Mavis Staples: Lifting Up the World with a High Note

Music Features Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples: Lifting Up the World with a High Note

The writer George Eliot once wisely noted that, “The last thing we learn in life is other people’s perceptions of us.” But Mavis Staples is lucky—she’s getting to discover what her peers truly think of her long before that. And she has been suitably flabbergasted.

At 76, the Grammy-winning gospel/R&B vet is releasing her 14th solo album—her 42nd record overall, when you include the catalog of her former family band, The Staple Singers. And Livin’ On a High Note is a collection of soulful songs produced by M. Ward and composed exclusively for her, by longtime fans like Ben Harper (“Love and Trust”), Benjamin Booker (“Take Us Back”), Neko Case (“History Now”), Nick Cave (“Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”) and Ward himself (“Don’t Cry,” a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon called “Dedicated,” and a bluesy “MLK Song,” his lyrical synthesis of particularly moving Martin Luther King, Jr. speech passages). Other artists that were honored to contribute: Aloe Blacc, tUnE-yArDs, Valerie June, The Head & the Heart and Son Little, with whom Staples had already worked on last year’s Your Good Fortune EP, which just earned her a Grammy for its classic cover “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” in the Best American Roots Performance category.

Add to this the new documentary film from director Jessica Edwards, Mavis!—which celebrates the remarkable career of Staples, one that started when the woodsy-throated Chicagoan was only 16, backed on guitar by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and belting out the religious standard “Uncloudy Day”—and you’ve got a full-blown renaissance. (A young Bob Dylan, in fact, was so moved by that song that he became fascinated—then friends—with The Staple Singers, and even proposed marriage to the frontwoman at one point in the early ‘60s, an offer she sometimes regrets declining.) She was moved to tears the first time she viewed the final cut of the movie. And yes, she says, it has been a truly heartwarming experience to find out just how much people love you, hopefully years before it’s your time to go.

“At my age and who I am? It feels great, it feels like a rebirth,” observes Staples, who issued her first eponymous solo set in 1969, then switched to secular sounds in the ‘70s with chart-topping Staple Singers hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.” “But I just can’t stop—even if I tried to retire, I just can’t stop, because people keep constantly bringing me good news. I never thought I’d be going this long, and that things would still be happening for me. Like this new record—all of these wonderful songwriters being so happy to write for me, to write me a song. I’m on cloud nine.” And she suddenly breaks into the rousing chorus of June’s toe-tapping “High Note” anthem: “I’m livin’ on a hiiiiigh note! I’ll tell you, there just doesn’t seem to be any stopping!”

Truth be told, the grande dame was prepared to take her curtain call this year. She felt like she had pretty much done it all. After The Staple Singers’ close association with the civil rights movement in the ‘60s (and friendship with Dr. King), she had been championed by such stellar supporters as Prince (who penned two entire albums for her, ‘89’s Time Waits For No One and The Voice in ’93), Ry Cooder (who produced her 2007 bow, We’ll Never Turn Back) and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (who oversaw two Anti- efforts, 2010’s Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone and its 2013 followup, One True Vine). After her four-cut teaming with neo-soul stylist Little last year, she had no idea what to do next. “It didn’t dawn on me that the label would want another record out of me,” she recalls. “So my head was focused on coming home and sitting down. But no. It was not in the plan. Not in my plan, not in God’s plan, because everything that happens for me is His doing. God has a hand in it, you know, and He gave me this voice. So it’s meant for me to continue and carry good news to people.”

Anti- Records exec Andy Kaulkin had a little to do with it, as well. He and Staples’ manager came up with the multiple-composer concept, and proposed it to her one day at Your Good Fortune tour rehearsals in Los Angeles. Initially, the idea barely registered, she says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Wow! I’m getting another record?’ But then I thought it would be interesting, and it would probably be a great challenge for me. So I started giving them names, and Valerie June was always asking me, ‘Mavis, can I write you something?’ So I was like, ‘Yeah, Valerie! Write me a song!’” Next thing she knew, Kaulkin was phoning her in her hotel room one morning, inviting her downstairs to breakfast. When she got out of the elevator, there was June, waiting for her; she had flown in just to start work early with her idol. “And I’m going to have to start doing what Valerie does,” Staples adds of that summit. “She ordered egg whites that day, and I said, ‘My God—what are egg whites?’ And she said, ‘You don’t eat egg whites? They’re amazing, and the best way to eat eggs!’”

Because of time constraints and locations, other tunesmiths couldn’t meet with Staples in person, so most—after speaking to her over the phone about what she was looking for, thematically—simply sent their material in. Harper, whom she hopes to bump into on her current tour, stunned her with his laconic, straightforward strummer “Love and Trust.” She got so involved singing it in the studio, she shouted a revival-fervent “Oh, Lord!” “I was taking it so down in the bottom that my manager said, ‘You’re calling on the Lord?’” she says. “And I said, ‘Yeah!’ Whatever comes when I’m singing, that’s what comes.” And young firebrand Benjamin Booker took the project so seriously, he incorporated her life story into the words of his swaying “Take Us Back.”

“I told him my nickname was Bubbles, so he wrote ‘They don’t call me Bubbles for nothing, now,’ and he talked about Chicago,” Staples says. “And he was just great. And I talked to the kids who wrote ‘If It’s a Light,’ The Head & the Heart, and the little girl goes, ‘Oh, Miss Staples, I can’t believe I’m talking to you!’ And I said, ‘But I can’t believe I’m talking to you!’ I put the compliment right back on her.”

There was only one stipulation for all involved parties: the songs had to be upbeat, optimistic. With much of Chicago (and national) news revolving around violence, Staples wanted to offer listeners a more hopeful alternative. “When we first started singing our songs in The Staple Singers, Pops thought that we could save the world,” she reflects. “Then he finally realized that he couldn’t, so he said, ‘We’re going to sing some other songs now, because we can’t save the world. So we’re just going to do the best that we can.’ And that’s what I told these songwriters on the phone—I said, ‘I’ve been singing songs for all these years that bring people down. So now I want to sing happy, joyous songs. I want to lift the world up.” She cites Pharrell Williams’ recent ebullient smash “Happy” as a perfect example. “That song helped the world—it went all over the world and got everyone dancing, and people really needed that,” she believes.

What did the vocalist learn from M. Ward during the process? She cackles. “To be quiet and not mess with Matt Ward,” she replies in a heartbeat. “He is so shy and quiet, but when you look at him, you can tell that there’s something going on in there.” For instance, she exited the sound booth for one of her earliest sessions, shaking her head over what she perceived as mistake-ridden take. Bumping into the producer, she requested a second run-through, which he promptly declined: “He said, ‘Mavis, you don’t need to do that again—let me show you something.’ And he played me the song, but I could not hear the places where I’d messed up. And I said, ‘Okay, you’re right, I don’t need to do it again.’ And he just smiled. So I thought, ‘Well, I won’t mess with him again on that count!’”

Staples is hard-pressed to pinpoint that ephemeral magic she brought to all these diverse cuts. “It’s just my style—it’s going to come with any song I sing,” she reckons. “Depending on the stories, I’m just going to tell it a certain way. That’s what Pops used to tell me. He’d say, ‘Take it to church, Mavis! Take it to church!’ But that would mostly be on the end of a song, where I’d have to get stronger, instead of gentler. He wanted me to keep the song going, not to cut it off. So I could sing secular songs in the past, like ‘A House is Not a Home,’ but all of a sudden, they started playing it on gospel radio, and I was shocked. I was looking for the church people to come after me because I was singing secular songs. But by then, I had gotten to be a woman, a young lady, I had been married and divorced, and I wanted to sing some songs about my life at the time. So whatever I sing, I do have to make it all mine. I can’t sing it like they’re singing it on the demos—I’ve got sing it like Mavis.”

It’s a valuable commodity in an era when many Top 40 hits are manufactured by committee in Sweden. Joan Baez just sought out Staples, calling her personally to invite her to play her 75th birthday concert this January, alongside Paul Simon and Richard Thompson. (“She’s an old friend. I met her at the ’64 Newport Festival,” she explains.) And she was once praised by none other than the late David Bowie himself, who came backstage at one of her London gigs opening for Prince years ago. “He walked up to me and said, ‘Oh, there you are! There’s Mavis! I’ve just been a fan of yours for years!’” she remembers. “And I tried really hard to keep my cool, but that just gave me so much joy—I’m so blessed to have met David Bowie.”

What’s next for this legend? Now that she’s all fired up and feeling her oats again, she hints that she wouldn’t mind making an entire album with Jack White. He presented her with an official record player from his Third Man imprint for her birthday, and since he’s already overseen albums by Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn, hey, why not her, too? “I’ll tell you, I feel brand-new,” she enthuses, then starts to run down other upcoming coups. “I’ve got other things that I’m going to be doing—I’m getting engaged,” she says, but pauses, waiting for an appropriately shocked reaction. Then she just starts laughing. “No, now wait a minute—let me stop that right now,” she says. “I was just joking. I just couldn’t resist that!”

So no, she concludes, ending on a—ahem—high note, she did not at last accept that proposal from Dylan. “But that would be something, Bobby and I! Both of us would have canes, walking around and trying to hold each other up. Or matching wheelchairs eventually!” Until those hobbling days hit, though, she’s not looking any gift horse in the mouth. And she makes a solemn vow promising exactly that: “As long as it’s gonna happen? I’m gonna eat it up!”

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