Mavis Staples 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, and 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.
Along the way, she 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, to help lead the ‘70s soul-power movement, to sing under 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)?
With the release of her new album Livin’ On A High Note, she continues to gain momentum. Referencing and drawing from her 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. Just like Benjamin Booker wrote on the opening track, ‘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, the high note is revealed not as a pinnacle of ease and wealth but as a righteous life lived well. 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, and we must be grateful that she is able to echo it for us now. Mavis takes us—not only there, but back, up, and through.