After pandemic pause, Bettye LaVette is back

Touring on her 2020 album 'Blackbirds' for the first time, the blues/soul singer talks about choosing songs to record and a new collab with Odesza before her gig at Thirty One West in Newark

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette is exhausted, and for good reason. On the afternoon we spoke, the 76-year-old soul singer had just wrapped up a four-night run at New York City jazz club the Blue Note, with two shows each night. The residency marked the kickoff of LaVette’s national tour, her first since the pandemic hit, and the quick turnaround of going from idle to full-throttle was giving her whiplash.

“Honey, my fingernails hurt,” LaVette said by phone earlier this week, laughing at her plight. “I'm entirely too old to be jerked around like that. Imagine if you grabbed your grandmother by her arm and just rushed out and started running down the street with her real fast. … But it's something I always wanted to do — pack the Blue Note. And I did.”

The rest of LaVette’s tour schedule, including a stop at Thirty One West in Newark, Ohio, on Friday, Feb. 18, should be easier to manage. And truth be told, LaVette was beyond ready to bring her legendary voice back to the stage. “I just don't need to be idle for a long time, because if I'm able to be functional and danceable and movable at this age, I need to keep doing it,” she said.

Plus, it’s LaVette’s first extended opportunity to perform material from her 2020 album, Blackbirds (Verve), a collection of songs inspired by some of the Black female singers who preceded her in the 1950s, with tracks made popular by Nina Simone (“I Hold No Grudge”), Dinah Washington (“Drinking Again”), Nancy Wilson (“Save Your Love for Me”), Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit”) and others. As always, LaVette fully inhabits the songs and makes them her own, her smoky voice lifting and breaking in all the right places.

LaVette is picky about the songs she chooses to interpret. “The lyrics, if they're funny, they have to be really funny. And if they're serious, they have to be absolutely serious, because I sing all of my words very distinctly and plainly,” she said. “I have to see myself in the song. ... There are some really good songs that I won't do because of some of the content. I never use the word ‘boy.’ I never use the 'you keep hurting me and I keep coming back’ [trope].” 

In the studio, LaVette envisions the entire song before the engineer hits record. She knows how she’ll sing every note, and once she gets it on tape, she’s ready to move on. “It never takes me more than four or five days to record an album. I never do more than three takes at most: one for me, one for the producer and one if anything should go wrong,” she said. “The way you sing a song is going to change in all kinds of little ways, but not that damn day! Learn it, come in and sing it and go home!” 

“Blackbird,” the Beatles tune that serves as the album’s title track, of sorts, is an outlier among other tunes from Black female singers. But LaVette has a special relationship to the song. “When I heard it, I felt that [Paul McCartney] was talking about me,” she said. “Then we started to put this concept together with these other Black female blues singers, and I felt he could be talking about us collectively.” 

“Strange Fruit,” on the other hand, took on added layers of meaning post-recording as racial justice protests spread across the country following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — events that LaVette said brought the song “into sharper focus.” She performed the song for the first time in June of last year as part of Jazz Aspen Snowmass in Colorado.  

“The first night we got a standing ovation for it,” said LaVette, who performed it with her band the next night for a wealthier crowd. “We finished doing the tune, and Joel, honey, there was not a sound. … I do not know whether it was a silent protest or an apology. I don't know what it was. But it was just weird. And no one spoke of it.” 

This month, one of LaVette’s older tunes — and her biggest hit to this day — gained a new life in a different form. Electronic duo Odesza sampled most of LaVette’s 1965 song “Let Me Down Easy” in its newly released song, “The Last Goodbye.”

More:Daily Distraction: Odesza turns Bettye LaVette's 'Let Me Down Easy' into 'The Last Goodbye'

“I have never been so stunned in my life,” said LaVette, who was surprised not only by Odesza’s interest, but also by how much of “Let Me Down Easy” made it into the final version of "The Last Goodbye.” To Odesza’s credit, the duo treated the single as a true collaboration. “They said, 'We'll give you half of it — half the publicity, half the money, everything,’” LaVette said. “I was so... not only pleased, but proud of them, being 50 years younger than me. We've only met on Zoom, but they seemed to be just the nicest guys. And they said, ‘We really want you to come onstage with us at some point.’”

Whether the onstage Odesza collab happens or not, LaVette is overjoyed to be playing music for audiences again, tired body and all. “Believe me, from the Rolling Stones to me, we are so glad to see y'all,” she said. “You're really a great part of what we do.”