TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year and released a new album called "Bad As Me." We were happy to have him back on the show to talk about it.

As Jon Pareles recently wrote in the New York Times, quote, "At 61, Waits is acclaimed as an American marvel, a songwriter who can be smart and primal, raucous and meticulous, ethereal and earthy, bleak and comical."

"He has sung about drunks, tramps, carnies and killers, but has also shown a vulnerable side in tender, un-ironic love songs. When he emerged in the 1970s, he had clearly studied beat writers, jazz pioneers and Delta bluesmen. Now, indie rockers study him," unquote.

Waits' album "Bad as Me" features guitarists Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Keith Richards, who also sings on one track. Let's start with the opening song, "Chicago," which was co-written by Kathleen Brennan, who has been Waits' songwriting partner and wife since 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICAGO")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) The seeds are planted here, but they won't grow. We won't have to say goodbye if we all go. Maybe things will be better in Chicago, to leave all we've ever known for a place we've never seen. Maybe things will be better in Chicago.

(Singing) Well it's braver to stay, even braver to go. Wherever she goes, I go. Maybe things will be better in Chicago. What we need, the Lord will give us. All we want, we carry with us. You know where I can be found, where the rainbow hits the ground. I'm not alone. I'm not afraid 'cuz this bird has flown from his cage.

(Singing) There's so much magic we have known on this sapphire we call home, with my coat and my hat I say goodbye to all that. Maybe things will be better in Chicago. Maybe things will be better...

GROSS: Tom Waits, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the new album.

WAITS: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: So the first track that we heard from your new album, "Bad As Me," is kind of raucous sounding. But I think some of the really great tracks on the album are ballads. And there's really, some wonderful songs. And I want to play an example of that.

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: OK, and this is a song called "Kiss Me." And honestly, the opening - I don't know if you intended this or not; I assume you did. But the opening sounds so much like Julie London's "Cry Me A River," like, the opening chords that Barney Kessel plays on guitar.

WAITS: Oh right, right. Yeah, I love Julie London. And, you know, we put some - the sound of vinyl...

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: The pops and clicks of vinyl on there to try and go back in time a little bit. Actually, it's not pops and clicks. That was barbecued chicken, actually.

GROSS: Really? It has that kind of sizzle of, like, the surface noise.

WAITS: It sounds exactly like vinyl, you know, if you hold the microphone up to your barbecue. It's the same sound, actually. But yeah, I'm a big fan of those records, yeah.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "Kiss Me," from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS ME")

WAITS: (Singing) The fire's dying out. All the embers have been spent outside on the street. Lovers hide in the shadows. You look at me. I look at you. There's only one thing I want you to do. Kiss me. I want you to kiss me like a stranger once again. Kiss me like a stranger...

GROSS: So that's Tom Waits from his new album, "Bad As Me," and the song is called "Kiss Me." So if "Kiss Me" was inspired by Julie London, and I assume by other torch singers like, say, Peggy Lee...

WAITS: Oh right, Peggy Lee, yeah, sure.

GROSS: When did you start listening to singers like that? And what do they mean to you? I mean, you listen to so many different kinds of music.

WAITS: In high school, I guess. I was always a big fan of melody, and that's - so that's where I looked. I like Barbra Streisand, and I like Peggy Lee and, of course, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. And - but as far as - of course Julie London.

I love those old songs, and I guess, for a songwriter, you don't really go to songwriting school. You learn by listening to tunes, and you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they're made of, and you wonder if you can make one, too.

You know, and you just do it by picking up the needle and putting it back down, and figuring out how these people did this magical thing. This is like - it's rather mystifying when you think about songs, where they come from and how they're born.

GROSS: So can you remember any specific songs that you deconstructed like that, songs by torch singers?

WAITS: Oh, well, "Cry Me A River" was definitely one that I listened to a lot. I remember listening to James Brown a lot and listening to "It's a Man's World," wondering how he came up with that. Ray Charles, I remember he had a recording that he did with Cleo Laine. It was all the songs from "Porgy and Bess," and he did "Bess, You Are My Woman Now." It was like, wow.

And he used a high falsetto in a lot of those songs. And I used to listen to that with great attention paid to the anatomy of the songs - and not only Ray's magic, but what these songs were built out of.

So yeah, it's something - it's ongoing. You still are mystified by the construction of songs, and you don't ever really get to a plateau where you feel like oh, well, I'm done, I know how to do this. You stay rather curious and puzzled by the whole affair, really.

GROSS: Did you ever take singing lessons like, later in life, thinking, you know, the more styles of singing you wanted to do and the more voices you were comfortable using - that you wanted to just like learn more about how the voice works, and how you could get the most out of yours?

WAITS: Uh, my voice - do you think that I should be taking voice lessons, Terry?

GROSS: Well, I think voice lessons are fascinating. I mean, I think - no, I think like, the human voice is such an amazing instrument - like, the more you understand it, the more amazing it becomes.

WAITS: Well I have been to, you know, voice doctors, throat doctors on the road. Periodically, I'll go in and have them tune me up. And then I have exercises I have to do before a show. And I sound very peculiar on the other side of the door. I bark my voice out through a closed throat, pretty much. It is more, perhaps, like a dog - in some ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But that's murder on the voice, isn't it?

WAITS: I hope it's not murder, but it is - it does have its limitations. And - but I'm learning different ways to keep it alive, and it is hard on you - especially on the road, when you're doing night after night after night, you know.

GROSS: So what kind of - what do the exercises sound like that you do?

(SOUNDBITE OF VOCAL EXERCISES)

WAITS: Things like that.

GROSS: That sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And that, like, loosens up your throat?

WAITS: Yeah, it just relaxes the muscles and all that, you know. That wasn't bad, was it?

GROSS: No, that actually sounded great. It sounded...

WAITS: Yeah, I thought so, too, yeah.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Waits, and he has a new album that's called "Bad As Me." Why don't we hear another song? This time we could play "Back in the Crowd," which is a very, like, Mexican-flavored ballad. And it opens almost like "Spanish Harlem," Tom?

WAITS: Right. Well, that - it's called Spanish tinge, that genre of music - this tempo, this beat. It does have a lot in common with "Spanish Harlem" and a myriad of other songs. Of course, it's missing the castanets. That was - it was fun to do.

GROSS: I remember you saying that when you were growing up, your father - you grew up near the Mexican border, and your father listened to, exclusively, Mexican radio stations, where they spoke in Spanish. And you got introduced to a lot of, you know, Mexican music that way, and Spanish music that way.

WAITS: Sure, yeah.

GROSS: So do you feel like that is really embedded in you, musically?

WAITS: It has to be. Most of us have the residue of thousands of songs in our ears, that I think if you wind up songwriting, I think you're mostly smoking the residue of all that material that you've absorbed over time.

GROSS: Did the Mexican radio stations sound thrilling, in a way, because they were coming from another country, in another language? I mean, one of the great things about - like, when radio was the only way of hearing a lot of music, you would try to get - pull in stations from far away. And the further you could go, the more kind of special and mysterious it all started to sound to you. Did you have that reaction to the Mexican stations?

WAITS: Hmm. Well, my dad did not recommend us listening to anything but that. For some reason, he thought that was - everything else was really unimportant. We had to speak Spanish at the dinner table, and all that. So...

GROSS: You had to speak Spanish at the dinner table?

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: But he wasn't Spanish, right?

WAITS: No, my dad was from Texas. But he grew up around the orange groves in La Verne, Pomona - and, you know, ate with the workers in the field and learned their songs. And then when he was college age, it just seemed the most appropriate thing for him to be doing, would be something that incorporated his love of the language and the culture. So he became a Spanish teacher.

GROSS: Oh.

WAITS: When I went to restaurants with my dad as a kid, when the mariachis would come to the table, he knew all the songs, and they were more interested in him. And he would suggest songs and was paying for them to play more and more songs. And by the end of the meal, he would usually get up and leave with them and go to the next gig with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And we would find our way back to the hotel on our own.

GROSS: That's funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Can you imagine that?

GROSS: So one more question before we hear "Back in the Crowd," and you'll probably think I'm crazy, but were you thinking about Elvis a little bit when you were singing this?

WAITS: Oh, I think about Elvis all the time. But I think I probably was thinking about Elvis. You know, Elvis and Jim Reeves, too. My wife - you know, I'm the other half of what I consider to be a really great songwriting team, which means that we argue a lot, you know, about what a song can be, should be, what it'll be if you do this to it.

You know, so we discuss all these facets. And she's a great - I don't know, Amelia Earhart and Jane Goodall and Ariel Durant and Joan Jett all rolled into one. She's really great to work with. And I feel, sometimes, like I have a map in my pocket that folds up, and I pull it out, and it's bigger than the table, and there's a thousand places to go.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is "Back in the Crowd" by my guest Tom Waits from Tom Waits' new album "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN THE CROWD")

WAITS: (Singing) If you don't want these arms to hold you, if you don't want these lips to kiss you, if you found someone new put me back in the crowd. Put the sun behind the clouds. Put me back in the crowd.

(Singing) There's a battle going on between the blue and the grey, and if you don't want my love, don't make me stay.

GROSS: That's "Back in the Crowd" from Tom Waits' latest album "Bad As Me." We'll hear more from Waits after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Waits. His latest album is called "Bad As Me." Now, the last time you were on FRESH AIR, which was back in 2002, you said that one of the reasons you wanted a kind of raspy voice when you sang was that when you were a young man, you couldn't wait to be an old man.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And you know, you mentioned like, Louis Armstrong and how when you were, I guess, a teenager, you walked with a cane for a while to affect a certain look.

WAITS: Yeah. I...

GROSS: And I'm wondering, that desire to like, be an old man, how is that feeling now - now that, like, you're in your early 60s?

WAITS: Now that I'm an old man.

GROSS: Well, you're not an old man, but you're closer than you were when you were in your teens, that's for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Well, I don't know. I guess I've always lived upside down. I want things I can't have. My wife, actually, thinks that I have a syndrome. It's called reality distortion field. You know, it's kind of like drugs, only you can't come back from it, you know. Reality distortion is almost a permanent condition. So I guess to a certain degree, I did that with myself.

When I was a kid, I did want to be in old-timer. I thought they were the ones with the big stories and the cool clothes, you know, and the great hats and, you know, I wanted to go there.

GROSS: You have a couple of songs about death on the new album and...

WAITS: Oh, about death, oh yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And you know - well, like one is explicitly about death, and one of them is kind of a metaphor for death, called "Last Leaf."

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And...

WAITS: Well, I don't know. You could say it's a metaphor for death, or you could say it's really a song about the last leaf on a tree. You know, 'cause I did see a tree out in my yard; it had one tree - one leaf left on it.

GROSS: Oh, really?

WAITS: And I looked at that leaf and I said, hang on, buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: If you hang on, you can make it to the next season. And if you can make it to the next one, you might be here next year, greeting all the new ones. Hang on. But I remember saying that to myself, like I was talking to a cat, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: But, you know, my wife said oh, get Keith to sing on that.

GROSS: Yeah, this is Keith Richards, who is featured on guitar on several tracks, and on vocals, vocal backup on this.

WAITS: It was great working with him as a - like that say with recording, it's either really easy or it's impossible. And with him, it's easy.

GROSS: So let's hear "Last Leaf." This is from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad as Me," and it features Keith Richards on guitar and backup vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LEAF")

WAITS: (Singing) When the autumn wind blows, they're already gone. They flutter to the ground 'cause they can't hang on. There's nothing in the world that I ain't seen. I greet all the new ones that come in green.

TOM WAITS AND KEITH RICHARDS: (Singing) I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest but they won't take me. I'm the last leaf on the tree.

WAITS: (Singing) They say I got staying power here on the tree. But I've been here since Eisenhower, and I've outlived even he.

RICHARDS: (Singing) I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest, but they won't take me.

GROSS: That's Tom Waits, with Keith Richards singing backup, from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad As Me." How do you and Keith Richards even know each other?

WAITS: Back in '84, '85 - I don't know - New York; we were doing "Rain Dogs." And my wife said, get Keith to play on this. I said oh, God, no, I can't. I'm not worthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And she said no, get him. And one thing led to the other and so, you know, he was called. And then I was mortified and embarrassed. And they sent him the record, and he liked it. And he came down with semi-truck full of instruments and a musical butler. And you know, it was really hilarious. And so I've stayed in touch and known him since then.

We wrote songs together for a while, and that was fun. I had never really written with anybody except my wife, so it was unique and a little scary at first because he doesn't really remember anything or write anything down. So you'd play for an hour and he would yell across the room: Scribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And I looked around - scribe? Who's the scribe? And then he'd say it again, now pointing at me: Scribe. And I was supposed to have written down everything we said and dreamt of and played. And then I realized that we needed an adult in the room. And I have never been the one that one would consider the adult. So, hey, it was an interesting dynamic, and I learned to be a scribe.

GROSS: We'll continue our interview with Tom Waits in the second half of the show. His latest album is called "Bad As Me." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of our interview with Tom Waits, one of rock's great songwriters, performers and eccentrics. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, introduced by Neil Young. His latest album is called latest album is called "Bad as Me."

So there's another great ballad on your album, called "New Year's Eve."

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And the song uses a line that you actually said in our previous interview.

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And what you said in the previous interview was that sometimes, you used to listen to two radios at the same time because...

WAITS: Oh, right, yeah.

GROSS: ...because you like hearing things incorrectly, and you got a lot of ideas by mishearing something. And...

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And in the song, you use the line: All the noise was disturbing, and I couldn't find Irving. It was like two stations at the same time.

WAITS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And, I guess, is that an image you've been carrying around for many years and it finally made its way into a song?

WAITS: That happens, so yeah. I'm sure I've been carrying it around. Yeah. The other line in there that I wanted to get into a song was - you know, you ever said to somebody, just keep talking but don't use any names?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: You know, like two spies talking, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: Or you're talking about drugs or you're talking about a woman or you, you know - and I, that's how the song kind of began, with just that line. And then we expanded it to a litany of trouble on New Year's. And then it all - then we all end up singing together in the middle of the evening filled with, you know, a burnt sofa and a runaway dog, and a broken window and someone got arrested.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "New Year's Eve."

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: From Tom Waits' new album, "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD AS ME")

WAITS: (Singing) It felt like 4:00 in the morning. What sounded like fireworks turned out to be just what it was. The stars looked like diamonds and then came the sirens, and everyone started to cuss. All the noise was disturbing, and I couldn't find Irving. It was like two stations on at the same time. And then I hid your car keys and I made black coffee, and I dumped out the rest of the rum. Mm-um. Nick and Socorro broke up...

GROSS: That's "New Year's Eve" from Tom Waits' new album. "Bad As Me." Back in the days when you were living in a hotel, or living on the road...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did you ever imagine that one day, you would be married for 30 years and the father of three?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: No. No, I didn't. But I do remember disciplining imaginary children in the back seat of my car.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why?

WAITS: Hold your horses; Bill, that's enough out of you - I don't know why.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Maybe I was anticipating their arrival and I was rehearsing. I don't know. But no, you know, I couldn't have seen that one coming. I don't know how much of our lives we can actually see coming.

GROSS: Did you have an image in mind about what it would mean to be a father...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and husband, and everything that you'd have to give up, and how you'd become like, a conventional person or something? And that it turns out you could do it on your own terms and be not - it not be what you thought it might be?

WAITS: So it's not like the Army.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Right? You get a uniform; here's your, your orders; report here at a certain time. Yeah. No, I realized, eventually, that it could be, you know - that you can roll your own. And my wife realized that as well, I think. I mean, there's still certain things that - a lot of things that being a musician is not helpful in family life. You know, when things like fix the shower, start the truck, get the milk - just, you know, things that are all part of daily living, that being a musician is not really a - doesn't give you an advantage. And I think even musical thoughts, sometimes, are inappropriate, and they're poorly timed. You know, they're like - it's like erotic thoughts in church.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: You have to - you bat them away, you know - and 'cause, it's just the timing is wrong. So - but yeah, I learned, I guess, at a certain point that I was going to do it my way. I don't know what any other way to do things is like, other than my way - to quote Frank...

GROSS: Right.

WAITS: ...Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I just want to quote something that you told the Guardian, the British newspaper, a few years ago - in 2006. And you said that when you stopped drinking, you wondered: Am I genuinely eccentric, or am I just wearing a funny hat? What am I made of? What's left when you drain the pool? So I think it was like years ago, many years ago that you gave up drinking. What did you learn about yourself when the alcohol wasn't there anymore?

WAITS: I didn't know what to do with my hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, like when you stop smoking.

WAITS: Yeah. Well, yeah, I was smoke in one hand and a drink in the other. What did I learn? Boy, that's a big question, Terry. I...

GROSS: If it's too big, don't feel like you need to answer it.

WAITS: I think it's probably like the - what my wife said about the reality distortion field that I live in, which is kind of a place that you don't necessarily come back from. You know, maybe the drugs and alcohol are more of a vacation from reality, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: They say that life itself is really just the dead on vacation, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh gosh, I hadn't heard that.

WAITS: Isn't that terrible? Hmm. I don't know. Yeah, am I just wearing a funny hat? Am I just trying to say weird stuff, or am I really peculiar, genuinely?

GROSS: Did you want to be peculiar?

WAITS: Well, I wanted - I've always wanted to be curious and provocative, I guess, and interesting, and being interested in this kind of sparkling, you know, sapphire we all call home, you know. I always wanted to be mystified by it all - and rather fascinated with life itself. And I don't know, when, you know, I think maybe when you drink, you are - you're probably robbing yourself of that genuine experience, even though it appears what you're doing is getting more of it. You're getting less of it. And it takes a while, when you've had a rock on the hose like that for so long. It takes a while for the hose to be a hose again, you know, and for things to start flowing.

Like with songs, if you don't play for a while - if you stop playing for like, even like a year - sometimes it all builds up in a really great way. But there's no such thing as not playing. You know, there's just - you know, music has rests in it, so you are on a rest right now. And the music will begin shortly. You know, it's like an orchestra tuning up. I used to try and get myself started. I would take a tape recorder, and I would put it in the trashcan and - the ones that are on wheels, you know? And I'd turn it on, and then I'd roll around in the yard with it, and then play it back and see if I could hear any interesting rhythms, you know, that were just part of nature, you know.

Or - I tell you, the best snare drum on earth is a trampoline in like, November, when all the branches have landed and they're heavy and they're wet. And then you jump on the trampoline; they all lift up and come down at the same time. It's like, wow.

GROSS: Have you used those sounds on recordings?

WAITS: I haven't, but I intend to.

GROSS: So in terms of your life, do you feel like at this point in your life that you are like, naturally eccentric and naturally interesting enough that no further artifice is required?

WAITS: Hmm, no more artifice? Well, there's always - you know, my wife thinks I'm a hoarder, you know, and I don't know. I collect things. I - it just occurred to me that I have a lot of National Geographics. And, you know, when they get wet - I mean, like, if you have like, 300 of them and they get wet, it could kill you - you know, if they're like above, in an attic, and they fall down. But instead of saying funny things, you say things - the way you say them is funny, instead of them being funny by themselves, you know. Or the - and then the same is true of melody.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: I like writing melody without an instrument. It's just so - it's more like the choreography of a bee; you just go. You know, there are no frets on your neck, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And my wife likes doing that, too. She'll just start singing out of nowhere, you know, and without an instrument. It's really, it's the best way to do it, I think.

GROSS: OK. It was so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WAITS: Yes. Good talking with you, too, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Waits' latest album is called "Bad As Me." We recorded our interview in October when it was released.

Coming up, Jimmy Fallon, as we continue our series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year.

This is FRESH AIR.

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