Bettye Lavette at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Monday (November 28). $15. 416-870-8000, 416-532-1598.
After the stunning Grammy coup Solomon Burke scored with his Don't Give Up On Me (Anti-/Epitaph) comeback album, you can bet his label boss Andy Kaulkin had ideas about repeating the feat after hearing soul scorcher Bettye LaVette.
The formula was ingeniously simple. Just put her in the studio with Burke's producer Joe Henry and some hired session pros, then toss in a bunch of songs written with LaVette's husky growl in mind by popular women composers from the country and pop realm, and let the talented stylist work her magic. Easy, right?
It turns out that LaVette had a few ideas of her own about how the recording sessions would go down. After all, the album is called I've Got My Own Hell To Raise.
"I didn't like the concept of doing songs exclusively written by women," explains LaVette over the phone, still hoarse from an insane European tour. "I didn't think I could find lyrics that were strong enough without dealing with things that would make men hate me.
"I'm not a girlfriend kind of woman. I stay friends with men, so I didn't want to be doing songs that might alienate my male audience. Then Andrew [Kaulkin] said he would have these women write songs for me, but I thought it would take too long. Besides, there was no guarantee I'd want to sing anything they wrote. So instead he sent me 100 songs, and I chose the ones I liked, and those appear on the album."
As you might expect from the process of presenting LaVette with a stack of tunes she was unfamiliar with by artists working outside of the R&B sphere, the final song selection for I've Got My Own Hell To Raise is a very unusual mix for the W.C. Handy Blues Award-winning singer including country songs from Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Bobbie Cryner mixed with a couple of pop/rock numbers from Lucinda Williams, Sinéad O'Connor and some folky fare from Joan Armatrading.
Recorded with a group of groove-challenged studio musicians who've clocked time on sessions by Aimee Mann, Seal and Lisa Marie Presley, I've Got My Own Hell To Raise doesn't sound anything like the bluesy soul album she previously released.
Apparently that was the goal, and LaVette credits Henry and the musicians with playing a crucial role in giving her a fresh start with a more contemporary sound.
"My problem in the past was that every time I'd go to make a record, the producer and the musicians knew my last record and tried to do the same thing over again. I wanted to try something different.
"Because Joe Henry is 30 years younger than me, his view of music is obviously going to be very different than mine. If he'd made the songs sound like his own music, that wouldn't have worked for me, but neither would trying to make everything sound like a 60s R&B record. We had to come up with something new and modern, but it still had to sound like me."
So how did LaVette and Henry manage to turn the trick with a group of musicians who'd never heard of her before she walked into the studio and were likely just as unfamiliar with many of the songs being covered? LaVette had a simple and effective solution.
"Well, I knew I couldn't let the band lay down the tracks and then try to sing over top. So I sang each song a cappella for the band to hear how I wanted it done. Then I told them to play it just like I sang it. That's how we did it."