Mavis Staples on her best albums: “I should be thinking about retiring, but I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’m just getting started!’”

The Staple Singers veteran takes us through her finest work - featuring her family, Prince, Ry Cooder, Curtis and more

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From his home at the top of the Pennines

Mavis Staples
You Are Not Alone
Anti-, 2010
Teaming up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on this and 2013 follow-up One True Vine, Staples makes some of the most earthy, devastating music of her career.

I really enjoyed working with Jeff Tweedy, ’cause he came with some good songs for me to sing. [Low’s] “Holy Ghost”, on One True Vine, it’s like Jeff Tweedy had a magnifying glass and could see straight to my heart. I would watch him with his acoustic guitar and I would hear him play, and I would just know where to go. Those were really fun sessions. On One True Vine, Tweedy played most of the instruments, but on You Are Not Alone my live band were in the studio. Tweedy’s sons asked me to be their grandmother! They said, “Do you and [sister] Yvonne wanna be our grandmas?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be your grandma, that’s a new one on me!” I’ve been asked to be mum, godmum, auntie, but never grandma, so it’s about time for me to be somebody’s grandma. I said, “I’d love to be your grandma”, so they still call me ‘grandma’ and they’re my grandchildren. When they come to my shows, I let the audience know my grandsons are here, Sammy and Spencer!

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Pops Staples
Don’t Lose This
Anti-/dBpm, 2015
Staples enlists Jeff Tweedy to help her in bringing the Staple Singers patriach’s elegiac last work to the public.

My father recorded this in 1998. One night when he was on his sick bed, he asked me to bring the recordings to his room so he could hear it. This was when my sisters and I we were at his side taking care of him. I brought the record up to his room and put it on, and when I thought it was finished I went back to his room and said, “How do you like it, Pops? What do you think?” And he just said, “Don’t lose this, Mavis. Don’t lose this.” I knew what that meant, that he liked it and he wanted other people to hear it. I knew I’d have to wait until I had something going first before I tried to put Pops’ record out there. Years later, I was on Anti- Records, and they hooked me up with Jeff Tweedy. I knew Pops’ record needed tweaking, so I asked Tweedy and he was glad to do it. When it was done, my sister Yvonne and I went to Jeff Tweedy’s studio to hear it – man, I just lost it, my sister and I just held on to each other and cried. It was like Pops was just right there in the studio with us. And Tweedy’s wife was there, and she was in tears. Everybody was in tears. It just sounded so good. My heart was pounding so hard. I’m still thanking Jeff
Tweedy.

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Mavis Staples
Livin’ On A High Note
Anti-, 2016
With new songs from Nick Cave, Justin Vernon, M Ward and Neko Case written just for her, Staples’ latest album is a more upbeat work after the sparse One True Vine.

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I just feel so special that these great songwriters would take the time out of their busy schedules to write a song for Mavis! The president of Anti-, Andy Kaulkin, knew M Ward and he thought he would be right to produce me. One of my friends told me he’s very shy. I told her, that’s no problem – “Prince was very shy, but I broke through to him, just leave it to Mavis!” The good thing about this session is that the band that I travel with are playing on all of the songs – my guitarist Rick Holmstrom, drummer Steven Hodges, bass player Jeff Turmes, and my background singers Vicki Randall and Donny Gerrard. So we’re all right at home. The songwriters know me, they knew what fit me, so the sessions were just a breeze, they took no longer than two weeks. I’ve been singing a lot of songs that make people cry, so I wanted to make people happy this time. One of the writers, Nick Cave, and his song [“Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”], I just love it. Then there’s “MLK Song” – I got so wrappd up in that I almost didn’t finish it the first time. I choked up and started to cry, because I could see Dr Martin Luther King as I was singing. It just hit me and I almost broke down. But I held it together and I finished, and then I broke down: you have to take your heart into the studio.

The December 2018 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with Bob Dylan on the cover. The issue also comes with a unique 12-track Bob Dylan CD, The Best Of The Bootleg Series, featuring an exclusive track from Dylan’s latest boxset. Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find exclusive features on the Small Faces, Jeff Tweedy, the Psychedelic Furs, Moses Sumney, Sister Sledge, Jeff Goldblum, Marianne Fathfull, Ty Segall, Roger Daltrey, Klaus Voormann and many more.

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