When did you first meet Mavis? You’ve been playing in the same circles since “Take Me To Church” took off, but how did this relationship develop and how did it go when you asked her to be a part of this?
We initially attempted to hook up in Australia in Byron Bay, at Byron Bay Blues Festival -- there was talk between our managements because we were going to be at the same festival at the same time. I think we missed each other by a few hours, but there was talk of us getting together or doing a song or just having a chat. Then it was a good few months later -- sadly, we weren’t able to hook up -- the Newport Folk Festival, it was my second time doing Newport, I joined Mavis Staples onstage with loads of other artists for her last number, and it was a really, really beautiful moment. We all got together on stage and then after that her management reached out to see if I was up for doing a bit of writing on her most recent album. Sadly, I was up to my gills on tour. With this project, when I was writing this song, that was always in the back of my head. When I finally got into the studio and was talking about bringing this to life, I reached out to Mavis, finally. Third time’s a charm. We were able to get together on it, which was amazing.
You grew up in Ireland; you were interested and fascinated by American music, but is there a challenge that comes with participating in a narrative anchored in American history and its current national news cycle when you didn’t grow up here? How do you navigate that, having a foot in both worlds?
It’s a tricky one. Ireland had its own civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s with internments existing for Catholics and gerrymandering, etc., and trying to bring in a one man/one vote system. Of course, we have our own history with civil rights here. We’re a part of a global community at this stage. In the same way that culture and values cross the world now in such an easy way, we don’t really live in a bordered world when it comes to culture and media. When we are dealing with rhetoric or a global upswing of rhetoric that flies in the face of common human dignity, human rights and human decency, I think that affects us all. And yes, I didn’t grow up in America; that’s not to say that what happens in America doesn’t affect us here and doesn’t reflect, doesn’t make waves across the world, certainly when it comes to foreign policy as well. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. It’s other countries that bear the brunt of those consequences.
The purpose of the song is really to talk about how -- the civil liberties and civil rights that we do enjoy, the kind of common respect for the dignity of people that we take for granted now -- is not something that was ever given. It’s not something that was ever given freely. It was something that was sweated for, and wept, and bled for by people who we thankfully still have around today. We can still look to that legacy, and it is something that will go again and something that we can regress from, or we can progress with. These are tenuous times, but we do live in a global community.
When working with Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones, did you discuss their experiences in the ‘60s?
I had a week with Booker, so we talked a lot over lunch and stuff. He shared a lot of anecdotes... With Mavis, the other day we were sitting down doing some video work together. We started talking about it … she was saying how the importance of those events were making themselves clear to her with more resistance. Listening to her describe the resistance that she faced and the resistance that movement faced, we look back to the achievements of civil rights as if it were something we were all behind, of course. Who could ever deny this group of people the vote, or deny that segregation or internment is wrong, or the brutalizing of this community is wrong? Who could ever be an apologist for the institutions that carried these policies, that enacted these policies? Who could ever disagree that it’s wrong? At the time, there was such, such resistance, and hearing her speak about that -- in the same way that, again, history so often does repeat itself, and even nowadays we see such resistance to even the simplest stuff, of statements of conscience and statements and decisions of conscience. Being around Mavis and listening to her account was really very unique, and I’m very grateful for it.