Mavis Staples Talks Collabing With Wilco's Jeff Tweedy On New Album
Mavis Staples has achieved every one of her life goals -- except for starring in a movie. “I told Justin Timberlake, ‘Look, Justin, your next movie, don’t forget about me. I’ll play the grandma,” says the 73-year- old singer, who began her career with family band the Staples Singers as a preteen in the 1950s. “He said, ‘Mavis, there’s no grandma,’ and I said, ‘There’s always a grandma!’”
Not that she would have time for the role if she got it. On June 25, Staples will release "One True Vine," her second collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy after 2010’s "You Are Not Alone." After six decades as a civil rights and gospel icon, that multigenre set earned Staples her first Grammy Award and highest chart debut at No. 69 on the Billboard 200, with sales to date of 60,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her relentless tour schedule will take her to seven festivals before the end of June, and then straight to a CD release concert and a pair of dates opening for Dave Matthews Band.
“She never really comes off the circuit. She’s astonishing,” Anti- director of marketing Tom Osborn says. “She can play with anybody, so she plays with everybody.” For a label whose biggest acts like Tom Waits, Neko Case and Wilco itself generally sell in the quarter-million range, Staples is a signing of more cultural than commercial importance. “I have such a visceral memory of my mother playing [Staples Singers] records, and Mavis being the soundtrack to that period of my life,” Osborn says. “The opportunity to work with a national treasure like Mavis has been nothing short of remarkable.”
The new set is darker and more heavily acoustic than the previous album, and features songs written for Staples by Tweedy and Nick Lowe, as well as covers of Low’s “Holy Ghost,” Pops Staples’ “I Like the Things About Me” and Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That,” which premiered on Pitchfork in April. Tweedy played every instrument except drums, which were helmed by his 17-year-old son, Spencer.
Halfway through recording "You Are Not Alone," Staples says, “I told Tweedy, ‘Tweedy, this is good. We got to do this again.’ He said, ‘Mavis, I don’t know if [the record company] will let me produce you again.’ And I said, ‘Tweedy, I’ll see to it.’” She says she felt especially comfortable at Wilco’s Chicago studio the Loft, but it was Tweedy’s songwriting on the new album that really moved her. “He’s a very free spirit. These songs are so strong, and I really have to go inside,” she says. “‘One True Vine’ just gave me chills. You can’t just jump on his songs. You have to take your time.”
The target audience for "One True Vine" are the discerning listeners defined by the overlap between Bonnaroo and public radio. Staples has connected with younger listeners through her festival plays and collaborations with Tweedy. NPR will play a lesser role than with the previous album, although there will be a “First Listen” and a probable return to “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where Mavis has been a standout guest. Radio campaigns will focus on Americana, folk, blues and gospel stations, and retail promotions include an in-store performance and Q&A at New York’s Apple Store in Soho and a Starbucks Pick of the Week.
Her most prominent promotional event will be an appearance on “The Daily Show” on June 12, during the first week of John Oliver’s summer run as substitute host for Jon Stewart. While Staples is disappointed that she won’t see “my buddy” Stewart, Osborn is thrilled that excitement and curiosity about Oliver will attract viewers. “When they announced that Oliver would be taking over, they also announced that Mavis would be one of his guests, so we got an early look,” he says.
According to Osborn, the combination of Mavis’ energy and her management’s vision means that the plans for her are long-range. “In this age of the short burst where you build up to that release date, it’s great that I have goals in July of 2014 for her,” he says. “It gives me the time and fortitude to find people who have never heard her, and that education process is played out.”
And Staples is happy to teach. “The people keep me going and as long as they want to hear me, I’ll be here for them. It’s just in me,” she says. Among albums she sees in her future are a possible collection of Bob Dylan covers, and maybe even a country album, although she suspects if she did that, “they’ll say, ‘She doesn’t have anything else to do,’ and that wouldn’t be true.
“I used to walk out of a show and kids would say, ‘Ms. Staples, I didn’t know you, but my mother knows you,’” she says. “Now it’s ‘I didn’t know you, but my grandma knows you.’ It’s come to this. But thank the Lord, I’m still around.”