The gospel legend on never giving up on the dream

There are times when I think I love Mavis Staples’ voice so much I might burst. That distinctively deep, husky growl that was so sanctified on ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, so defiant on ‘I Have Learned To Do Without You’, so empowering on ‘Respect Yourself’, so sensual on ‘Let’s Do It Again’, so provocative on ‘If All I Was Was Black’, is just so profoundly expressive that it’s impossible not to be affected by it.

And so, to find myself sitting to her immediate right, with her leaning towards me gruffly reciting in an intimate almost-whisper the rousing first lines of ‘Change’, the opening cut from her new album ‘We Get By’, I fear there’s a real danger of explosion.

In her voice I hear truth, faith, and hope. I hear a resonant reflection of the human condition and a yearning for spiritual and earthly betterment, which she has dedicated her life to preaching. As part of her family group, The Staple Singers, her baritone voice soundtracked the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s - her father, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples becoming a close friend of Martin Luther King - their radiant gospel messages providing sublime salvation and inspiration through that tumultuous decade.

The group found their greatest success in the ’70s when they migrated to the Memphis-based Stax Records and adopted a contemporary soul sound, yet all the while their songs were underpinned with unerring positivity and a virtuous vision of peace and harmony in the world.

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Despite this summer heralding her 80th birthday, Mavis is as resolutely committed to her cause as she has ever been - perhaps even more so: “Been holding on too long to let go,” she confesses in ‘One More Change To Make’, the closing track of ‘We Get By’, “Running too hard to slow down / Believing too deep to not have faith.”

‘We Get By’, which was written and produced by Ben Harper, is another forceful addition to a legacy of albums that are at once challenging yet empowering, which regenerated with ‘Have A Little Faith’ in 2004 when Mavis returned to recording after a decade, hit its stride with the Ry Cooder-produced ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ in 2007, then struck a rich seam of renewed purpose working alongside Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, which has so far resulted in three critically acclaimed albums - the most recent yielding the aforementioned audacious title track, ‘If All I Was Was Black’.

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In Ben Harper, Staples has found yet another sympathetic interpreter who can translate her indomitable convictions through songs that are tangibly more soul-searing than sermonizing. Joining a long list of adoring past collaborators that includes Prince, Nick Cave, Arcade Fire, and Hozier, Harper succeeds in rendering an authentic and suitably candid statement of intent for Mavis to inhabit and bring to glorious life.

All of which brings her to London in the springtime, her promotional visit concluding with a conversation with a very overawed Clash. Mavis Staples may well be a living, breathing, singing history book - one that is always open and deserving to be devoured - but her beliefs are a valid foundation for an unprejudiced and undivided future, and it would do us all good to listen.

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Mavis, welcome again to London. This is quite a special city for you, right?

I come here quite often, yeah. In fact, I’ve been here the last three birthdays - I was at Union Chapel July 10th every year for the last three years. This time, I’ll be home. Yeah, we come to London every summer, and it’s mostly in July. We’ll be here in July this time: July 2nd, we’re at The Forum (in Bath), and July 4th, we’re at the Roundhouse.

I saw you at Union Chapel on your 75th birthday; it was such a wonderful night, and we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to you. What a great venue; it must feel like home to you. Do you think your music is better suited to those sanctified surroundings?

Yes, it is. Because I’m in church again. I’m at home. That’s home for me. That’s where I started, in the church, and anytime I go there, I’m so happy.

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Speaking of going to church, you once said that you were “just doing my job”. Do you think your role is to inspire spiritual change in people?

Yeah, it is. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life. And then, I’m the last one here - I’ve got to keep going. It is my duty to sing my songs for my father’s legacy, Dr. King’s legacy - I’m the last one. I don’t ever intend to stop unless I lose my voice, but yeah, it’s my job, and I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I think the Lord put me here to sing these songs and to try to help bring love and hope into the world, to bring us together as a land of freedom, a land of hope, a land of love - people. You know, we’re living in trying times. This man has got us in trouble. This hatred and bigotry, it was subsiding; it was getting better. And then this man gets to talking and running his mouth, and all of a sudden here you see these people coming out of Charlottesville with torches marching all through the city, and I’m saying, ‘Are they going to come with burning crosses next? What are they doing, and how is this happening?’ Well, see, you weren’t seeing anything like that until he got in, and whatever he says, they feel like it’s alright to do what they’re doing.

That does suggest that they were already there, though, just waiting in the woodwork; he lured them out.

Right, yeah. But I tell you, they may as well go on back, cos we’re not budging. We’re gonna keep on trying to have freedom, have love.

These are trying times, as you say. Your father once saw the futility in what you were doing - he said, “We can’t save the world.” So what keeps you going even through these more challenging times?

It hits my heart so heavy, so I need - for myself - to sing these songs. I’ve been doing it all my life, and for me to stop now, I’ve come too far. I’ve come too far to turn around. If I can’t help somebody else, I’d have to help myself. You know, I just have to continue. I have a lot of help - I have my Congressman John Lewis, I talk to him a lot. He said, ‘Baby, I’m just so glad you’re still here.’ He was one of Dr. King’s main friends. He said, ‘You know, your family, you’re the soundtrack of the movement. You all motivated us, kept us inspired, and I’m just so glad to see you still at it.’ Now, he and Andrew Young, they’re the only two that I know now… So I’m gonna keep going. I have to keep going.

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The cover art of your new album is an old photograph by Gordon Parks taken from an exposé of segregation - it shows black children standing outside a play park that they’re not allowed in, looking in through the gates that keep them apart. I would presume - as a white man - that segregation is not as literal nowadays, but the picture represents that you’re still aware of and watching that struggle?

Oh yeah, of course. Yes indeed. That picture, I had like seven or eight pictures in front of me, and that’s the one that caught my eye. I said, ‘That’s the album cover right there.’ These babies are standing on the outside looking in, and they want to be in there; they want to be able to swing and ride the slide, but they’re black. They can’t go in. My sisters, we used to do the same. Back in the day, we couldn’t go swimming. We couldn’t go in the regular playground; we had to make our own playground! Yeah, that tells it all. We would have our little dresses and bow ribbons in our hair, but we still couldn’t go on the other side of that fence; we were on the other side looking in. When he took that picture, he did a wonder. That’s a beautiful picture, and it’s just right for my album cover.

Your last few albums were created with and produced by Jeff Tweedy. I read that he’d said that he was initially a bit anxious to write for you given that perhaps he didn’t share your heritage. Do you think that him writing from an outsider’s perspective allowed you to say things that maybe you felt like you couldn’t say?

No. It worked. The only thing Tweedy didn’t want to do was name this last album ‘If All I Was Was Black’. I said, ‘Tweedy! That’s the best title for the album!’ ‘Oh Mavis, but I don’t know…’ I say, ‘You don’t know what?!’ He was making me mad! (Laughs) He says, ‘Mavis, we might get some backlash. Here I am, this white guy, people will probably say, ‘Who does he think he is? How can he title an album that if he ain’t black?’’ I said, ‘You are black! You’re just as black as you can be!’ Later in the day, his wife came to the studio and he told her: ‘Susie, Mavis says I’m black.’ And she says: ‘Well, if Mavis says you’re black, you’re black!’ (Laughs) Ha! I got so tickled! I said, ‘Look, Tweedy, put the title of the album down. That’s the title of the album: ‘If All I Was Was Black’. I loved it. But no, I don’t know of anything else that I could see that I couldn’t say. No, Tweedy, oh man, I love the way he writes. Tweedy’s writing was a challenge to me - I had to look at his writing two or three times before I was gonna sing it. But this guy, Ben Harper, he is a more… In fact, I feel like I was in church on some of these songs that I was singing, because he makes it so plain; he says it just like it is, just like it’s happening. [Sings] “We gotta change around here / Can’t go on this way / Things gotta change.” And then he says: “Fingers on the trigger around here / Fingers on the trigger around here / Bullets flying, mothers crying / We gotta change.” I mean, just simple and straightforward. And man, I dove into them songs. I love every one of them. No messing around: just say it. And there’s one on there that really takes me to church, ‘Brothers And Sisters’.

Oh, yes! And it sounds like your sisters are singing it on there with you!

Yeah, yeah, yeah! Don’t it sound just like us? At one point in there, I said: ‘Send us another plan, cos I can’t stand this man,’ or something. We want the Lord to send us another plan. I’m just the messenger.

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Tweedy and Ben are just two in a long list of people with whom you’ve worked including Prince, Arcade Fire, and most recently, Hozier. What do these people have in common that makes you want to work with them?

They know me. They know what to write for me. None of them have to ask me, ‘Mavis, what do you want me to write?’ But now, Prince… Prince wrote songs. He wouldn’t talk to me, so I started writing to him. I wrote him letters - long letters; legal pads, 12 or 13 pages - and I started from my childhood. I said, ‘I’m gonna tell him everything. I’m letting him into my life because I want this kid to write for me. I know he can write, but he got to know me.’ And, after he wouldn’t talk to me, well, we couldn’t get to know each other, so I thought about writing him a letter. I did two albums with Prince, and every song that he wrote for me on this record ‘The Voice’, every song has something from one of my letters. Every song. I’d say, ‘Well, shucks, I helped Prince write this one!’ Anything I would tell him, he would use it. I told him that I was married to an undertaker. He said, ‘Mavis, you were married to an undertaker?’ and I said yeah. Then he wrote me a song called ‘The Undertaker’. It went: “Don’t go with the crack / You might never come back… Here comes the undertaker…” You’re gonna die! You’re gonna see this undertaker that Mavis has married! (Laughs) Oh, but ‘The Undertaker’, that’s a good song. Oh Lord. And he wrote me a song called ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Time’. He said, ‘Mavis, that’s a tribute to your family, that song.’ That’s from when I told him that when I was a little girl, I loved to go to Sunday school because my mother would dress me in my cute little dress, with my patent leather shoes, and I had a little purse, and I would go to Sunday school, and I would get Bible lessons; the teacher would teach us. And so he wrote: “We went to church on Sunday morning / All dressed up looking mighty fine / The spirit came without a warning / Intoxicated us all like wine / Don’t it make you stop and wonder / While we kill our own kind every day / Why can’t we get along with each other / When we darn well know it’s the only way / As sure as Moses’ staff parted the water / As sure as Cain had to pay for his crime…” My father said, ‘Mavis, what does this little boy know about Cain and Abel?’ I said, ‘Daddy, the Bible is one of his favourite books! He reads the Bible! He reads it!’ Pops tickled me; he said, ‘What does this little boy know about Cain and Abel?’ And Prince was just so comical; he was something. My father went with me. Prince asked me one time, ‘Mavis, do you think your father will play his guitar on your record?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, he’ll play the guitar, and he’ll sing too.’ So, when we were doing a special, Pops was sitting on a bench, just sitting and strumming his guitar. And Prince came running back: ‘Are you going to play tonight, Junior?’ Daddy said, ‘What you call me?’ Prince kept running. Daddy said, ‘What you call me?’ Prince came back and he said, ‘Junior!’ Daddy said, ‘Boy, if I catch you I’m gonna tear your little butt up!’ He liked to have fun. But all of the people, all of these people, these producers writing for me, they are geniuses. I have been so blessed. Geniuses. And I never thought I would be with Prince. Prince called me! Pops said, ‘Mavis, this man Prince called you.’ I said, ‘I don’t know no Prince, Daddy.’ He said, ‘Prince! The one they call Purple!’ I said, ‘Oh no, not Prince! Oooh!’ I went crazy. Yeah!

The song you sang with Hozier, ‘Nina Cried Power’, is great. It’s almost a protest song in itself, given that it eulogizes the great protest singers. Is it inspiring for you to know that there are still young artists out there that are trying to progress things?

Yes indeed. I felt so good when he sent me that ‘Nina Cried Power’. “Nina cried power / Curtis cried power / James cried power…” You know, this kid, he wrote a song, and he has written… I have listened to that album; he got some good stuff on that album. I said, ‘Hozy…’ I call him Hozy. I said, ‘You have written a masterpiece here.’ He said, ‘Oh Mavis, I’m glad you think so.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know so. I don’t just think so, I know so.’ Oh, he’s great. And I have never been so happy for someone to call me. I sing with everybody, you know, and they want me to sing with them. I even went to Dublin with Hozier to help do his video. Now, he’s having a good tour of the States. I’ll be with him the week after next in Australia. We’re gonna meet up there. And I was surprised his name was Andrew. I said, ‘I’m not calling  you Andrew. I don’t think that fits you. I’m gonna call you Hozy.’ He said, ‘Mavis, you call me anything you want!’

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You grew up in urban Chicago and Pops grew up in Mississippi on the infamous Dockery Plantation. How did the experiences of his childhood impact on your own?

Well, Pops would tell us stories all the time. What happened, we were singing because he had been singing with a group of men - the Trumpet Jubilees. He just wanted to sing, and these guys, they wouldn’t come to rehearsal. There was six of them. Pops would go to rehearsal and he’d see maybe two of them there, and the next week he’d go and there might be three or four. He just got so disgusted. He came home one night and he went in the closet where he had that little guitar, he called us into the living room, and sat us all on the floor in a circle. My Aunt Katie was there. She said, ’Roebuck, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m gonna sing with my children.’ I didn’t even know Pops had a guitar! We had never seen it. It didn’t have all the strings on it, but he could make it sound alright. He sat us on the floor and he started giving us parts to sing that he and his sisters and brothers would sing when they were in Mississippi. So, the very first song he taught us was ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. We were singing, and Aunt Katie came through and said, ‘Shucks, y’all sound pretty good. I want y’all to come and sing at my church on Sunday morning.’ Oh Lord, we were all so glad we were gonna sing somewhere other than on the living room floor! We go to Aunt Katie’s church, man, we sang ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, and, you know, we didn’t know nothing about no encore or clapping us back. But people kept clapping us back. We ended up singing that song three times! It was the only Pops had taught us all the way through. Daddy said, ‘Shucks, we’re going home to learn some more songs. These people like us!’ And we did; we went home and we rehearsed some other songs and he taught us some other ones. But these were old songs - people thought we were old people! (Laughs) Now, my voice, I was singing baritone. I loved the baritone voice; it was the prettiest voice in the group to me. Well, Purvis, my brother, he was singing like Michael Jackson, way up high. Then, all of a sudden, Purvis’ voice changed. He reached puberty. Pops said, ‘Mavis, you’re gonna have to sing lead.’ I said, ‘Oh no Daddy, I don’t want to sing lead. I want to sing baritone, because baritone is the prettiest voice in the background.} He kept at me. ‘Mavis, you’re gonna have to sing lead.’ I said, ‘No, Daddy.’ He started reaching for… He had a little piece of belt about the size of a ruler. He had cut it. It was just for my little legs when I was bad. I kept telling him, ‘Nuh-uh. I’m not gonna sing that. I’m gonna sing baritone.’ He reached over for that little piece of belt and I saw him. I said, ‘Okay Daddy, I’ll sing! I’ll sing Purvis’ part.’ And I’ve been singing lead ever since! My voice was way down there, but I could go up too. The Lord just blessed me.

The Dockery Plantation produced Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson…

And Howlin’ Wolf, yeah.

Yes, all of them blues musicians. Why did Pops choose to pursue gospel over the blues?

Well, I think by the time he got to Chicago, it was easy for a black person to sing gospel and be heard, to get somewhere. Just like you see all of the artists that go to a choir first, that go to a church choir first. Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston: they sang in the church choir before they can make it in R&B or wherever they’re going. Pops probably just felt that he knew a gospel group, and the gospel groups, they could make money; they could go to different places and sing those gospel songs. Whether they wanted to switch or not… Some of the Temptations used to sing gospel. By the time he got to Chicago, all them bad blues singers were there, and they could play some blues! Pops couldn’t really play no downhome blues. I didn’t realise that Daddy was playing the blues while we were singing gospel. On his guitar, he was playing the blues. He wasn’t like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He may have been; if he had kept singing with that group and someone had seen him or heard him, he might have switched over to the blues. But he started singing gospel with us. He figured that was the best. He knew he wasn’t going to have his children singing the blues.

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I presume also there must be a difference between what is felt in the delivery of those two types of music. There’s a quote from the queen of gospel Mahalia Jackson that says: “Blues are the songs of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them, you are delivered of your burden.’


Right. Yeah. You loosen your spirit. When you sing gospel, you feel good yourself. I’ve been singing it a lot for myself. Sister Mahalia Jackson, she was my idol, and she told the truth right there: gospel is singing the songs of hope. Black people, period. Singing gospel, you feel like you can make it over the hump. The slaves, they used to sing spirituals to send a message. Like, if everybody was out in the field picking cotton and they were going to have a meeting tonight, someone would start singing: “Steal away / Steal away / Steal away / Steal away home,” and they would start coming out the field, because that was telling them, ‘We’re gonna have a meeting tonight. We gotta get together.’ And gospel music, that ’s they way they would send their message. Like she says, they are songs of hope, they are songs of freedom, they are songs of joy. We were singing gospel - me, as a kid, I had a voice... My father would tell me about how these record companies… ‘Mavis, these record companies all want to offer you all this money. Do you want to go sing R&B?’ I said, ‘Oh no, Daddy. The group is my security blanket. I ain’t going nowhere.’ And after I did ‘A House Is Not A Home’, I wanted to do those songs because I had come into being a woman. I had been married and divorced, I had heartbreak, and I wanted to sing about it. I wasn’t thinking about leaving the family. ‘A House Is Not A Home’ reached Number One in a lot of places, and when the people called The Staple Singers to sing, they wanted me to sing ‘A House Is Not A Home’. Daddy said, ‘Mavis, they’re ready for you now.’ I said, ‘Ready for me to do what, Dad?’ He said, ‘They want you to sing your song.’ I said, ‘Pops, I can’t sing it. I can’t do that.’ He said, ‘You got a record. You got to sing the song.’ Out there by myself? I could not dream of getting out there by myself. It took me forever - after my father passed - for me to start talking on the stage. Daddy, he did all the talking. After he passed, everything was on me; I had to talk, I had to sing… My sister Cleotha had passed, and my other sister Yvonne told me: ‘Mavis, you go on and sing. I’ll take care of your business.’ I said okay. I got up on that stage - three times I tried. That third time, I came off and said, ‘Yvonne, you have got to sing.’ I said, ‘I gotta hear one Staples voice on that stage. I can’t do it.’ I’d be listening for Pops, I’d be listening for Cleotha. I said, ‘You got to sing with me, and that will help me.’ Then I was trying to talk on stage. I was messing up. Oh man, I was a mess. But it has come now to where I have to talk and sing. Well, I do it now; I’m more conditioned for it. I knew I was going to have to do it.

I’m not a religious person, but I don’t think that you need to be to appreciate gospel music.

No, you don’t.

It’s about deliverance.

There you go. Exactly.

I was in Austin in March for SXSW and I watched that new Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace, and it was a transcendent experience because it’s the connectivity of the human voice and it’s the human spirit coming out. I think you don’t have to be religious to love gospel, you just have to understand human nature. Spirituality and religion don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

That’s right. You don’t have to be a member of a church. You are sensitive. You have emotions. Oh, I can imagine what that did to you; Aretha singing ‘Amazing Grace’?

It was beautiful.

Oh, man.

I think you’re better than Aretha, by the way.

(Laughs humbly) No, no, no. No way, no way, no way.

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‘We Get By’ is out now on ANTI- Records. Mavis Staples is playing Glastonbury in June, with two further UK dates in July, and is, in this writer’s humble opinion, definitely better than Aretha.

Words: Simon Harper

 

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