"Can you tell that I'm happy?" asks Bettye LaVette. The reason, the singer says, is Things Have Changed, her new album comprised entirely of songs written by Bob Dylan.
With help from her husband Kevin Kiley, LaVette narrowed down Dylan's enormous songbook to 12 selections, eschewing his biggest hits and best-known periods (just one third of the record comes from before 1980) and instead focusing solely on material she felt she could truly make her own.
"I had to find songs that I really believed in," she says. "When people ask me, 'How do you make these songs your own?' I tell them that it's so much easier for me to sound like Bettye LaVette that it is for me to sound like Bob Dylan."
LaVette cut the record in a three-day session with a team of first-rate session players including Steve Jordan, Larry Campbell and Leon Pendarvis, with cameos from Keith Richards and Trombone Shorty.
During the past decade or so, LaVette has re-emerged as one of the foremost roots interpreters and shapers of popular song. She's earned newfound recognition for her forgotten Sixties and Seventies recordings and become a regular standout at assorted tribute concerts after releasing a series of celebrated albums with the Anti- label, including her Grammy-nominated 2007 collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers.
Things Have Changed, however, marks the first time LaVette has devoted an entire album one songwriter. "It is truly the most different thing I've ever done, for like 27 reasons," she says.
The 72-year-old LaVette recently spoke to Rolling Stone about the origins of her new album, what she learned about Dylan along the way and what she'd tell the songwriter if she ever gets the chance to meet him.
Many of these arrangements are pretty drastic reworkings of Dylan's material. Do you have any sense yet of what hardcore Dylan fans will think of your album?
If you're a Dylan fan or you cavort with that group of people, they are worshippers. They are scholars. I have been really interested in what his fans think of these songs, so I've been asking all of them.
What have they told you?
Well, I am very dismayed at the fact that almost everybody has said they understand the lyrics much better when I sing them. They say: "Well, he's not a very good singer." So let me get this straight: He's not a very good singer and now you understand the lyrics, but I don't have any money and he has $200 million? I know how devoted his fans are. They're kind of like the people who follow the Grateful Dead, but on a more intellectual basis. With Bob writing these soliloquies as opposed to songs, people consider themselves very intellectual if they follow him all of their lives. They're like Sherlock Holmes fans. I found it to be that way too, though. I had to employ all of my Sherlock Holmes tactics to find these songs and put them in my mouth. That is literally what had to be done.
They must be pleased that you're singing so many of his lesser-known songs.
They are. I have not heretofore been a Dylan fan, per se. I'm a song interpreter and singer, so I like anything that a good writer writes, but I'm not much of a music enthusiast, so I don't listen to a lot of people. I've never just sat and listened to Dylan. This is strictly the idea of the executive producer. Singers want you to hear them in every capacity that you can hear them, so I certainly wouldn't have chosen one writer unless I was Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra or somebody.
What did this project teach you about your own artistry, or about Dylan's songwriting?
Did you know I was 72?
I didn't learn anything about me as an artist. If I didn't know all about me as an artist I wouldn't have taken on the project in the first place. I did, however, find out more about him. I know him so much better now because I had to, with him writing these vignettes, I had to get into them to put them into my mouth, and there's no way I could get into them without getting into the writer. If you listen to 12 songs, then you really have a crash course on Bob Dylan. And so I found out that I finished his arguments for him. He's always arguing in his songs all the time, and he'll go all the way up to the line and say "Go jump off the ledge," or whatever. "I'll push you." And so, what I did was I pushed people off the ledge that he wanted pushed off.
I also found that Bob could be tender but he can't be tender. I had to be tender for him. "Emotionally Yours," actually, makes me cry at this point, and so does "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight." I mean, he is actually begging someone not to do something. When my keyboard player started slowing down the tempo a little, I said "Oh, my goodness, he's begging!" I never heard him do that before. So I had to go and beg for him. "Emotionally Yours" is just a surrender: "I always will be emotionally yours. No matter what happens, he will come. Do anything you want to do with me." I said, "Oh, you sneaky little rascal, you!" I never knew he could feel like that. He made me find it out by myself. He won't tell it to me on his recordings. I had to go to bed with these songs to find out what these songs are about. But I am telling you, if I ever do get this little rascal in a room alone, I'm going to say, "Do you know what I know about you?" But that was all I could do. The songs had to belong to me. I don't tributize anyone. This is my 57th year in show business, and I don't cover nothing. If you cover stuff ... I don't know why you would cover stuff.
"The songs had to belong to me. I don't tributize anyone. This is my 57th year in show business, and I don't cover nothing."
So you don't consider what you do to be covering songs?
Oh, no. No, no. Pat Boone covered songs. That's when they count it off and you just start singing. The reason I had to get to know these songs is because I take all of the songs personally. It's like I'm in bed with them, and you can't tell me who to make love to, so you can't choose my songs for me. You can't tell me how to make love to them.
I don't ever try to say I wrote or co-write or added anything, I don't think of myself in term of writing. I'm not a writer by any means. But sometimes I spend hours just making the song cohesive. All I can do is edit and redirect songs. I never have the idea. But If I'm going to present myself with the songs, I am not going to look foolish and I'm not going to chose songs that make me look foolish. It's like with my clothes: Something might be absolutely in style, but if we tweak it a little bit so it fits somebody that's five foot four and only weighs 120 pounds, it'll be exactly like it was made for me.
Was your approach to this record any different than how you normally go about making an album?
I just took it as I do all the others. They're just songs. If Mahalia Jackson had sung them, they'd be gospel. If Led Zeppelin had sung them, they'd be rock. But it was going to be me, and I'm a song interpreter. That means it's more about me, so it was kind of like going into a room alone. But when I came out, I was pleased with what I had discovered.
You changed up some references on "Seeing the Real You at Last." Where Dylan sang, "You could ride like Annie Oakley/You could shoot like Belle Star," you sing, "You could sing like Otis Redding/You could dance like Bruno Mars."
Oh, absolutely. I thought, only 20 percent of the public remembers Belle Star. I really like the little Bruno Mars person. I just think he's cute as a button and I like the way he puts his show together. I think that James Brown would've liked him. He would never have told him, but he would have liked it. I haven't heard anything bad about Bruno so far, and I hope that I don't. And of course you don't do much better than Otis Redding.
Your rendition of "Mama You Been on My Mind" is really striking. There's none of the folksy innocence that's in Dylan's rendition. It's much more lived-in and haunted.
I'm glad you noticed that. My mother drank at least a pint of Smirnoff vodka every day until she was 91. And she'd be here drinking with me today if she hadn't fallen and broken her hip. Up until then, she had no ailments, nothing. But as I drink and grow older, when I look into the mirror I see her standing right next to me. I look so much like her every day. So when I saw that line about the mirror, I just broke down crying. Larry Campbell had explained to me that the song was about a woman Bob had spent a night with or something. But me and my mom, we used to live on a flat and the sun used to set on our porch, like in the song, and my mother would sit with me and teach me all kinds of funny songs when we first came to Detroit.
When you sing that song, you're singing it to your mother. It's hard to imagine making someone else's song more personal.
Oh, yeah. I got so involved. I don't know how much you've listened to it but at one point I sang, "When you wake up in the morning, mom." I didn't mean to say that. I just meant to sing "When you wake up in the morning." "Mom" was involuntary. I really didn't know I was going to say that, because that's what I called my mother: mom. Realizing I had said that involuntarily made me start to cry. Steve [Jordan] was not letting me take that off. I wanted to do it over, because my voiced started to crack after I said "Mom." You cannot sing and cry. I said, "Stevie, that sounds horrible!" They all said, "No, you can't change anything." I said, "My God." Bob never blows his nose and sniffles through his songs.
You were talking before about your role as an editor of sorts of these songs. You cut a bunch of verses out of "Ain't Talkin" right?
Yeah, I cut about 17. I think we have seven left. I wanted "Ain't Talkin" to be sassy.
Was that the song you had to edit down the most?
Yes. I thought, if you ain't talkin, shut up! I mean, how are you going to say "I ain't saying nothing," and then keep saying it 84 times. Shut up if you ain't talkin! You have to walk it. I found myself doing this all the time, arguing with him like that by myself. I'd be like, "I'm taking this out. You just said that two walkins and talkins ago!" I really believe that if I knew him, I don't know how much he would let me know him, but that would be the kind of relationship we'd have: "Bob, why are you doing that?"
So many people talk about Bob as a capital-P poet. I've heard you say he's not a poet so much as a practical writer. What do you mean by that?
I pretty much said it before. He writes these vignettes. He writes arguments. He writes grievances. He doesn't write any love stories. It's not, "We met, we kissed, it wound up like this." With Bob, it always winds up badly, even if they did meet and kiss. And so he doesn't write poetry, he writes prose, and by that I mean that it's always logical or practical. It's "I've given you all the ins and outs and I've done nothing but make you sad, so why don't you go on and leave?" There's no poetry in that. That's the logic and practicality of it: "Why don't you leave, because I've already said I don't want you."
I guess that is sort of the premise for half of Bob Dylan's songs.
Yeah! And I like that, because that's really how I speak to people. But I don't do it in 27 verses. I can do it in a verse. But that's what I mean about that. He is really not a poet, as far as I'm concerned, unless you're just talking about the fact that he makes things rhyme.
Are there any other Dylan covers that you like?
I do like Clarence Paul and Stevie Wonder doing "Blowin' in the Wind." I was also in love with Clarence Paul at the time. I also like Ricky Crawford singing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." I really haven't heard a lot of the covers of his tunes. But do remember, and you must mention this in your writing, these are not covers.
I'm going to make that very clear.
You can title the piece "These Are Not Covers."