In 'We Get By,' Mavis Staples Keeps Singing For 'Change'
Mavis Staples could've retired in good conscience years ago.
But slowing down isn't her style.
With her father, sisters and brother as The Staple Singers, her gospel songs scored the civil rights movement.
More than a half century later, as Staples nears 80, the decorated R&B star continues to train her soulful pipes on hope and resilience in her call for change.
As her lifelong mission endures, she's been pushing out new material with contemporary artists. Ben Harper produced and wrote most of the songs on her new album, We Get By, after Mavis and the singer-songwriter clicked during a collaboration on her 2016 album, Livin' on a High Note.
In a recent interview, NPR's Michel Martin caught up with Staples from her hometown of Chicago, following up on their conversation in 2016, around the time that then President Obama celebrated Staples at the Kennedy Center Honors.
As she told Martin at the time, Staples felt that the world looked a lot like it did in the 1960s, and said she respected artists who were singing to inspire change.
Her tune remains the same.
"We're going at the world backwards," Staples said. "We need a change. And every chance I get I'm going to sing songs of change."
Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
On what keeps her going
It's what I love to do. I'm happiest when I'm singing. I'm just grateful that I have so many fans that still want to hear me, you know, and grateful to the record company for making room for me to continue. It's my gift — it's what God put me here for, I do believe.
On her collaboration with Ben Harper
Ben had written me a song for one of my other albums, Livin' on a High Note. And that song was "Love and Trust." I fell so in love with that song and every time we'd sing it, the audience they would just roar. We'd been singing it for a couple of years.
Then I ran into Ben on the road — we would always meet up somewhere on the road. I said "Ben, you have got to write me another song." He said, "Well, Mavis, why don't I write you 11 songs," he said, "Let's make an album." Sounds good to me, you know, I said "I don't know if I could handle 11 good songs from Ben Harper." He said, "Well yeah, you can handle it Mave."
He was not playing with me. I wasn't playing with him either. I love him so much. He is such a beautiful spirit. Actually, he's writing what I've been singing all my life. But all songwriters have a different twist and I like Ben's, I like it a lot.
On the opener track, "Change"
I felt like I was singing with my family again. It was just in the groove of where we would sing, not to mention the message that's in that song: It is time for a change. It's been time a long time ago but, you know, now more than ever. It's just too many things going wrong.
I mentioned back in the '60s [in a 2016 NPR interview], and still the news reminds me of the '60s. We're going at the world backwards. You know we've got to change. We need a change. And every chance I get I'm going to sing songs of change.
On why she chose the 1956 Gordon Parks photo ("Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama" captures six African-American children peering into a whites-only park through a chain-link fence)
That photograph hit me like a ton of bricks. They had sent me about nine pictures, you know, trying to find something for the album. That was the only one I saw — and it grabbed me. You know, these little babies, standing on the outside — they want to swing, they want to go on the slide.
And it kind of reminded me of my sisters and I, we had that problem when we were growing up. We couldn't go to the beach, we couldn't go to the park. We wanted some grass where we lived, we didn't really have any grass, you know, we'd have to play in a vacant lot with dirt and glass so that photograph grabbed me in the heart and almost brought me to tears. I said, "This is the one."
On what she hopes her songs will give others
I hope my songs give them a reason to wake up, and think about what is going on in the world. And hopefully, they resonate with the audience. I've always hoped from the time we started singing the freedom songs that our songs, we're singing them to make a difference, you know, make a better place — help somebody instead of hurting somebody — so much we could do to make it better.
On whether she has a favorite song
I love every one, but I do love "Heavy on My Mind."
NPR's Dana Cronin produced this story for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
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