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Bettye LaVette's new album is brimming with soulful confidence


BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) Don't even get me started. Don't, 'cause you know I can't stop.


That's the unmistakable, seasoned, sultry, outlaw voice of Bettye LaVette. Her new album "LaVette!" is out now, and at 77, it feels like the soul singer is just getting started.

LAVETTE: Stop yourself.

RASCOE: (Laughter) The album is LaVette's 12th and features lots of big stars - Ray Parker Jr., John Mayer and more. It's also her third collaboration with producer Steve Jordan. Bettye LaVette joins us now from West Orange, N.J. Welcome to the show.

LAVETTE: Thank you so much for having me. How is everything?

RASCOE: Oh, it is good. It's so good to be talking to you.

LAVETTE: Thank you. It's good to be talked to.


RASCOE: So this album - I feel like it's so bluesy, so funky, so just - you just laying it all out there.


LAVETTE: (Singing) ...Always seem to stay the same. You can love anybody you want. I'm...

RASCOE: Like, is that what you wanted to bring with this project, this confidence, or does that always just come naturally with you?

LAVETTE: The confidence part does now. This is my 62nd year.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, but you were kind of born into this, right? Your parents ran a nightclub out of their home. Like, what was that like?

LAVETTE: This was western Michigan - Muskegon, Mich. Everybody was from Louisiana, everybody was Black, and - in Muskegon Heights. And they could not go anywhere but to my house. There was a jukebox in the living room, and it had all of my father's favorite blues tunes on it and gospel tunes, all my mother's pop tunes and country-western tunes and all of my teenage sister's contemporary tunes.

RASCOE: They didn't have any place else to go - was that because of segregation, or they just...

LAVETTE: Because of segregation, of course.


LAVETTE: (Singing) Sooner or later, we're going to open our eyes. Sooner or later, we're going to run out of our lies. Sooner or later, it'll be uncovered. Sooner or later, it's going to be our turn.

RASCOE: I know you've had a career with lots of - you've said you've had lots of ups and downs, and I think you said your career has, you know, started and stopped about six - you know, six times. But...

LAVETTE: Yeah, this is my fifth career.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Your fifth career.


RASCOE: But tell me a little bit about, like, how that has been for you - you know, starting in the '60s and all of these kind of twists and turns?

LAVETTE: I always likened my career to Tina's career. I mean, you would see them on "Ed Sullivan," then you wouldn't hear from them for four or five years (laughter), then you would see them on "Carol Burnett" and you wouldn't hear from them for - and her career went just like mine for different reasons. But...

RASCOE: And that's Tina Turner, of course. Everybody should know...

LAVETTE: Oh, yes, yes.

RASCOE: ...But just in case they - if there's somebody who lived under a rock and didn't know, I just got to say it.

LAVETTE: Stop yourself, darling.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LAVETTE: You should have seen me the night she won her first Grammy. I was - my nose was running. I was - I felt like it was happening to me. It's so funny, we were in one of the nominations, when I went out to the Grammys, and a little child that won was sitting kind of in front of us. And he said, it's about time. We've been doing this for 10 years. I said, oh (laughter), oh, have you now?

RASCOE: So you said, they don't know. They don't know about waiting. You know, talking about this album, "LaVette!," a lot of these songs - they sound so deeply personal. I'm thinking about "Concrete Mind."


LAVETTE: (Singing) Can you reach me when I'm sinking on my own solid ground? Can you find me when I don't want to be found?

RASCOE: You don't sound like someone who is to be trifled with, to be played with. But is it hard to perform a song where you have to be a little bit more vulnerable?

LAVETTE: Hey, it's what I do, and that's the way I draw my people into my show.


LAVETTE: (Singing) Looking for someone to cling to...

I'm very particularly glad about this album because it allows for some comedy, the way I feel about it. And the songs on this, like "Lazy" and...


LAVETTE: ..."Hard To Be A Human" and "Plan B" - they're actually funny to me.

RASCOE: (Laughter).


LAVETTE: (Singing) One time I had a day job. It didn't thrill me. They put me on this desk job. Child, that likely kill me.

RASCOE: Well, I want to talk to you about "Lazy" because the person in the song is not really lazy. It's just that they don't want to do, like, a desk job. I feel like that's kind of deep though, too, right?

LAVETTE: See, that was what made the song funny to me. It - really, I took it out of the list 12 times and put it back.

RASCOE: (Laughter).


RASCOE: Why'd you take it out?

LAVETTE: ...I put it - listen, I will be very frank with you and tell you that I took it out - every time I took it out was because people always want to associate Blacks with laziness, although we work harder than anybody in the world, but - and have worked. But what I did, what made me want to do the tune was I associated it with spoiled. I am not lazy but am definitely spoiled. But I'm willing...

RASCOE: (Laughter) As you should be.

LAVETTE: ...I'm willing to work for it. But I've got used to when I get through working, you giving me everything you have and everything I wanted.


RASCOE: Well, you deserve that. You deserve that.


LAVETTE: (Singing) Day job for three months. Closed for the night. Catch me in a nightclub at closing time.

RASCOE: This album also has a lot of collaboration. I want to ask you what it was like working with people like John Mayer, one of my favorites, Anthony Hamilton, you know, Ray Parker, Jr. - what was it like working with these - some of these artists?

LAVETTE: Well, unfortunately, we did a lot of it through technology, so some of them I did not meet. Really, I mean, it's - I've done this for 62 years now, and I was flattered - for feelings, that would be how I felt - I was so flattered that these young people wanted to help an old lady across the street (laughter).

RASCOE: No, no (laughter). You know, the album closes, though, on a song, "It's Alright," and that song seems more serious.


LAVETTE: (Singing) It's all right - the tears you've been crying. It's all right, 'cause I'm crying too. It's all right - this world full of promises. It's all right...

RASCOE: This song - it's sad, but also it feels like it's about loss, but also perseverance and hope. Is there a reason why you chose this as the last song of the album?

LAVETTE: Well, I don't know why you chose to do this interview with me because you seem to have got the entire thing.


LAVETTE: (Singing) Don't you remember a time that was clear, when the sky was singing...

I only record everything twice - one for me and one for my producer. I had to come back to the studio to record this because the first recording, you could not understand a word was saying, I was crying so much. This song - oof, maybe they'll find me when I'm all broken down.

RASCOE: What is it that connects to you so much? Or is it that you've been there before?

LAVETTE: I've been there. I mean, it's like, they have not found me yet. Maybe they'll find me when I'm completely broken down. Maybe they will finally find me when I'm all broken down, and they've just washed away all my dreams. And I'm just trying to get out of town and hide somewhere.

RASCOE: That's the one and only Bettye LaVette.

LAVETTE: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Her new album, "LaVette!," is out now. Thank you so much.

LAVETTE: Ayesha, you are just a joy to talk to.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LAVETTE: Thank you so much for spending some of this time with me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.