Mavis Staples is maybe the greatest singer of all time, and more than 60 years into her career, she remains a compelling, relevant figure in popular music. That's a result of the power of her voice and the sheer force of her personality but also of her many productive collaborations: Bob Dylan, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder and, most recently, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco on 2010's You Are Not Alone. Staples and her band arrive Thursday, December 8, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts for a show that encompasses the many highlights of her career. The Pitch recently caught up with her on the phone and spoke with her about Tweedy and — well, mostly Tweedy.
The Pitch: So you're in Chicago. Are you working on new material? At the Wilco loft?
Staples: That's where I recorded the last CD, yes, because Jeff Tweedy produced it. Right now that's where I'm stable, at home in Chicago. And then we'll be working together there on the next one.
Can you tell me anything about that new album?
Not a thing. [Laughs.] I've probably told you too much about it already.
How about the last time working with Tweedy?
Jeff Tweedy's a clown; he keeps me laughing. He'd walk through the studio with his headphones on and say, "Mavis, guess what I'm listening to? I'm listening on my iPod to all the Staple Singers' music from the '50s and '60s." He said, "How'd you like to put all those songs down?" And I told him I'd love to sing my father's songs again. And so we ended up doing it. We did "Don't Knock," "The Downward Road is Crowded" and "Too Close to Heaven." Jeff Tweedy did some stuff I've never seen at a session.
We're recording, and we start smelling this food; it smelled so good. And some of the band members are talking about it, and he says, "Yeah, I know you smell the food. It smells good. But nobody's eating until this song is finished." He had a caterer there. I said, "Tweedy, you have a caterer?" He said, "Did Ry Cooder have a caterer?" I said, "No, we did it the way everybody does it. You write down what you want for lunch, and somebody goes and gets it." He also had a teleprompter. I usually read from a music stand. He has this teleprompter rolling my lyrics up. I said "Tweedy, you're spoiling me." He said, "Mavis, you deserve this." I said, "All right."
Did you guys ever get into arguments?
We got into one argument. We were recording in the dead of winter in Chicago on the third floor over there at the loft. He decided he wanted to do a song on the stairwell. I told Tweedy I wasn't going out on the stairwell. It was 10 below! He said, "Mavis, I've been out there, and it sounds so good." It was an a cappella song. I said, "You go out there, then." Finally he stood there and looked at me a long time and said, "Somebody get Mavis a coat. And a scarf. And a cap and some gloves." He put his foot down. And I did it. We went out there, all of us around one microphone. It was so cold, you could see the vapor coming from my mouth. I'm singing, [Mavis sings] I have found a wonderful savior ... We go back in, and he played it and he was right, it sounded so good. He said, "You don't have to go back out there. You nailed it."
How'd you two get together originally?
In 2006, I was doing a show at Millennium Park in Chicago, and he sent word that he wanted to meet me and maybe sing a few songs with me. I didn't know him from Adam. But I said OK. It didn't work out, though. He sent a message apologizing — he'd just gotten back from a tour and wanted to be home with his family. Then I hear from him in '07. We did a live CD at a funky North Side club called the Hideout. Tweedy had it in mind he wanted to produce me. He came upstairs to the dressing room beforehand and met me, and came back after and congratulated me. Then my manager calls me a few weeks later and tells me Jeff Tweedy wants to produce my next album. I said, "What?" I told him I have to meet him; we have to talk first. I don't know if he'd be good for me in the studio. So I had him come to the South Side, to this restaurant in Hyde Park. He came in there, and he wasn't acting like he was at the Hideout. He was all quiet and shy and bashful. I thought, Oh Lord, don't send me another Prince. Because Prince was painfully shy. I would have to write him letters, these 12- to 13-page legal-pad letters. He wouldn't talk to me! I'd say, "How is Prince going to write for me if he won't talk to me?" But Tweedy, I decided to say something funny, and he cracked up, and that got us started. He let me into his life. I let him into mine. I saw that he knew my family; he knew the Staple Singers. He worked at a record shop as a teenager and had access to all our music from the '50s and '60s.
We talked for two and a half, three hours, and when I left that restaurant, I felt like I knew Tweedy. I felt like we could make a good record together. Next time we talked, he told me, "I've chosen some songs for the CD." He had 13. I chose maybe eight of them. He had some my father used to play for us when we were little kids. I said, "Where'd you get those songs? Those songs are older than me! They were recorded in the early 1930s!" He said, "I like old music, Mavis. I study it." I said, "Tweedy, you're a young man with an old soul." After the third song we recorded, I told him we had to do this again. I said, "Who else could produce me?" He said, "Mavis, I don't know if they'll let me after this." But now we're stuck. My record label, Anti, is distributing for Wilco's new label now. We're stuck together now; we're Siamese twins now.
What kind of songs can we expect at the show?
We'll do old and new. There's seven of us onstage. Lots from You Are Not Alone. Some Staple Singers songs. Maybe some from the Stax records. We mix it up.
When's the last time you played in Kansas City?
I'm anxious to get there. We haven't been to Kansas City in years. We used to come, and there was one man who used to promote us there. He had a barbecue restaurant and a barbershop. It's been years, though. I know it's probably different. Most places we go to, we haven't been to in a long time, look different.