Preview: Mavis Staples visits folk-gospel past

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If Mavis Staples speaks with the wide-eyed optimism of a first-timer, it's because in some ways she is.

Although she has been singing for more than 60 years and got her start as a member of the Staple Singers, her career seemed destined for the nostalgia circuit as recently as 2003. Having been devastated by the 2000 loss of her father, Pops, the patriarch of the Staple Singers, her recording output slowed. Unable to find a label, she funded the 2004 album "Have a Little Faith" herself, and it was eventually picked up by Chicago's Alligator Records.

Since then, Ms. Staples, who performs Sunday at the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, has returned to recording and performing at a prolific pace. Her 2010 album "You Are Not Alone" is her third for Epitaph Records' adventurous Anti- division and her first collaboration with Jeff Tweedy, the architect of Chicago's art-pop collective Wilco. It reconnects Ms. Staples with the folk-gospel sound that marked her work with the Staple Singers in the '60s, when the family band would tackle songs from Bob Dylan. Mr. Tweedy resurrected two songs written by her father during the period and mixed them with works from Allen Toussaint and gospel traditionals.

"I really believe that the best stuff in Mavis' career has been the stuff where it's not necessarily just her voice but the voice of her and her family and her father," Mr. Tweedy said. "You don't need much else."

Although Tom Waits and Neko Case are Anti-'s most prominent artists, the label also has earned a reputation as a home for the left-of-center, and the combination of Ms. Staples and Mr. Tweedy fits the company's genre-hopping approach. "From a business level, it's a no-brainer," Mr. Tweedy said. "The fact is nobody is buying the genre records as much as they used to. You have to try to find an audience that's younger."

Her 2007 album with Anti-, "We'll Never Turn Back," was a modernized take on the freedom songs of the '60s. Ry Cooder produced the effort, which sold a modest but respectable 57,000 copies.

How to follow? Ms. Staples wasn't sure, but she wanted something that would get her noticed. "I was thinking, 'Maybe I should do a country album. Or an all-folk album.' I was thinking of covering Joni Mitchell and all these folk songs that had been hits," she said. "I'm so old-school. I'm so old. I was thinking, 'I have to do something people will hear.' But I didn't think Jeff Tweedy would be my producer. Jeff Tweedy was the answer."

Mr. Tweedy had gone to a small Chicago club to see a Staples performance, which was released as an album by Anti- in 2008 ("Live: Hope at the Hideout"). At the time, he noted that talks were already happening about Wilco backing Ms. Staples. Such a concept was nixed early, however.

"I remember talking to the rest of the guys in Wilco afterward, and we all agreed that it would be a shame to separate her from her band," Mr. Tweedy said. "It was a case where somebody was trying to talk her into having Wilco back her, and we would have been happy to do that if her band wasn't smoking hot."

The Wilco frontman did, however, write a pair of songs for Ms. Staples -- the bluesy gospel rocker "Only the Lord Knows" and the album's title track, a disarming ballad with a compassionate backing choir and a slow-burning electric guitar. It all frames her rich, deep voice, which he reverentially describes as its own instrument.

She wanted the song to be the centerpiece of the album, as it was inspired by a conversation she had with him, telling him of how the church began turning its back on the Staple Singers as the act took on more folk and pop stylings.

"I went off on my little theory or rant about what I believe all music says, and it all says, 'You are not alone.' Even the most vile, disgusting heavy metal music is saying to someone sitting in their bedroom that they are not alone," Mr. Tweedy said. "There are two consciousnesses at work. Maybe it was too metaphysical to get into at the time, especially since we didn't know each other very well, but she responded to it. She said, 'That's the name of a song.'"

For Ms. Staples, consider the message received. "Tweedy came with these songs, and I was thinking, 'You know, I could have done that.' If I had just put my mind to it, I could have done that. But I didn't. So after this, I told Tweedy that we have to do this again. I want to do another CD with him. He said he would continue to write songs for me, and I will go into the studio and sing them."


First Published July 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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