Jessi Colter and Lenny Kaye perform "PSALM 75 Unto Thee" from "The Psalms"
One of rock music's greats, Lenny Kaye is best-known as Patti Smith's longtime guitarist. But deeper genre fans appreciate him for compiling the celebrated '60s garage rock anthology Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965–1968, not to mention his collaborations as player or producer for the likes of Suzanne Vega, Jim Carroll, Soul Asylum, Kristen Hersh and Allen Ginsberg.
Kaye also co-authored with the late Waylon Jennings Waylon: An Autobiography, and most recently completed The Psalms, a decade-long album project with Jennings' wife and musical collaborator Jessi Colter. As the title suggests, the album, released in March by Legacy Recordings, is made up of lyrics taken from the Bible's Book of Psalms, spontaneously put to music some 10 years ago by Colter and later embellished, sparingly and with greatest taste, by Kaye.
It is Colter's first new album of studio music since Out of the Ashes in 2006.
"It kind of wended its way through a lot of years," says Kaye. "I didn’t quite know what to do with it, to be honest."
The core tracks for The Psalms had Colter, piano and voice, and Kaye, electric and acoustic guitar. They were recorded at Dubway Studios in Manhattan during two two-day sessions a year apart in February, 2007, and January, 2008.
"That was it," relates Kay. "She came in one weekend in 2007 for two afternoons, and at the end we had seven tracks, and after another weekend in 2008 we had another five. I knew that what we had with her singing on the piano was so special, that it just needed a little personality added to each track. But I didn't want to go the predictable route with standard instrumentation and the normal other stuff. It just took a while to all come into place."
Kaye provided the needed "personality" by bringing in artists including Bobby Previte (drums, cymbals, tympani, triangle), Al Kooper (Hammond organ), Paul Dugan (bowed double bass), Mia Theodoratus (harp), John Jackson (mandolin, violin), Jenni Muldaur (background vocals), Jesse Lauter (mellotron), and Black Sea Hotel ( background vocalists Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Shelley Thomas).
"It was all done in the same magical way that the original sessions were," continues Kaye. "Everyone saw the light that the tracks had within them and just brightened it up a little bit with their creativity."
Otherwise the original sessions were barely touched, says Kaye.
"What you hear is what they are—completely live," he says. "Maybe there was one edit between a couple takes. It was all spontaneous and improvised and of the moment—and so perfect."
He cites third track " PSALM 114 And the Mountains Skip Like Rams" "especially, with its long piano introduction: She just played on the piano until she was ready to sing."
Colter "asked over the years to redo the vocals," adds Kaye, "and I said, no, it sounds perfect. You can hear the movement of [artistic] creation when you listen, and I don't exaggerate: We didn't rehearse or choose any songs before we got there the first day, and maybe there were two takes sometimes, but that was pretty much it."
In his liner notes to The Psalms, Kaye recalls working with Jennings on his autobiography in Nashville in 1995 and coming into the living room to find Colter at the piano singing the Psalms: "She would place her fingers on the keys, forming simple chords and expressing melodies as they came to her. There was no forethought, no conception of composition; only the intuitive expression of the spirituality behind these most ancient of sacred poems, the divinity they wellspring within each of us.
"I listened transfixed while she paged through the Old Testament, choosing each Psalm, finding within them the emotive voice of the Shepherd Boy, the Warrior, ultimately the King that is David. It was one of the most beautiful expressions of belief I had ever witnessed."
Some years later—after Jennings' passing—Kaye told Colter how he'd love an album of her singing the Psalms, and in 2006, having secured a studio with a good piano, they commenced recording it without rehearsal.
"It was just how I saw it that day in the living room," says Kaye. "The spirit entered and we let the spirit guide her."
The songs, he adds, "didn't exist before that moment—except maybe for 'PSALM 23 The Lord is My Shelpherd,' which Jessi wrote with Kenneth LaFave after I suggested the idea. She would go and write songs using phrases from the Psalms, yet to me it sounded like real religious music as it appeared to her on a page as she sang it. Everything grew within her, and it was amazing as the tracks built to see them take on an organic structure of their own."
Kaye, who composed two of the tracks on The Psalms and collaborated with Colter on another, chose to keep the spotlight on Colter rather than add "a bunch of guitar parts or roster of superstars." As he relates in his liner notes, she would sit behind the keyboard, gather herself, and then begin to sing, sometimes with his guitar accompaniment. In the ensuing years he "decorated" the tracks with his chosen musicians, taking utmost care not to disturb their intimacy or inspiration.
"I wanted it stark and minimal to keep it personal, the way I heard it the first time," he says. "It's the kind of personal music you can have sitting one-on-one with your instrument and playing in the present—and I've never got tired listening to the record, even though it's done and you know it inside-out and don't have to listen to it again until you come across it 10 years later."
Kaye loves that The Psalms "speaks to the positive energy of this world--at a time that the world so desperately needs illumination to rise us to what really matters as the heightened creatures we aspire to be given the miracle that is life."
He approached the project, he says, "non-denominationally."
"Yes, it's from the Old Testament, but it speaks to all religions, creeds, spirituality," says Kaye. "I was raised Jewish with its traditions and ceremonies, but I love all religions—they all speak to the same source, and to see someone like Jessi put it into action is really a remarkable thing."
"I don’t hesitate to say this is one of the most beautiful records I've ever had the privilege of being a part of," Kaye concludes. "And it was so beautiful of Legacy to put it out and treat it with the respect it deserves, and allow us to spread it amongst the people."
"I consider it a true blessing in my life."
Meanwhile, Colter's autobiography An Outlaw and a Lady: A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and the Faith that Brought Me Home was released last month by Nelson Books.