Tony Cummings reports on MAVIS STAPLES and her forthcoming socio-political album
No sooner have long-term followers of gospel and Christian music recovered from the shock of Mavis Staples - one of THE great singers of all time - turning up on the latest Gorillaz multi-million seller ('Humanz' if you didn't know) then the news comes through that the diva's third album with Wilco's singer, songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy is being released on 17th November. 'If All I Was Was Black', issued on Anti Records, is an album about which Mavis asserts "these songs are going to change the world."
Back in the '60s The Staple Singers paved the way for gospel-tinged socio-political classics like "Long Walk To DC" and sparked a whole wave of soul singers protesting against racism, war and many other ills. Now that most of the Staples have gone to Heaven, one might have assumed that the group's former lead singer, now aged 78, would keep her lyrical focus on New Jerusalem rather than this troubled world of ours. But Mavis' new album of songs, all composed by James Tweedy, doesn't do that. Said Tweedy himself, "I've always thought of art as a political statement in and of itself - that it was enough to be on the side of creation and not destruction. But there is something that feels complicit at this moment in time about not facing what is happening in this country head on."
In an interview in Uncut magazine Mavis reinforces Tweedy's view. She said, "I guess I'm back to the bad news and making people cry for this one! But it's just too much, what's been going on, to not try to sing about it and try to inspire people to fix it. And I'm a loving person and I think that love does come through. Anger can give the Devil a foothold, as they say, and I don't want that. So rather than anger I think we need more love, more compassion."
The gospel ballad "We Go High" bears this out, the lyrics running, "We go high/When they go below/I know they don't know what they're doing," Even when the singer acknowledges sin for what it is she is prepared to take partial responsibility for the USA's national tragedy. On the heavy boogie of "Try Harder" she sings, "There is evil in the world/And there is evil in me."
Musically, much of "If All I Was Was Black' is stunning. Uncut magazine's reviewer John Lewis describes both Tweedy's accompaniments and Mavis's still arresting voice. Concerning the former Lewes wrote, "Perhaps it is part of this project to reconcile a divided nation. Performing most of the guitar, bass and backing vocals himself, he mixes Southern rock, blues, country, gospel and soul in what could be seen as a symbolic attempt to unite the R&B-fixated 'blue' coastal states and the 'red' hotbeds of country and heartland rock in the south and midwest. 'Build A Bridge', where Tweedy's falsetto vocal is pitched an octave higher than Staples' growl, not only reads like a hymn to unite a nation, but it tries to do so musically, mixing a funky undercarriage with country flourishes." The changes in Mavis's voice down the years are described by Lewis, "Where Mavis' voice was once a rangey, optimistic mezzo-soprano, her register has dropped dramatically to an emotionally rich, bassy contralto. It adds a growling intensity to lyrics that are dignified rather than angry."
Possibly the most outstanding track is "No Time For Crying" built around a motorik drumbeat and some percussive one note guitar riffs: "People are dying/No tears/We've got work to do." As Lewis wrote, "It's an extraordinary collision of gospel harmonies and post punk angularity." In the Uncut Q&A Mavis was asked, "Which of these songs would you like Donald Trump to hear?" She responded, "All this work I've been doing all these years. I feel that he is bringing back all the things we fought against, the bigotry and hate. I think it would fall on deaf ears but I would like him to hear "Build A Bridge' because we should not be so divided."
The veteran R&B gospel singer was then asked how she found her recent collaborations with Gorillaz and Arcade Fire. She responded, "I had big, big fun with all of them. Win and Tinkerbell (Regine from Arcade Fire) had me over to their house in New Orleans to record and Damon took a train from New York to Chicago for our session. I also did a song called 'Witness' with little Benjamin Booker as well, that was a lot of fun. The main thing is, I feel like it keeps me young to be with the hipsters! I'm flattered that they know who I am and want to work with me. And the songs we did were just like Pops used to say - 'If you want to write with the Staples, read the headlines.'"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.