Mavis Staples is living, breathing history. She is an alchemist of American music, and has continuously crossed genre lines like no musician since Ray Charles. Weaving herself into the very fabric of gospel, soul, folk, pop, R&B, blues, rock—even hip hop—over the better part of the last 60 years, the iconic singer has seen and sung through so many changes, always rising up to meet every road unwaveringly.
Now in her seventh decade, with the release of her new album Livin’ on a High Note (ANTI-), she is only gaining momentum. This album serves as a cohesive summation and furtherance of her illustrious career, embodying the glory of her unmatched spirit as she continues to push herself to cover fresh, joyful ground. Refusing to fade away, she continues to work and tour incessantly, remaining as vital, engaged, and true as always. There is no persona; she is, simply and untouchably, Mavis—and Livin’ on a High Note is the symphony of her life.
“I think about this album as a new beginning in my career,” says Mavis. “I’m living on a high note, I’m floating on air. I know I don’t have as much time on this Earth as I’ve already had, but I see it as saying, ‘Mavis has been here, y’all.’ Before I move on, I just want to leave some Mavis with you that you’re not used to hearing that might keep you perked up a little longer. I want to leave you with some joy and love, and some don’t-forget-me songs.”
Seeking to reference and draw from her illustrious past while taking the music to fresh places, Mavis and her team recruited a unique dozen of today’s heralded and up-and-coming artists to write songs for the record. The names gathered here impress and excite: Neko Case, Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Tune-Yards, Aloe Blacc, Benjamin Booker, The Head and the Heart, M. Ward—with Ward also tapped to produce the album in full.
“I’ve been singing my freedom songs and I wanted to stretch out and sing some songs that were new,” says Mavis. “I told the writers I was looking for some joyful songs. I want to leave something to lift people up; I’m so busy making people cry, not from sadness, but I’m always telling a part of history that brought us down and I’m trying to bring us back up. These songwriters gave me a challenge. They gave me that feeling of, ‘Hey, I can hang! I can still do this!’ There’s a variety, and it makes me feel refreshed and brand new.”
It is clear that the summoned writers hold their legendary muse in the highest esteem, and each has brought only their best to a clearly defined and celebrated purpose: to share with Mavis their love and joy in the form of song. These tunes tackle familiar themes with an updated edge: strength through adversity, gratitude, spirituality, equality, and friendship, each imbued in their own unique and joyous way. As Mavis spoke with many of the writers in advance, she communicated to them her hopes, resulting in a collection that balances timelessness and modernity in due parts. A life spent in music, on the road, and bearing witness to some of the world’s most crucial checkpoints has taught Mavis that the gift of learning and sharing with all generations is a most inspiring lesson indeed.
At the helm of the project, Ward brought with him to the studio a singular sense of song craft and an innate charm that allowed the many elements at play to meld into a cohesive statement. A guitar virtuoso in his own right, Ward was able to recognize the groove and interplay of Mavis’s crack touring band (Stephen Hodges, Rick Holmstrom, Jeff Turmes) and connect their soulful rawness to the carefully crafted songs, establishing a modern, cohesive sound with many layers and stylistic subtleties, variation, and color. Together, and with Mavis’s longtime backup singers (Donny Gerrard, Vicki Randle) harmonizing inventively, Ward’s orchestration warmly enveloped Mavis’s voice, allowing her to shine and really stretch out.
And it is of course that voice that steals the show. With her trademark deep growl more powerful than ever, Mavis shouts, croons, scats, swoops and testifies like no one else can, making every song her own. The cloth cut by each of the songwriters folds perfectly to its singer’s strengths, and Mavis’s vocal performances throughout Livin’ on a High Note can surely be ranked among her finest, and most knowing.
In particular, the Benjamin Booker-penned “Take Us Back,” with its upbeat bass line, chiming guitar parts, and happy refrain, clears the way for Mavis to truly strut her stuff. “I talked with Benjamin Booker, and I told him a lot about myself,” says Mavis. “I told him my nickname is Bubbles, but I wasn’t thinking he was gonna drop that in. I said his line onstage the other night, ‘They don’t call me Bubbles for nothing,’ and the people really responded. The band members had a fit!”
Meanwhile, songs from artists like Son Little, Aloe Blacc, Jon Batiste, and Valerie June brought with them hopeful messages as well as glee. “Son Little, he’s something good for the world, he’s singing some message songs,” says Mavis. “And Aloe Blacc I loved from hearing his music, and he sent a song in. We were doing Colbert, and Aloe was there and I said, ‘I really appreciate you sending me a song,’ and he said, ‘He wrote some of that, too!’ and pointed to Jon Batiste! I said, ‘This is getting gooder and gooder!’
Yet the emotion contained in Livin’ on a High Note can be just as profound as it is playful. Two of the album’s more reflective moments—Neko Case’s poignant, political call-to-arms “History Now” and Nick Cave’s slow-burning spiritual “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”—bring out the best in Mavis’s emotional range in addition to that of her vocals. Supported strongly by Gerrard and Randle, Mavis greets the questions posed by Case and Cave with the faith and wisdom that can only come from a life as full as hers. “What do we do?” and “Are you in need?” the songs ask, and it is Mavis’s voice that answers the calls with comfort and love.
But if one song captures the spirit of the album, it is the closing track, “MLK Song,” composed by Ward using words from Dr. King’s last sermon, a speech Mavis remembers well. In an age where the lyrics we hear on the radio are often throwaway nonsense, this is a keen reminder that in gospel music, the words matter—the words are The Word. Dr. King used his as a plea to forget oneself and work for others, for social justice, for peace; here, Ward builds new verses from Dr. King’s speech, a cycle that captures the intense synergy between song and word that weaves through all of Mavis’s music. As Ward’s delicate fingerpicking marches along the melody, Mavis sings in quiet, powerful affirmation of the message, which somehow manages in turn to sum up the life and work of this woman, this miracle, who for 76 years has met each and every one of her days with strength, love, trust, faith, joy, and, ultimately, song.
“I hate to think of not singing anymore,” says Mavis, “and I’m not gonna think like that, because I’m gonna sing for as long as I live—if it’s not on a record, I’ll go down in the subway if I must. I’m already old-school, I can only go so far; I know that my records are not selling like Beyoncé and those kids, but I’m making my mark and they’re allowing me to do that. And this record here, with all of these great songwriters writing songs for me, it just takes me… It’s such a good feeling that I can be here, like Pops wanted me to be, to continue singing, and if he was here…I know he can hear me, I know he’s with me, so I’m just grateful that I can make my father smile one more time. God continues to bless me. Just like Benjamin Booker wrote, ‘I got friends and I got love around me, I got people, the people who love me.’ I’m living on a high note, I’m above the clouds. I’m just so grateful. I must be the happiest old girl in the world. Yes, indeed.”
And with those words, her high note is revealed not as a pinnacle of ease and wealth but as a righteous life. Mavis is here, having weaved in and through all that fabric for all these many years, to show us that true joy lies simply in living for others. It’s the sermon Dr. King gave all those years ago, and we must be grateful that she is able to give it to us now. Mavis, take us—not only there, but back, up, and through.
Since her first recording at age 13 in 1954, Mavis Staples has learned from, worked with, and schooled countless legends from all arenas, and has brought her own timeless talent to each and every performance. Who else can claim to have answered the call time and time again, to become a leading voice of not just a generation, but of multiple eras and in myriad manifestations? Who else was there to sell a million gospel records, walk beside Dr. Martin Luther King, sing with Mahalia Jackson, to help lead the ‘70s soul-power movement, to seize the spotlight during “The Last Waltz,” to serve as muse to both Bob Dylan and Prince at the peak of their careers, and to win over 21st-century fans with a trio of deeply spiritual solo albums produced by Ry Cooder (2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back) and by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (2010’s Grammy winning You Are Not Alone and 2013’s critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated One True Vine)?
The answer, of course, is that there is only the mighty Mavis.
From the Delta-inflected gospel sound she helped create in the 1950s with her father, Pops, and her brother and sisters as The Staple Singers, to the engaged protest and freedom songs of the Civil Rights era, and then on pop radio during the rise of Stax with a series of soul anthems like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” to covers of Dylan, Stills, and Talking Heads, to 21-st century collaborations with Dr. John, Van Morrison, Billy Preston, Zac Brown and Willie Nelson, to her most recent revival and partnership with fellow Chicagoan Tweedy, the one constant has been Mavis and her singular voice. Rising up through the fertile Chicago scene that also birthed Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Lou Rawls and into a greater role as a worldwide musical icon, Mavis’ journey through all of these spheres has pushed her forward, and she refuses to rest on her laurels. As intellectually curious and tireless as a teenager, she has embraced her evolution, never ceasing to absorb new sounds and ideas as she rises to meet the challenges of longevity and bringing her message of hope and positivity to new listeners.