There’s a riveting moment midway through Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” from their new collaborative album “Not Dark Yet” when the singers bite hard into the lyrics to reveal new shades of pain and tenuous optimism at the heart of the song’s conflicted conscience. It’s a mesmerizing vocal performance by the two women as they make the song their own with harmonies that have been honed over a lifetime.
Of course, Lynne and Moorer are not only two of contemporary music’s most talented singer-songwriters, they are also sisters who have been singing with one another since their childhood in Alabama. “Not Dark Yet” is their long-anticipated first recording together, coming after a number of false starts. It’s a stark, beautifully rendered collection of one original collaboration with nine carefully selected covers from a broad array of artists, ranging from the Louvin Brothers, Bob Dylan, and Merle Haggard to the Killers and Nick Cave.
Lynne seems quite casual — almost nonchalant — about finally getting around to recording with her sister, who she calls “Sissy” throughout a recent interview. “It wasn’t all that complicated, actually,” she says. “We had to do it in the right space and frame of mind. You don’t really know quite when that is until it feels right. You can try and try and try, but it happens when it’s time and things fall into place. And this time it was right. It’s all pretty simple.”
Well, not quite. There’s a rich complexity to the music thanks to their ability to burrow beneath the surface of each song and breathe new life into the lyrics. Teddy Thompson’s unfussy production smartly puts the sisters’ vocals front and center of a superb group of musicians who include guitarist Doug Pettibone and keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Their take on one of Bob Dylan’s bleakest songs, “Not Dark Yet” — as relevant as ever — is soulful and stirring, and they bring lovely shades of tenderness to both Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes” and Cave’s “Into My Arms.” Moorer and Lynne are master interpreters, injecting each lyric with nuances while honoring the primacy of the songs.
“We are songwriters and we love great lyrics, so that was really the bottom line,” Lynne says about the song selection. “We chose the best songs — the ones we could really lend our voices to in order to make a great record, where all the songs fit together without being too abstract.
“The Jessi Colter song, we’ve been singing since we were kids. [The Louvins’] ‘Every Time You Leave,’ we’ve been singing since we were kids. [Haggard’s] ‘Silver Wings’ also since we were kids,” she says with a small laugh. “So, we wanted to bring what we were familiar with, and kind of wrap new surroundings around them to address them differently.
“Sissy brought in the Killers tune [‘My List’] — it’s just a beautiful lyric because when you listen to what it’s about, it’s so powerful. Like every lyric here, it means a lot.”
While each brought different songs to the project, the Dylan tune, which became the title track, was a priority for both. “We of course wanted to cut a Bob Dylan song, but where do you begin? We were both fans of the ‘Time Out of Mind’ record, and we didn’t want to go back to the beginning of Bob’s career. We wanted to bring a modern feel as well as a grown-up feel. And it’s also such a beautiful tune. Those lyrics, ‘Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day.’ That’s the kind of lyrics Sissy and I love to sink our teeth into. It’s just brilliant.”
The sound of the record — stripped-down, unadorned Americana — falls most in line with the aesthetic of Lynne’s recent work. While Moorer is more often associated with country music, Lynne has settled into a raw-boned roots approach after success in the pop world with her widely acclaimed “I Am Shelby Lynne” from 1999. She famously won a Grammy for best new artist in 2001 for her sixth record and after 12 years of recording.
The 48-year-old singer-songwriter may have fallen off the pop radar these days, but her work over the last decade has been as stellar as it is understated. Lynne’s triumphant 2008 homage to Dusty Springfield, “Just a Little Lovin,’” was followed by “Tear, Lies and Alibis” (2010), “Revelation Road” (2011), and “I Can’t Imagine” (2015), all evocative records accentuating her musicianship, songwriting skills, and magnificent voice.
She insists her retreat from the pop world to a more front porch, DIY approach and feel was not a repudiation of the slicker direction of her early ’00s music that received a mixed response. “The stripped-down records I did over the last decade, I had to do out of necessity. I’ve had my own record label since 2010. I really wasn’t making records that way out of love of a stripped-down, spare sound. I did it just so I could get the music out there. I’ll say it again, the song’s the most important thing for me. I wanted people to hear them.”
Lynne, who is thoughtful and deliberate with her words, is candid about her place in the music business and how artistic purity inevitably clashes with record companies’ bottom lines. “It’s not easy to be a real artist in the business because it’s business. I had a good time during those [pop] years, but it was a whole ’nother thing. But you just keep moving and keep doing the art because the only reason you create is because you are driven to do it. When the business gets involved it takes the art away, and it becomes something else.
“At the end of the day, I’m the one standing on the stage singing the song — that’s all that really matters. You make people happy when you sing and say something that doesn’t really have a lot to do with dollars and cents.”
‘We had to do it in the right space and frame of mind. You don’t really know quite when that is until it feels right. . . . It happens when it’s time and things fall into place. And this time it was right. ’
Lynne’s next album will be the soundtrack to the independent film “The Magnificent Room,” in which she costars. She says it features a full-blown soul sound — in other words, the kind of record the big-voiced Lynne was born to sing.
She also promises another album with her sister. “We want to write a record next time. We’ve already started fooling around writing some tunes. We want to sit down for a while and really come up with some songs together. As songwriters that’s only natural and the next logical thing.”
Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer
At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Aug. 22 at 8 p.m.
Tickets $35 advance, $40 day of the show, 617-547-5200, www.sinclaircambridge.comKen Capobianco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.