Mavis Staples’ second act
It’s early July, and Mavis Staples is sitting in the Silver Lake-based offices of Epitaph Records, a truth that is surprising to her. The 71-year-old gospel and soul legend from Chicago isn’t the first artist of heritage status to be embraced by Epitaph’s adventurous Anti- division, but she’s no doubt outnumbered by the corporation’s younger, more punk-leaning brethren.
None of that, however, explains why Staples is stunned this afternoon, repeatedly using the words “awesome” and “blessed” during an hour-long interview. Ask a question about one of her songs, and Staples doesn’t answer it. Instead, she sings the number.
Ask Staples about recording for Anti-, which will release her Jeff Tweedy-produced “You Are Not Alone” on Tuesday , and Staples starts telling stories about hanging with Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, the punk rock founder of Epitaph/Anti-. Ecstatically, she relays that Gurewitz gave her a tour of Epitaph’s impressive coffee collection. “He said to me, ‘Mavis, we’ve got all different kinds, different flavors of coffee out here.’ I will sleep tonight with a big smile on my face. I am just so happy.”
If Staples speaks with the wide-eyed optimism of a first-timer, it’s because in some ways she is. Though she has been singing for 60 years and got her start as a member of the Staple Singers, her career seemed destined for the nostalgia circuit as recently as 2003. Having been devastated by the 2000 loss of her father, Pops, the patriarch of the Staple Singers, her recording output slowed. Unable to find a label, she funded the 2004 album “Have a Little Faith” herself, and it was eventually picked up by Chicago’s Alligator Records.
Nearly six years later, Staples has returned to recording and performing at a prolific pace. (Her sister Yvonne, also a member of the Staple Singers, continues to sing with Mavis.) “You Are Not Alone” is her third album for Anti-, and her first collaboration with Tweedy, the architect of Chicago’s art-pop collective Wilco. It reconnects Staples with the folk-gospel sound that marked her work with the Staple Singers in the ‘60s, when the family band would tackle songs from Bob Dylan. Tweedy resurrected two songs written by her father during the period, and mixed them with works from Allen Toussaint and gospel traditionals.
“I really believe that the best stuff in Mavis’ career has been the stuff where it’s not necessarily just her voice, but the voice of her and her family and her father,” Tweedy said. “You don’t need much else.”
“You Are Not Alone” continues what’s becoming something of a tradition for Anti-, the multigenre offshoot of Epitaph Records. Overseen by Andy Kaulkin — easily identifiable at local shows due to his crazed, Tim Burton-esque hair — Anti- has helped rejuvenate the careers of gospel-wailer Solomon Burke and forgotten soul veteran Bettye LaVette, and has done so by re-contextualizing the artists with unexpected collaborations.
Having LaVette, for instance, work with Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers brought a contemporary backbone to her sound, and helped alert the press to the artist’s legacy. “Being on this label,” said Staples, “I won’t say I’ve gotten more respect, but I’ve met more people, like people who want to interview me.
“I’ve been singing 60 years, and I have known other people who have sang a lot of years, like Koko Taylor, and I don’t know if they were as blessed as I am. I’m just grateful. I’m overjoyed. I’ve never come to a record company and sat and done interviews. I’ve never done that.”
Though Tom Waits and Neko Case are Anti-'s most prominent artists, the label also has earned a reputation as a home for the left-of-center, and the combination of Staples and Tweedy fits the company’s genre-hopping approach. “From a business level, it’s a no-brainer,” Tweedy said. “The fact is nobody is buying the genre records as much as they used to. You have to try to find an audience that’s younger.”
Kaulkin doesn’t want any of the credit. He released, in collaboration with avant-blues label Fat Possum, Burke’s 2002 album “Don’t Give Up on Me,” which saw the artist singing the songs of Elvis Costello and Waits, among others. It went on to win a contemporary blues album Grammy and has sold more than 117,000 copies in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“The Solomon record made me aware of what we could do, and it gave us some credibility,” Kaulkin said. “Our mission is not to revive older artists who are at a career lull. We’re like any other label. We’re looking for great artists, and artists who have something to say. Mavis is one of those artists, and she has something to say. It doesn’t matter how long she’s been around and how old she is.”
It does, however, to Staples. Her 2007 album with Anti-, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” was a modernized take on the freedom songs of the ‘60s, an idea that sprang from Kaulkin. L.A. composer Ry Cooder produced the effort, which sold a modest but respectable 57,000 copies — more than any of the label’s three albums with LaVette.
How to follow? Staples wasn’t sure, but she wanted something that would get her noticed.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should do a country album. Or an all-folk album.’ I was thinking of covering Joni Mitchell, and all these folk songs that had been hits,” Staples said. “I’m so old-school. I’m so old. I was thinking, ‘I have to do something people will hear.’ But I didn’t think Jeff Tweedy would be my producer. Jeff Tweedy was the answer.”
Tweedy had gone to the small Chicago club the Hideout to see a Staples performance, which was released as an album by Anti- in 2008 (“Live: Hope at the Hideout”). At the time, he noted that discussions were already happening between his management and Anti- about Wilco backing Staples. Such a concept was nixed early, however.
“I remember talking to the rest of the guys in Wilco afterward, and we all agreed that it would be a shame to separate her from her band,” Tweedy said. “It was a case where somebody was trying to talk her into having Wilco back her, and we would have been happy to do that if her band wasn’t smoking hot.”
Tweedy did, however, write a pair of songs for Staples — the bluesy gospel rocker “Only the Lord Knows” and the album’s title track, a disarming ballad with a compassionate backing choir and a slow-burning electric guitar. It all frames Staples’ rich, deep voice, which Tweedy reverentially describes as its own instrument.
Staples wanted the song to be the centerpiece of the album, as it was inspired by a conversation she had with Tweedy. Staples was telling him, remembered Tweedy, of how the church began turning its back on the Staple Singers as the act took on more folk and pop stylings.
“I went off on my little theory or rant about what I believe all music says, and it all says, ‘You are not alone.’ Even the most vile, disgusting heavy metal music is saying to someone sitting in their bedroom that they are not alone,” Tweedy said. “There are two consciousnesses at work. Maybe it was too metaphysical to get into at the time, especially since we didn’t know each other very well, but she responded to it. She said, ‘That’s the name of a song.’”
For Staples, consider the message received. “Tweedy came with these songs, and I was thinking, ‘You know, I could have done that.’ If I had just put my mind to it, I could have done that. But I didn’t. So after this, I told Tweedy that we have to do this again. I want to do another CD with him. He said he would continue to write songs for me, and I will go into the studio and sing them.”