Mavis Staples has been singing professionally since the 1950s and she’s still going strong with a new album coming out in February titled “Livin’ on a High Note,” and an upcoming HBO documentary simply titled “Mavis!” It tells the story of her 60-plus years as a singer, including her time in the family group, The Staple Singers.
The band topped the charts with songs such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.” And Mavis Staples’ solo career has been marked with many successes, including a Grammy Award for her 2011 album, “You Are Not Alone,” which was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
The Frame's Oscar Garza spoke with Staples about her new album, her long friendship with Bob Dylan (who once proposed to her), and how she keeps her voice strong after all the years.
How did you team up with the producer of your new album, singer-songwriter M. Ward?
I turned out to love him because he is so cool. He lives in Portland and I happened to have a concert out in Portland and he came out with his wife and his two year-old son, Abraham. I didn't know him and I had mentioned him to one of my friends and she said, "Oh, Mavis. You will love M. Ward. He is very good." She said, "The only thing is that he's shy." And I said, "Well, you know me, I'll make anybody talk." But M. Ward, he stayed shy. But I really like the way he worked and he just let me go. I'm in a little glass room and he would say, "Okay, Mavis. You got it." I said, "Alright. Let it go. Turn the music on."
This record has quite an assortment of contemporary contributors and songwriters. Did you know who many of these songwriters were?
Oh, yes. A lot of them were my friends. I hadn't met Nick Cave or Bon Iver. I talked with everyone on the phone like tUnE-yArDs. They wanted to know what I wanted and I let them know that I wanted some songs that were happy and uplifting. All of my songs I've been singing — my freedom songs and my gospel songs — I've just been shining my light and hopefully bringing everyone up. A lot of people would cry when I sang these songs. I knew it wasn't a sadness all the time, but I just wanted people to smile now and feel good.
There's someone in your upcoming HBO documentary who is known as a reclusive artist. Yet there he is — Bob Dylan talking about his old friend, Mavis Staples. I have to say something: I think he still has a thing for you.
Well, if we were gonna hang now, we'd have to hold each other up [laughs] ... But that was something special. I had called his manager and I said, "I want Bob to come and talk for me and say something about the family on this documentary." He said, "Oh, Mavis. He doesn't do that. He doesn't do those kinds of things." And I said, "Well, can I have your address? I want to write him a note."
He gave me the address. I wrote Bobby a letter. The next thing [his manager] was calling me saying: "Mavis, what did you do? What did you say in that letter?" I just reminded him of a few things [laughs] from back in the day. He decided to come and when he came that day, he brought me a single rose. One rose, yeah.
What did I tell you?
[Laughs] Well, you know, both of us probably always have some feelings for each other, but we may as well let them just travel on out the door. Ain't nothing happening. But he's a dear friend. We see each other and have a nice little chat.
You know, we made a record together out here in L.A. at a studio. When he walked in, he had his cowboy hat on and his cowboy boots. I was standing way in the back. I said, "Hey, player!" [He said], "Mavis, I'm not a player." I said, "Oh yes you are. You're a player." But those were wonderful days to remember.
You and Jeff Tweedy finished a record last year that your dad had recorded more than 15 years ago?
Right. Back in 1998, and in the beginning of 1999.
And what did your dad say to you about that record?
You know, my sisters and I had moved to his house because he wasn't well. His bedroom was upstairs, and I went up to see how he was doing. He said, "Mavis, bring the music in here. I wanna hear it." I set it up and started playing it in his bedroom. I said, "How do you like it, Pops?" He said, "Mavis, don't lose this. Don't lose this."
So it wasn't finished at that time?
It wasn't finished because Pops, we would go to the studio and he would lie down. He just wouldn't feel like it. Then I would take him back home and he would tell me after a few days, "Mavis, book that studio! I feel like singing." The majority of it was finished, but there were certain times where he would sing and he wouldn't play his guitar or he would play his guitar and wouldn't sing. I kept it to myself all those years.
Why is that?
Well I didn't want nobody to hear it but me. Then, when I got started back, I said, Now it's time to get Pops' record out. I couldn't do it after he first passed because none of us were on the radar — The Staple Singers or me. So I knew that I had to make a record.
Then I got Pops' stuff out of the closet and I said, "I'm gonna take it to Tweedy." When he finished, he said, "Mavis, you wanna come over to the loft and hear Pops' product?" My sister and I hurried over there. He put "Friendship" on and, man, I heard daddy's voice ... I just had to let go.
Your voice has not changed very much. How do you take care of it?
You know, the best thing to do is to get rest. My father taught me that. I'm still trying to talk a little softer. I talk loud because there were a lot of us children in the house and I wanted to be heard. But I get my rest and the best thing for me is my tea and honey. I don't have any problems with my voice. I'm not a smoker. Every now and then I have...
A little taste?
Also in the documentary, your backup singer, Vicki Randle, said that you'll sing all night unless they drag you off the stage.
I will! Sometimes the show is over and I'm just fired up. I'm still ready to go.
And then you said that you'll stop when you don't have anything to say, but I can't imagine that's going to be anytime soon.
Nah! I'm always gonna have something to say. But I'll have to change that: as long as I have my voice. So you know what that means? I'm not going anywhere.
Mavis Staples' new album, "Livin' on a High Note" is out on Feb. 19. The documentary, "Mavis!," debuts on HBO on Feb. 29. Mavis Staples will also be performing at this year's Coachella Music Festival.