Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples
Mike Downs

Mavis Staples Has Plenty to Say About Her '60s Spirit of Protest: 'I'm Still Singing My Freedom'

A new album, ‘Live in London,’ and a schedule full of 80th birthday celebrations demonstrate the power of the soul legend speaking her truth.

Mavis Staples’ deep, generous chuckle always breaks the surface when she tells stories about the rock stars who clamor to play their way into her orbit.

At 79, the soul singer counts Hozier, Jeff Tweedy, Jon Batiste, Damon Albarn (via Gorillaz), Merrill Garbus (a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs) and Ben Harper among a devoted fold of current collaborators, an exclusive club that boasted Bob Dylan and the Band in prior generations. She relishes in recalling how she teased Hozier when they were working on their 2018 single, “Nina Cried Power” (“He’s so handsome! I said, ‘Don’t look at me, Hozier! You’re making me blush!’”) or giddily insisting that Harper told her he’d teach her how to skateboard for her 80th birthday (“I’ll get me a gold helmet”).

To hear her laugh is to understand that her joy bubbles up from a well of inextinguishable enthusiasm, one she’s miraculously protected while living -- and singing -- through many of the darkest periods in modern American history. Staples has been using her voice to drown out hate since her first public performances with her family band, the Staple Singers, in the early ‘50s. Under the direction of her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, she, along with her brother Pervis and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha, responded to the injustices wreaked by segregation in the Jim Crow South through song.

Their music struck a chord with Martin Luther King, Jr, especially the bluesy, bewildered “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),” which Pops wrote after a group of black students who would come to be known as the Little Rock Nine attempted to integrate a high school in 1957. King brought out the Staple Singers to perform before several of his speaking engagements. They continued to infuse their music with protest and politics as their activism and popularity -- which peaked in the ‘70s with the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again” -- grew throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

The younger crop of musicians penning songs for Staples have taken up the mantle of the other rock- and folk-minded artists before them, in that they, too, want to further Staples’ mission by giving her more to sing, thus offering her fans the salve they need to combat the onslaught of headlines in a Trumpian age. Live in London, her new album, was recorded over the course of two shows at London’s Union Chapel in July 2018, and serves as a transcript of a conversation between her past and present. New songs (like the Tweedy-penned “No Time For Cryin’” or Harper’s “Love and Trust”) blend seamlessly with the older standards (“Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” the album closer, was a hit single for the Staple Singers in 1973) on her setlist.

The Mavis & Friends: Celebrating 80 Years of Mavis Staples concerts, set to take place in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles in May, continue this dialogue. Staples will be joined by several guests -- and likely many of those who crack her up on the regular -- to honor her indefatigable soul. (No confirmation yet as to whether or not Harper will be on hand with a skateboard.)

In the following conversation with Billboard, Staples digs into it all: Live in London, the songs she sings now, the songs she sang then, what connects and informs them, what she thinks Dr. King would have to say about the affront to progress we’re currently facing as a nation, and why she’s hellbent on singing -- and laughing -- until she can’t.

Your last live album, Hope at the Hideout, dropped over a decade ago -- it came out the day Obama was elected. Live in London came out just days before Trump’s State of the Union [on Feb. 5, following the government shutdown]  -- so, yeah, this is a very different time. Did current events inform your approach to these shows, and subsequently, the album’s track list?

No, these are just songs we sing in our concerts. Some are older songs, like “Let’s Do It Again.” All of the writers on there -- Jeff Tweedy, Curtis Mayfield, Ben Harper -- they bring songs to me that are really, really fitting for me, and really relative to what’s happening in the world today. I don’t feel like these times are a whole lot different from when I made Hope in the Hideout. It’s not really advancing, moving forward -- people are suffering and scared and getting no sleep, just living in fear. I’m still singing my freedom.

That’s a comforting through-line for this album -- that these songs are timeless, and that hope is still there. You could’ve sung these in 1968. Is it difficult to reconcile how these songs would’ve been so painfully relevant then?

I think about that, and I know Dr. King would be so disappointed with what’s going on in the world today. Ben Harper wrote the song “Love and Trust” -- “everybody’s trying to find love and trust.” It’s the same thing we were trying to find back in the ‘60s. I know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, but sometimes I’d like to sing a happy song, you know?

But I’m doing my job. I’m carrying on. The struggle is still alive. There’s more racism in the world today, or as much as there was back in the ‘60s. I don’t like watching the news, but I have to watch it. I have to keep up with what’s happening. And you know, there was a time when my father told songwriters, “If you want to write a song for the Staples, read the headlines. We want to sing about what’s happening in the world today.” If we can sing a song to fix it, that’s what we wanted to do.

My father didn’t give up, totally; he just told my sisters and I, “We can’t save the world. We can’t do this.” I said, “Well, daddy, we really want to keep doing what Dr. King wanted us to do.” From that, he kept writing songs. “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” -- [about the] nine children trying to board a bus to integrate Central High School in Little Rock -- that song turned out to be Dr. King’s favorite. We would sing before he’d speak at the meetings.

When things happen, when they started taking these babies away from their mothers, taking these children away from their mothers and putting them in cages, it hurts my heart. It bothers me. The best I can do is just put it in one of the songs to keep the people aware that this is not right. It’s the same thing going on as in the ‘60s: It’s a little different, and I think more hurtful. Dr. King had done so much to get us to where we are today. Things did get better, but it really -- I’m really sad sometimes about what I see.

There are many artists who were inspired by your work and Dr. King’s message to be inspired by these headlines and incorporate them into songwriting. Is this important for you when you work with collaborators, to find artists who further this mission?

Yes. They’re good writers. I don’t write anymore. I got disappointed in the record company one year, and I was through. I didn’t pick up a pen, and I depended on the others to write what I wanted to say. It seems that the Lord just puts me with genius. These guys, from Dylan on, they’re just geniuses. I don’t go out looking for them. They just come to me, and it always turns out that they’re the right people.

Jeff Tweedy wrote that song on the album, “We Got Work to Do,” and I said, “Tweedy, man, you are just too much.” He said, “Well, Mavis, I know what you need! I know what you want to sing!” He’s the third person that told me that. I think Paul Shaffer was the first, years ago. I met him in a hotel. I said, “Paul, why don’t you come to this session?” I gave him the address. He got to the session, and the producers were shocked that he was gonna play the piano. Paul told them, “Nuh uh, you need to get a Wurlitzer.” He said, “Listen: I know what the Staples need. You need to get a Wurlitzer in here.” They finally got that Wurlitzer piano and he played, and it was great. [Laughs.]

Regarding current popular music, and artists who embrace or encourage activism or political involvement in their work -- who’s doing really well on that front? Who are you really excited about or inspired by?

I like these kids today. Maggie Rogers, I love her. Brandi Carlile, she’s great. I’m proud of the young people today with the songs they’re singing… Youngsters are just falling in, singing positive messages in their songs. I appreciate that. I love Pharrell. When he came with his song, “Happy,” I said, Lord, why couldn’t I get that song?! I couldn’t get enough of it. It kept me smiling.

When Hozier came with “Nina Cried Power,” I just collapsed. He wanted me to sing it with him. I said, “Oh my God!” Nina Simone was a good friend of mine, and then all of the other artists that we’re calling out in that song are artists who have made commitments to the world through their message songs. I just had all kind of jittery feelings. He’s so handsome! I said, “Don’t look at me, Hozier! You’re making me blush!” [Laughs.] I had to tell him, “Andrew, that name doesn’t quite fit him for me,” so I said, “I’m gonna call you Hozier.” He said, “You can call me whatever you want, Mavis.” I enjoy him and his band so much. For an old girl like me to be having so much fun and getting excited again, it’s just god’s plan. As Drake says, it’s God’s Plan. [Laughs.]

Something I appreciate about your work with Hozier is that your experiences are so different and you brought them all to “Nina Cried Power.” He’s studied American rock and roll and its blues and gospel roots so intently and sensitive to cultural appropriation's place in its history. Is that important to you, to still be working with collaborators who make you think of music in different ways or challenge you when you perform together?

They make me feel good that they’re jumping on this bandwagon. When I started singing these songs, I was living it -- but they’re living it, too, in a different way. My family was put in jail down in the South for beating up a white man. But [these artists] feel it, and that’s what makes me feel so good. The fact that they see what’s going on, they’re aware of what is going on, and their hearts are warm, and they fall in with positive stuff, positive verses, positive songs -- they want to speak on it and let it be known that they don’t appreciate certain things.

I got scared when those guys were marching through Charlottesville with torches. What really scared me was, these are young people! These guys look like college students! If that part of our lives, the racism and the craziness like that, has rubbed off on the young people -- that’s why I’m happy to see the young people, the young girls that were participating in the Women’s March and the college students. We have a man in the White House that’s just throwing out hate and bigotry.

I can’t criticize many of [the young people] that I know, but some that I’ve seen were spooky to me. Like this kid standing in front of Mr. [Nathan] Phillips the other day. That almost brought me to tears, because here’s this old senior citizen and historical man, [and this kid] just standing there like, “Oh, blah, what are you doing?” I wish I had been there. Sometimes I just want to wring some necks myself. I still get upset, but I know that this is my way of contributing, through my songs.

What’s your most vivid memory for the two shows that led to Live in London?

I was surprised that the people were so into “Let’s Do It Again.” They knew that song, and we just took a chance on doing it because it’s from [the mid-’70s]. I love that chapel -- and that was really my birthday! Every July 10, for the last four years, I have been in London at the Union Chapel. The people always come out. They’ve never seen me before -- it seemed to be a different crowd, or different people added to the same crowd. I’m in church. I’m at home. This is where I started: in church. It’s just so loving and so humbling that here I am on my birthday back in church.

I love it. I love the people -- and they come with presents! I’ve had a party in one of the rooms. My band, they surprised me with a cake and candles, and for this year, I’ll be out that way, but I won’t be in London on July 10... my friend Ben Harper, I watched him ride skateboards when we were in California. I told him, “Ben, for my 80th birthday I want you to put me on your skateboard.” [Laughs.]

I love that.

I’m gonna do it, Hilary. I’m gonna skateboard. He said, “Mavis, I won’t let you fall!” I said, “These bones are probably brittle! If I fall, I’m in trouble. But I really want to get on the skateboard.” I’ll get the chance to do the skateboard. You watch out for me.

Promise me you’ll wear a helmet, though?

I’ll get me a gold helmet.

One more question: With Live in London, what do you hope your listeners and fans take with them when they leave you?

I would hope they would walk away with a happy heart and encouragement -- inspiration to do better, to go further, to help somebody, to smile at somebody when they walk past them. I would hope that they would leave feeling that they’re a better person, that they’ve gotten something, that I’ve given them something, a reason to get up in the morning. A reason to love and to just continue moving forward. Don’t look down, you know? Keep looking up. Keep a light in your mind. Stay in a light place.

That’s what I hope for: when people leave my concerts, that they have this good feeling that the devil can’t touch them. They’re feeling like they’re walking on clouds, that they’re light as a feather. I just wish for a better time, a better place and a better people.


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