By Vish KhannaA true legend in American music, Mavis Staples is one of the most distinctive and emulated singers in all of soul, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Born in Chicago, IL, her storied career began in the early '50s, when her father Roebuck "Pops” Staples first conceived of the now-iconic, spiritually rich family band, the Staple Singers. Regarded as the musical voice of the Civil Rights movement in the '60s, the Staple Singers went on to cross over into pop and rock charts with hits like "I’ll Take You There,” "Respect Yourself,” and Stephen Stills’ "For What Its Worth.” Beyond the Staple Singers, Mavis has collaborated with artists like Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, the Band, and in 2007, she released an acclaimed Ry Cooder-produced collection of civil rights gospel songs on Anti- Records, entitled We’ll Never Turn Back.
This past June, she made an appearance at an intimate club in her hometown of Chicago and the show was captured on a powerful new album, Live: Hope at the Hideout, which is a warm, empowering document of a country embracing change. Exclaim! had the great honour of catching up with Staples to discuss her new record, her amazing band and her career, her country’s future with President-elect Barack Obama, and perspective on Canada.
I want to start by asking about this remarkable new album. There’s certainly subtlety within it but this concert seems like a real political statement. What exactly inspired you to put on this show in your hometown of Chicago? Well, what other place would be better than at home? And then too, as you know we was moving up on an election year and these are songs we sang during the movement, during the struggle. With Barack Obama running for President, I know that it wouldn’t have been possible without a Dr. Martin Luther King. So, I felt that this was a wonderful thing to do and we just sang our freedom songs and added some other songs to that too. I think, Lordy, it was a good move and then we actually released the record on Election Day. I wanted to tie it in because I was here. I was in the movement 45 years ago and I’ve made a full circle; I’m still here. So, why not put the music out there for our new President-elect?
Hope is a theme that has been central to Senator Obama’s platform. Many people feel like this is one of the bleakest periods in your country’s history; do you agree with this sentiment? Yes I do. I do. We’ve been through some trying times and I feel that this is one of the reasons why so many people, even all over the world, are so happy today. Because of this new President-elect, things seem hopeful for us. We can be hopeful. We used to sing a song called "Hope in a Hopeless World" but now we feel that we have a reason to live, a reason to wake up in the morning, start new things, and keep going. New ideas are coming so I think it is the best thing that could’ve happened for Chicago and the world.
There’s a great sound to the show and the band you assembled and I’m wondering how that might affect the messages you’re conveying with these songs. Well actually, this is my band now that I use on the road. This young man Rick Holmstrom…
An excellent guitar player. He’s excellent! [Laughs.] He’s always been a "Pops" Staples fan and he’s studied him. Sometimes I look around and think I’m gonna see "Pops," because this kid is playing these songs so much like "Pops" and then he adds his own flavour. They are three great, young men — Rick on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, and Steve Hodges on drums. They’ve played with different artists down through the years but it happened that my manager knew that this kid Rick Holmstrom was a "Pops" Staples fan. He hooked us up; I am so grateful. Now, we’ve been doing this show for a year now and kinda got it where we want it but I know we’re gonna have to change up some for 2009. They’re just great though, they sound so swampy, and it’s the best sound for me because it seems to be the sound that I had with my father. He uses the tremolo like "Pops," and he plays lots of "Pops" notes but he throw his own flavour in, which makes it even better. If you hear the song "For What It’s Worth" that the Staple Singers did years ago, you’ll hear the same guitar sound on this one for 2008. So, I’m very happy with them and I’m glad you enjoy them.
Mavis, I want to ask you a little bit about Canada. As your neighbours, we were watching your election results with keen interest as well. In terms of both music and social and political issues, what do you think of Canada’s role in the world? Oh man — you talkin’ about one of my favourite places! Yes, I think Canada plays a big role in the world and they’ve always been there for us. I love Canada, I love working in Canada. We’ve been all over Canada for years and I have certain, personal friends there. What do you call 'em? Penpals! Now it’s e-mail pals! [Laughs.]Right! Keyboard pals! [Laughs.] I think Canada is great and they’ve done great things. They played a big part in this election just lettin’ us know that you all over there were with us. I can’t say enough good things about Canada. You hit me with one of my favourite places so, now I’m getting’ all tied-tongue, see? [Laughs.]
I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, sorry. Are there any particular musicians from Canada that you admire? Y’know, that’s one thing there now. We did a show with… I wouldn’t be able to recall the name of these people. We were at the Winspear in Canada and these kids were great. They opened for us. They did, what do you call it — like Asian music, y’know? One girl sat on the floor — it was the best music, and they lived in Canada.
Lemme ask you this; were they called Autorickshaw? Yes! That’s them!
There you go; I figured it out. Yes! [Laughs.] They were awesome! Yes indeed!
And historically, you’ve collaborated with the Band, and you have a Canadian connection that way. I sure do and I tell you, I wouldn’t take nothing for those guys. I was just with Levon’s 'lil daughter Amy. I told her, "Tell Levon I’m coming down there." He’s in Albany, New York now. They’re just like family and I’m in the family of Canada!
Well, we’re happy to have you in the family. Are there any younger musicians whom you feel are doing great work these days? I like this girl… for about a month I’ve been hearing her; her name’s Adele. She’s great. And I like this little girl, Corinne Bailey Rae. You got these kids — John Legend is good, Jill Scott — they’re doing good things. There’s so few that I can stand to listen to, y’know, but these ones are just great. I think as time goes on, it’s just gonna get better and better; we’re gonna hear more and more good music.
You’ve worked with so many great artists in your life and we’re getting to the point where people like yourself and Bob Dylan are still so innovative; what motivates you to keep this busy pace? The people motivate me. When we do our shows, the people make me feel so good and are just so happy to see us and send me such beautiful messages. Y’know, when my father passed, I just didn’t know what I was gonna do. I just couldn’t get started. Eventually I prayed and my sister told me, "Mavis, y’know Pops would want you to keep on singing. You have to sing." So I finally got up and got started. I thought about my father; he started this thing, started the Staple Singers. So, I’ve got to sing too, to keep my father’s legacy alive. That keeps me motivated, as well as the people. People like you! See, you callin’ me on the phone and you wanna talk to me? And that makes me so happy!
Well, I feel very lucky and honoured that I get to do this. Finally, Mavis, I’m wondering about your expectations for President-Elect Barack Obama when he takes office in January. He has an awful mess to deal with; what does he need to do to put America on the right track again? He has to do exactly what he’s been doing: stay sincere; stay truthful with the people — let them know what he can and cannot do right away; and just continue to talk to the people as one of them. That’s his key; he is so in tune with the people. If he can continue to do what he’s been doing and not get ahead of himself, and know that he can’t do everything right away, because no one could do that, he’s gonna be good. I pray for him every day and I know a lotta other people do too. He’s got so much on his shoulders, some bricks on his shoulders, but I think he’s gonna rise above it.
Being from Chicago, have you had occasion to meet the man? Y’know, I haven’t met Barack. We was members of the same church until he had to move out, y’know…
[Laughs.] Yeah, we heard about that. We were both members of Trinity. We were there, I would say maybe 20 years before he joined but it seems that any time we were in church, he wasn’t there, and when he’s there we aren’t there. So, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him but I’m certainly looking forward to it. And he’s not far from me; we both live in Hyde Park. So, if I see him, I’m gonna run like mad! So, I can shake his hand! [Laughs.]
You gotta be careful running at that guy, because he’s kinda important now. [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s true. He’s got all that security. I’ll be careful!
I don’t wanna read in the newspaper that Mavis Staples was taken down by Secret Service, okay?[Laughs.] That would be amazing! That would be somethin’. No, I’m gonna be good.