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Bettye LaVette

Breaking the Rules for ‘Worthy’

“I’ve worked as a producer with a lot of legacy artists—people who have enough history and mean enough to us as listeners, whether that’s Solomon Burke or Harry Belafonte or Allen Toussaint or Mavis Staples—and it’s important to know how to honor the artist’s legacy but not be trapped by it,” says Joe Henry, discussing his latest production of Bettye LaVette.

“Bettye is a soul and blues singer. That’s her origin. That’s her point of departure, but from there forward, we listen to where we are today, articulating the song, and we’ll know when it’s coming alive. That’s really the point: When does the song begin to feel like a living thing?”

LaVette’s new album, Worthy, is the second full-length that she’s recorded with Henry (but the first she has made in his studio, Garfield House, South Pasadena, Calif.). A comfort level between artist and producer was established when they made I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005.

“She doesn’t want to sing anything that she can’t embody in some way as her own biography. It has to be in alignment with her true story,” Henry says. “Another thing I’ve learned from pitching songs to her is, if a song has already been interpreted in a way that she might wade into it, she bats it away. She says, ‘Don’t worry about finding me a soul or a blues tune. I’ll take it there myself.’”

Henry consulted with LaVette and her husband, musician/DJ Kevin Kiley, to choose material for Worthy, which includes songs written by Dylan, Beatles and Stones, Henry himself, and others—all of which LaVette interprets soulfully, with the help of some of Henry’s favorite musicians.

“One of the most significant things I do as a producer is cast the room with people who are going to bring incredible experience and imagination to bear,” Henry says. “Typically we would just stand in the middle of the room together, away from microphones, and somebody will start playing through the basic changes of whatever song is on the floor, and she just starts to sing.

“Everybody takes their direction from where she is feeling it—tempo-wise, mood-wise, phrasing—and very quickly, there would be a visceral template that we could all hear. We’d run through it once or twice, and then say, ‘Let’s do this in front of microphones.’ But we’re always recording if people are making music.”

Sessions were captured by Henry’s go-to engineer, Ryan Freeland. He and Henry have developed a system where Freeland’s racks of mic pre’s, compressors, Pro Tools rig, and converters are carted to Henry’s studio space before they begin a project. “Now I even bring my speakers,” Freeland says. “I just got these Barefoot MicroMain27s that make you want to take them wherever you go.”

Ryan Freeland mixed Worthy in his personal studio, Stampede Origin (Culver City, Calif.). Photo by Monica Freeland

During tracking, however, Freeland wears headphones in the main room, along with many of the musicians: guitarist Doyle Bramhall, bass player Chris Bruce, and keyboardist Patrick Warren. Jay Bellerose and his kit were in a drum room, and LaVette sang live with the band in a vocal booth.

“I started her with a Neumann M 49 mic, side by side with an AEA A440 active ribbon, and had her sing into the middle of them so I’d get some of both,” Freeland explains. “Sometimes when I do this, I’ll blend the two, but in Bettye’s case it was all just the ribbon. That mic is my perfect world of both vintage and modern; it sounds familiar, but it doesn’t sound old.”

LaVette’s vocal chain also includes a Neve 1272 pre, Summit TLA-100 compressor, and Freeland’s Apogee converters. “She redid a few vocals,” he recalls, “but almost all of it was live. A lot of the vibe on Joe’s records is the vibe of the players interacting.”

Some of that interaction involved Bramhall and Bruce occasionally switching instruments with each other when that felt right. “It’s funny because Doyle’s left-handed, but he just flips the guitar or the bass over and plays the right-handed instrument,” Freeland says.

Electric guitar was played through a mid-’60s Fender Princeton or a later-’50s Fender Tweed Deluxe. Henry says, “Those small amps record beautifully. They break up nicely at a decent volume.”

“I used my standard [Shure/Royer] 57/121 combo on guitar,” Freeland says. “Doyle sounded amazing. He will play blues licks that you’ve heard all your life, but he makes them totally unique.”

Freeland placed one pair of Royer 122s on the studio’s upright Steinway piano and another pair on the Leslie cabinet for Warren’s Hammond C3 with 145 Leslie.

“Patrick had just gotten a very beautiful Hammond organ,” Henry says. “But the first thing Bettye announces when she comes into the studio is, ‘I don’t want anything in waltz time, and I don’t want any organ.’”

“She said that the organ reminds her of church, and she didn’t want that,” Freeland says. “But Patrick kept creeping it in.”

“He was very stealth,” says Henry. “At one point, he was playing a sample of an organ through his computer rig, and it was a beautiful glue to what were doing in that moment, and she heard that it was coming together beautifully. Eventually, he said to me, ‘Can I just go to the real organ?’

“In the end, she sort of laughed at herself and at us for trying to sneak one past her. We really weren’t. It was there for everybody to hear, and Patrick was respectful of what she really meant when she said, ‘I don’t want to hear any organ.’ It meant she didn’t want to hear anything cliché. Once she heard that he was not trying to veil her in any kind of cliché treatment—that it was just another color on his palette—that rule went away.”