When Andy Kaulkin plucked Bettye LaVette from a lifetime of soulful obscurity to make a record on his label, Anti Records, his concept was simple: have LaVette and producer Joe Henry cut an album where all the songs would be written by women.
"I always expected that if people had actually heard me they would like me," says Bettye LaVette.
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And LaVette's response?
"I said 'There's no way I'm gonna sit around and listen to a bunch of broads sing all day and all night, long enough to make an album,' " the singer recalls with a laugh. "And he likes music anyway. And he's a guy, so I assume he likes chicks. So I said, 'You listen to them and pick out the ones that seem brightest and most interesting and send me some of them.' "
So Kaulkin sent LaVette 100 songs to choose from and she did just that, selecting 10 for last year's new soul classic, "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," on which she leaves her mark on everything from Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" to Lucinda Williams' "Joy."
"It's very personal for me, and it wasn't a difficult thing to do," she says of weeding the list of contenders to 10. "It's like kissing somebody. You know if you want to do anything else with them. When I heard the songs, I wasn't listening to them to listen to, I was listening to them to sing. So I was listening with a different ear, and you can know quickly what you want to sing and what you don't want to sing."
The melody, of course, is crucial. But she also has to make sure she can get inside the lyrics.
"I don't like those songs," she says, "where everybody says 'It meant to me ...' or 'When I heard it, I heard ...' I want to know exactly what it's saying. It's a song, dammit. I don't like songs that are so deep that you have to be an intellectual to understand them. I don't think it should appeal to people's intellect. I think it should appeal to people's very core, that you can like it and be stupid, you can like it and can't read."
The album opens with a stunning a cappella reading of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," a bold move that, at first, LaVette resisted.
"I fought to do it a cappella," says LaVette. "But then, they stunned me when they wanted to open the CD with it. I was scared to put it first. I said, 'My voice hasn't sold a record in your whole lifetime. You think I want to start the biggest opportunity I've ever had with just my voice alone?' I said, 'This is the first chance I've had, and I'm on my death bed nearly, I'm 100 years old and you want to mess it up with my voice?' And then I stopped. My husband was pouring me champagne and calming me, and I said you know, it's a shame that they browbeat me out of my own voice. When things are so bad that they can make you forget you're a singer, that's bad."
By "they," she means the industry. After hitting the R&B Top 10 in 1962 while still a Detroit teen with her incendiary "My Man -- He's a Loving Man," LaVette's career went nowhere very slowly -- this despite Atlantic Records having picked up that first 45 for distribution. The singer, whose style is more Southern than Motown, returned to Atlantic in '72 to cut a debut album with the Memphis Horns at Muscle Shoals. But the project was shelved for nearly 30 years until a French collector bought the rights and put it out as "Souvenirs" six years ago.
That "great lost classic" story caused a minor buzz, but nothing compared to the hype that's surrounded her latest release.
"I always expected," she says, "that if people had actually heard me they would like me. But I didn't think that the things that are being said about this record would be said 'cause I don't even believe I'm that good ..."
It's suggested that the writers on this album, from Williams, O'Connor and Parton to Aimee Mann might not be what people would tend to think of as your go-to writers for a soul recording. But LaVette thinks soul is just a white man's euphemism.
"They're just songs," she insists. "They're just words on a piece of paper. There are different kinds of singers. There aren't different kinds of songs. Singers make songs different. You can't write a different kind of song on a piece of paper. That's the way I look at them. I don't even consider what kind of song it is. If I like what it's saying, then I want to say it. And I say it the way I'm gonna say it."