This interview first featured in Blog on the Tracks on Stuff here.
Mavis Staples has been singing for 60 years. She is 71, although she will tell me with a hearty chuckle, “I had to record a message for Bob Dylan recently. He has a very special birthday coming up but I told him ’70 is the new 60′ so he’s like me, he’s got another 10 years before he has to worry about being 70 or any of that nonsense.”
I was told I would be speaking to Staples about an hour before the call went through. Mavis, formerly of The Staple Singers, now flies the flag for the family (along with her sister Yvonne, who provides backing vocals). She released You Are Not Alone last year, her first studio album since the 2007 “comeback”, We’ll Never Turn Back. She will play New Zealand shows in April with The Blind Boys of Alabama and Aaron Neville. And is excited.
“Music is such a joy, just an absolute joy,” you can hear the smile in Staples’ voice. “And I really am so excited to be coming back. We loved our shows we played in New Zealand when we had the last record out. I enjoyed myself immensely. And I was getting kinda worried” – a trickle of laughter seeps into play. “I thought we’d done something wrong, maybe you didn’t like us! I was waiting for somebody to call and have us back!”
Staples is excited when she speaks. And she’s exciting to listen to. She’s sharp and she tells fantastic stories. She’s very happy with the most recent album, telling me that they’ll be sharing most of it when she tours here just after Easter.
“It was so much fun to put this record together and we want to share it with you all – to me this record is a real joy. We have some lovely songs on it and we want y’all to hear them.” But if you’ve heard the fantastic Live: Hope at the Hideout or you caught Staples when she performed at Wellington’s International Arts Festival or Taranaki’s WOMAD, don’t panic. That amazing back-catalogue will get another airing.
“Oh yes, we’ll be playing all the favourites too.” Here Mavis has a giggle that becomes a chuckle after a throat-clearing cough. “There are songs that I have to play!” She’s getting evangelical now. “Do you understand me?” I do. But she further clarifies, “I can’t leave the stage if I don’t play some of these songs!” The exclamation mark is used like a conversational walking stick, propping her up as she pauses for effect, takes in the scenery, then continues her verbal stroll. “I’m talking about I’ll Take You There! I’m talking about Respect Yourself! I’m talking about The Weight! It would not be right if I did not play those songs!” And then finally, without the exclamation mark, a repeat, “it would not be right”.
Staples started singing as a kid. Her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples taught the children to sing, created a family band and took it on the road. Pops was raised on a cotton plantation and learned the guitar in an informal school of sorts; other pupils included Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson. Mavis learned at her father’s knee. She soaked up stories and songs from the Delta, from the cotton fields. Last year she worked with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. It’s not lost on her, the span of her work – the giant sweep of American songcraft that is wrapped up, connected to her career.
“Well, it’s been an amazing life. It’s really just been the most magical thing for me – and I have these musical friends from all walks of life. But the reason I do this, the reason I continued on – and still continue on – is because of Pops. Because of all that he taught us. I always believed in staying true to what Pops showed us. To what he taught. I really feel like I’m singing these songs for him now. I’m keeping his legacy going. And I’m singing songs that he would be proud of. I want to keep the family legacy alive and keep Pops proud.”
It’s not just Mavis who would be keeping Pops proud. Her guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, can at times sound uncannily like Roebuck Staples. I had to ask if this was a request, a direction from Mavis.
“Well, let me tell you about Rick. I first met Rick some years back and I was doing a gig up at Santa Monica Pier and so was Rick with his band. My band was late and I had watched Rick’s group and they were pretty good. And I could hear some of Pops’ sound in what Rick was playing. I couldn’t believe it. It turns out that Rick had been studying Pops for a while; he’d grown up listening to Pops. So this is before I even had met him. But I’m hearing Pops’ playing from Rick. And then it came time for me to go on – my band hasn’t made it and we found out that Rick’s group could play a few of our songs, they knew For What It’s Worth and The Weight, I’ll Take You There and Will the Circle Be Unbroken So we get on stage together – me with Rick’s band and I tell ya, when he started to play those songs I had to look around behind me; I had to check it weren’t Pops standing there playing. That boy can play! I tell ya.”
Holmstrom can not only replicate some of Pops’ parts, he recreates the spirit of Ry Cooder from the We’ll Never Turn Back record. Many feel that his playing on the Hideout live album is better suited to Staples’ sound than Cooder’s. And as Staples adds, “Rick has his own thing going on. He’s no copycat. He can definitely do some of Pops, some of Ry Cooder, but Rick is his own player.”
She is frank about the change to using Holmstrom and the new band. “My band I had when I did the Ry Cooder record, they just couldn’t do it. They couldn’t cut it. Not like Rick and the guys – so now they’re my band.” She adds a huge-sounding “ha”. It is its own exclamation mark.
So Jeff Tweedy is the latest in a line of distinctive guitar players to step forward and produce Mavis Staples. Before Tweedy it was Cooder, before him it was Prince. There has also been Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper.
“Well, I’ve been lucky,” Staples explains. “I need to hear the music that way, because that’s how I learned it – I’m grateful I’ve had these great guitar players producing me and working with me; understandin’ me. I learned with just Pops’ guitar and voice – and then I would sing. So to me that is music – that is how it works. You have the guitar, it provides the frame and you add the voice. Sometimes you start with the voice and you have the guitar moving around the vocals – but I need that. So I’ve just been so lucky to have these great men to work with. And I appreciate great guitarists. I’m not sure I’d sound the same if I worked with a producer who was a piano player.”
She rates Tweedy highly as a producer. She never once refers to him as Jeff, or Jeff Tweedy. It is always “Tweedy”. She uses it as you might a nickname.
“Working with Tweedy was great; a joy. A total joy. He’s a beautiful spirit. But he’s also a clown” – she lets out a hoot, then confirms, “he’s a comedian. A joker. And I just thought when I was working with him that, once again, God had blessed me. He really had. Because Tweedy can be tough. He can be demanding. Tweedy knows what he wants – and he knows how to get it.”
Here Staples chuckles – more so to herself than to me; it’s as if she’s just reminded herself of what will work as the perfect example to illustrate her point.
“Tweedy tells me with this one song, he says, ‘Mavis, I want you to go out and sing this song on the stairwell’. I say, ‘Tweedy don’t make me go out on no stairwell. It’s cold!’ And he say, ‘Mavis, get out on that stairwell and sing’. I say, ‘no, no, no, no, no! I ain’t going out there to do no singing Tweedy, it’s cold’. So next thing he says ‘quick, someone get Mavis a jacket, get her a hat and scarf and get her some gloves. She’s cold!’ And so I see he ain’t jokin’ no more, so I go ‘all right then Tweedy, if this is what you want then this is what you’re gonna get’. And we go out to the stairwell, and we huddle around one microphone. And we sing. And we get back in to listen to it and I say, ‘so, do I have to go out there again now?’ And he say, ‘no Mavis, we got it. It was perfect’. And he was right. So, I realised then and there that Tweedy can be a clown – he can mess with you – but he also knows what he’s doing. So if Tweedy tells me again to go out on the stairwell and sing, I’m going out there – even if I need an extra jacket!”
Staples has always toured regularly but says, if anything, she’s getting busier. “You know 2010 was a great year for me. It really was, but I got a feeling this year’s just going to be even better. And it’s busy. Already. I look at the books and man they are full but gigs are still coming in. It’s great. It’s really just such a blessing to do this – to get to see places and meet people, to go back to places I’ve been before. Your country was beautiful and I am looking forward to coming back.”
And then she addresses her legacy directly, saying, “my life has really been something. I’ve lived through trials and tribulations, I’ve seen change, I’ve gone from hanging out with Martin Luther King to seeing Barack Obama voted in. It’s been full of happy times, it really has.”
Touring does not stress the voice, nor does recording. Staples simply explains it away, “it’s just what I do. It’s not hard. I love what I do. It’s a joy to be able to sing.” She has a 50-year professional career and 60 years of singing to back that up.
These days a Mavis Staples show has a narrative flow from the singer: she’s a great storyteller – both in her recreations of the stories of others (the songs) and in the thread she provides.
“Well I never used to talk, you know. I used to be so quiet. I would sing. But I would never speak. Pops did all the talking. And I guess I just sorta started when he left us. I had to take over, carry on his role. And”, she gets on the giggle train here, “I’ve really made up for lost time!”
I suggest that she’s been banking up a lot of stories.
“Well, yeah, that’s true. That’s very true. But my sister Yvonne, she say to me, ‘Mavis you talk too much!’ And she also say ‘Mavis, you talk too damn loud too!’ And I tell her, ‘well Yvonne, you’re too quiet’ so there’s some laughter there too.”
But I’ve opened something up here: Staples is keen to carry on with this thread of her providing the thread, particularly the discussion she’s created about the volume of her voice.
“I do talk loud, but then I can also be a bit quiet still, sometimes. But lots of people tell me I am too loud. Prince would tell me that too, he’d say ‘Mavis, you should talk a little quieter’.” Spying my window, I suggest that Prince probably talks too quietly; should probably be told to talk louder…
“Well, you got that right sonny! You got that spot on, you know.” Next thing I have Mavis Staples impersonating Prince down the line, “Yeah, Prince be all ‘Mavis, Mavis…‘” [whispered voice] “and then he’s just all mumble/mumble/mumble/mumble and I’d be all like ‘What, Prince? Speak up!”
So many good stories…
And they are being recorded. Not just during interviews. Staples informs me that she’s working on her autobiography.
“And it’s great because I remember everything” – she hoots with laughter again – “I can remember my father calling us in to learn our first song. So you know, I’ve been sitting down to write these stories and these wonderful images just come back to me, I just visualise everything and think again how wonderful it’s all been…”
Friendships in the industry continues to be important to Mavis. The Staple Singers broke down barriers with their pioneering gospel/R’n’B; they connected with white audiences as well as black. They appeared in the classic concert film The Last Waltz; Staples’ rendition of The Weight (by The Band) is one of her, well, staples. And she’s still incredibly thankful for it.
“We’re still in touch. I mean, we’re going to be playing at Levon Helm’s barn later this year, he’s got this barn where he puts on gigs, and I see Levon regularly. His daughter is my god-daughter and she’s in a band now. So it’s just been wonderful growing up with these people. And Garth [Hudson] – we see him too. And Robbie Robertson – that’s all we have from that amazing band now; Robbie I last worked with properly back in 1999 but I’m looking forward to seeing him again soon. They’re all so special – such happy memories. We’re good friends with The Band – we were always good friends with them. The Last Waltz did so much for us. The Weight – that’s one of them songs I talked about earlier; I can’t leave the stage without doing that one!”
And it’s from The Band and these famous friendships that we get to Bob Dylan. Remember, we started with Staples discussing her birthday message for Dylan’s upcoming 70th. But we didn’t actually start there. We ended there. Only so much time on the phone with Staples and I nearly forgot to mention Bob Dylan.
Not only has she sung Dylan’s songs and travelled on the folk festival circuit with Dylan; he even proposed to her. Staples calls it “a favourite internet story“. We get to Dylan in the interview with me suggesting she will need to write a multiple-volume memoir, teasing it out over years like Dylan is. I then realise I’ve mentioned Dylan for the first time.
Staples, sharp as anything, laughs heartily, “Well honey you should have mentioned him earlier; we’re about all out of time now, aren’t we?” Then, barely a breath later she tells me “I’ve been saying to you that I just smile all the time, thinking about all these stories, all these people, Robbie and Garth, Prince and Ry Cooder; Tweedy and Pops. Well I don’t smile when I think of Dylan. I don’t smile. I grin. Dylan makes me grin. He always has. He always will.”