Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
To be a truly great interpreter one must have experience. One needs the ability to bring one’s own trials and triumphs to the table in order to embody the material encountered. Bettye Lavette has spent nearly 50 years recording other people’s songs and has enjoyed both Billboard and critical success. She’s also survived the music industries' insults, including broken promises and lost opportunities. Lavette’s voice is a singular thing; no one matches her style, her phrasing, her pitch and timbre. When Bettye Lavette takes on a song she makes it her own, singing with such conviction you know that it comes from her core. With Interpretations: The British Songbook Lavette tackles 13 classic British rock songs, transforming them into rich soul ballads.
The concept for Interpretations: The British Songbook germinated when Lavette was asked to performance Pete Townsend’s “Love Reign Over Me” during a performance at the Kennedy Center Honors. Lavette, who had played with the idea of recording a Beatles cover record, expanded that vision to include a number of British rock writers. Lavette explained that the songs were so different from her own material that these songs became fascinating to her. Because she was not familiar with the original material she was free to interpret them without concern toward mimicry.
Many of Lavette’s choices are surprising. Her one Beatle cover is “The Word.” You’ll be hard pressed to recognize it as the poppy number that appeared on Rubber Soul. Lavette takes on three Beatle members as singular artists, covering McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,”and Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.” Most surprising is her choice of Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” bringing gravitas to a song by the one Beatles not known for his songwriting.
Lavette occasionally alters lyrics in order to make them work for her vision. On Jagger and Richard’s “Salt of the Earth” she converts “strange beauty show” to “reality show,” and on Pink Floyd's “Wish You Were Here” a reference to “polio” is updated to “HIV.” But it isn’t language that is transformed on the Moody Blues'“Nights in White Satin” or Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” The tempo changes but, more so, it is the spirit of the song that morphs. Lavette injects all those years of struggle into these songs, taking them to a level I doubt imagined by the composers.
Lavette, who is known for her headstrong ways, works with an arranger, something she rarely does. Rob Mathes carefully noted what Lavette was after and worked his arrangements around her style. As Lavette headed into the studio she warned her musicians to put the original songs out of there head. These songs were hers now so play in the moment. No questions she’s accomplished what she set out to do. These songs are now uniquely hers.