Mavis Staples Brings the Joy, But It's Complicated

Greg Kot
Photo: Rick Majewski (Zuma Press / TNS)
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Mavis Staples: “I’ve been making people cry down through the years, and this time I wanted to make them smile.”

Mavis Staples had only one request when some A-list artists were approached to write songs for her forthcoming album, “Livin’ on a High Note” (Anti-). “I wanted joyful,” she says. “I’ve been making people cry down through the years, and this time I wanted to make them smile.”

But joy in the Staples lexicon is a complicated emotion. She grew up singing gospel — a genre in which salvation is never far from earthly struggle — in South Side Chicago churches in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Her family group the Staple Singers emerged as among the most outspoken musical voices against racial oppression in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And now, rallying cries such as “Ferguson,” “Freddie Gray” and “Laquan McDonald” echo the most brutal hardships of the civil-rights era.

It was a language that Neko Case embraced. Her song “History Now” is one of the standouts on “Livin’ on a High Note,” and it was a challenge for Case, who had never written a song for another artist before. “When they asked me to write a song for Mavis, I thought it would be the ultimate, but it was also kind of scary,” she says. “I watched a show in which she talked about why the Staple Singers sang certain songs as part of the civil rights movement. There were horrible things to talk about, but they still managed to be uplifting.”

Case “didn’t think it was right for me as a white person to translate what they said from an African-American perspective,” so she widened her lens to encompass the struggles of women, the gay community, and all people who have felt left out or voiceless. “What do we do with this history now?” the song asks. “How do we dismantle the sorrow and rage?” Staples turned the song into a stirring duet with one of her backing vocalists, Donny Gerrard.

Case says her demo was “a lot darker,” but Staples underlined the resilience just below the surface. “I was totally bawling when I first heard it,” Case says. “That’s how they (Staples and Gerrard) are. They can just kill you with their voices.”

Producer M. Ward, who contributed two songs to the album, tried to stay out of the way of Mavis and the songs as much as possible. “The chemistry between Mavis and her band and backing singers was already built in,” Ward says. “We had a week with Mavis in the studio, and with more time, we could have recorded twice as many songs (12 made the final cut). The most surprising thing to me was how quickly Mavis came into the studio and cut these tracks. She called her little vocal booth her ‘prayer room,’ and we ended up using first and second takes most of the time. When you have that kind of singer and force and energy, you just let it happen because anything too artsy-fartsy or oblique (in the production) would only ruin it.”

For Staples, the notion of capturing the moment was ingrained at an early age. Her late father and Staple Singers patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, “had always told us, from day one, we gotta rehearse,” Staples says. “You listen to the songs, get your feeling for them and know where you want to take them. I’d get embarrassed if I got behind the microphone and didn’t know what to do. So you prepare. I’m a first-take girl.”

Because the history of the civil rights movement is so interwoven with Staples’ life, she made many of the songs recorded for the new album personal as much as political. On Ward’s “MLK Song,” which quotes lines from a speech that Staples saw family friend Martin Luther King give in the ‘60s, the singer says she found herself crying over some of the words. Nick Cave’s “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me” flips the roles in an abiding spiritual relationship.

“I read the lyrics, and in the song I’m comforting the Lord,” Staples says. “I loved that idea because the opposite has been true for so long in my life.”

And then there was Justin Vernon’s reflective ballad “Dedicated,” which Staples transformed into a song about lifelong friendship. A recent documentary about the singer, “Mavis!,” which will debut Feb. 29 on HBO, highlights the relationship between Mavis and her older sister Yvonne, who helped coax Mavis to resume her music career after their father’s death in 2000. Now Yvonne has retired from her long-held position as her sister’s backing vocalist. Dementia prevents her from touring.

“That one got me,” Mavis Staples says of the song. “I think about Yvonne when I sing that, how I fought to keep her with me till I just couldn’t keep her any more. I had to let her go and have her stay home with some really good caregivers while I’m traveling. I sing that song and I get choked up every time.”

The singer’s ability to burrow inside a song and make it her own amazed Ward. The joy was not always apparent in the songs as originally written or as performed on a demo, but the singer had a knack for finding it.

“If there is a window into a song or a lyric that can take you or the listener to a spiritual place, she will jump through it and everyone will follow her,” Ward says. “After seeing the live show, I saw something that I see very rarely. I remember seeing it with Pete Seeger also, the ability to unite thousands of people into some kind of cause that is hard to put your finger on. (Staples and Seeger) know what it is, and how to get people there. It’s a spiritual element but also a uniting spirit. If a lyric has something that could possibly be something that brings people together, then she will put the exclamation point on it.”

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