Mavis Staples on working with Jeff Tweedy: 'When you hear this, you will get up.'
There would seemingly be little that would catch Mavis Staples by surprise. Yet with Staples now 71 years old, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy found a way to get the soul/gospel veteran to step out of her comfort zone -- literally.
Staples' career began in earnest in the '50s, and with the Staples Singers she spent her youth on the Southern gospel circuit. Through the family's close association with Martin Luther King Jr., the Staples Singers provided a score for the civil rights era. It's safe to say that in her 60 years of singing, the South Side of Chicago resident has seen plenty.
Yet she had never before recorded in a Chicago stairwell in below-freezing weather.
Tweedy wanted to capture Staples a cappella and in the cold, putting the boldness and defiance of her richly deep vocals front and center for a rendition of the jubilant gospel cut "Wonderful Savior." Staples, however, was more concerned about the temperature.
"When he said he wanted to go in the stairwell," Staples recalled, "I said, ‘Are you crazy? It’s 10 below zero! I’m not going out there.’"
Tweedy didn't relent. Tasked with producing Staples' second studio effort for Silver Lake's Anti- Records, the Sept. 14 release "You Are Not Alone," Staples noted that Tweedy took great pains to give her soulful traditionalism a refreshing spin. In the end, Staples put her full trust in Tweedy.
"He’s very family-orientated, and me too," Staples said. "He talked about his two sons. I liked him from that."
In other words, she was willing to brave the Chicago winter for Tweedy, who recorded Staples in Wilco's famed Windy City recording studio "The Loft."
"When I said no, he just said, ‘Someone get Mavis a coat, a cap, some gloves and a scarf.’ He had already set the mic up. He was right. It sounded so good out there."
It sounds raw -- a take on the song that treats Staples' weathered-yet-hopeful voice as an instrument to be cherished. And it wasn't the only time Tweedy caught the veteran artist off guard.
Tweedy wrote the title track for Staples, a disarming ballad that walks the line between comfort and resignation. It's the sound of maturity, dealing with themes of loss and keeping the faith, finding balance with a compassionate backing choir and a slow-burning electric guitar. Yet the song's strength is all from Staples, who puts her target on notice with a brashly delivered wake-up call. "Open up this is a raid," Staples sings, long past the point of feel-better niceties.
Sitting recently at Anti-'s office, Staples sang the lyric when asked about the song. "Open up this is a raid. That’s something I would never think of. When I heard that, I said, ‘What?’ But now I love saying that. I’m going to get through to you. I mean to get through to you, so you better open up."
The line is a knockout, and Anti-'s press-shy head Andy Kaulkin captures its effect: "It’s so simple, so elegant," he said. "It adds a little energy, and a little humor to the song."
It's the centerpiece of the artist's upcoming release, and Staples intends it to be as such. She's on her third album for Anti-, the Epitaph-owned label that's quietly won a reputation for housing the left-of-center and almost forgotten. The label is most famously home to Tom Waits, but rejuvenated the career of Bettye LaVette, and still finds room for a home-recorded wacko such as Tim Fite.
"I'm overjoyed that Andy and Anti- would even give me a contract to sing on their label," Staples said. Her albums for Anti- may dabble with standards, but Staples' interest is only in the here and now. Tweedy, she said, helped her modernize the themes and sounds that Staples describes as her "comfort zone," and nowhere is that better articulated than on the album's title track, embedded below.
"They’re messages I have sung throughout the years, but they were put in a different element, a different tempo," Staples said. "I’m thinking about the people – the world today.
"We’re living in trying times," she continued. "People don’t know which way to turn. They don’t how they’re going to pay rent. They don’t know how they’ll pay their light bill. Where is there next meal coming from? This song will lift you. When you finish hearing this, you will get up."
Staples will appear Monday at downtown's Grammy Museum, although the event is sold out. A few tickets, said a Grammy Museum spokeswoman, may be released on Monday, but it's advisable to call ahead at (213) 765-6800.
Staples will be back in Los Angeles on Nov. 5, appearing at UCLA's Royce Hall. Staples will appear with Billy Bragg, and tickets range from $38 to $58. Visit the UCLA site for more information.
Photo: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times