Actresses earn music cred, acclaim

Crossover artists unmotivated by fame or riches

The phenomenon of actors dipping their toes into the pool of rock music isn’t exactly a new one, with a long list of largely derided recordings from thesps like Russell Crowe (30 Odd Foot of Grunts) and Keanu Reeves (Dogstar) having fallen by the wayside. Over the past few years, however, Hollywood’s women have been getting in on the act, and doing so with a good deal more artistic acclaim — and even a modicum of commercial success.

This current wave of crossover performers includes Rebecca Pidgeon, Scarlett Johansson (who recently released an album consisting almost entirely of Tom Waits covers) and Zooey Deschanel, who formed the quietly rootsy duo She and Him with cult singer-guitarist M. Ward.

“There’s really no denying the credibility of these records,” says Rob Cross, director of programming for Sirius Satellite Radio’s Left of Center channel. “These aren’t women who are focused on having hits, so they’re willing to take some chances. And people are responding. We’re a couple of hundred plays into the She and Him single (“Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”) and we’re still getting a great response to it.”

Deschanel says she feels validated by the response, particularly given the fact that — unlike the showier Juliette Lewis, who’s taken to hard rock with her band the Licks — she’s gone out of her way not to capitalize on the name recognition that might’ve come from her starring roles in “Elf” and “The Happening.”

“I suppose I was conscious of wanting to draw a line between the two aspects, and that’s why I chose a sort of anonymous band name,” Deschanel says. “As an actor, your name is a product in a sense — the name of a public entity that’s different than you as a person. So it’s already strange enough to have that other entity, and I didn’t want to bring that into this project.”

Deschanel has ventured into music on a smaller scale in the past, dabbling in cabaret with an act she dubbed If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies, but kindred spirit Pidgeon actually gained her earliest public notice in the mercurial late ’80s band Ruby Blue. The Brit actress was a student at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts when she formed that band, which garnered a seven-album deal before disintegrating in the wake of Pidgeon’s 1990 departure.

“Things happened very quickly for Ruby Blue, but when I moved to the States, I restarted both careers again, which was a different kettle of fish,” says Pidgeon, who relocated to Los Angeles after marrying writer David Mamet. “I’m training myself not to see (music) as a secondary career, but it was never my plan as a forming young adult to be a singer-songwriter. … I saw myself as an actress.”

While she’s attained more stature in the latter realm, Pidgeon’s quirky songwriting and warm, burnished vocal tone have won over an impressive roster of supporters, including producer Larry Klein — a 2008 Grammy winner for his work on Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell tribute “River” — who produced her latest album, “Behind the Velvet Curtain.”

“One of the things I like about working with Rebecca is that the ambition isn’t driving the singing or songwriting,” Klein says. “She has a very natural quality about what she does.”

A similar ease of delivery has been attributed to Johansson, who made her full-length recorded debut this May with “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” a disc largely culled from the catalog of the notoriously difficult-to-interpret Waits. While hardly an unmitigated commercial success — it barely skirted the album charts — the disc did win the actress a goodly number of critical bouquets that saw her compared to precursors as varied as Nico and Ronnie Spector.

According to Sirius’ Cross, praise alone would seem sufficient to sustain the continued recording careers of performers like Johansson, Pidgeon and Deschanel, who’s already announced plans for a second She and Him album.

“It used to be that an actress would have to have the potential to be as big as Jennifer Lopez before a label would take a shot with them,” he says. “But you don’t need a huge machine behind you anymore. You can focus on the tastemakers and, if you’re willing to take some chances, you can carve out a really cool, viable niche.”

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