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Interview: Mavis Staples

Gospel great Mavis Staples discusses singing for Martin Luther King, and being proposed to by Bob Dylan.

Interview: Mavis Staples

From opening Martin Luther King’s rousing speeches during the American civil rights movement, to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and becoming a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Staples’ voice is one of the most cherished of her generation.

The gospel great has joined forces once more with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco on this, her 13th album; One True Vine covers substantial and at times dark terrain, but the overarching message is one of hope and optimism in the face of adversity.

“This was recorded at a time that people needed comforting,” explains Staples. “They were losing their jobs and their homes… the main spiritual message we wanted to pass was an uplifting one – you know, give you a reason to get up in the morning. There’s so much turmoil in the world today. When I look at these kids, I can’t help but think about when I was a kid, and how we would be jumping rope and playing hopscotch and be so happy. I don’t see this today. Everyone’s fighting, everywhere I turn.”

Asked to be an “honourary grandmother” to Tweedy’s children along with her sister Yvonne, Staples’ relationship with the famed Wilco frontman digs deeper than just a working one.

“The Wilco band live on the north side of Chicago, and I live on the south,” she starts, of the formation of her friendship with the rocker.

“I happened to have a concert in Chicago at a club called the Hideout and before the show, Tweedy came into my dressing room to introduce himself. Then afterwards, he and his band members came backstage and complimented me on the show, and we took a few pictures and had a little chat. Three weeks later, my manager called me to say, ‘Mavis, Jeff Tweedy wants to produce the next album.’ I was like, ‘Now wait a minute Dave, I’d like to get to know him a bit better! What do you think if we have lunch one day?”

According to Staples, Tweedy was “shy” at first, until she broke the ice with a joke. But it was a kindred love of family-life that bonded the two musicians and would see them working together on Staples’ next two records.

“Jeff floors me with the songs he writes,” she gushes. “And I love being in his studio – The Loft. It’s so homey. You know, it’s cosy – I have my own little corner, and nobody’s allowed in my corner.”

Staples’ musical foray began as the youngest member of 50s blues group, The Staple Sisters, led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples.

“My father used to sing with an all-male group called The Trumpet Jubilees. He’d come home disgusted cause these guys wouldn’t show up to rehearsal. Then one time when Pops came home, he went straight to the cupboard and got out a little guitar he’d bought from a pawnshop. He called all his children in the living room and gave us a song to sing. My Aunty Katy lived with us then, and she said ‘shuck, y’all sound pretty good!’ Aunty Katy bought us these little blue skirts and pink chiffon blouses, and we sang at her church from then. We’d sing songs that Pop taught us.”

Even today, Staples continues to keep her father close to her.

“Every now and again, if I need to, I just start talking to him. I know he’s with me, and I feel better knowing that.”

Under the guidance of “Pops”, the Staple Sisters would go on to help soundtrack the 60s civil rights movement, opening the speeches and protest marches of Martin Luther King, performing rumbling gospel numbers with political undertones that would later be referred to as “freedom songs”.

“It was an honour to hear Dr. King say: ‘good morning girls!’ each day,” she recalls. “My father wrote a song that turned out to be his [King’s] favourite. I remember one time he came out and asked Pops, ‘Now Roebuck, you gonna sing my song tonight right?’ That song was ‘Why am I treated so bad.’”

Throughout her 60-year career, Staples has worked with some of the industry’s finest. Bob Dylan was so affected by her infectious brand of southern soul that the folk legend once famously proposed to her.

“We were so young, and I was so naïve,” tells Staples. “But I often wonder, if we had some crumb crushers, how they would have sounded.”

Staples also performed at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest for the third time, admitting to a love of Australia and New Zealand.

“Oh, we love Australia and New Zealand,” she says. “My sister and I love Byron Bay, and we’ve met so many wonderful people in New Zealand. The first time we visited Wellington, a lady gave me a necklace that my drummer still wears today.

One True Vine is out now through Warner Music.

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