Born Again: A Conversation with Mavis Staples

Posted on May 20, 2016 in Artist Interviews
Born Again: A Conversation with Mavis Staples

Sixtyfive years into her recording career, Mavis Staples’ incomparable voice and infectious spirit are truly wonders to behold.

Born in 1939 to Oceola and Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Mavis got her start early, singing in church and at home. Pops eventually put together a family band, and though Mavis was the youngest, she soon became the star of the Staple Singers, lighting up the world with songs like “I’ll Take You There,” “Let’s Do It Again,” “Respect Yourself,” and so many others.

Over the decades since, the Gospel and the song have stayed intrinsically linked in her heart, even as she has spread her musical wings far and wide, working with an eclectic group of collaborators, from Jeff Tweedy to Joan Osborne, Prince to Patty Griffin. Though she has long released her own albums, Mavis’s solo efforts didn’t really catch fire until 2004’s Have a Little Faith and it would be 2011 before she won her first Grammy Award — Best Americana Album for the soul-stirring You Are Not Alone.

But accolades and acclaim were never the end game. Mavis’s need to do what she does seems unattached to anything other than the pure pleasure and emotional expression of the music itself. If she weren’t “Mavis Staples, the much-lauded gospel singer,” no doubt she’d still be “Mavis, that lady with the amazing voice in the church choir.” That unadulterated joy is why M Ward, Ben Harper, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc, Justin Vernon, Neko Case, and others carved out time from their own careers to write the songs for her new album, Livin’ on a High Note. The set is funky and spunky and raring to go… just like Mavis.

You made your debut singing with the family band when you were 10, right? Obviously Pops taught you a lot, but who were your earliest influences other than him?

I really loved Sister Mahalia Jackson — Sister Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But Mahalia was the very first female voice that I heard singing. I used to be in my little play area in the back room and I would hear Pops playing these records. He always had so many male artists — the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys. All of a sudden, I heard this lady’s voice and it moved me on into the living room where my father was. I sat on the floor and he said, “Mavis, you were rocking! You like that, don’t you?” I said, “Yeah, daddy. Who is that?” He said, “That’s Sister Mahalia Jackson.” And I tell you, Pops would have to play Sister Mahalia Jackson’s record for me almost every day. Every day.

I finally met her. Pops came home from work one day and said, “Mavis, guess what?” I said, “What, daddy?” He said, “They want us to open at Tabernacle Baptist Church for Sister Mahalia Jackson on Monday night.” Lord, I thought my little heart was coming out of my chest. I got so excited. The bad thing about that, though, was I had to wait a weekend. This was a Friday and we weren’t going until Monday. So all that weekend, I was walking around the house just singing her songs. Pops had to tell my mother, “Oce, stop the baby.” [Laughs] My mother said, “Mavis, come on, baby. Rest a little bit. When you see Sister Mahalia Jackson, don’t get on her nerves.” I said, “I won’t get on her nerves, mama.” [Laughs]

I was so glad to meet that lady. We became friends. She would come to our house for fourth of July. She loved my mother’s homemade ice cream. She would always tell me, “Come here, baby. Get me a little more of that ice cream.” I’d say, “Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”

The last time I saw her was in 1969. We were on this gospel festival in New York. It was outdoors. I would make it a point always to sit next to her on stage. She leaned over to me and told me, “Baby, Halia don’t feel too good. I need you to help me sing this song.” I told her, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll help you.” By me being a church girl, I knew what the song was when the keyboard started playing. She told me, “You go ahead. You start it.” I started. The song was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” After I did the first verse, someone helped her up to the microphone. There I was, on the same microphone with my idol and my mentor. I was so proud. I’ll never forget that day.

I bet. Then, though, you did tell Pops you wanted to play guitar like Sister Rosetta, didn’t you? How’d that go?

[Laughs] I sure did! That didn’t go so well. He bought me a little practice guitar. He said, “Mavis, you gotta cut your fingernails off.” I cut all my fingernails off and we got started. I was about 11 years old, then. Pops was still young. He was still frisky. He just didn’t have the patience to teach me. He hung with me for maybe about two-and-a-half weeks, trying to help me. One day he told me, “Mavis, listen. You go down to Lyon & Healy and get some guitar lessons down there.” I didn’t know what to say! If I had been older, I would have done that. But I told him, I said, “Daddy, I want to pick it. I want to pick it like you and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” If I had been older, I would’ve gone to Lyon & Healy and learned, gotten some basics. Then, he could’ve taught me to pick it later. But I was so young. I couldn’t go downtown by myself to Lyon & Healy.

The guitar was thrown out. I just couldn’t. But the more and more I would see it… every little girl is playing guitar today. I tried to get my guitarist… I said, “Rick, can you give me some lessons?” He said, “Mavis, you can just strum. Just strum.” I said, “I think I can do that!” So, I’m still working on it. [Laughs] I don’t know. Maybe I missed my turn.

[Laughs] I think you had another calling is what it was.

[Laughs] Yeah. I hear you. I better go and keep singing.

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Even without picking a guitar, you still follow Sister Rosetta’s lead, in that you bridge the gap between gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, and you continue to explore that in-between area. No matter the genre, music is a spiritual experience. So, do you feel like that combination — putting a little bit of a rock edge on these deeply meaningful songs — do you think people connect with that more so than they would if it were straight gospel?

I do. I feel that they connect. And, being me, I don’t care if I’m singing a sure-enough love song, you’re gonna hear some gospel in my voice. By me being a gospel singer, I can’t get away from it. I recorded “A House Is Not a Home” years ago and I was so afraid that the church people were going to be angry with me. Turned out, the gospel radio was playing “A House Is Not a Home” on the gospel stations. So I got lucky. Nobody bothered me about recording my secular album.

But I think people do get it… I don’t know if it would come from anyone singing but, by me being a gospel singer, it happens like that. I sing “The Weight.” When I sing, “Take a load off, Annie,” it’s a difference, coming from me than a regular rock singer.

There is a little bit of a gap between you and Levon [Helm]. [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s my guy! That’s my guy! You know, the other day, I was cleaning a closet, and I found some drumsticks Levon had given me. Oh, I just had a fit. I propped them up in a candle holder so I can see them every day. I’m not putting them back in the closet. [Laughs]

[Laughs] I love it!

[Laughs] Yeah, Levon was my guy. And Levon… he and Pops were tight buddies. Levon was the only person that I know who called Pops by his name, Roebuck. Pops and my Uncle Sears… Pops’ family ran out of names when they were born because they had 14 children. And they named my father’s brother “Sears” and they named Pops “Roebuck.” [Laughs] Everybody had that Sears Roebuck catalog down in Mississippi. So, Levon would be, “Roebuck! Roebuck!” Pops would get so tickled.

When we were doing The Last Waltz, Marty [Scorsese] gave us a break. We all took a break and Levon stayed on his drums — he was sitting back there on the drums. Pops walked back there and started talking to him. Pops said, “Levon, man, you smoking two cigarettes?” Levon had one cigarette in one hand and he had his Mary Jane in the other. Levon held it up and told him, “Oh, Roebuck. You need to try this one.” Pops said, “Man, I don’t want that!” My sister said, “Daddy, Levon offered you a joint.” He said, “I know what it was. I didn’t want none!”

[Laughs] That’s wonderful! Now, speaking of your friends. On this new record… you used to write songs, but on this one, you “got help from all the people who love” you.

Yeah. [Laughs] I sure did!

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There’s Ben Harper, Valerie June, Justin Vernon, Neko Case, and a whole slew of others writing songs for you. Did you offer any guidance about what types of songs you wanted or topics you wanted to explore?

Oh, yes. I did. I spoke with a lot of them on the phone. One little girl [Charity Rose Thielen from the Head and the Heart], she was just so shy, she would hardly talk to me. [Sings] “If it’s a light…” — she did that one. I talked to that little guy, too. [Sings] “Mavis, take us back. Mavis, take us back.” Benjamin Booker. He’s a young kid out of New Orleans. I would tell them that I wanted some songs that were happy, that were uplifting. I let them know that I’ve been singing sad songs and singing songs that have been telling the world about the hard times, the bad times we had during the Movement, and I wanted to come up out of that. I wanted to sing some songs that would lift you up in a different way. I didn’t want to mention, but I couldn’t help it, I did the “MLK Song.” That was Dr. King’s speech, and I remembered that speech so well. When M. Ward brought it to me, I couldn’t resist it. I had to do that.

But I would tell them I wanted something joyful. This kid [Booker] came right with what I needed. “I got friends and I got people who love me.” That means all of these songwriters who took time off of their busy schedules to write a song for Mavis… old Grandma Mavis! They know me. A lot of them surprised me. They know me. They have followed my work and they jumped right on it. They were happy to write for me. I know Neko Case. She’s my friend. And I know Ben Harper. This little guy, Benjamin Booker, he came to a show we had in London and I met him. I had talked with him on the phone. He started singing to me, “Mavis, take us back. Mavis, take us back.” I said, “Where you wanting me to take you back to?” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Well, you took us there, so you might as well take us back! You’re the only one who can!

Yeah! [Laughs] That’s right! That’s exactly where he was coming from!

I got it!

Yeah, yeah. So I love that song.

Valerie June… I met her several times — I knew her from New York. I got so tickled when I got her song because she has this really Southern accent. She’s a real cute little girl and you just wouldn’t expect her to sound like that. I still have my Southern accent, but it’s what we call “talking Black.” That’s what I do. I talk Black. [Laughs] But Valerie June, when she sent that song, I thought she was saying “leaving” because that’s how it sounded — [Sings] “Leavin’ on a high note. Leavin’ on a high note.” [Laughs] I said, “Is she saying ‘leaving’ or is she saying ‘living’?” I said, “Oh, Lord. She’s gonna have me saying ‘leaving’!”

[Laughs] Nope. We’re not ready for you to leave yet, Mavis. Please.

[Laughs] No! I ain’t ready to go, either! But she was sending me on away from here! I was so glad that it was “Livin’ on a High Note.” She is beautiful. She’s singing on that song, you know.

Yeah. I can hear her.

Yeah! Oh, she has a beautiful voice.

Neko Case, “History Now,” I love that song. I love all of my songs. I love them all. Ben Harper, “Love and Trust,” that one kind of took me back — this is what we’re still looking for… love and trust. These are much younger people than myself, and I was just so honored that these young people have been following my career and know me.

This guy that wrote for me, Aloe Blacc, I loved his voice when I first heard his record. I said, “Who is this guy?!” Then I started seeing him on TV shows. When the managers would ask me who I had in mind to write me a song, I said, “Definitely Aloe Blacc. Let’s see if we can get one from him.” He sent his in pretty early. Valerie June was first. Then Aloe Blacc came with “Tomorrow.” When I did “Tomorrow,” my friend Trombone Shorty came in and did a solo on that for me. He’s a youngster, too, and I’m crazy about Trombone Shorty.

It’s like a rebirth, Kelly. I’ve been born again. Everything is just blowing up! At this time in my life, I’ve got to be the happiest old girl in the world. [Laughs]

[Laughs] It’s wonderful to see, I’ll tell you that.

It’s wonderful for me to see, too. My brother said, “Mavis, what is going on?!” I said, “Pervis, people like me!”