Be sure to look out for Ms. Staples’s new album is being released alongside “Mavis!,” an HBO Documentary Films biography that has its premiere Feb. 29.
Mavis Staples No Longer Wants to Make You Cry
By JON PARELES
CHICAGO — Awards and mementos fill the walls of Mavis Staples’s apartment in a high-rise on the South Shore here. Next to a window with a long view over a choppy Lake Michigan on a rainy, windy February afternoon, there was the platinum single of the indelible 1972 Staple Singers hit “I’ll Take You There.” There was a tambourine with Prince’s trademark glyph, a souvenir of the two solo albums he produced for her on his Paisley Park label. There was a photo of Ms. Staples with the Obama family, autographed by the president with thanks for a “magical evening” when she performed at the White House for a PBS soul-music special. And on a small table sits “my one Grammy,” Ms. Staples said, for her 2010 album “You Are Not Alone.”
That album, produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, was only the midpoint of an extraordinary productive streak for Ms. Staples at a time when most performers have retired or wish they could. Her late-blossoming solo career has yielded six albums and an EP since 2004, including her new album, to be released on Feb. 19, “Livin’ on a High Note” (Anti-). She has had previous solo albums: attempts to make her a pop hitmaker on Stax and Paisley Park that ran aground in part on record-company politics. But her 21st-century run of albums has reaffirmed Ms. Staples’s lifelong messages — faith, family, freedom, honesty, perseverance — as she both reaches back to the sound of the Staple Singers and tries some new twists.
“Livin’ on a High Note” is a collection of songs written for her by indie rockers half her age, among them Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards), Nick Cave, Neko Case, Ben Harper and the album’s producer, M. Ward. It uses the electric-guitar twang and bluesy ease of her longtime road band; it also takes some chances while bringing out the pleasure and righteousness of her singing. Pharrell’s “Happy” was very much on her mind when she made the album, she said: “I wish I had that song.”
When she spoke to songwriters, she told them: “I want something joyful. I want to stop making people cry. I’ve been making people cry all my life. The songs I sing, the freedom songs and my gospel songs — I know I’ve been inspiring and uplifting people. But now I want to reach them in a joyful way.”
Ms. Staples, 76, is a small, round woman with a cherubic face and a voice that has lost none of its gutsy power since she unleashed it, some six decades ago, as the teenage lead singer in the Staple Singers, the gospel group directed by her father, Roebuck Staples, known as Pops, who died in 2000. Pops Staples had grown up picking cotton in Mississippi, learning guitar from the Delta bluesman Charley Patton, before coming to Chicago and bringing some of that rural blues flavor — along with a particular tremolo electric-guitar tone — to the devout songs he performed with his children. When the family first appeared at churches in the 1950s, Ms. Staples recalled, “They’d have to stand me on a chair so people could see where the voice was coming from.”
In conversation, exactly as in her songs, Ms. Staples’s cadences are deep, syncopated and emphatic — preacherly — and regularly punctuated by her easy laugh. “Sometimes I sit here, and I talk to the Lord and I talk to Pops,” Ms. Staples said. “I say: ‘Well, Daddy I’m getting ready to make another record. Do you believe that?’ And then I can just see him getting tickled and getting a twinkle in his eye.”
She added: “When you take a lyric and you know what it means, you want to make it real. Make it where you can see it and feel it. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. If you sing from your heart, you will reach the people.”
As the opening song on the new album notes, Ms. Staples’s mother nicknamed her Bubbles as a child. “I said, ‘Mama, why you call me Bubbles?’” Ms. Staples said. “She said: ‘Mavis, because you’re so bubbly. Your spirit—you’re so bubbly, you’re so happy all the time. You keep all of us happy.’”
Ms. Staples’s new album is being released alongside “Mavis!,” an HBO Documentary Films biography that has its premiere Feb. 29. It sums up a life that has encompassed singing gospel in a segregated South, performing freedom songs at civil-rights rallies alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and touring the world and racking up million-selling hits with her family, including “I’ll Take You There” — a vision of heaven delivered with Ms. Staples’s breathy, sultry moans over a reggae-funk backbeat — and the more secular “Let’s Do It Again.” For Ms. Staples and her family, a previous generation’s strict boundaries between gospel and pop were porous; the blues and gospel, she believes, are “first cousins.”
The documentary notes that Bob Dylan proposed to Ms. Staples when their paths crossed on the folk and civil-rights circuit. Their first kiss was at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Ms. Staples said in the 2014 book “I’ll Take You There,” by the Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot. “It was always in my mind that I couldn’t marry a white guy. I was so young and stupid,” she told Mr. Kot. “To this day, I could kick myself, because we were really in love. It was my first love, and it was the one I lost.”
The Staple Singers archives have been revisited lately, too. Last year saw the release of a four-CD compilation, “Faith and Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976” (Stax/Concord) and “Freedom Highway Complete,” a stirring concert and church service recorded in 1965 soon after Dr. King led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Ms. Staples’s new album ends with “MLK Song,” M. Ward’s quiet, acoustic-guitar setting of a King sermon that Ms. Staples delivers as intimate advice. “He’s the greatest man I ever met,” Ms. Staples said. “I remember hearing that sermon.”
Ms. Staples’s 21st-century comeback follows the death of her father, which left her unmoored; he had been her mentor for decades. “He taught me to sing from my heart,” she said. “He would always say, when we were getting ready to make a record, ‘Make it plain. Make it plain, Mavis. Make it so you know what you’re talking about.’”
Ms. Staples made the album “Livin’ on a High Note” soon after a four-song EP released last year that she recorded with Son Little, who brings some hip-hop to the blues. That project was mournful and cramped in its arrangements; “Livin’ on a High Note” has more space and feistiness.
“This was the greatest recording experience of my life,” said M. Ward, the new album’s producer. “I feel like every song is an opportunity to make a spiritual connection. She calls her vocal booth her prayer room. To be able to have that frame of mind whenever you go into a vocal booth, just sharing a song in that way — I’m definitely inspired by the way that she’s able to make these connections.”
When Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards heard about the project, she eagerly joined it because, she said, “The Staple Singers have always done music that is relevant, and unfortunately the same songs are still relevant today.”
Ms. Staples discussed what she wanted with each prospective songwriter. “We probably talked for 15 minutes, and all of my suspicions about how to last long in this career, she proved them all to be correct,” Ms. Garbus said. “As in be humble, be everyday people, be a human being. No need to cop an attitude, we’re all human beings. She set me at ease right away.”
The song Ms. Garbus came up with, “Action,” is an upbeat successor to Staple Singers songs like “Respect Yourself”; it moves from fear to activism, insisting, “Gotta share the truth that’s inside me” and asking, “Who’s gonna do it if I don’t do it?”
Thinking about Chicago — a city that has been torn lately by police shootings of young black men — Ms. Staples said, “It’s so sad. Sometimes I feel like I’m living back in the 1960s. All of the marching, all of the freedom songs. It’s so sad that it’s not better. Let’s wake up. Let’s get over this.”
The title song for “Livin’ on a High Note” is by Valerie June, a singer from Tennessee with a deep accent. When Ms. Staples first heard it, she thought Valerie June was singing “Leaving on a high note.”
“I said: ‘She’s got me leaving! I don’t want to leave!’” Ms. Staples recalled. “And then when I saw the lyrics, it said, ‘living on a high note.’ Now that’s more like it. I can go for that! I want to be living. I don’t want to be leaving here. I’m not tired yet! Get out of my way, I’m coming through like a speedball. Like a ball of fire!”