In 'We Get By,' Mavis Staples Keeps Singing For 'Change'

May 25, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 10:29 am

Mavis Staples could've retired in good conscience years ago.

But slowing down isn't her style.

With her father, sisters and brother as The Staple Singers, her gospel songs scored the civil rights movement.

More than a half century later, as Staples nears 80, the decorated R&B star continues to train her soulful pipes on hope and resilience in her call for change.

As her lifelong mission endures, she's been pushing out new material with contemporary artists. Ben Harper produced and wrote most of the songs on her new album, We Get By, after Mavis and the singer-songwriter clicked during a collaboration on her 2016 album, Livin' on a High Note.

In a recent interview, NPR's Michel Martin caught up with Staples from her hometown of Chicago, following up on their conversation in 2016, around the time that then President Obama celebrated Staples at the Kennedy Center Honors.

As she told Martin at the time, Staples felt that the world looked a lot like it did in the 1960s, and said she respected artists who were singing to inspire change.

Her tune remains the same.

"We're going at the world backwards," Staples said. "We need a change. And every chance I get I'm going to sing songs of change."

Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.


Interview Highlights

On what keeps her going

It's what I love to do. I'm happiest when I'm singing. I'm just grateful that I have so many fans that still want to hear me, you know, and grateful to the record company for making room for me to continue. It's my gift — it's what God put me here for, I do believe.

On her collaboration with Ben Harper

Ben had written me a song for one of my other albums, Livin' on a High Note. And that song was "Love and Trust." I fell so in love with that song and every time we'd sing it, the audience they would just roar. We'd been singing it for a couple of years.

Then I ran into Ben on the road — we would always meet up somewhere on the road. I said "Ben, you have got to write me another song." He said, "Well, Mavis, why don't I write you 11 songs," he said, "Let's make an album." Sounds good to me, you know, I said "I don't know if I could handle 11 good songs from Ben Harper." He said, "Well yeah, you can handle it Mave."

He was not playing with me. I wasn't playing with him either. I love him so much. He is such a beautiful spirit. Actually, he's writing what I've been singing all my life. But all songwriters have a different twist and I like Ben's, I like it a lot.

On the opener track, "Change"

I felt like I was singing with my family again. It was just in the groove of where we would sing, not to mention the message that's in that song: It is time for a change. It's been time a long time ago but, you know, now more than ever. It's just too many things going wrong.

I mentioned back in the '60s [in a 2016 NPR interview], and still the news reminds me of the '60s. We're going at the world backwards. You know we've got to change. We need a change. And every chance I get I'm going to sing songs of change.

On why she chose the 1956 Gordon Parks photo ("Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama" captures six African-American children peering into a whites-only park through a chain-link fence)

That photograph hit me like a ton of bricks. They had sent me about nine pictures, you know, trying to find something for the album. That was the only one I saw — and it grabbed me. You know, these little babies, standing on the outside — they want to swing, they want to go on the slide.

And it kind of reminded me of my sisters and I, we had that problem when we were growing up. We couldn't go to the beach, we couldn't go to the park. We wanted some grass where we lived, we didn't really have any grass, you know, we'd have to play in a vacant lot with dirt and glass so that photograph grabbed me in the heart and almost brought me to tears. I said, "This is the one."

On what she hopes her songs will give others

I hope my songs give them a reason to wake up, and think about what is going on in the world. And hopefully, they resonate with the audience. I've always hoped from the time we started singing the freedom songs that our songs, we're singing them to make a difference, you know, make a better place — help somebody instead of hurting somebody — so much we could do to make it better.

On whether she has a favorite song

I love every one, but I do love "Heavy on My Mind."

NPR's Dana Cronin produced this story for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

More On Mavis

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, new music from a legendary performer with more than a dozen studio albums to her name and many, many awards. Mavis Staples could retire in good conscience if she wanted to, but slowing down is not her style. She's out with a new album this week. It's called "We Get By."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE GET BY")

MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) We get by on love and faith. We get by with a smile on our face.

MARTIN: And Mavis Staples is with us now from Chicago.

Welcome back, my diva. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

STAPLES: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: We last spoke with you when you were celebrated by President Obama at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016, and you had just released a new album then. And I don't want to...

STAPLES: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: You know, and I don't want to keep harping on this, but what stuns people is not just that you keep performing - you're close to 80 now, as I recall - but that...

STAPLES: Yes.

MARTIN: You keep - but you keep ramping it up. I mean, you keep releasing new material. You keep working with new collaborators. You know, what is it that keeps you going?

STAPLES: Oh, Michel, it's what I love to do. I'm happiest when I'm singing. I'm just grateful that I have so many fans that still want to hear me, you know, and grateful to the record company for making room for me to continue. It's my gift. It's what God put me here for, I do believe.

MARTIN: So let me go back to that song we just heard - the album - the title track, "We Get By."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE GET BY")

STAPLES: (Singing) We get by. We get by. No matter what happens, I'll be there for you. We get by.

MARTIN: We also heard singer-songwriter Ben Harper on that track. He wrote most of the songs on this album. He produced it. How did you two meet? Why do you think you clicked with him?

STAPLES: Well, Ben had written me a song for one of my other albums - "Livin' On A High Note." And that song was "Love And Trust"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND TRUST")

STAPLES: (Singing) Do what you can. Do what you must. Everybody's trying to find some love and trust. I walk the line. I walk it for us. See me out here trying to find some love and trust.

I fell so in love with that song. And every time we'd sing it, the audience - they would just roar, you know. It turned out so well. So I - we'd been singing it for a couple of years then. I ran into Ben on the road. That's where we would always meet up - somewhere on the road. And I told him. I said, Ben, that song - you have got to write me another song. He said, well, Mavis, why don't I write you 11 songs? I said, why don't you do that? He said, let's make an album. I said, sounds good to me. You know, I said, I don't know if I could handle 11 good songs from Ben Harper. He said, oh, yeah, you can handle it, Mavis.

MARTIN: He was not playing with you, huh?

STAPLES: He was not playing with me. I wasn't playing with him either. I love him so much. He is such a beautiful spirit. He actually - he's writing what I've been saying in all my life. But he has - all songwriters have a different twist, and I like Ben's. I tell you, I like it a lot.

MARTIN: Let me play one, the first track on the album. It's called "Change."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE")

STAPLES: (Singing) Finger's on the trigger around here. Finger's on the trigger around here. Bullets flying, mothers crying. We've got to change around here. Get it straight. Be sure that you hear. Thing's going to change around here.

MARTIN: It seems like you had a good time with this song.

STAPLES: I had a sure enough good time, Michel. And that one reminded me - you know, I felt like I was singing with my family again. It was just in the groove of where we would sing, not to mention the message that's in that song. It is time for a change. It's been time a long time ago, but, you know, now more than ever. You know, it's just too many things going wrong.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, last time we spoke, in 2016, as I mentioned, you had just received your Kennedy Center honor from President Obama. And you said in our conversation then that you think more songwriters should sing about what's happening in the world today. In fact, let me play a little clip from that conversation. Here you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STAPLES: I tell you, I watch the news sometimes. And I think I'm back in the '60s. It's all happening all over again.

MARTIN: When you sing "Change," is that what's on your mind? Is that one of the things that you're thinking about?

STAPLES: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE")

STAPLES: (Singing) X is the letter. Blue is the color. One is a number. Now is the time.

I mentioned back in the '60s then and it's still - news reminds me of the '60s. We're going out the world backwards. You know, we've got to change. We need a change. And every chance I get, I'm going to sing songs of change because, like I say, I feel like we're going out the world backwards.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, you know, to that end, the album art is actually a beautiful photograph of a group of young kids - African American kids on the outside of a chain-link fence. And they're looking into a park. It's a photo by Gordon Parks from 1956 called "Outside Looking In." And, you know, I'm assuming that this was a park these kids weren't allowed to play in - right? - because it was segregated.

STAPLES: Yes.

MARTIN: I just wondered what that photograph brought up for you that made you want to have it as the cover of your album.

STAPLES: That photograph hit me like a ton of bricks. You know, I had - they had sent me about nine pictures, you know, trying to find something for the album. I didn't see the others. That was the only one I saw, and it grabbed me. You know, these little babies standing on the outside. They want to swing. They want to go on the slide.

And it kind of reminded me of my sisters and I. We had that problem when we were growing up. We couldn't go to the beach. We couldn't go to the park. We wanted some grass. Where we lived, we didn't really have any grass. You know, we'd have to play in a vacant lot with dirt and glass. So that photograph grabbed me in the heart and almost brought me to tears. I said, this is the one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TO LEAVE")

STAPLES: (Singing) Look at us now. Remember when. We've come a long, long way. We tell ourselves stories only we can believe. It's always hard, so hard to leave.

MARTIN: Does singing these songs give you courage? Do you hope it gives other people courage? What do you hope it gives them?

STAPLES: I do. I hope I give them - my songs give them a reason to wake up, you know, and think about what is going on in the world. And hopefully they resonate with the audience, the people who are hearing them. I've always hoped from the time we started singing the freedom songs that our songs - was singing them to make a difference. You know, make a better place. Help somebody instead of hurting somebody. You know, so much we could do to make it better.

MARTIN: Well, it's such a delight to speak with you again. I am so excited that I get the chance to talk with you about this new album. You know I'm going to put you on the spot and ask you if you have a favorite.

STAPLES: All of these songs, Michel. I love every one. But I do love "Heavy On My Mind."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVY ON MY MIND")

STAPLES: (Singing) We did everything we could to slow this world down. Now my love is in the ground.

MARTIN: Mavis Staples, gospel and R&B legend, is out with a new album called "We Get By." She collaborated on this with Ben Harper, who produced it and wrote most of the songs. Mavis Staples, thank you so much for joining us once again.

STAPLES: Michel, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVY ON MY MIND")

STAPLES: (Singing) It weighs heavy on my mind, oh so heavy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.