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Mavis Staples' second act

With a new album — the Jeff Tweedy-produced 'You Are Not Alone' — and a new label, the gospel and soul veteran is having the time of her life. 'I am just so happy,' she says.

September 12, 2010|By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times
  • CAREER LIFT: "I am just so happy," Staples says of life right now.
CAREER LIFT: "I am just so happy," Staples says of life right… (Chris Strong / Shore Fire )

It's early July, and Mavis Staples is sitting in the Silver Lake-based offices of Epitaph Records, a truth that is surprising to her. The 71-year-old gospel and soul legend from Chicago isn't the first artist of heritage status to be embraced by Epitaph's adventurous Anti- division, but she's no doubt outnumbered by the corporation's younger, more punk-leaning brethren.

None of that, however, explains why Staples is stunned this afternoon, repeatedly using the words "awesome" and "blessed" during an hour-long interview. Ask a question about one of her songs, and Staples doesn't answer it. Instead, she sings the number.

Ask Staples about recording for Anti-, which will release her Jeff Tweedy-produced "You Are Not Alone" on Tuesday , and Staples starts telling stories about hanging with Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, the punk rock founder of Epitaph/Anti-. Ecstatically, she relays that Gurewitz gave her a tour of Epitaph's impressive coffee collection. "He said to me, 'Mavis, we've got all different kinds, different flavors of coffee out here.' I will sleep tonight with a big smile on my face. I am just so happy."

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

Nearly six years later, Staples has returned to recording and performing at a prolific pace. (Her sister Yvonne, also a member of the Staple Singers, continues to sing with Mavis.) "You Are Not Alone" is her third album for Anti-, and her first collaboration with Tweedy, the architect of Chicago's art-pop collective Wilco. It reconnects 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. 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," Tweedy said. "You don't need much else."

"You Are Not Alone" continues what's becoming something of a tradition for Anti-, the multigenre offshoot of Epitaph Records. Overseen by Andy Kaulkin — easily identifiable at local shows due to his crazed, Tim Burton-esque hair — Anti- has helped rejuvenate the careers of gospel-wailer Solomon Burke and forgotten soul veteran Bettye LaVette, and has done so by re-contextualizing the artists with unexpected collaborations.

Having LaVette, for instance, work with Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers brought a contemporary backbone to her sound, and helped alert the press to the artist's legacy. "Being on this label," said Staples, "I won't say I've gotten more respect, but I've met more people, like people who want to interview me.

"I've been singing 60 years, and I have known other people who have sang a lot of years, like Koko Taylor, and I don't know if they were as blessed as I am. I'm just grateful. I'm overjoyed. I've never come to a record company and sat and done interviews. I've never done that."

Though 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 Staples and Tweedy fits the company's genre-hopping approach. "From a business level, it's a no-brainer," 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."

Kaulkin doesn't want any of the credit. He released, in collaboration with avant-blues label Fat Possum, Burke's 2002 album "Don't Give Up on Me," which saw the artist singing the songs of Elvis Costello and Waits, among others. It went on to win a contemporary blues album Grammy and has sold more than 117,000 copies in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"The Solomon record made me aware of what we could do, and it gave us some credibility," Kaulkin said. "Our mission is not to revive older artists who are at a career lull. We're like any other label. We're looking for great artists, and artists who have something to say. Mavis is one of those artists, and she has something to say. It doesn't matter how long she's been around and how old she is."

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