Band: Mavis Staples
Album: We Get By
Label: ANTI– / Indigo
“I’m the messenger,” Mavis Staples says on the eve of her 80th birthday. “That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day.”
That message—a clarion call to love, to faith, to justice, to brotherhood, to joy—lies at the heart of ‘We Get By,’ Staples’ spectacular twelfth studio album and first full-length collaboration with multi-GRAMMY Award-winner Ben Harper. Backed by her longtime touring band, Staples breathes extraordinary life into Harper’s compositions on the record, delivering roof-raising performances with both a youthful vigor and a commanding maturity. The arrangements here are spare but weighty, matched by Harper’s suitably lean and thoughtful production, and Staples seizes the opportunity to showcase her remarkable and continued evolution as an artist, one still growing and exploring more than half a century into her storied career. ‘We Get By’ is undoubtedly a timely collection, arriving such as it does in the face of deep social divisions and heightened political tensions, but like everything Staples touches, it’s also larger than any particular moment, a timeless appeal to the better angels of our nature that’s universal in its reach and unwavering in its assurance of better things to come.
“When I first started reading the lyrics Ben wrote for me, I said to myself, ‘My God, he’s saying everything that needs to be said right now,’” Staples remembers. “But the songs were also true to my journey and the stories I’ve been singing all my life. There’s a spirituality and an honesty to Ben’s writing that took me back to church.”
Hailed by NPR as “one of America’s defining voices of freedom and peace,” Staples is the kind of once-in-a-generation artist whose impact on music and culture would be difficult to overstate. She’s both a Blues and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; a civil rights icon; a GRAMMY Award-winner; a chart-topping soul/gospel/R&B pioneer; a National Arts Awards Lifetime Achievement recipient; and a Kennedy Center honoree. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and sang in Barack Obama’s White House. She’s collaborated with everyone from Prince and Bob Dylan to Arcade Fire and Hozier, blown away countless festivalgoers from Newport Folk and Glastonbury to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, performed with The Band at The Last Waltz, and graced the airwaves on Fallon, Colbert, Ellen, Austin City Limits, Jools Holland, the GRAMMYs, and more. At a time when most artists begin to wind down, Staples ramped things up, releasing a trio of critically acclaimed albums in her 70’s with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that prompted Pitchfork to rave that “her voice has only gained texture and power over the years” and People to proclaim that she “provides the comfort of a higher power.” In between records with Tweedy, Staples teamed up with a slew of other younger artists—Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Valerie June, tUnE-yArDs, and M. Ward among others—for ‘Livin’ On A High Note,’ an album The Boston Globe called “stunningly fresh and cutting edge” and which first introduced her to Harper.
“Ben wrote a song for that album called “Love and Trust,’” explains Staples. “When he said he that he wanted to produce me, I told him, ‘Well shucks, if you write another song like that, count me in.’”
Harper did more than write just another song, instead penning an entire album of emotionally riveting and spiritually uplifting tracks that hit Staples directly in the heart. The tunes fit her like a glove—due in no small part to the decades Harper spent listening to Staples’s music, both with The Staple Singers and as a solo artist—and Staples found herself fighting back tears as she fell in love with the beauty and sincerity of those early stripped down demos
“I come from a family of Mavis fans,” explains Harper, “so her music has been woven into the fabric of my life from the very start. When I got the call for this gig, it felt like my entire career, everything I’d ever written, had been pre-production for this.”
Leading up to the recording sessions, Harper sat in the audience for several of Staples’ concerts, approaching her performances now as a student more than a fan. As brilliant as Staples’ studio output was over the years, Harper came to understand the stage as her home and her touring band as her family, and capturing as much of that spirit as possible seemed like the obvious approach for ‘We Get By.’
“There’s so much soul and Muscle Shoals in that band,” explains Harper. “They’ve got a specific chemistry that I recognized instantly. When you have a guitar player like Rick Holmstrom, a bass player like Jeff Turmes, a drummer like Stephen Hodges, and a vocalist like Donny Gerrard all supporting the voice of the century, why would you ever want to go outside of that foundation?”
With Harper at the helm, the band recorded everything live at Henson Studio in Hollywood, CA, capturing the kind of powerhouse energy and deep pocket grooves that have come to define Staples’ legendary concerts. While Harper had a distinct vision for the sound of the record, he purposely kept his demos to skeletal sketches, leaving space for Mavis and the band to interpret and give flight to his songs in the inimitable way that only they could.
“The more I’ve produced over the years, the more I’ve heightened my sensitivity to what different artists require,” reflects Harper. “Every artist and every album is different. With Mavis, sometimes the most important thing you can do is press record and just get the hell out of the way.”
The record opens with the stirring “Change,” which finds Staples proclaiming, “Say it loud say it clear / Gotta change around here” over a simmering, fuzzed-out guitar line. It’s a song focused as much internally as it is externally, and after one listen, it’s plain to see why Staples and Harper referred to the studio’s vocal booth as the “prayer room.” Staples’ performance is hypnotic, holy even, restrained in its delivery but relentless in its urgency, and it lays the groundwork for an album that insists on joy and communal celebration without pulling any punches or sugarcoating any ugly truths. The funky “Anytime” looks fearlessly to the future, while the rousing “Brothers and Sisters” is a call for action in the face of injustice, and the gritty “Stronger” promises there’s no power in this world greater than our love for one another.
It’s impossible to listen to a voice like Staples’ without contemplating all she’s been through in her life—the album cover features a heartrending Gordon Parks photo that speaks to the casual cruelty of racial segregation in 1950’s Alabama—but it only serves to make her optimism and resilience that much more inspiring and contagious. There is darkness and doubt on the album to be sure (the spirit of Pops Staples informs the mournful “Heavy On My Mind,” which recognizes that some wounds never heal, while the poignant “Never Needed Anyone” stings with the pain of lingering regret) but it’s consistently overpowered by hope and conviction. “Been holding on too long to let go / Running too hard to slow down / Believing too deep to not have faith,” Staples confesses on the soulful “One More Change To Make.” In that sense, the album’s title is more than just an observation. When Staples and Harper join forces to sing “We Get By,” it’s a prayer, a promise, an invitation.
“I sing because I want to leave people feeling better than I found them,” Staples concludes. “I want them to walk away with a positive message in their hearts, feeling stronger than they felt before. I’m singing to myself for those same reasons, too.”
Even the messenger needs a reminder every now and then.
Infos zum vorherigen Album:
Band: Mavis Staples
Album: Live In London
Label: Anti- / Indigo
“It just ain’t no stopping me, is it?”
With those defiant, triumphant words, Mavis Staples launches into “Reach Out Touch a Hand,” the joyous final track on her new album, Live in London. The recording caps a remarkable chapter in Staples’ legendary career—a decade that has seen her reach new creative heights and win ever-greater acclaim, even as she is now counting down the months to her 80th birthday.
“It’s kind of unbelievable to me that I’m still recording,” says the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center Honoree. “I never thought I would still be singing at my age, and people seem to really want to hear me, they know me, they give me love—I'm just overwhelmed, really. I thank God every night before I go to bed and then again every morning for waking up.”
Recorded at London’s Union Chapel (which she calls “the best place in the world to sing”) and produced by Staples herself, the live album reveals that the singer retains astonishing power after seventy years as a performer, and that while her repertoire continues to expand, her philosophy is unchanged since her days in the groundbreaking family group, the Staple Singers.
“It’s still the same message,” she says. “I’m still trying to bring us together and make the world a better place through songs. We need one another more than ever now—things ain't no better now that when I started seventy years ago.” Her sense of compassion and justice shoots through these performances, offering a voice of resistance that is more necessary than ever during these troubled times. “No Time for Cryin’ “ not only connects the timeless gospel image of “motherless children” to the modern-day refugee crisis, it also calls for action, just as Pops Staples and his children did during the Civil Rights movement.
For this project, Staples—who is still on the road almost 200 nights a year— welcomed the spontaneity and vulnerability of recording live. The album captures the spirit and energy, the commitment and intensity, that she brings to the stage every night. “I don't think about it being recorded, I’m just singing for the people and expressing my feeling through the songs,” she says. “I don’t try to do anything perfect for the record, I just sing from my heart. Pops taught me that years ago—what comes from the heart reaches the heart.”
Ironically, her last live record—2008’s Hope at the Hideout—was cut against the background of her fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama’s historic election, while the new album inevitably addresses the horrors of the Donald Trump era. Notably,
though the Staple Singers were responsible for such indelible anthems as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” Live in London delivers its own powerful sounds and formidable statements without including those classics. “Of course I still perform those songs,” says Staples, “but we didn't see any need for them to be on the record. This gives people a chance to hear what we're doing now.”
The focus of this collection is material she has recorded since signing with ANTI- Records (which has been home to such other revitalized legends as Merle Haggard, Solomon Burke, and Booker T.) in 2007. In recent years, Staples has had songs written for her by iconoclastic artists like Nick Cave, Neko Case, and Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards); collaborated with modern rock powerhouses Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, and Hozier; and recorded multiple albums working with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco.
“I’ve stretched out—I’m singing songs that rock stars have written for me,” says Staples, “but they know me and the kind of songs I want to sing.” She points to the opening song on Live in London, “Love and Trust,” which was composed by Ben Harper. “I love that song, it’s a beauty,” she says. “I’ve been sending a message of love and trust since the Sixties, and I’m still searching for that.”
Mixed in with these newer songs (and “Let’s Do It Again,” which she notes is “the only secular song that the Staple Singers ever recorded”) are a few selections chosen just to bring the funk—Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” and “Slippery People” by Talking Heads. “We drop those songs in just to kinda spice things up,” she says.
Mavis Staples began her career singing with the family group in 1950. When she graduated from high school, the Staple Singers started touring, and—with their stunning harmonies and Pops Staples’ distinctive, chiming guitar tone—rose from popularity in the gospel world to become a central part of the soundtrack to the protest movement of the 1960s. The Staple Singers “freedom songs,” magnificent expressions of strength and empowerment, earned the group a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
Staples would go on to record two albums produced by Prince (one titled simply The Voice), and to work with Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and George Jones. In 2017, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 2018 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Arts Awards.
“I must be the happiest old girl in the world,” says Staples. “After all this time, I still do what I love, and I think about my father and how he raised us and taught us.
“I just wish that more young people would speak up and write songs with a message of us coming together and loving one another,” she continues, emphasizing the need for artists to challenge the rise of division and hate stoked by politicians from the White House on down. “Music is powerful, it’s healing, and I would love to see today's artists give that message. I can't be the one to do it— I've been singing these songs all my life, and I’m gonna keep on as long as I'm here. That's what I feel like I'm here for.”
With the recent passing of her sister Yvonne and her dear friend Aretha Franklin (“the Franklins and the Staples were all like one family, so I felt like I lost another sister,” she says), Mavis Staples is one of our few remaining links to an extraordinary time when the gospel tradition and the fight for social justice were deeply and movingly entwined. As Live in London demonstrates, Staples continues to fight the fight—and to rock the house.
“I talk to them, and to Pops, most every day, and I tell them I'm going to keep it going,” she says. “I'm just a good ol’ Christian girl and I want everybody to be happy, to be nice to each other. Let's just take this world on out in a good place— I may not still be here to see it, but I'll be in there trying, pumping my fist, to make it happen.”
Bio "If All I Was Was Black:
Band: Mavis Staples
Album: If All I Was Was Black
Label: Anti- / Indigo
The history Mavis recalls from her early years touring with her family as The Staple Singers, the prejudice, ugliness and danger, well it’s all still here. In response, the singer has delivered If All I Was Was Black, ten songs about contemporary America today, a present day filled with ghosts of the past. "Nothing has changed," Mavis remarked in early August, just days before neo-Nazis marched with swastika flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a young woman was murdered. "We are still in it.”
If All I Was Was Black is Mavis' third collaboration with songwriter and producer (and Wilco frontman) Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis' legendary voice and a nation she's uniquely poised to address.
In the wake of the current race-baiting and rhetoric of exclusion appearing not just on the streets, but issuing from statehouses and even the White House, Mavis and Tweedy found themselves completely in sync and wanting to say something about the fissures dividing the country. "We're not loving one another the way we should," Mavis confided, as if sharing the secret to happiness, or something better. "Some people are saying they want to make the world great again, but we never lost our greatness. We just strayed into division.”
Explaining why he decided to tackle the state of the union, Tweedy said, "I've always thought of art as a political statement in and of itself—that it was enough to be on the side of creation and not destruction. But there is something that feels complicit at this moment in time about not facing what is happening in this country head on."
The lyrics are occasionally shot through with anger. "I have a mind to bury them whole, when they go low," Mavis sings on "We Go High." "There's evil in the world, and there's evil in me" opens the first verse of "Try Harder." "Oh, they lie, and they show no shame" adds a harsh undercurrent to "Who Told You That," an anthem against accepting the status quo. Unsettling musical elements wind their way through the record, too, from the abrasive guitar distortion of "Try Harder" to a descending bass line that signals danger on "Little Bit.”
Despite all this, the mood ring on Mavis' 2017 outing is set to love, which runs through and over the fury and despair. The songs move less like a hammer and more like the tide, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. She is singing the world as it is, but also a way forward. Mavis is sure that the answer is to lift each other up. She's not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but the possibilities of love.