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Singer Mavis Staples has offered a warm and uplifting voice through challenging times for more than 50 years. Her forthcoming album, If All I Was Was Black (Anti-), features reflections on racism in the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Staples’ pointed statements ultimately turn into expressions of hope and determination. The album, which will be released Nov. 17, is her third collaboration with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. The program combines the slow arrangements of early ’70s funk (such as Sly And The Family Stone) with guitar lines that echo the work of her father, “Pops” Staples (1914–2000).
Mavis rose to fame as a member of her family’s band, singing with her siblings and father in The Staples Singers. The group participated in civil rights marches alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, and Mavis has maintained strong opinions about social justice throughout her life. She spoke with DownBeat before embarking on a tour with longtime friend Bob Dylan. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How has working with Jeff Tweedy changed since you started writing and performing together seven years ago?
Well, I don’t know of any change other than it’s getting better. Tweedy and I, we just gel. He knows me very well. He knows my background, he knows my personality, he knows my heart. He can write for me. He knew my family very well. I let him into my life and he let me into his. When we’re not working together, I’ll go over to the Wilco Loft and we’ll have barbecue. They have a nice kitchen there. The Loft is like a cozy home. You walk into the engineering room, walk through the place, it’s like a homey studio. When we have lunch, we sit at the table. I have my own corner and nobody can go in my corner. And when I go there, my music stand and honey are sitting just where I left them. So I’m at home. We’re a family.
That one album in between, Livin’ On A High Note , I asked my record company, “Why was Tweedy not producing me?” They said, “Well, Mavis, we didn’t mean for it to be a marriage.” I said, “You’ve got something good, what’s wrong with keeping it?” But I enjoyed working with M. Ward and those other kids. They said, “What are you looking for in a song?” I said, “Well, you know all my songs, I’ve been making people cry. I wanted to put myself with that Pharrell [Williams and his hit song] ‘Happy.’ He makes you feel so good, happy, smiling. I want to make people happy.” But now, guess what: It’s turned the corner again.
I’ve got to go back to singing what I’ve been singing all my life: songs that would try to bring us together and make peace in the world. I knew my work wasn’t done, but I wasn’t expecting there to be a total resurgance of bigotry and hate. That’s what this album will do: stir us up and make us want to come back together and love one another.
This White House [sigh] is worse than ever, worse than it was in the 1960s. I look at the news and think I’m back in the ’60s. When I saw [footage of protestors in] Charlottesville, Virginia, I said, “Oh, Lord.” My stomach just turned. I felt sick. To see those guys marching with the torches. I was seeing the Ku Klux Klan. The next thing I thought they would do is set up a cross on fire. It’s so disheartening. I think about Dr. Martin Luther King. I think about my father and what we’re going through right now. It’s unbelievable. With all the years that we put in to make it better, and just that one man [President Trump] can just say something and turn everything around.
Musically, If All I Was Was Black has a lot of open space, especially on the funkier parts.
Well, that’s on Tweedy. I would tell him, “My God, Tweedy, that music is so me.” The first song, “A Little Bit,” when I heard that, I said, “Where is he going with this?” And when I heard the lyrics, I just choked up. When I was recording, I had to stop for a minute because I started crying. When I’m singing a song, I’m visualizing what I’m singing about. For the police to stop this kid, they caught him without his license, but that ain’t how they described it. They said they were fighting. And when the mother goes on to say [on that song], “My baby won’t make it home,” that just got me. I said, “Tweedy, all of the songs are saying something.”
There’s this song, “No Time For Crying,” that says there’s “no time for tears.” It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and start doing all over again what we were doing in the ’60s. I’m not a speaker and music is very powerful. If I believe the people can hear these songs, I’m looking for these songs to change some parts in our lives, to help get us to where we want to be, hopefully.
“Peaceful Dreams” sounds like The Staple Singers to me. I told Tweedy I can hear Pops’ licks. I went on to have the background close it out like The Staple Singers did. It’s so much like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the way we used to close it out. I just love everything about this album.
The title track, “If All I Was Was Black,” is upbeat and also sad. It’s a striking combination.
Yes, and Tweedy was kind of afraid to title the album If All I Was Was Black. I said, “Tweedy, take a breath: I’m singing this song and I’m black. You’re not going to be in any kind of trouble. As far as that goes, you’re black, too.” He told his wife, “Susie, Mavis said I’m black.” She said, “Well, if Mavis said it, you are.” That cracked me up.
When did you conceive of the album?
It was after the election. It was after this man [Trump] started saying all this crazy stuff. We did the album in May and June. You can hear that in “We Go High.” Yes, indeed, it’s really an album that says for all of the dirt that this man has done, the songs on this album are to try to fix it, try to make us feel better, bring us closer together and love one another. I feel compassion and I want you to feel that same compassion. I pray that the world can hear this album and hear the songs we’re singing and understand why we’re singing. It’s not a plaything.
This man, he can get us all killed. I try not to see him as much as possible but every now and then I have to go to MSNBC to see what’s going on. It’s unbelievable. We had a man like Barack Obama, an intelligent man, and the only bad thing for Barack was that he was black and they would not help him do anything. Anything he asked, they’d veto it. And that goes back to “If All I Was I Was Was Black” and its line, “Looking at you, you might look past all the love I give”—everything else about me other than me being black.
Jeff Tweedy, he’s the most bighearted and understanding person that I know. He writes the best songs for me. [Previous collaborators] Curtis Mayfield, Prince and Ry Cooder have been great producers and great songwriters, but Jeff Tweedy, there’s a Godly thing about Jeff Tweedy.
You’re about to go on tour with Bob Dylan. What should people know about your work alongside him in the 1960s compared to today?
It’s not just about what everybody talks about—Bobby proposing to me. The Staple Singers were turned on to and taught about folk music through Bobby. We were on this television show in New York and everyone was there. We were singing strictly gospel and through the grace of God that’s where we met Bobby. We’d go inside and Bobby started singing. We were talking and Pops would say, “Wait a minute—listen to what this kid is saying.”
Bob was saying, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man.” Pops said, “We can sing this song,” because when he was a boy in Mississippi if he was walking on the same side of the street and a white man was coming toward him, Pops had to cross over. We went home, got the album and recorded that song [“Blowin’ In The Wind”].
Right after that show, the Newport Folk Festival called us and that’s when Bobby told Daddy, “I want to marry Mavis,” and everybody started laughing because he yelled it out. We got really chummy when we were at Newport and from then on I was his girlfriend. When we meet up now, I mess with him. I’d watch his show and these ladies would shout, “Sing, Bobby, sing.” I’d say, “Why are these ladies calling your name like that? Nobody’s supposed to do that but me.” He’d laugh. I can say anything to Bobby. This year I think what I’ll do is just make a really serious proposal to him. I’m going to tell him, “Bobby, I’m proposing this time: Will you marry me?” He’ll probably say, “Mavis, get in line. There’s a lot of them ahead of you.”
Your voice remains in good shape after singing for so many decades. Do you have a specific training routine?
I have to. Sister Mahalia Jackson taught me when I was about 11 years old to take care of my voice. I was in church with her. I had sung and grabbed my jump rope and was ready to go outside and she said, “You, come here.” She felt my chest, felt my neck and said, “Don’t you know that you’re damp? You don’t go outside in the air after you’re singing like that. You want to sing a long time and get to be an old lady like me, right?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She said, “Well, you get dry first. Put on some dry clothes.”
So that’s what did it. Right up to today, I have a dry T-shirt to put on before I go out in the air. I do get my rest. I don’t go to after-parties. I drink plenty of hot tea and honey and I try to talk as little as possible before I sing. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do to keep my voice working. And God has a big hand in it, too.
(To pre-order Mavis Staples’ If All I Was Was Black, or to see her tour schedule, visit her website.) DB
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