Straight outta the gospel choir, the blues chanteuse’s voice rings loud and clear for His Name Is Alive.
During a recording session for His Name Is Alive, Lovetta Pippen sang a six-minute a cappella piece called “Amazing.” A year later, Warn Defever added some strings to the track for inclusion on the band’s Emergency album. Over the course of six minutes, pitch tends to vary. Amazingly, she was perfectly in tune the entire time.
“I’d say her and maybe John Brannon (Easy Action, Laughing Hyenas) are the best singers I’ve ever heard in my life,” he concludes with a wry smile, the kind he probably gave Cameron Crowe while telling the director his favorite movie was Batman. Or the one he wore while dozens of people scrambled screaming up the stairs of Detroit’s Majestic Theatre basement after he set off explosives during a noise installation/safety hazard appropriately named Fire Truck.
Defever quickly bookends making light of the bold statement with wide-eyed confidence. “When you’re in the roomm with them [Brannon and Pippen], there’s so much … heart. You feel like you’re with someone who’s an American treasure.”
You can hear his seriousness throughout every crook and cranny of Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth, the band’s latest album, released July 17 in the United States on 4AD/Beggar’s Banquet. Unlike previous HNIA albums where wispy ethereal vocals fit snugly between fuzz curtains, guitar static and zap buzzers, his latest work frames a single voice. the sparse R&B instrumentation is merely a backdrop that frames Pippen’s devastatingly soulful singing. Blues? Hell yeah.
Pippen has worked with Defever and His Name Is Alive for around six years, but in the past she was more of a featured guest. She sang in the gospel choir incorporated into 1996’s Stars on ESP and provide soul-crushing accents cascading throughout the folds of “Everything takes Forever” on Ft. Lake, released in 1998.
Even her speaking voice drips with raspy rhythm. I had to catch my breath when her husked hello drifted over the line during a recent phone interview, the very first solo interview the singer has ever done. She laughs, the kind of full-body blast that crinkles up at the ends, when I ask how she takes such compliments from the guitarist/creative force behind His Name Is Alive.
“Warn’s crazy. I take that as a compliment. But you know … Warn. He makes me laugh. I think he knows that I’m kind of hard on myself. If I do something and it’s not exactly how I want it to come out, you know, I’m sort of a perfectionist and he knows that. He’s like ‘Oh, no. It’s great.’ So I think it’s kind of a joke.”
The 22-year-old may speak modestly, but she sings with the confidence of a been-there-done-that blues chanteuse and a spark of spontaneity sewn from years of isolated obscurity. While growing up, Pippen’s mother and pastor father wouldn’t allow her or her siblings to listen to secular music. As an adult, she’s hearing centuries worth of sound with fresh ears.
“It was kind of overwhelming at first,” she admits. “Now, I’m kind of getting into the groove of things. But it makes me a little frustrated that I missed out in my younger years on so much. So much music I wasn’t allowed to hear. there are certain artists that I had never heard before. It just gives me an opportunity to see it from eyes that only certain people can see. Where I am right now, seeing certain things for the first time.”
The only exposure she had to popular music was through television.
“You know when they sell those records on TV? We knew all those songs. That was pretty much all we could get. Except I would hear kids singing different songs at school. It was sad, but, yeah. It’s like a whole new world.”
Like Defever, who learned to play music from his grandfather as a child before even hearing the radio, Pippen’s early exposure to music was through performance with her family.
“My parents kind of put me up to it. My father was a pastor. And we were his children. And we kind of had to help out with the duties of singing at the church. My mother taught us those songs—you know, “Jesus Loves Me”—all those songs. If your parent calls you up to sing, you’ve got to do a good job. The pressure’s on. So I guess when I was around 6 or something like that was when people started saying, ‘You have a nice voice.’ I started getting called up at church all the time. But my mother and my father were very musical people anyway. It was kind of just a normal thing, to sing. My father played the organ. My mother had a very lovely voice. It was just knd of the norm. It wasn’t anything special that we were singing. I think until people started going, ‘Let that little girl sing this Sunday. We wanna hear that little girl sing’—that’s when I started realizing, ‘Oh God, what have I gotten myself into?’ No, but that’s how it pretty much started. It went from there. From me singing at church for most of my life.”
As a child, singing brought her nothing but pleasure. As she got older, however, Pippen became more accountable.
“That’s where I think I get my attitude from in terms of me always wanting it to be perfect. Because my father was very demanding in terms of, that note wasn’t right or this note wasn’t right. Very constructive. He criticized all the time. It started off as a good thing and then when I started getting older, there was more and more pressure for me to put on this show at church. It was stressful. I’m serious. And you never knew when they were gonna call you. You might not be on the program. But someone just goes, ‘Come on up, Lovetta! Sing us that song!’ And you were like, ‘Oh … God.’
“There were two or three songs that peple just loved. And I had to sing those songs all the time because they wouldn’t dare hear anything else. One of the songs was ‘When I See Jesus,’ and I swear to God, I don’t ever want to hear that song again.”
Her sisters and brother still sing and play music. “It’s kind of hard to get out of something like that when you’re raised in that way.”
Meeting Defever, who has lived in the same Livonia, Michigan, home his entire life, which just happens to be less than a mile from the hospital where he was born, was a bit of a culture shock to say the least. He had hired her gospel choir to come to his home recording studio and sing some songs for Stars on ESP. The choir director was extremely strict and wouldn’t allow Defever or the male members of his band to speak with the female members of the choir. At one point Pippen snuck away while the director wasn’t looking and asked Defever if he believed in UFOs.
“Things seemed a little weird around here. And we started talking about aliens. I don’t know why I asked him about it. That’s one of my things. … It’s something that I think about. I think it just comes from me wanting to know that there’s something other than this. I think everyone has that hunger to know what happens after you die and all that. but it just seems so logical that there would be something other than this. It makes life more exciting to believe that. Because if you don’t believe in something other than this, then I don’t really know. It’s kind of a disappointment, you know? I guess it’s just my way of making life exciting. I’m always looking up to see something. I never can quite get anything. It’s just intriguing. I like to believe there’s something else. … And he gave me a book. We chatted for a few seconds. And that was pretty much it. He invited me to come back to do some more things and then it just snowballed into what it is now. It was so unplanned and so unexpected.
“I wanted to go, ‘You’re weird; this place is weird.’ But it was great. It was fun. He goes, ‘Do you want to sing some more songs?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And then I’d come back and sing more songs and do more shows. And here we are.”
When she first heard how Defever had incorporated the gospel portions into the album—a kind of Phil Spector-ish reworking of an old folk song, Pippen’s response was ‘Wow.’ She had never heard His Name Is Alive before so it was different and strange and wonderful.
She has come to love the spontaneity of working with Defever.
“The song, ‘Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth,’ I came over and I had never heard the song before and he just goes, ‘However you feel it, just go for it.’ And I sang it and it’s on the record. So the song you hear is the song that I did that day, the first time. We tried to rerecord it and it wasn’t the same … thing.”
Defever has penned the vast majority of the HNIA catalog, which is almost entirely sung by women. Pippen takes ownership of the songs, wrapping her voice around them like shiny reflective paper and torn Scotch tape.
“I try very hard to understand more of the songs. I’ll sit down with Warn and say, ‘I’m having trouble with this song. What does it mean? Because I’m not figuring it out.’ And he’ll do his best. Usually, he doesn’t do a very good job [laughs]. And I’ll just interpret them into what I feel they mean. And that’s the way I’ll sing it. I don’t know. Sometimes I may be singing a song and thinking one thing and the crowd is thinking a whole different thing. I think I do tht with most of the songs. I take them and I interpret them. I try to gain some clues from Warn and then I interpret them my way.”
Someday does feature one song written by Pippen and Dan Littleton of Ida. Called “Happy Blues,” it’s one of the more light-hearted tracks on the album. The term light-hearted is used a bit loosely, however, since the song describes the ecstasy of finally dropping a jerk amid the inevitable crumbling reality that ensues after any breakup.
“The song is kind of like an attitude, how often you view life,” Pippen explains. “How I was viewing life at that time. How I feel driving through life. I heard the music and I think that’s what I was feeling like at that time. I think it’s a pretty good song. Warn kind of laughed at it the first time he heard it. He goes, ‘Happy Blues? What kind of song is that?’ Well, I think it grew on everybody.”
While Pippen’s unique style may one day be recognized as influential, in the meantime, she points to fellow Detroiter Aretha Franklin as an influence.
“She’s the queen. Singers that appeal to me always seem to have this fearless attitude. Fearless and they have a freedom in their voice. You can’t just tell them anything. It’s like, ‘Do your thing. I’m not gonna bother you.’ I love that.”