present artist.
“OK, for me, the Smiths reunion can be the headliner,” says Yorn, visibly relaxing. “We’re the underlings, we would open up.”
Johansson relaxes as well. “You know, I wouldn’t mind seeing Led Zeppelin on there too.”
Frankly, with their connections and star power, you wouldn’t put it past them.
Apart is out now on Capitol Records