Bettye LaVette Talks Re-Imagining Bob Dylan Tunes (INTERVIEW)

Dylan covers or interpretations as Bettye LaVette prefers to call them, make up an outsized part of the roots music genre. Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead and Flatt & Scruggs have each recorded more than a dozen Dylan songs over the years and countless other artists of similar stature have given at least one a try on tour or on an album.

LaVette, a 72-year-old R&B stalwart who’s enjoyed tremendous critical praise over the last decade and a half for her interpretations of a wide array of songs, recorded a dozen Dylan tunes of her own for her first outing with her new label, Verve. It stands out for a few reasons, not the least of which are two Grammy nominations for her work. Things Have Changed is a collection of mostly lesser known Dylan songs completely transformed by a woman with a singular mind and a memorable voice.

“The Times They Are a-Changin,’” by far the most well-known track on the album, becomes a brisk blues song. “What Was It You Wanted” features Trombone Shorty and a retro seductive feel. “Going, Going, Gone” becomes a wistful country song and “Emotionally Yours” a stunning Americana ballad. And nothing is quite as dazzling as the haunting vocals and string quartet accompaniment on “Ain’t Talkin.’” And Bettye’s take on “Don’t Fall Apart on me Tonight” comes from a place of pure desperation.

A note about this interview: I host a radio show on Long Island, and the interviews I share on Glide’s website are all modified from recordings I made to be aired. Usually, I’ll cut my introductions for the artist, notes about which songs just played between questions, and conversations about upcoming local shows from my print version of the interview. In this case, I included some of those elements for clarity and content. Bettye’s reaction to my on-air introduction and our discussion of an upcoming Long Island performance were some of the most interesting parts of our conversation. That includes her toying around with the idea of play, documentary or movie based on her autobiography.

Bettye LaVette’s interpretation of Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight is currently nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B performance. It’s just one of the 12 Bob Dylan songs of her latest album, Things Have Changed, which is also nominated for Best Americana Album.

Thank you so much for being here with me today. You were saying about the nomination; that’s the first time I’ve heard it said. It sounded wonderful!

Well, I mean we read it, and we’ve discussed it in family, but that’s the first time I’ve heard it said.

I’m glad I could say it for you! What does all this critical acclaim you’ve been receiving in the 5th and 6th decades of your career mean to you?

Well if the other four or five had been successful it would really just be another thing. Now, it’s probably more of a relief than anything else. I’m far beyond being excited.

This will be the fourth Grammy ceremony where you’re nominated. So take me through how the day of the Grammy Awards goes for you.

Oh, it all depends on what I’ve got to do that day. If I’m going, then the whole day will be completely different. If I’m not going, there’s nothing set aside other than I’m constantly waiting for the announcements. One time we had a party, one time we didn’t; one time we slept through it, one time we didn’t.

So you’re not sure if you’re going to go yet?  

No, not yet.

Let’s chat about the album. And in terms of when you’re about to take on this project, I’m just wondering what you’re thinking because people have these wildly different opinions on Dylan. I know people at the station who consider his songs almost like a religious text. And then he won the Nobel Prize. But I also know quite a few other people who don’t even really like him. They might like his songs but not necessarily listening to him. So were you nervous to dive into this storied songbook or excited —

Trevor, this is my 57th year! I am 72 years old! No, I wasn’t nervous for anything. I was very, very excited at this point, this late date to have a new record contract. You know I’m the oldest person in show business with a new record contract. So I was extremely excited about that. But above and beyond that, they’re songs and I sing. So it was a natural match. (Laughter) But with that said, I think I probably felt a little more apprehensive the first time that I was doing them live because I didn’t know how this — you called it just right, this church type group —  I knew they were coming to investigate me and I didn’t know how it was going to be received. But just in terms of singing the songs, I’m a singer.

I feel like Bob Dylan is one of the best people to sing a song by because one, he writes great songs and two, his performances are relatively non-emotional.

You’re absolutely right. For a song interpreters such as myself, it just leaves all the room in the world because he only gives you words. He doesn’t give you any other notions. So it just gives you free rein to do whatever you feel or whatever the words inspire you to do. And that was what happened with these songs. My husband listened to about a hundred of them and narrowed them down to about 50. And I listened to the 50 narrowed it down to 12.

You call yourself a song interpreter. Would you mind explaining what how that’s different from a cover artist?

Oh sure. I think that ‘cover’ is a word that only came out with the with the invention of records. And I sing songs. You can only cover records say like Pat Boone did. I don’t think people think when they lightly throw away the cover, about the great song interpreters we’ve had that they do not write their own songs. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Barbara Streisand, Ray Charles; they’re song interpreters and they sing everybody’s songs. I don’t know anybody songs that Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra didn’t record, from little Stevie Wonder to the Beatles to whatever. And I purposely said little Stevie Wonder because when Ray did one of Stevie’s tunes, Stevie was still just a kid.

What I compare it to is when you’re making a movie. You may have a screenplay and that’s great, but you need a director and an actress to bring it to life and that’s where the interpretation lives.

Yes absolutely. Except in my case, it does not live anywhere close to acting. I could never act because it entails pretending to actually be somebody else. when I joke that I’m interpreting what somebody else wrote but I’m saying how I feel about it. But to actually say how Mary feels about or how George feels about it, that takes a great deal more talent than I have. I really really admire actors.

We’re back with Bettye LaVette. I just played two versions of the same song in a row. First, Bob Dylan singing “Ain’t Talkin’” and then your version which is this searingly intense performance with just a string quartet. So can you explain what you heard in the original that made you draw out those different elements in the song.

Well just walking at night in a garden with dripping flowers was spooky to me. And when I asked the girls when they came into play the string parts, well, first of all they were very surprised because I said all I want is some kind of a cappella strings. And then I said I want you to play and I want you to have the attitude of being naked banshees running through the woods that night playing your violins. And they assumed that attitude.

That’s like what I was saying about the director thing before. That was one hell of a direction, Bettye. (Laughter)

Now the song, it’s very spooky. He did not sing it that way. But again, I interpreted what he said, not the way he said it. And that was like some of the other ones when I talk about how emotionless he is, but really if somebody is holding a gun and getting ready to shoot you, they don’t really to put a lot of passion into it to get you to understand. That’s what he does. He says the most terse things, like in “It Ain’t Me Babe.” That’s the only one that I did twice. Because I don’t like to record anything twice. But we did it twice because we did it and went home for the day. And I listened to it and I said ‘now he’s telling somebody to go and jump off of a ledge.’ So we came back into the studio the next day, and we put it on the way we recorded it. I said Steve, skip with me. And he said ‘yes, you can skip to this.’ And you aren’t are supposed to tell people to jump off a ledge and then skip away. So we did it again.

You made quite a few changes to the lyrics and most of them to me felt rather natural if you’re changing this from a Bob Dylan song to a Bettye LaVette song, you know with references and gender, but you absolutely took me by surprise with a couple changes when you added expletives and some rather strong ones —

Well, it was me talking; it wasn’t him. And I cuss. He leads more into cussing than anyone else because he’s usually saying something insulting or fussing about something. If I’m insulting you or if I’m arguing with you, I’m probably going to cuss. And that is me saying it. So I’m not saying that he said it or that he implied it. I’m telling you that’s what I said.

A big part of the reason why you’re joining me on air is because you’re doing two shows in the New York area to close out the year I’ll be at my father’s place and Roslyn on Sunday the 30th and you’ll be ringing in the New Year at the Iridium in New York City.

I think it will be two different kinds of shows because you know we’re trying to put —well, we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We’ve been trying a few things because of the book [2012’s A Woman Like Me] we’ve been trying to think in terms of a documentary and then we started thinking in terms of a play where I would just come out and talk and sing through the entire book. And so the duo show that I’m doing contains some of the tunes from the latest CD, but it’s more of covering the things that I’ve done over the past 57 years all the way from the very first rhythm and blues song that I learned to the ones that I just recorded. So if it’s the duo show is a different kind of a thing, it’s more of a personal thing, and I think the one in Long Island will be a duo show.

I think that any of those ideas would work really well if it had a lot of your singing in it.

I tried to imagine them and I can’t. Because it’s my life it’s hard to imagine it being acted out. actual magic.

I mean just knowing what I know about you but not knowing the book, I feel like something live would be the most natural fit.

Well as I said, we put this duo together to see just how the conversation and songs would work. And then the next thing I know, people were calling in requesting it and I wound up with 25 or 30 dates. We only had about four or five, but we would end up with 25 or 30 them by the end of the year.

Well, then I think you might have your answer.

Well, they haven’t seen a movie, or anything else. They’re just seeing one thing and it’s because I think it’s so personal, they like it. I’m just telling stories about the songs and how they came to be, more or less like the conversation you and have just had.

And if you think about it you could do a documentary that’s primarily the show and just add in some scenes that are away from the show. Or even using your narration in the show as a voice over.

That’s a good idea! And we can call you in to be the director?

I don’t know, I’m a little under experienced. (Laughing)

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