Bettye LaVette blows soul into other artists' songs

Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette is receiving considerable acclaim for her new album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. A collection of songs by female artists as disparate as Roseanne Cash (the bluesy "On the Surface") and Aimee Mann ("How Am I Different"), it places LaVette amid naturalistic arrangements, highlighting a voice that is flirtatious, fierce and plaintive, sometimes all at once. The album title is taken from a Fiona Apple number, "Sleep to Dream," that LaVette sifts through with a beguiling assertiveness.

"It's extremely flattering," says LaVette during a phone interview at her home in West Orange, N.J., of the critical raves her album has received. "They sound as if my mother sent them all in."

I've Got My Own Hell to Raise is symptomatic, too, of an industry trend: "rediscovering" soul artists for a baby boomer audience. LaVette's producer for the project, Joe Henry, has worked with Solomon Burke (2002's Don't Give Up on Me), and assembled Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, and many other soul legends for a recent compilation (last year's I Believe to My Soul). Other artists whose popularity has increased with the trend include the Five Blind Boys of Alabama (2001's Spirit of the Century), Al Green (2003's I Can't Stop) and, of course, Ray Charles (2004's Genius Loves Company).

Unlike those artists, however, LaVette's success with R&B was sporadic. Debuting with "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man" in 1962, she has only had a handful of left-field hits during her 44 years in the music business, even while developing a coterie of devoted fans.

"The very first gig I did in 1962," she says, "was at the Royal Peacock with Otis Redding," she says. Back then, the Royal Peacock was a leading destination for soul stars like LaVette; today, it's a reggae and dancehall nightclub. "We both had our first records, and we were both on Atlantic. The Peacock became my Southern home base. All the records I came out with after that, even if they didn't sell in other places, they always sold in Atlanta."

LaVette selected the 10 songs featured on I've Got My Own Hell to Raise from a list of 100 that Anti Records President Andy Kaulkin, producer Henry, and husband Kevin Kiley compiled for her. There was little pretension or over-arching concept behind her creative decisions.

"They have to be something a 60-year-old woman would say in a conversation," says LaVette, who turns 60 on Jan. 26. "I like Songwriting 101: This is why I'm crying, this is what he did, now this is what's going to happen next."

"I don't work on projects for long periods of time," she adds with a forceful but genial directness. "I recorded this album in six days. I will probably have to do the next one in less. But if you know what you're doing, and you know the songs, and you practice them at home, then you don't have to do what I read about an awful lot these days: Spend two years in the studio, or two years writing a song. It's just a damn song!"

LaVette is also something of an editor: During her cover of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," for example, she only sings the first verse. "It had three more verses to it," she says. "I just synopsized it. It was something I wanted to say as well, I wanted to say it quicker, and I wanted to say it more profoundly. And I can do that because I'm older than [O'Connor]."

Nevertheless, says LaVette, "Those songs are my songs. I knew what was mine when I heard it. Do you sing?"

No, I don't.

"Then the only thing you have to relate it to is looking in the mirror," she says, in a matter-of-fact voice. "I know how my songs sound. I know what's me when I hear it. You don't want to believe that, do you?" she laughs.

"The thing you get when you're 60, and you've given up your youth, is that you understand things more rapidly, and you know exactly who you are," she continues. "I pretty much know what I want."