Say you were frozen in carbonite in 1977. If you were an avid music listener with open ears, you might know Lenny Kaye as Patti Smith‘s guitarist, a fixture of the downtown New York rock scene, and Jessi Colter as an important player in country music’s highly influential Outlaw movement. There wasn’t much overlap between the avant rocker community and the Outlaws, and the two factions were known more for rabble rousing than religious devotion, so upon waking from your artificially induced slumber four decades later, you might be surprised to find that these two had teamed up to record an album drawn from a biblical source, The Psalms.
But maybe the connection is not as surprising as it first seems. Kaye sees a kinship between his efforts in New York and those of the Outlaws, despite the geographical and sonic distance separating the two scenes. Both, he says, were organized around principles of “keep[ing] the music real and responsive to its roots.”
And it’s not illogical that Colter and Kaye, interested in lyrics and language and songwriting, might light on The Psalms. “I’ve studied many of the great poets, and I love things about some of the great writings,” Colter declares. “But there’s nothing like these.”
One-hundred and fifty psalms — many of them short and relatively accessible, with song-like refrains — make up one book of the Bible. They are often credited to David, the shepherd who famously knocks off the giant Goliath and later becomes king of Israel.
To the extent that you are acquainted with music sung in churches, Colter’s The Psalms is unlikely to remind you of gospel or hymns. The tunes center around her off-the-cuff piano chords and first-pass vocals. Kaye arranges other instruments to add a spare filigree, but the whole thing is more ragtag, improvised jam than swelling Sunday sermon.
Though Colter’s mother was a preacher, she didn’t devote herself intently to The Psalms until more recently. “I didn’t fall in love with them until Waylon [Jennings, her second husband] made his crossing [died],” she tells Billboard. “I’m here to tell you: You don’t need a psychic or a psychiatrist — listen to The Psalms. These will catch you where you are and take you where you oughta be.”
Before encountering Colter, Kaye’s connection to with psalms was casual. “I’m more spiritual than religious,” he explains. “But I was raised Jewish so I have an affinity for the traditions of the Old Testament. The Psalms always seemed to me the most beautiful book of the Bible.”
Kaye has an extensive background as a journalist and writer of liner notes, and it was this line of activity that brought him into contact with Colter: he landed a job helping Jennings pen an autobiography and then joined the singer and his family on tour. “The first time I saw Lenny, he climbed out of the bunk with those long legs and sat down across from Waylon at the table and was very quiet,” Colter remembers.
As Kaye writes in the liner notes for the new album, it was while working on Jennings’ book in 1995 that he stumbled upon Colter as she toyed with psalms. “Until I saw Jessie at the piano singing away in full illumination of these great poems, I didn’t think of them at all,” he says. “To see her create these on the spot was a marvelous wonder.”
The memory stayed with him, and when Colter came to New York years later to record her 2006 album, Out Of The Ashes, Kaye proposed a new project. “I told her there was a record I always wished I could hear, which was The Psalms,” he recalls. “And so it came to pass.”
He attempted to replicate the original set-up: Colter at a piano, as few takes as possible, no rehearsal, little planning ahead. (Though Kenneth LaFave helped pre-compose psalm 23.) “Doing these impromptu was hard for me,” Colter says. “I didn’t think it sounded very good. [Lenny] kind of encouraged it out of me, which a really great producer can do.”
The core of The Psalms — Colter’s piano and vocals — was laid down over a weekend in 2007 and another in 2008. “And then he made me wait ten years!” Colter jokes.
During that time, Kaye chipped away at two tasks. The first was to convene meetings with Sony, which eventually released the record through its Legacy division. The second was to add musical elements that complemented Colter: a bass played in the cello register on psalm 114, a rat-a-tat drum pulse on 24, additional vocals on 136. “I didn’t want to get a band in there to bang away,” Kaye says. “I wanted each to retain the intimacy and sense of improvisation. Sometimes there were a couple years when I didn’t do anything on it.”
He often pulled musicians into the studio that he heard during nights out in lower Manhattan: John Jackson, who plays mandolin on three psalms, the drummer Bobby Previte, who contributes percussion at several points, and the three singers in Black Sea Hotel, who add backing vocals to 21.
Kaye has no regrets about the piecemeal approach. “There was nothing I would change,” he says. “No ‘if only I could have this instrument on there.’ That’s one of the beauties about going into something without any preconception or expectation.”
“When I meet David the Psalmist in the next life, I’m curious to say, ‘David, I want to hear how you did these,'” Colter adds. “I’m sure he will laugh and say, ‘for an Arizona girl, you did ok.'”