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Clip: Bettye LaVette interprets melody, lyrics her way

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  • Carl Z.
    Bettye LaVette interprets melody, lyrics her way Wednesday, June 07, 2006 By Ed Masley, Pittsburgh
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2006

      Bettye LaVette interprets melody, lyrics her way

      Wednesday, June 07, 2006
      By Ed Masley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

      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.

      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

      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
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