Gospel Legend Mavis Staples Comes 'Full Circle'
From small country churches to the stages of the civil rights movement to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mavis Staples' career has spanned more than 60 years.
The gospel legend has shown no interest in retirement. Her new album, One True Vine, is her second collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
"It's a totally different CD," Staples tells NPR's Neal Conan. "It's a return to my beginning. As far as I'm concerned, it's brought me full circle. I've gone from the strictly gospel to folk to country, and here I am right back at home where I began."
Staples began singing with her family band The Staple Singers when she was 13. She says her latest album reminds her of singing with her family, and that she always tries to sing at least one song written by her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, who died in 2000. One True Vine includes "I Like the Things About Me," a song in which her dad used to sing the lead.
Staples says it was a challenge to sing his part: "Pops, he was a singer's singer. I loved to hear my father sing. He just was so laid-back and cool. I always wished I could sing like Pops."
She says her father taught her to just sing from her heart and let it flow. "Just be Mavis," he used to say.
Staples still sings with her sister Yvonne. "When Pops passed," Staples says, "Yvonne tried to tell me to go on and sing, and she would take care of my business."
Staples says she got on the stage about three times, but something was missing.
"I didn't have any of the family on stage with me," she says. "I got off that stage and I said, 'Listen, Yvonne, you have to sing. I need to hear at least one Staples voice on that stage.' "
Yvonne still sings backup for her sister, along with two other singers.
Collaborating With Jeff Tweedy
Producer Jeff Tweedy wrote three songs for the album: "Every Step," "Jesus Wept" and the title track, "One True Vine." She says that on the songs Tweedy wrote, there were a couple of times when they lovingly clashed in opinions on style and delivery.
"He was lucky he was in the engineering room and I couldn't get to him to shake him," Staples says. "But I went on and did it his way, and I tell you I'm grateful. I learned something new."
Next, Staples says she hopes to make a country album, as well as a tribute to Bob Dylan: "I'm always trying to find new things to do," she says. "I don't know which way I'm going. My next CD might be country, might be Dylan, might be Mick Jagger. I don't know. I love a challenge."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
From small country churches, to the stages of the civil rights movement, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mavis Staples' career has spanned more than 60 years. Her newest album, a second collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is "One True Vine," out yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE TRUE VINE")
MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Life had ceased. I was lost and tired. You set me free from this mighty, mighty fire, just in time to be my one true vine.
CONAN: The title track from Mavis Staples' new album. She joins us in just a moment. But first, if you are a musician, we want to hear from you today too. Tell us about your most interesting collaboration. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Joining us now from member station KCRW in Santa Monica is Grammy Award winner Mavis Staples. Welcome. Congratulations on the new album.
STAPLES: Thank you. Thank you, Neal. Happy to be with you.
CONAN: And you got glowing reviews in The New York Times, which described this record - it was an interesting - I wonder what you thought of it as both a sequel - you have collaborated with Jeff Tweedy before - and a reversal. What did you think they meant by that?
STAPLES: Well, I think they meant that, you know, it is a sequel. And as far being a reversal, we are - it's a totally different CD. You know, it's - the meaning, the songs are very intimate and very personal. And it's just - actually, it's a return to my beginning. You know, it's a - it reminds me so much of when I was singing with my family because the songs are kind of the same type of songs that we would sing together, you know. And as far as I'm concerned, it has brought me full circle. You know, I've done it all. I've gone from, you know, the strictly gospel, to folk, to country. And here I am, right back at home where I began.
CONAN: Well, you're - it's interesting. You talk about going full circle. There's a tune on the album your father wrote and something you with the Staple Singers performed 40 years ago. Let's hear a clip from "I Like the Things About Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE THE THINGS ABOUT ME")
STAPLES: (Singing) I looked in the mirror and what did I see? A brand-new image of the same old me. Oh, but now I wonder why should I be surprised. I like the things about me. I like the things about me. I like the things about me. I like the things about me that I once despised.
CONAN: Now, that song, of course, your dad sang the lead on that song.
STAPLES: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.
CONAN: What was it like to take his part?
STAPLES: And, oh, man. It's a challenge, you know, because Pops, he was a singer's singer, and he was mine. You know, I love to hear my father singing. He just was so laid-back and cool, and I always wished I could sing like Pops, but he taught me well. He taught me to sing like you sing, Mavis. Don't try to copy anyone else. You know, just sing from your heart and let it flow. Just be Mavis, you know.
But, yes, Pops did sing the lead on that song 40 years ago. And I always try to sing one of - at least one of my father's song that he wrote on my albums today. And I told Tweedy. Tweedy said, well, Mavis, I know you want to sing something that Pops wrote. What did you have in mind? And I did...
CONAN: I was just laughing at the imitation there. That's was pretty good.
STAPLES: Yeah. And I don't know why I do that. I can't help but (unintelligible) him, you know, try to sound like him when he talks. But he sings when he talks, you know, and he has a twang, you know? But yeah, I told him. I said, well, I like the things about me that I once despised. He said, you do? I said, Tweedy, that's the title of the song. You know, and he said...
STAPLES: He said, oh, wait a minute. I missed that one. You better sing some of it for me. And I sang that second verse.
(Singing) There was a time I wished my head was fine, and I can remember when I wished my lips were thin. Whoa, but now...
And he said, wait a minute, Mavis. I - that one got past me. How did that get past me? I don't know that one. I said, well, Tweedy, you can't keep up with me man. I said, I'm too fast for you. And he said, oh, we got to put that one down. I like that. And that was the way we came about singing "I Like the Things About Me."
CONAN: It's interesting the - you call him Tweedy. He and his band Wilco appeared on this show, well, several years ago. We call him Mr. Tweedy 'cause, you know...
STAPLES: Oh, I know he liked that.
CONAN: Yep, I bet he did. In the meantime, it's interesting, he played - of course, you famously toured with your family. On this album, he plays most of the instruments except for the drums. His son plays drums on this.
STAPLES: Yes. Yes, little Spencer. And actually when we recorded, Spencer was 16 years old. He's 17 now. And he's turning out to be a really good drummer, you know? And he asked me, Mavis, do you mind if I play on your - I said, oh, Spencer, I would love for you to play. And this little guy, he has his own band, you know, and actually, he and Tweedy and his other little brother Sammy, they have their own group. They call themselves the Raccoons. You know, I don't know why they came with that name instead of calling themselves The Tweedys, you know?
But I thought it was just great. I - it reminded me of working with my father. And I saw how this kid, you know, he takes off from Tweedy, and Tweedy has this look of admiration on his face. He's proud, you know? And it just took me back. This whole CD took me back home, you know?
CONAN: When you are performing with your family - you grew up in this environment - it's not like really you had a choice or at least that's what I would guess. You have choices now.
STAPLES: Yes. Yes, I do. And, you know, I've just been pushed into being a solo artist. I never wanted to be. You know, I was called with different record companies to leave my family. But this was what I wanted to do. This was my security blanket, singing with my family. And this is what I loved, you know? But now, I'm on my own, and I do have choices that I have to make myself. And I think I'm doing pretty good I guess, you know? I'm thinking...
CONAN: I think you're doing all right.
STAPLES: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: We want to talk with members of our audience about collaborations. Musicians, what's the most interesting collaboration that you've (technical difficulty) from David: I'm collaborating with my brother over the Internet. We have a standing gig in Second Life, which is a virtual world where people can attend our gigs where they can see us playing together even though we live on opposite coasts, he in New York and me in San Francisco. I wonder, do you - obviously, you still get together with your sister from time to time. Do you still - do you sing together?
STAPLES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. My sister Yvonne is still with me. You know, I - when Pops passed, Yvonne tried to tell me to go on and sing and she would take care of my business. I said, OK. So I got onstage about three times. And something was missing, you know, I didn't have any of the family onstage with me. I got off that stage. I told Yvonne, I said, listen, Yvonne. You have to sing. I need to hear at least one Staples voice on that stage, you know, because I'm listening for Pops, I'm listening for his guitar.
And so she decided, OK, Mavis. I'll sing with you. And she still, you know, Yvonne's in the background with two other singers, Vickie Randle and Donny Gerrard, and we're always together. I can't leave home without her.
CONAN: Let's see if we'd get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Nakia(ph). Nakia with us from Austin.
NAKIA: Hello. Yes, Nakia, that's correct. Yeah, you know, I had a really interesting opportunity. I was on a show called "The Voice" on NBC, season one, on Cee Lo's team. And directly after that, I was connected with Lamont Dozier, the legendary...
CONAN: Lamont Dozier of Dozier - Holland, Dozier and Holland?
NAKIA: That's correct. And was able to go over to his home in Los Angeles and write a song with him. And it turned out he had actually been watching the show and was a fan of mine from the show. And as somebody who had never really done any co-writing before like this, to walk in with, you know, one of the world's premier songwriters and have that opportunity, it was pretty mind-blowing. And we wrote a song together that we're hoping to put on my next record.
CONAN: And did - are you happy with it?
NAKIA: I am. We're actually still tweaking it but, you know, it's very soulful and it's got a great feel to it. And, you know, I mean, I don't know how I could be unhappy with it.
CONAN: Well, good luck with it, Nakia. Thanks very much. It must have been a privilege to work with Mr. Dozier, Lamont Dozier.
STAPLES: Yes, indeed.
NAKIA: It really was. Thank you.
CONAN: I wonder, on this record - you and Jeff Tweedy obviously work very closely together. In addition to some of the material your family did, your father did with you...
CONAN: ...there's stuff that he wrote on this record.
STAPLES: Yes, indeed. Tweedy wrote three songs: "Every Step of the Way," "Jesus Wept" and "One True Vine." And I love all three of that songs. You know, he got three this time, he did two on the first CD...
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And...
STAPLES: ..."You Are Not Alone."
CONAN: Yeah. Did you ever, as you're rehearsing with him, say, you know, shouldn't we do it this way?
STAPLES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. We have to do it my way.
STAPLES: We have to do it my way. If I'm going to sing the song, I have to sing it the way I sing it, Tweedy. And he don't give me any trouble. He don't give me any lift behind it, you know? But there was one song, this time Tweedy had to keep telling me, Mavis, no, don't go there, not like this, you know?
STAPLES: And I said, well, Tweedy, this is the way I sing. And I know you want to take it over there but not - this song, it calls for staying over here, you know? And he was lucky he was over in the engineer's room so I couldn't get to him to shake him, you know, but I went on and did it his way. And I tell you, I'm grateful, I'm good. I learned something new. You know, I have my way and he has his way, but him being the writer of that song, he heard where I should stay up instead of going down, where I was going. And I'm grateful that I learned that from him, you know?
CONAN: We're talking with Mavis Staples about her new album and collaboration with producer Jeff Tweedy, "One True Vine." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get Michelle on the line. Michelle is with us from Independence, Missouri.
MICHELLE: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
MICHELLE: We're doing - I'm doing interest in collaboration with an up and coming young instrumental band called Sour Apple Surgery. And I'm having a art show bash. And I'm doing spoken words then we are combining my spoken words with their instrumentals, which is emotional and alternative, which is what my show is. And so we're going to have fun just doing that. We've never done that before and...
CONAN: So you're reading your poetry set to their music?
MICHELLE: Well, actually, I'm giving my writing, my poetry to them, for them to do whatever they want to implement it and do an original piece of music that they will play live at the art bash.
CONAN: Wow. It's going to be an interesting day when you sit there and listen to it.
MICHELLE: Yeah. Because I have no idea what they're going to do with it, so I just give it to them and just have fun because I'm too involved with getting to show up. So it was like, would we still want to do this (unintelligible) kind of neat.
CONAN: Well, good luck with that. It's going to be an interesting show.
MICHELLE: We hope so. We hope to have fun. So thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go to Chris. And Chris is with us from Springfield, Missouri.
CONAN: Go ahead.
CONAN: You're on the air.
CHRIS: Thanks for having me, Neal. Hello.
CONAN: Yes. Go ahead.
CHRIS: OK. Thanks for having me. Yeah. I get a collaboration with Michael Brewer of Brewer and Shipley about six years ago. He helped produced our album. It was called "Techs and the Roadies." And because of his help and everything like that, we were able to get a sound to - from England from a record label there. And that was over about five, six years ago, but it was so great.
And then later on, we did another album where we had a collaboration with different other artists and he sang one of the songs that I wrote, which (unintelligible) wrote. I learned so much from him. It was just great. We become good friends after the whole fact.
CONAN: It's nice to have a mentor and somebody to give you a leg up.
STAPLES: Oh, yeah, it was just great. And he's just - he's such a talent and such a great, you know, producer and songwriter and everything like that. So, you know, those are the great things about this industry that I just love meeting people like that.
CONAN: Other things you may not love so much, but anyway, Chris, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: We appreciate it.
CHRIS: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: Mavis Staples, I do have to ask you, we just have a couple of minutes left, but I've read that you might want to do a country record.
STAPLES: Oh, yes. You know, I love country music. And, you know, Marty Stuart is my father's godson and I just, you know, I'm always trying to find new things to do, you know? And after this CD, I don't know if it'll be a country album. I've also always had in mind doing a tribute to Bob Dylan. You know, it's one CD of all Dylan songs. And I don't know which way I'm going, Neal.
STAPLES: I don't - I just don't know - I'll keep putting thought to what is on my mind, you know? And I have sing some country songs in the past.
CONAN: Well, Bob Dylan wrote of a few.
STAPLES: Bob Dylan wrote a few songs that - a few country songs you mean?
STAPLES: Right. He has and he's - we've recorded - the Staple Singers has recorded at least six Dylan songs, you know? So I might have to check out the country songs that he wrote. I don't think I know them yet and if I heard them. But I'll check that out and that might be the answer. It might be my - on my next CD. It might be country, might be Dylan, might be Mick Jagger, I don't know. You know, I love a challenge.
CONAN: Mavis Staples, a Grammy Award winner. Her new album is out this week. It's called "One True Vine." She was kind enough to join us today from the studios of KCRW in Santa Monica. Thank you so much for your time today. Good luck with the album.
STAPLES: Thank you, Neal. It's been my pleasure.
CONAN: Tomorrow, Ted Koppel will be with us one last time. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.