Many young singers these days cross over to acting (Jessica Simpson, Alicia Keys and Beyonce Knowles). Actress Scarlett Johansson is doing just the opposite. Making a foray into the music industry, her debut album, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," (released May 20) mostly consists of Tom Waits cover songs. The 23-year-old Ms. Johansson, best known for her roles in films like "Lost in Translation" and "The Other Boleyn Girl," made the record with the help of producer Dave Sitek from the popular indie-rock group, TV on the Radio. We talked with Ms. Johansson about her music, bracing for reviews and her recent engagement to actor Ryan Reynolds.
The Wall Street Journal: Why did you decide to release an album?
Scarlett Johansson: The album came about because I did a track for my friend's [compilation] album, "Unexpected Dreams," to benefit an organization called Music Matters. The studio that distributed the album really liked my track and asked if I would be interested in recording a full album.
I originally started acting as a kid because I wanted to do musical theater. I always loved to sing and had always taken vocal lessons when I was a kid, and just thought of all of my friends who were struggling musicians would kill for this opportunity, so I couldn't really pass it up.
WSJ: "Anywhere I Lay My Head" consists of mostly covers of Tom Waits songs. Why?
Ms. Johansson: Originally, I was going to do standards. The only Tom Waits song I was going to do was a song called "Don't Talk to Strangers." I thought maybe that would be strange to mix that with [George] Gershwin and [Cole] Porter. I needed to do something cohesive. One [Waits] song turned into four. I kept thinking, "What about that song, and, oh, I loved that song."
WSJ: How did you get into Tom Waits?
Ms. Johansson: I first started listening to Tom Waits when I was like, 12. We used to go on road trips with a friend and my friend's dad used to play it for hours and hours and at first it was like, "What is this music?'" But as I listened to more of his music I discovered that I liked it.
WSJ: You collaborate with David Bowie on a few tracks. What was it like working with him?
Ms. Johansson: It was a huge dream come true for me. I've always really admired David as an artist and I met him a few nights before I left to record the album. I met him at this big gala and he, of course being like the coolest thing ever, was already a huge fan of TV on the Radio's [Dave Sitek, who produced her album] and said, 'I hear you're working with Dave, and how exciting that you're doing a Tom Waits cover album. What a cool idea.'
The whole time [we were working on the album] we were saying, maybe we could drive [Mr. Bowie] down or charter a bus. Then Dave called me one day and said, "Guess who's in the studio!"
WSJ: How does recording an album compare to filmmaking?
Ms. Johansson: I've been making movies since I was eight, so I'm completely familiar with the industry and the process. Recording an album was a huge learning experience for me. I didn't know at all what to expect.
I think there's probably more similarities between acting and singing than differences, really. It's still about drawing from your own personal experience and creating a character. All the artists I love, like Chet Baker or Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, all sort of built these characters, these journeys that you follow as a listener. It's similar to the way you build a character for a film.
WSJ: Are you nervous about your reviews?
Ms. Johansson: I have no concept of critical bashing or acclaim or anything like that… I guess I'm removed from them.
WSJ: So you don't let reviews effect you?
Ms. Johansson: The whole experience of recording was so personal and so isolated, I never thought about having to have people analyze it. It's something that all of us really did as sort of a blue valentine for Tom Waits. Even with films, my attitude is usually, just go in and do your job and hope for the best. Reviews are kind of a strange thing.
WSJ: Congratulations on your engagement, to Ryan Reynolds. Is all the press attention surrounding that stressful?
Ms. Johansson: I don't have a TV right now so I don't really know what's going on out there. It's a very exciting and wonderful time. I guess it's weird to have people on the streets out there [mention it] to you that you've never met before. I have people coming up to me on the street saying, "Congratulations!" And I'm like, "For what? Did I win something?" It's such a personal thing, but I guess it's part of the whole circus.