“All of these songs are me, but in a different way, with a different sound,” says Mavis Staples. “The phrasing, the tempos, the arrangements are different, but the messages are the same things I’ve been saying down through the years. They’re about the world today—poverty, jobs, welfare, all of that—and making it feel better through these songs.”
With her bold new album, You Are Not Alone, the legendary vocalist adds a remarkable new chapter to an historic career. Staples is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and a National Heritage Fellowship Award recipient. VH1 named her one of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll, and Rolling Stone listed her as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
This project—which is being released more than sixty years after she began singing with her ground-breaking family group, the Staple Singers—is the follow-up to We’ll Never Turn Back, her acclaimed 2007 collection of songs associated with the civil rights movement, and to 2009’s Grammy-nominated live album Hope at the Hideout. It stakes out surprising new territory for Staples by matching her with producer Jeff Tweedy, a fellow Chicagoan who also happens to lead Wilco, perhaps the most respected band working in America today.
Tweedy first saw Staples and her band in 2008 at Chicago’s the Hideout when they recorded the live album Hope At The Hideout. After seeing that performance Tweedy knew he had to work with Staples. A little over a year later Tweedy, Staples and her band: Rick Holmstrom, guitar, vocals; Jeff Turmes, bass, vocals; Stephen Hodges, drums; Donny Gerrard, background vocals entered the studio to record You Are Not Alone.
“Mavis is the walking embodiment of undaunted spirit and courage,” says Tweedy. “She’s an ever-forward looking, positive example for all human beings. And she sounds like she’s in the prime of her life.”
Staples says that from her first meeting with Tweedy, in her South Side neighborhood (“I could tell he felt like he was in a foreign land,” she notes with a laugh), she knew that the pairing would click. “We had quite a bit in common,” she says. “He is totally family—he let me into his life, and I let him into mine. It was a perfect blend.”
When she ventured to Tweedy’s home base at the Wilco Loft studio, the two of them sat down and listened to some of the selections he had made as potential material for an album. “The songs he had chosen were great,” she says. “They let me know that he knew me, my background, what was good for me.”
“I have almost everything she’s ever recorded, and I dug back through very thoroughly when I was given this job to do,” says Tweedy. “I thought that if I refreshed myself about where she’s been, it would help her figure out where she wanted to go. I wanted to be sure that we were making a record that she really wanted to make.”
Some of Tweedy’s choices, which would form the emotional core of You Are Not Alone, took Staples all the way back to her earliest memories. She recalls her father, the pioneering guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, playing such traditional gospel songs as “Creep Along Moses” and “Wonderful Savior” on “those big ol’ 78 records” for the family. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Those are songs I grew up with—I never thought I would be recording them.”
In addition, the singer and the producer settled on a few songs that were composed by her late father. Singing “Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road,” she says, transported her to the formative days of the Staple Singers, decades before such classics as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” topped the pop charts.
“Those songs took me back to the best times, and the best songs, of my life,” she says. “It was a feeling of pure joy to be singing the songs I sang when I was young, visualizing what I was when I first sang them. I’m still here, and this is what Tweedy has really done for me—he gave me a chance to be a kid again.”
Staples describes the sessions for You Are Not Alone (which features her own band, augmented by some of the Wilco members and friends like singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor) as comfortable and welcoming. “From the first day, it was like we had been working together for years,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to get to the studio. The Loft was very warm and homey, the Wilco guys were always coming by and bringing their babies with them, it was very much a family affair.”
The album was recorded during a cold and snowy Chicago winter, and she laughs as she describes the session in which they cut the a cappella gospel number “Wonderful Savior.” Tweedy set up the microphones in a stairwell, assuring her that it would result in a better vocal sound. “I said, ‘it’s freezing, I’m not going out there!,’” she says. “So he said, ‘somebody get Mavis a coat and some gloves.’ But when I heard it back, I said, ‘we better go out there again!’”
Along the way, songs by blues and soul icons (Allan Toussaint, Little Milton, and the Reverend Gary Davis) and by pop master craftsmen (Randy Newman and John Fogerty) were added to the mix. Staples expresses special fondness, however, for the original songs that Tweedy wrote for her during the recording of You Are Not Alone. “He would listen to my conversations, my words, and then feed off that,” she says. “The songs he wrote take me places I wouldn’t normally go. I wasn’t used to singing this way, but it felt really good.” She shed some tears singing the title track, and pours her soul into “Only the Lord Knows,” a Tweedy composition that was the last song they recorded. “That was our political song,” she says “You talk to this one, listen to that one, pick up the paper, but you can’t get any answers. The White House, the church—I can’t get any straight answers to the things I want to know. So for now, we’re on our own, and we have to go to the Lord. He’s the only one who knows.”
You Are Not Alone caps an incredible decade for Mavis Staples, a resurgence that saw her receive Grammy nominations in blues, gospel, folk, and pop categories. She claims, in fact, that she has done so much diverse work recently that, until Jeff Tweedy helped guide the way, she wasn’t sure of her direction.
“After the We’ll Never Turn Back CD, I didn’t know which way to turn,” she says. “Did I want to do a country record, a gospel record, or what? So I needed a sound like this—something that fit my message, but flowed in a different direction from where I would normally take a song so it wasn’t just the same old same old.
“I wanted to make an album where every song had meaning,” she says, “where every song told a story and would lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning. And I know it’s going to feel really good singing these songs on stage.”