Henry Wagons interviews Mavis Staples
Melbourne’s favourite alt-county outlaw Henry Wagons will be the first to admit he’s not a music journalist, but he’s a great interviewer. We love Henry’s wit, charm and musical insight, that’s why we enlisted him to interview Japandroids live at Laneway and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy back in March. Tweedy has recently lent his production talents to One True Vine, the new album by Mavis Staples, so when some phone time came up with the gospel-soul legend, of course Henry was the man for the job.
The pair established an almost instant rapport, chatting openly about studio nicknames, Mavis’ gospel background (she was part of the legendary Staple Singers with her father and three sisters) and Henry’s pet topic, food. In some ways it’s a companion piece to the Jeff Tweedy interview, especially given the role he played on One True Vine. Recorded at Wilco’s studio in Chicago, the album features the Wilco frontman on nearly every instrument except drums, which were played by his 17-year-old son Spencer.
Hello Mavis, how are you?
Oh, I’m fine thank you, how are you?
I’m well thanks. My name’s Henry Wagons and can I first say I’m very excited and honoured to speak to you, perhaps more so than your usual interviewer. I’m not actually a music journalist, I’m a musician myself and a long-time admirer and I’m also very happy that our conversation is on the record. I don’t really do interviews very often but the last time I did interview another artist was when I spoke to one of the main men behind your latest album, Jeff Tweedy. I found him very quiet spoken and honest and candid and really up for a laugh but also very serious about his music. How is he different from other producers that you’ve worked with before?
He is very serious about his music but he has fun in the studio, we have fun in the studio.
Does that fun inform the creative process? I can tell by the production on the album that there was a lot of cool things happening and I imagine some of those sounds would have come really spontaneously.
Yes indeed. Tweedy – I’m such a ham, I like to clown and he’s very sarcastic, he likes to drop certain things on you that put a wonder on your mind and I say “Tweedy don’t start trying to confuse me.” “Oh no Mavis, no Mavis I wouldn’t do that.” He is a true musician at heart, he loves what he’s doing, he’s sincere and compassionate. He really goes easy with me. He don’t want to stir me up.
I imagine it would have been a dream come true. He played a lot of the instruments on the album didn’t he?
Yes he did. I told him, I said “Tweedy I didn’t know you could play every instrument.” “Oh Mavis, I don’t let everybody know what I do.” Well, I say “I know your secret now don’t I.”
I notice you call him Tweedy instead of Jeff, is that how you prefer to refer to him? Do you every call him Tweedy Bird?
[Singer-songwriter] Kelly Hogan, she calls him Tweedy Bird, but Tweety Bird is my favourite all time cartoon character. I didn’t call him Tweedy Bird because I didn’t know how he would take that.
Coming from you that would be quite flattering.
When I first met him I called him Tweedy from day one. I never say Jeff. When someone comes in and says Jeff I don’t know who they’re talking about. I’ve never used Jeff. We were having dinner one night and Tweedy’s wife and sons and everyone – it was a wrap from the You’re Not Alone CD – and he took us all out to this Italian restaurant and I was sitting across and kept going “Tweedy so and so” and Tweedy looked at Susie his wife and said “You should call me that.”
So if he’s Tweedy is his wife Sylvester The Cat?
[laughs] Oh, that’s funny. Well she might be because she’s got him wrapped up.
She’s got him caged?
She’s got him hooked hold tight and collar. They’re a good couple. They could be a really good comedy team. She just talks to him and he can’t win. She says ‘you’re going to sleep on the couch tonight,’ and Tweedy says ‘okay if that’s what you want.’
Sounds very Tweetie and Sylvester to me.
It does, it really does. I’m glad you mentioned it, I’m going to hold onto that.
As a singer you’re a very renowned and creative interpreter of songs. When you look at a song that’s written by someone else do you instantly know how you’re going to sing it or is it an evolving process that you work on as you perform it?
I always rehearse with myself because Pops [Roebuck Staples], my father, taught us when you’re making a record you don’t rehearse in the studio. You listen to your songs and you have your songs ready because when you rehearse in the studio that’s costing money. I take Tweedy’s songs and it doesn’t take me long to feel his songs.
So you get a sense pretty quickly when you hear the song of where you’re going to go with it.
Yes, exactly I don’t have any problem at all. Some of the songs, Tweedy, he puts a demo down for me but I’m going to sing it my way, I’m going to sing it the way I sing. His songs are just made for me. I think he knows me so well now, he knows what to write for me, he knows what Mavis needs.
That’s a great collaborator, that’s what you want isn’t it?
That’s exactly what you want. I’m so grateful to Jeff Tweedy because I’m enjoying hearing myself sing myself.
“I’m so grateful to Jeff Tweedy because I’m enjoying hearing myself sing myself.”
When you’re in the studio does he sit back and let you do your thing, or is he quite proactive? Is there a conversation about the way songs are performed?
No he doesn’t bother me at all, he just comes in and says “You ready for this?” and I say “Yeah, I’m ready”, and I go to my corner – I have my own little corner in the studio – and they can’t see me, they’re in the engineer room. Every now and then he’ll come and out and walk around but he doesn’t bother me. On one song this time I learned something from Jeff Tweedy that I can change my style. I was singing this song and he kept stopping the board, he’d but in and say “Mavis, you have to stay up on that word.” And I’d say “No, Tweedy. I feel like I should go down.” He’d say “I know, that’s the way you sing, but this one you need to stay up.” I’d tell him OK I was going to try to stay up, but I’d go back down and he’d stop the board again. Finally when I stayed up, I tell you it was the best sound, it was the best thing that could happen to me. I learned something right there because I had a certain way that I would sing and he told me “I know Mavis you think it should go down because that’s the way you sing.”
That’s amazing that after such a long and prestigious career you’re still learning stuff day to day.
You can still learn, it’s wonderful Henry. I felt so good, I came out of my little corner after the song was over and I said “Tweedy come here and let me give you a hug.” I learned something.
I bet you give a great hug, I’m jealous.
Yeah, I do. I do.
I noticed with this album compared to your singing in the past and the Stax [Records] days where your singing has been quite triumphant and inspirational, a lot of the tracks on this album are quite dark and curious. Is that a mood you and Jeff were in? How do you explain a shift inwards?
You see, if I hear his music I’ve got to stay with that music. It wouldn’t make sense for me to take off and take it up somewhere. It’s laid back and it’s intimate and like you say it’s dark. You really let yourself go and I don’t have any hard time singing Tweedy’s songs. I just enjoy singing them.
Even with that dark curiosity I think there’s a strong gospel message throughout and I’m just curious, you’ve worked with a bunch of prestigious rock and rollers, and to me when I’ve seen you you’re an incredibly pious and soulful bastion of religious faith. Many of these guys you’re working with, with all due respect, are fantastic “rock’n’roll dirtbags” from the bands Nick Lowe and Wilco. People wouldn’t necessarily associate them with a gospel message and rock’n’roll traditionally can be interpreted as being anti-establishment and at times all about rebellious evil. I’m wondering how you see that take on the relationship between rock and religion?
I think what they hear out of me … We were singing strictly gospel songs but all of a sudden people started calling us to folk festivals, to jazz festivals, to blues festivals and I asked my father, “Daddy why are these people calling us to blues festivals, we don’t sing no blues?” He said, “Mavis you listen to our songs, listen to our sound and if you listen you will hear some of every kind of music in our songs.” I did that and I think maybe that’s what they hear when they hear me singing a gospel song. I don’t know.
The Staple Singers circa 1970: Pops, Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis
There’s so much more to it. I actually saw you a few years back, not on your recent visit to Byron Bay Bluesfest but a few years prior, my band was also playing Bluesfest and I watched you there and I felt like you absolutely smashed it. You brought everyone in there under the marquee to your congregation, believers or otherwise. I actually think as a whole the ladies killed it that year. I really loved Grace Jones’ show as well. I think you have an incredible positivity on stage and you brought everyone under your wing, is that something that naturally comes to you?
It is, it’s very natural. The secret is my father taught me, “Mavis you don’t need to clown, you don’t need to sign at the top of your voice, you don’t need gimmicks, you sing from your heart and you reach the people.’ What comes from the heart reaches the heart and that’s what I’ve always focused on. Anytime I go on stage I’m coming from my heart, when I’m singing to you I mean what I’m saying. I want you to get it.
You got straight to my heart; it went straight in there, kind of unbelievable. You so got straight to my heart you almost gave me a heart attack. I could have gone to heaven right there, it was a really, really good performance.
[Laughs] Oh that’s so funny.
“What comes from the heart reaches the heart and that’s what I’ve always focused on.”
As someone who also has to perform on stage with such positivity and energy, how do you summon that energy when you’ve gotten out of bed on the wrong side?
I get over it, I think that those people are out there and they paid to hear me sing. I get in the dressing room, I have a little prayer, I do a little mediation, have my tea and honey then I go to my heart and go on out on stage. A lot of times I’m very nervous. When we go to somewhere I’ve never been before when I go on stage after the couple of verses on the first song then my butterflies are gone. I still get nervous and you can’t ever get too sure of yourself because you just never know you may not be able to move. I’m so grateful that I can look at the audience and see tears and smiles and that just pushes me on more.
You probably saw my face, I was doing both of them at once as I was watching you.
[Laughs] You are so funny, you’re so funny. I’m just doing what I love, it’s all I know to do is sing. I’ve never had a job, I’ve never done anything else. I wouldn’t think that I should renege on what God has given me. My voice is my God-given. I don’t know music; I don’t even know what key I sing in. My father passed away without me knowing my secret … Whenever he would play the guitar I’d know where to sing. When I work with these different producers I tell them you’ve got to work with me til I find out where I’m supposed to be because I can’t tell you a certain key. Jeff Tweedy, he knows that know. We didn’t have to try to find keys.
You just sort of adapt. It sounds like quite an organic process.
That’s very true. I just honour him, I just thank him so much because he, just as much as me, he’s put himself in this CD. It should be on the cover “Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy”.
I’m sure he wouldn’t be upset about that, it’s a great album. I’ve actually noticed in general a lot of your collaborators are men, there are a lot of really cool dudes that you work with. I’m wondering if all those years you spent in the early days travelling around with your sisters made you sick of working with ladies?
I think it’s best for me to work with the guys. I don’t know any lady producers.
It’s a pretty uncommon thing isn’t it?
It is. There’s one girl – I can’t pronounce her name, Meshell Ndegeocello she’s good, she plays the bass guitar and her last CD was a tribute to Nina Simone. I think I wouldn’t mind working with he because I love Nina Simone too.
Me too, what a voice huh.
Oh, quite a voice and she was a dear friend too. People ask me, “Mavis what do you think you’re going to do next?” I really have no clue.
Maybe something to do with Nina Simone’s catalogue.
Yes or Bob Dylan. I’ve always wanted to do a tribute to Bob Dylan but so many people have beat me to it.
I for one would still be interested in what you’ve got to say and do with those catalogues.
I would love to sing Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. When I was in California the other day, the president of Anti Records said “Mavis what do you think about doing some R&B? What do you think about doing some funk?” I said “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
That’s a few amazing options on the table you’ve got there.
Yeah I do. I did two really good albums with Prince and Curtis Mayfield. Let’s do it again. I’ve really been blessed, I’ve had all of these geniuses working with me and now Jeff Tweedy, Tweedy Bird.
Before you worked with him as a producer were you a Wilco fan?
I really wasn’t all the way, I had one CD, Sky Blue Sky. I did like them but I didn’t know them. They reminded me so much of The Band, I love The Band, Levon Helm.
Is there anything in particular that you look forward to when you come to our country? I’m a man that’s driven by my stomach so I’m thinking particularly of food.
I’m right with you on that, right with you with the food but I look forward to seeing the people and meeting different people, getting around going to the museums, different culture. Did I tell you that I met a Koala bear? They’re so cute, his name was Jay and I took a picture with him and I fed the kangaroos. I like to get out and see what’s different.
Bringing it back to stomachs, you know Australians, we eat kangaroos here, it’s quite delicious.
It’s true we do, they taste like beef it’s quite nice. Maybe something you could try when you’re next out here?
I’m looking forward to it, I’m going to tell somebody I want some kangaroo.
You should, it tastes surprisingly good because they do look a bit like rats but they taste delicious.
Oh man, now you got my hungry.
Before we go, what’s your favourite place to eat anywhere in the world?
Oh my God that’s hard because I like all kinds of food. I love seafood. I just can’t give you one place, I like all kinds of things, I like sushi, I like steak. But you guys you can do that, us ladies we have to kind of watch our figure. [Laughs]
One True Vine is out now through Anti-/Warner.
Mavis Staples’ “Wall Of Fame”
Like a dodgy LA restaurant, Mavis’ Facebook page is littered with photos of her with famous people – from Justin Timberlake to Florence Welch and The Daily Show’s John Stewart. In most instances, it’s difficult to tell who’s more excited about meeting who.