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The 8 Best Actor-Turned-Musicians

Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins

A lot of attention has been paid to the reverse of this phenomenon; musicians turned actors. But for me, the opposite is more interesting because once you get past the legion of hot-pant wearing, gyrating, former Disney stars, there are actually some fantastically talented and unique actor-turned-musicians out there. No doubt some of these choices are going to have you baking frownies, but hear me out. Or hear them out. Either way, get listening.

  1. Ryan Gosling
    Ryan Gosling
    You know, I genuinely hate when people say “words cannot express how much I love blah blah blah” and then they proceed to use words to describe how much they love said thing or person. I nearly made that writing faux pas trying to explain just how much I adore Ryan Gosling as a musician. I’ve ranted about the brilliance of his outfit Dead Man Bones before, but I truly never get sick of it. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Unforgettable. It’s also in part thanks to his time in the Mickey Mouse Club. From there, Gosling developed an obsession with the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland and the music of Dead Man’s Bones comes from his failed attempt, with fellow actor Zach Shields, to write a musical based around the ride. Gosling and Shields have only made one Dead Man’s Bones album, but that’s enough to leave a magical impression. From the macabre melodies about zombies, werewolves, ghosts and murder, to it’s unrelenting indie sensibilities, their self-titled debut will seduce from the first listen. Unashamedly low-fi, the backing vocals provided by the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir add to the poltergeist perfection which features everything from hand-claps and helter skelter musicianship, to Gosling moaning lyrics and a prolonged period of weeping to end a track. Outside of graveyard anthems, Gosling hinted at his skill as quirky musician in the standout scene from Blue Valentine where he plays a ukulele whilst singing a love ballad to Michelle Williams’ character. He also penned the song Unicorn Tears from the film, which deserves kudos for it’s awesome title and general delightfulness.
  2. Jamie Foxx
    Jamie Foxx
    You couldn’t get further from Gosling than Mr Foxx here, the Oscar-winner turned R’n’B crooner. Although already having released an album after his sitcom and stand-up success, Foxx’s musical career came into it’s own in 2006 with the release of his best-selling album Unpredictable (featuring standout tracks Extravaganza and Unpredictable). His third and fourth efforts, Intuition in 2008 and last year’s Best Night Of My Life, were just as slick and featured guest appearances from some of the best rappers in the bizz. Sure, most of his music is full of sexual innuendo, cocky self-assurance and criminally smooth vocals, but when has that been a bad thing? Plus, unlike fellow actor-turned-musician Drake, who works within the same genre, Foxx has a stellar set of vocal chords and doesn’t overly rely on autotune or producers to do the hard work for him. As well as lending his pipes to musical movies such as Ray and Dreamgirls, Foxx’s musical cameos are almost as notable as his solo career. After all, what would Kanye West’s Gold Digger be without with Foxx’s modern Ray Charles-esque backing vocals and lets not forget Slow Jamz with Twista and Kanye (again). The standout though, has to be the superb dirty grind Hustle Blood with Outkast’s Big Boi on 2010’s Sir Luscious Left Foot The Son Of Chico Dusty. As a side note, I highly recommend you check out Foxx’s video clip to Blame It which features a who’s who of Hollywood A-Listers partying down with Foxx, notably Ron Howard and Jake Gyllenhaal getting their wigga on.
  3. Scarlett Johansson
    Scarlett Johansson
    I have a feeling I’m going to cop slack over this choice, but you know what? Bring it. For her debut album Anywhere I Lay My Head Scarlett Johansson could have strapped on a sequined top and spat out a quasi R’n’B/pop album. But no, she opted to do a record of Tom Waits covers that few people would understand and even fewer people would take the time to listen to. Sure, she doesn’t have a bubblegum sweet voice like, say, Zooey Deschanel. Yet there’s something so alluring about Johansson’s husky, almost androgynous voice that instantly draws me to the speaker like a kid listing to Joni Mitchell for the first time. Along with the 10 Waits covers and an original track, Johansson had a host of incredible guests lend their talent to the album including David Bowie, members of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Celebration, not to mention TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek as producer. The record is almost like a female companion to Gosling and Shields’ Dead Man’s Bones, featuring that same ghostly magic. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of her album with Pete Yorn, Break Up, based on the duets of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. It’s a lot more uppity, retro and fun than Johansson’s solo work and also features the addictive track Relator, which serves as a somewhat prophetic song given her marriage breakup with Ryan Reynolds. Plus, her cover of Jeff Buckley’s Last Goodbye is the only redeeming thing about He’s Just Not That Into You.
  4. Tim Robbins
    Tim Robbins
    I first listened to Tim Robbins and The Rogues Gallery Band’s debut album while going on a three hour drive through the country. It was pretty much the perfect setting to digest this masterful and sweeping piece of storytelling. Robbins, who’s had an interest in music for decades, waited until he was 50 to release his first record this year and I can only think it’s a good thing. Each song plays like a mini-movie, with Robbins’ Nick Cave-esque storytelling within each track complimented perfectly by his minimalist vocals and the rag-tag group of experienced musicians he’s got backing him up. Robbins and the Rogues Galley Band are playing at the 2011 Byron Bay Bluesfest next month and frankly, I can’t wait to see what they do live.
  5. Jared Leto
    Jared Leto
    The man can sing. There’s no denying. In fact, I dare say Leto has the most powerful voice on this list of actor-turned-musicians. As the singer-songwriter and rhythm guitarist for 30 Seconds To Mars, Leto has shed his Hollywood pretty boy image by becoming an enigmatic frontman to this punk/rock outfit. They make epic music, inspiring a legion of hardcore fans with three-tone hair colours and Mohawks who get just as involved in the passionate and aggressive ballads for the misunderstood as Leto himself. If you’ve heard their music, you understand why.
  6. Zooey Deschanel
    Zooey Deschanel
    Deschanel truly completed her indie girl, retro sweetheart persona with music project She & Him with fellow muso M. Ward. The bubblegum sweetness of her tunes invoke visions of riding a bicycle through fifties suburbia and despite some beige moments, the two albums from She & Him, Volume One and Volume Two, offer something relatively unique for left-field music lovers.
  7. Taylor Momsen
    Taylor Momsen
    Okay, yes, she does dress like a $2 whore crossed with something escaped from Rob Zombie’s basement, but Gossip Girl Momsen’s band The Pretty Reckless are pretty decent. Shying away from the Disney rock/pop sound of her peers like Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus, Momsen’s band are decidedly more grunge and heavy sounding a la Nirvana and Garbage. Their debut single Make Me Wanna Die, off the Kick-Ass soundtrack, proved Momsen’s ambition to combine the vocal talents of Shirley Manson and Joan Jett, and so far it hasn’t proved too poor a move for her. Sure, The Pretty Reckless are never going to be a mainstream success thanks to their jailbait lead singer and edgy public persona, but that won’t stop many fans, including myself, highly anticipating their follow up to debut album Light Me Up.
  8. Juliette Lewis
    Juliette Lewis
    The ultimate rock chick, Lewis isn’t fazed by throwing on a lyrca leotard, grabbing a microphone and getting dirty in the mosh pit with her fans. I’m sure she’s also comfortable snorting a line of cocaine with carnies in a port-a-loo, but lets focus on her music. Lewis made her music debut with Juliette Lewis and The Licks before forming The New Romantiques in 2009. Lewis and her music are eccentric punk rock all the way, with lyrics that bash everything from corporate giants to former lovers. Throw in the purring vocals, and Lewis is a musician who rocks whatever band she’s in at the time, not to mention guest performances on tracks for legends such as The Prodigy and The Infidels.

Ones to watch: Emily Browning, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Lea Michele, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Kristen Stewart, Amber Riley.

Musician Meh-stakes: Russell Crowe, Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katie Holmes, Vanessa Hudgens, Bec Hewitt, Tammin Sursok and pretty much every other Home and Away actress-turned-singer.

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