The Enduring Soul of Mavis Staples
The 78-year-old national treasure has an acclaimed new album, a tour with Bob Dylan, and a voice that’s more resonant than ever
Mavis Staples keeps memories of the people she’s worked with and loved over the years, many of them no longer living, in her home on the South Side of Chicago. There are guitars and picks belonging to her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, patriarch of The Staple Singers; souvenirs of old shows tucked inside a “little cute trunk” in her closet; even a Prince calendar from the 1980s that she still flips every month. (“I called him my angel, my son,” she says, admitting she can’t listen to one of his songs without blubbering.) She also has a vintage Tom Petty T-shirt she plans to wear on her latest tour opening for Bob Dylan. “He was such a beautiful person,” she says.
But Staples endures. At 78, the legendary soul singer—and, indisputably at this point, national treasure—is as ready for her next chapter as she’s ever been. After a period of what she calls “sitting down quite a bit,” she’s signed on to a rigorous exercise routine to maintain her demanding schedule, including boxing with pink gloves, Pilates, and swimming in a saltwater pool. She’ll be hitting the road again in January after her tour with Dylan wraps up in December. “Ain’t no stopping me,” she says with a laugh.
She’s intent on being heard. Her new album, If All I Was Was Black, is a provocative answer to America’s sharp political, cultural and racial divisions. “I was thinking, This will probably get some attention,” she laughs. Her aim, as ever, is to unify, not draw battle lines. The title song asks the listener to look past the color of her skin: “Don’t you wanna know me more than that?” The track “Build a Bridge” recalls the Staples family’s ’70s peace anthem “Bridges Instead of Walls,” which feels more relevant than ever. “All of the songs on the album—they’re so needed today with what’s going on in the world. I thought I was done singing these kinds of songs,” she says.
If All I Was Was Black is Staples’s third album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who adds modern production touches to the folk and gospel roots that have long run through her work. But more importantly, he gives space to her voice, which is as comforting as it is heartbreaking. Staples was skeptical of Tweedy at first. After he expressed his keen interest in producing her, they met at a restaurant in Chicago, where they both live, and the 50-year-old singer-songwriter was shy. So Staples cracked a joke, and he revealed that he’d been a fan of hers since he was 18. “I let him into my life, and he let me into his,” she says.
Having worked with everyone from Van Morrison and The Band to Arcade Fire, Staples rarely gets starstruck—with the possible exception of Pharrell. “I guess I was drooling mostly,” she says of a recent run-in, adding that she’d like to collaborate with the “Happy” artist on a future record.
Her friendship with Dylan, meanwhile, goes back to the ’60s and involves romance and plenty of teasing. (She recently asked him at a concert, “Bobby, why are all of those ladies calling your name?”) “We’re good pals, and we still love each other,” she says. On their last tour together in 2016, Staples made Dylan crack up constantly, and he threw her a surprise birthday party, which made her cry. She’s looking forward to watching his set on their 21-date trek across America. Dylan once proposed to Staples, who rejected the offer, but she now says she plans to return the favor. “I’m going to get off the bus, and we’ll walk around,” she predicts. “I’ll hold his hand and tell him, ‘You know, Bobby, we’ve wasted a lot of time, and I think it’s about time we go on and make this a warm reunion. Make it real. Let’s get married.’ He’ll probably tell me, ‘Mavis, what are you talking about?!’”
Staples turns rueful as she talks about the friends she’s lost and contemplates the country’s current political climate, but her faith pushes her forward—as it always has. She sees her latest album as a “contribution of love” to a world that needs more of it. “If this can be heard, people will stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, listen to what she’s talking about,’ and maybe it will help to bring us back together,” she says. “I can’t give up on hope.”