Throughout the course of a career that started with her father and sisters in the Staples Singers in the 1950s, Mavis Staples and her mighty tenor have inspired fans ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Jeff Tweedy, who produced her Grammy-winning 2008 effort You Are Not Alone. The Wilco frontman again assumed production duties for Staples’ upcoming One True Vine (Anti-), set to drop June 25. One features Staples’ stirring treatment of new songs written for her by, among others, Nick Lowe and Tweedy, whose 17-year-old son Spencer plays drums on the album, and covers of sanctified songs by the likes of Funkadelic and Low. We caught up with the Staples, 73, who was happy to share the insights gleaned from a life in music.
If there’s something going wrong, maybe you can sing a song to make it better.
You see, [the Staples Singers] always wanted to sing about what’s happening in the world today. Pops [Staples] would tell songwriters, “If you want to write a song for the Staples read the headlines. We want to sing about what’s happening in the world today.” And all down the line that’s been our model. Our Civil Rights songs? We’re still singing them. I don’t like to get too deep into politics, but you want to touch on these things to alert people that you have us to help you through these times. The songs are all there for you to lean on—to keep you comforted and inspire you to keep on going.
I’m not trying to convert anyone.
My purpose: to lift your spirit and to motivate you. I’m just singing what I feel in my heart. A lot of people don’t want to hear songs like this. A lot of people say, “Well she’s trying to convert us. I want to hear some rock.” But that’s Mavis, that’s just me and all I can give you is songs from my heart. I can’t just turn over and sing disco or rock.
It’s all in the lyrics.
It doesn’t matter what type of song it is. We started singing strictly gospel and then all of a sudden folks that saw us were calling us [to collaborate], so we started hearing folk songs. We started hearing Bob Dylan songs and the Band. These folk songs are really close to gospel because they lift you up. So we sang jazz, the blues, R&B. People thought “I’ll Take You There” was the Devil’s music, because people were dancing to it. And they wanted to put us out of Church. I had to tell them, “You know, the Devil ain’t got no music.” All music is God’s music and you have to listen to our lyrics. We’re telling you [in “I’ll Take You There”], “I know a place / Ain’t nobody crying, ain’t nobody worried / Ain’t no smiling faces / Lying to the races.” So where else could we be taking you but to heaven?
Try and sing it the way that old folk sing.
When we first started singing my father gave us voices that he and his sisters and brothers sang down in Mississippi. And that was such a different sound. At first people didn’t know what we were singing. They didn’t know if we were country singers. People were asking, “Are you country?” We hadn’t even heard any country! But our voices had old-time religion. In fact, when we made our first record, people thought we were old people until they saw us. They would call us to do concerts and when we showed up little children they’d say, “That’s not them singing!” I really thank my father for giving us those sounds that we Staples Singers had from the beginning. That’s what brought us to the public and that’s what has kept us here.
I take my family with me on stage.
You know, I never wanted to be a solo artist but I was just made to be one. When my father passed [in 2000], I would sit on the couch and I wouldn’t get up. I didn’t even want to try and sing anymore. I didn’t know what path to take and I didn’t know what to do. But I started thinking, “I can’t let my father down like this.” I had to push to continue to sing and it wasn’t easy. To sing with your father for over fifty years and all of a sudden he’s gone? And my sister Cleotha—we just lost her a few months ago. But I know that they are on-stage with me. When I say, “I can’t do it,” I just think about my Pops and he helps me along.