Just Between You and Me and The Wall:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
You don’t have to convince music aficionados that vocalist Bettye LaVette is a true living legend – her 50 years in the music industry is a testament to that fact. Not as prolific – or as well-known – as some of her Soul contemporaries, Bettye’s back catalog is ripe for reappraisal. Those not familiar with her work need to hear her seminal recordings in order to fully appreciate her classy, emotional and graceful brand of Soul. Her career began in Detroit at the age of 16 in 1962, when she released her first single. Subsequent tours with Clyde McPhatter, Barbara Lynn, Otis Redding, and Ben E. King solidified her reputation as one of the brightest vocal talents on the scene. Over the next two decades, she released numerous singles, recorded an unreleased album for Atlantic/Atco and ended up signing with Motown and releasing her first officially-released album in 1982. However, world domination continued to evade her even though collectors and critics the world over were singing her praise. Most artists in her position would have quit the business – and many did – but Bettye never lost faith in her own talent. She just had the patience to wait until everyone else caught up with her. Soul fans in Europe were the first to take notice and they’ve remained extremely passionate supporters of Bettye’s work, both past and present. But it wasn’t until 2005 when things finally turned around for Bettye in her home country…
In 2005, Anti-Records signed Bettye to a three-album deal and threw her into the studio with singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry. The result was the critically-acclaimed album I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise. The album contained songs written by female songwriters including Joan Armatrading, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, and Lucinda Williams amongst others. She followed that album up with The Scene Of The Crime – aided by Drive-By Truckers and Spooner Oldham – in 2007 and Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook in 2010. Two years later, she released Thankful N’ Thoughtful, an album that steered her in a more personal direction.
However, Bettye’s new album, Worthy, which reunites her with producer Joe Henry for the first time in 10 years, is perhaps her most personal album to date. From the selection of songs – Bob Dylan’s “Unbelievable,” Joe Henry’s “Stop,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Wait,” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ “Complicated,” amongst others – to the intimate production, Bettye’s mature, heartfelt and unique style is on display for all to hear. While the album is not autobiographical, Bettye sings each track as if her life depended on it. You’ll experience the lows of heartbreak and the heights of pure joy within these grooves. Worthy is most definitely worthy of your time and your energy. The album begs for repeated listenings and will soon worm its way straight to your heart and soul. You may even find yourself tearing up at times during the album. However, the album is a celebration of life and all of its peaks and valleys. The heart never sounded more honest.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat about the album with Bettye during a rare day off and in the middle of both a snowstorm and her two week residency at Café Carlyle in New York…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Worthy has just been released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far?
BETTYE LAVETTE: Oh my goodness, I haven’t liked anything this much in so long. At the Café Carlyle, I tell the audience, “I’m gonna sing this from beginning to end – the whole thing every night!” (Laughs) And they’ll say why? Because I want to hear it (laughs).
SPAZ: There’s such a great variety of songs on the album, including tracks written by Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Mickey Newbury – who is a much underrated songwriter – and then the Beth Nielsen Chapman/Mary Gauthier title track. How did you come to choose this selection of songs?
BETTYE: Two or three of them I’ve had as long as ten years. For instance, Joe Henry – “Stop.” When Joe and I first got together ten years ago I wanted to do “Stop,” but the record company wanted it to be on an all-girl album so I couldn’t do it. So on the next album, they wanted a young contemporary band, the Drive-By Truckers, so I couldn’t do it. So then the next one, it was British Rock songs, so I couldn’t do it. So when Joe and I got together this time, I said, “Joe, I’ve got this damn tune I’ve been dragging around ten years. You think you might let me do it?” (Laughs)
SPAZ: Did Joe write “Stop” for you?
BETTYE: No, he wrote it for his sister-in-law, Madonna. She did it. I think she changed the name to “Don’t Tell Me” and I think it had just come out on one of her albums.
SPAZ: There are a lot of tracks like “When I Was A Young Girl” that could almost be autobiographical. Do you try to choose material that touches and teaches both the listener and yourself?
BETTYE: You know, I don’t know what else it is that I need to learn! I just want to tell people about what I have learned. Choosing songs becomes more and more difficult for me as I get older because the song has to be extremely funny, or it has to be complicated, or it has to be very serious like “Bless Us All,” or the one you just mentioned. You know, I’m too old to stand and look people in their face and not have anything to say or just keep saying the same thing over and over like the kids do. They get a hook and they say it 12,000 times and you dance the rest out, and I don’t have that option…
SPAZ: “Where A Life Goes” is just…I have to stop what I’m doing when that song plays.
BETTYE: I love it so much too. It was written by Randall Bramblett. We were working, I think it was in Maryland somewhere, and he was on when I arrived at the gig. I could hear the melodies through the dressing room wall but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. So when he did come off, I asked him, “Could you send me some of your tunes?” He said, “I have some here.” He just shoved all these CDs into my hand. I found several of his tunes I really like, and should I have the opportunity to record again, I’ll probably revisit some of his songs. He’s just really a good writer. He wrote this song for his mother who had him when she was very young, and by the time he got old enough to really understand her and kind of be buddies with her, she died. The same thing happened with my sister who was older than me, and just about time I made up that 13 year gap and we became good buddies, she died. We used to talk continuously. Here’s two grown women lying in bed. We slept together so we could talk all night (laughs). I know that if I could talk to her now, I’d talk to her and that would be what I would ask her – “Where are you? What you doing?”
SPAZ: When you went into the studio, did you already have an idea of how you wanted the album to sound or did it all come together organically?
BETTYE: When I went into the studio I knew what I was gonna do. I picked the songs and had sent them to the musicians. I love the fact that the keyboard player, Patrick Warren, is a Beatles aficionado, and he didn’t recognize “Wait.” (laughs) It was so funny. He sat down and started playing it. He said, “This is “Wait!” I said, “I know. I’m the one who gave it to you, remember?” He had listened to me singing it on the tape recording and still did not know what it was until he sat down and started playing it. “I know these chords!”
SPAZ: I’m a Beatles fan and I love this version.
BETTYE: Do you recognize it immediately?
SPAZ: Lyrically, yes. I think it was within the first five words I go, “What? ‘Wait’?”
BETTYE: I like to watch it waft through the audience. Like some people hear it immediately and then some people, I’ll see ‘em say, “That’s ‘Wait.’” So that’s fun.
SPAZ: I love the fact that you basically created your own version. To me it’s a whole different perspective on the song.
BETTYE: Well, I’m a completely different person. What amazes me is when people can sing something exactly like somebody else. That’s so amazing that I can’t imagine how I could remember when to moan or when to…I don’t know how I could mimic someone else’s feelings. That’s so amazing to me when people do that.
SPAZ: This is the first time that you’ve worked with Joe in ten years. Do you feel that there is chemistry between the two of you?
BETTYE: You know what? I think that Joe more compliments what I do. And the thing of it is – at this point I need a producer for different things. I need a producer who knows a lot about music, who understands all kinds of music, and who just isn’t in one kind of channel like Phil Spector. See now, we would’ve fallen out because he felt that he already brought the production to you when he met you, and so that kind of thing wouldn’t work. Joe trusts me. He trusts I can sing and then he knows the musicians that I need. He knows how smart the musicians will have to be because I can’t play anything. I can’t even play a radio. And so he gets these brilliant musicians, which is one-half of them the same that we used on I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise and they are just so brilliant.
SPAZ: What was the recording process like?
BETTYE: I sing to them either with the guitar or with the piano or a cappella, so they can get a sense of the way I’m going. Then they just fall in one by one and when we see which way we’re gonna go, we say, “let’s record it.” We did that at least three times where we just stood there – that’s what we did with “Wait.” We just get it down once and that was it.
SPAZ: Is there anything from the album that really stands out – that you’re really proud of?
BETTYE: Well, “Wait.” With John and Paul’s writing, they’re so fucking brilliant. I really like that and I like “Complicated” because I was able to change the lyrics around to the first person, and hopefully Keith and Mick will find that funny, if nothing else.
SPAZ: The title track is wonderful.
BETTYE: “Worthy” – what a thing to claim. I really feel I’m close to embarrassed having to say that. That’s why my picture is not on the cover and I wanted the word “Worthy” to be small. I mean, that’s exactly what it says. It’s like saying I’m cute (laughs). You know, I really meant it and wanted to say it so badly. I had to say it, but what a thing to claim. I really like that tune too, but as I said, I just have that feeling about it. I’m almost embarrassed singing it. I wish I could just send everybody a note saying “I’m worthy” in little small letters.
SPAZ: The British seem to be rabid American Soul, Jazz, and R&B fans. What do you think it is that attracts them? Because it seems as if America doesn’t ‘embrace’ their own musical heritage.
BETTYE: America doesn’t like to open its heart and embrace anything else because we have so much. They may embrace Elvis Presley because they feel like ‘he’s one of us’, not because he’s Elvis Presley. We don’t adore people – we’re champions of people. In America, there isn’t going to be a King and Queen, and we are all gonna be equals. So I don’t care how big you are, we feel just as comfortable sitting out having a hot dog with you (laughs). I tell people about growing up in Detroit – nobody cares anything about what you sing in Detroit. Everybody there lives next door to a Temptation or somebody else (laughs). But they don’t care.
SPAZ: You have been a recording artist for 50 years and yet it has only been the last ten years or so that you’ve achieved high profile success. Did it surprise you when it finally came around or were you prepared?
BETTYE: I was totally prepared and totally relieved because I thought that I was going to die before they got to me. I thought if I stay good, there’s a possibility they would get to me, but I just thought I was going to die first (Laughs).
SPAZ: What’s next for Bettye LaVette??
BETTYE: I want to see what’s gonna happen with this CD. If they would go on and let me win a Grammy I could bump my money up a little bit and then for the first time in this whole 50 year career I could possibly say, “Yes, I made some money last year.” (laughs) That’s never happened before, so I’m looking forward to that. That’s it right now. I think that’s enough for an old person.
Thanks to Bettye LaVette.