Gospel Girl: Mavis Staples

Back with the Jeff Tweedy produced ‘You Are Not Alone’
Mavis Staples
In a career spanning sixty years, gospel/soul legend MAVIS STAPLES has worked with many great musicians, but never before has she been adopted by one...

It’s three days before her seventy-first birthday when Clash speaks with Mavis from her home in Chicago, and just a couple of days before she embarks on a new run of dates around the US to support her new album, ‘You Are Not Alone’. She’s enjoying something of a comeback, following the success of the Ry Cooder-produced ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ in 2007, an album which saw her return to her roots as a voice to the American civil rights movement.

Mavis first began performing aged eleven, when her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples recruited his son and daughters into the gospel vocal group The Staple Singers. Their success grew through the Fifties and Sixties until its peak in the Seventies when they signed to Stax Records and hit Number One with ‘I’ll Take You There’. Their sacred songs spread messages of hope and self-empowerment, inspired by the peaceful protests of Martin Luther King, and thrived in the rise of Black Power. Since Pops’ death in 2000, Mavis has carried the Staples torch, her affecting, divine voice never faltering, always heavenly.

One captivated fan was Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who undertook production duties on ‘You Are Not Alone’. His reverence is apparent - Mavis sounds impassioned, sincere and virtuous. She is well and truly in her element.

Mavis made a cup of tea and told Clash all about it...

How did you know Jeff Tweedy?
I had a concert on the north side of Chicago at a little club called The Hideout. He came backstage after the show and let me know how much he enjoyed it. A week later, my manager called and said, ‘Mavis, Jeff Tweedy wants to produce your next CD’. I said, ‘Oh, you got to be kidding me?’ He says, ‘No. He told his manager to make it happen’. (Laughs) After he finally made me believe him I said, ‘Well, that is great!’ Because I like Wilco - I hadn’t ever met them, but I’d heard their music.

How did you choose the songs that were covered on the album?
We met at Wilco’s recording studio. Jeff had these songs for me to listen to. I listened, and about the fourth song, this gospel classic traditional song started played, and I said, ‘Where did you...? How did you come up with that?! This was a song that my father used to play for me when I was a kid! This was the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers.’ And he said, ‘Oh Mavis, I like all of this old stuff like that. I thought this would be good for you.’ I said, ‘You got that right! I know these songs, but I never thought that I’d be singing them!’ I came out of there, we chose about seven or eight songs out of the bunch that he had.

And of course Jeff wrote some songs especially for you too.
At the second meeting he told me, ‘Mavis, I have this song title that’s been going around in my head. There’s a song I want to write for you called ‘You Are Not Alone’. He said, ‘I don’t have any of the lyrics yet, but I’m going to write it. I just feel like that would be something cool for you to say.’ I said, ‘Well, write it, Tweedy!’ He wrote that song and two other songs while we were recording this CD. Tweedy kept me in my comfort zone. He really let me know that he knew me by the songs that he wrote for me and the songs that he had chosen for this CD. There’s still the same messages that I’ve been singing all my life, the songs are still about the world today - jobs, poverty, welfare - and they’re songs that hopefully make it better.

What was the atmosphere like recording in Wilco’s studio?
The session in that studio was more like a love-fest, like a family reunion. All of the Wilco guys, they would come through and bring their babies. All of those guys have girls - cute little girls - and Tweedy has two boys. They would come in, and the oldest one - fourteen; Spencer - he has his own band. He’s a drummer. And he’s a photographer - he took a lot of the pictures that you’ll be seeing in the CD. But what really got me was these two little guys came up to me one day and they adopted me! (Laughs) They said, ‘Mavis, we don’t have any grandmas. Will you be our grandma?’ (Laughs) I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be your grandma!’ This was a first! I’m Auntie Mavis, I’m Godmom Mavis, but never a grandma! They adopted my sister Yvonne and I to be their grandmothers, and we felt so proud.

Although a gospel group, The Staples Singers went on to sing secular songs by other artists - you covered Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, The Band... How did Pops feel about doing these contemporary songs?
We would sing things that fit us. Like, when we first met Dylan, we were on a television show together and he was singing a song. Pops said, ‘Listen, y’all. Listen to what that kid is saying.’ And Dylan was singing, “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you can call him a man” [‘Blowin’ In The Wind’]. And Pops said, ‘We can sing that song!’ You see, Pops would tell us stories about when he was a boy down in Mississippi; he couldn’t walk on the same side of the street as a white person. So he could really relate to what Dylan was singing. And that’s how we started singing it. The Staple Singers were gospel singers, but if a song sounded inspirational to us, was something that would inspire people and that was positive enough, we would sing it. People would tell my father, ‘What are you singing? You’re supposed to be singing gospel!’ At one point Pops got to the point where he said, ‘Listen. Don’t categorise us. We sing what is good for the people to hear.’ He stopped categorising us, but I still say to anyone that I am basically and first and foremost a gospel singer.

Words by Simon Harper

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-