At 76, Mavis Staples is ready to take Coachella’s ‘teeny-boppers’ to church
Before she took the stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Mavis Staples had a plan.
“I’m gonna talk to ‘em — say, ‘You teeny-boppers, I wouldn’t expect you all to be here at church,’” she said, then burst into a low, throaty chuckle. “That might get a rise out of ‘em.”
Staples, the 76-year-old soul and gospel veteran, was sitting in a trailer Friday before her performance. The annual festival, which repeats this weekend at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, is known for its audience of pleasure-seeking twentysomethings — not exactly a natural fit for Staples’ rough-hewn songs of resilience and faith. So the singer was pondering how best to connect with people before they skipped off to be happily pulverized by Jack U’s hammering electronic beats.
Turns out she needn’t have worried: An hour or so later, Staples was standing in front of a good-sized crowd in the Gobi tent, drawing big cheers with a lively set as funky as it was devout.
Part of what the audience was responding to was Staples’ energy, which is running nearly as high these days as it did in the 1960s, when she was helping to soundtrack the civil rights movement with her groundbreaking family band, the Staple Singers.
“I’m having a ball,” she said in her trailer. An air conditioner was providing some respite from the midday desert heat, but Staples clicked it off to protect her voice. “I never thought I would be singing this long. And to be heard at this point in my life? All our shows are sold out. I just thank the Lord because he’s not through with me yet. He’s telling me, ‘Mavis, I got much more for you to do.’”
The Lord isn’t the only one not finished with Staples. To produce “Livin’ on a High Note,” she recruited indie-rock singer and guitarist M. Ward, who commissioned new songs by some of his peers: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, Neko Case, Ben Harper. In their tunes, you can sense their respect for Staples and what she symbolizes but also their expectations of her as a working musician; “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me,” written by Nick Cave, has tricky intervals and a lyric that requires real gravitas to put across.
“Livin’ on a High Note” follows collaborations with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, with whom she won a Grammy for 2010’s “You Are Not Alone,” and Ry Cooder, who produced 2007’s “We’ll Never Turn Back.”
Staples called her creative partners “the geniuses.” (Cooder, at 69, is “the senior genius.”) I asked her if these were recording experiences in which a well-known guy was showing up expecting to remake the idea of Mavis Staples.
“Nah, nobody has done that,” she replied. “They leave it up to me. I guess they think, ‘Well, hell, she’s almost 80 years old — she knows what she wants to do.’”
Still, Staples said, there have been instances in which she had to trust someone else’s judgment. While working on “You Are Not Alone,” Tweedy asked her to record an a cappella rendition of the gospel standard “Wonderful Savior” on a stairwell outside his third-floor Chicago loft.
“I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not going in that stairwell — it’s 14 below out there!’” Staples recalled. But Tweedy persuaded her, and after bundling up in a coat, scarf and gloves, Staples sang the song outside. “We went back in and played it, and that darn thing sounded so good, I said, ‘You want us to go back out?’”
Another person she learned to trust was Jessica Edwards, the filmmaker who directed “Mavis!” The movie notes that Dylan proposed to Staples in the ‘60s. “I don’t know how that little girl got me to tell as much as I did,” Staples said with a laugh. “But Bobby and I, we were in love. We smooched.”
“With me being a gospel singer and a Freedom Rider, people just think…,” Staples said, trailing off. “I don’t think they think I’m holier than thou, but they don’t look at me as even having a boyfriend. It’s like I belong to them.
“But it was real,” she said of her romance with Dylan. “And I often think about it. Had I married Bobby, we would’ve had some little crumb crushers, and they’d be singing now. We would’ve had us a family group: the Stap-Dylans, or the Dylan-Staps.” She laughed.
“Now I know where we’re gonna be in June: We’re gonna be pushing each other around in a wheelchair,” she said. “I’m gonna have to tell him just like I told him back then, ‘Cool it, Bobby.’ He’ll say, ‘Mavis, let’s go out tonight — let’s go dancing.’
“And I’m gonna try him. I’ll say, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
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