Mavis Staples performs at West Coast Blues N’ Roots on Sunday, March 29, at Fremantle Park. BOB GORDON reports.
When Mavis Staples wrapped up touring in support of her 2007 album, the Ry Cooder-produced We Will Never Turn Back, a collection of American Civil Rights songs, she was at a bit of a loss as for what to do next.
Enter Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced her 2010 album, You Are Not Alone, and its follow-up, One True Vine, in 2013.
“After doing We Will Never Turn Back I really had no idea what direction I was going in,” Staples recalls down the line from her home in Chicago. “People were asking me, ‘what are you going to do now?’ I didn’t have a clue. I was so grateful to Jeff Tweedy; he had the answer. He gave me these songs to listen to and they are what we chose the album from.”
In true form, any new high-points in Staples’ career come from a salute to the past with a nod to the future.
In a career that has spanned half-a-century and began with her beloved father Pops (Roebuck Staples) as part of The Staples Singers, she has become a legend in R&B/gospel music and a bona fide musical force in the American civil rights movement.
“Some people say that things are different now, but to me it looks just the same,” she says with some resignation. “Nothing has changed – the civil rights movement, the struggle, lives on. There are songs that still need to be heard. And the songs on those albums are to inspire the people from the struggle. So I’m still doing, what I’ve been singing about all my life.”
You Are Not Alone and One True Vine featured songs written by Tweedy, John Fogerty, Allen Toussaint, Nick Lowe and (WCBR co-star) George Clinton. From the 2010 release, Randy Newman’s Losing You has proven especially moving for her.
“That song, in my mind, went straight to my father,” she says of Pops, who died in 2000. “I’ll never get over losing my father. I can get over losing my pet; I can get over losing my husband or my car. But my father, who I sang with for over 50 years? I’ll never get over that. And that is how I sing that song. For my father.”
It was Tweedy – who has since co-produced with Staples this year’s Don’t Lose This, songs from Pops’ final recording session in 1999 – himself who encouraged the singer to re-record some of Pop’s material. Clearly, she is not merely singing those songs, but reaching out to her father.
“I said, ‘Tweedy, you would be doing the best thing you could do for me if you let me sing some of my father’s songs’.
Staples has interpreted Don’t Knock, I’m On My Way To Heaven, Downward Road and I Like The Things About Me on both Tweedy-produced albums.
“I tell you it was the best thing that could have happened because Rick Holmstrom, my guitarist, he’s been studying Pops for years. I said, ‘Rick, Pops is here with you’. I felt my father’s presence when he played in that studio. And when we’ve been playing onstage, I’ve had to look around at him sometimes, because he plays so close to Pops.”
As for Don’t Lose This – the phrase that Pops uttered to Staples about the recordings before his death – it’s another dream come true.
“I would just break into tears anytime I heard Pops’ voice on these records,” Staples wrote recently on her website. “There never was a point that we didn’t want to release them; it was just the timing. I knew that the record needed tweaking, so I said, who else to help me with this but my friend Jeff Tweedy?
Staples has been a passionate supporter of US President, Barack Obama. Times, of course, continue to be tough, in light of the hurdles thrown at him by his detractors and civil rights issues that continue to dog the US to this day. As a civil rights singer and activist, she remains as she has been her whole life… hopeful.
“I still have hope,” Staples says. “I just continue to pray for him. I get sad sometimes as he gets no help – from the Republicans, from the Tea Party people… it’s so bad it reminds me of the ‘60s with what’s going on today.
“We just have to pray that Obama will have strength, that The Lord will give him strength, to continue pushing on. But I still feel that’s he’s going to be just fine. As many who have pulled against him, there are triple that many that are still for him. I still feel that there’s hope and that everything’s gonna be alright.”
Mavis Staples at West Coast Blues N’ Roots 2011 Photo: Michael Wylie