Three years ago, the singer Pete Yorn had a dream about Scarlett Johansson. In fairness, it was probably a different dream from that shared by the editorial teams of FHM, Esquire and Playboy, all of whom voted Johansson the world’s sexiest female star that same year.
At the time Yorn had just returned to his home in LA after an intense six months on tour promoting his Nightcrawler album. He had also recently discovered Bonnie and Clyde, a cult 1968 duet by the legendary French singer Serge Gainsbourg and a breathy young Brigitte Bardot. The idea of making a joint album with Johansson, charting the end of a stormy relationship in similar style, came to him fully formed in a flash of insomniac inspiration.
“In my delirium I passed out one afternoon,” Yorn says down the line from California. “When I woke up my heart was racing. The feeling was like I’d left the oven on, or I was late for school. But instead of that it was like: I need to make a duets record. I don’t know why, it was a really intense chain reaction of thoughts in my mind.”
As Yorn and Johansson had been casual friends for years, he naturally cast her as Bardot to his Gainsbourg. “I was just flattered Pete thought of me, and put the faith in me that I could creatively collaborate on anything,” the 25-year-old actress says. “That always shocks me, that I get hired for anything! Ha! Either as an actor or, in this case, a vocalist for hire. As soon as one project ends you never think you’re going to get the chance again.”
“I guess it was just on a whim, wouldn’t you say Pete?” Johansson recalls. “You didn’t know I could sing when I came into the studio. He said to me after we’d recorded the first song: ‘Wow, I’m so glad you can sing’. Ha!”
The resulting album, Break Up, is a mixed bag of deceptively chirpy country rock and broken-hearted ballads, like an indie rom-com set to music. Disappointingly, despite some sublime confessional moments, it does not chart the end of a real affair between Johansson and Yorn. The duo did consider staging a tempestuous public split, complete with fake paparazzi shots, to adorn the album sleeve. But keeping the drama inside the songs proved more practical. “The other option just seemed like a lot of effort,” Johansson laughs, “and a lot of unpleasantness.”
Yorn lists Winona Ryder among his former girlfriends, but does not want to name the ex-partner who inspired much of Break Up. “I have a muse, I won’t reveal who she is,” he says coyly. “But a lot of the songs are about my experiences with her.”
Johansson married the actor Ryan Reynolds last year, but at the time of recording Break Up she was just coming to the end of a two-year relationship with her Black Dahlia co-star, Josh Hartnett. Tellingly, perhaps, she interprets the album as a commentary on the fragile nature of long-distance love. “That kind of transient relationship is certainly one both Pete and I are familiar with, because we travel a lot for our work and we’re away for months at a time,” Johansson says. “I took the songs to mean you’re away from somebody for a period of time, and you get a different perspective on the relationship, then you see them again and it’s really intense.”
Johansson and Yorn are vague about their reasons for releasing Break Up after so long in cold storage. She describes the album as “a small project between friends”. Only years later did both come to agree that “people should hear it”.
Music is just one of Johansson’s non-acting sidelines, of course. When not vamping it up as Woody Allen’s newest muse or the face of an upmarket cosmetics giant, she also campaigned for President Obama. She even sang lyrics fashioned from Obama’s own speeches on the rapper will.i.am’s unofficial campaign anthem Yes We Can last year, arguably the modern-day equivalent of Marilyn breathily serenading JFK at his birthday bash.
As with her political campaigning, Johansson’s star power will inevitably attract floating voters to Break Up. “It obviously has brought more attention,” Yorn admits. “But I think the music is ultimately what will make fans of the record.” Yet her 2008 selection of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head, got a decidedly cool reception. Maybe it was Johansson’s voice, a throaty moan that is expressive but not particularly versatile. Many critics drew Marilyn Monroe comparisons. “Marilyn had a great voice,” Johansson says. “A lot of actors are great mimics anyway, and that can relate to music as well. I think all singers are acting, whether it’s their lyrics or another writer’s lyrics, they are performing. I don’t think the two are dissimilar.”
Johansson is hardly the first screen diva to step behind the microphone, of course. She has simply joined a long tradition stretching from Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland to her Hollywood contemporaries Zooey Deschanel and Juliette Lewis.
“I always wanted to be Frank Sinatra,” Johansson concludes dreamily. “Even as little kid, I always thought I’d grow up and sound like Sinatra. I’m still waiting for that to happen. Ha!”
The Times Online