Steve Jordan, who produced and played drums on the album, heard LaVette’s performance of “Blackbird” from the Hollywood Bowl and got goose bumps. “A lot of people don’t realize Paul McCartney wrote this song about the civil rights movement and now you have an African-American woman who lived through the civil rights movement, so you’re getting a taste of what the song was really about,” he said.
LaVette’s albums over the past 15 years have often been thematic. There are LPs of songs by female writers, British Invasion hits, Bob Dylan covers, and a disc recorded at the Southern soul incubator FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with the Drive-by Truckers. She admits that she doesn’t even listen to much music these days, and relies heavily on her husband, who’s both a musician and a record collector, to catalog songs she might one day like to sing.
“I’ll call her in and say, ‘Listen to this song,’” said Kiley. “If the bit she hears makes sense, we’ll put it in a folder. I’ve got folders of George Jones songs, Beatles songs, country songs, just tons of them.”
For LaVette, liking a song isn’t the most important metric. “I have to find me in it somewhere,” she said. “I’m such an arrogant singer. When I hear your song, if I like it, I don’t even hear you anymore. I hear how I’m going to sing it.”
Once LaVette chooses a song, she’s all in. “She doesn’t take on anything she can’t fully own,” said Joe Henry, who has produced two of LaVette’s albums. “And thus, there’s a really intense intimacy that her albums offer.”
At her best, she manages to recast a song in a way that often changes its meaning or at least shades it differently. When Nina Simone sang “I Hold No Grudge,” her target was an ex-lover, but when LaVette opens “Blackbirds” with the song, the source of her deep well of hurt is different.