Mavis Staples’ Ode to Joy: How M. Ward, Neko Case and More Shaped New LP
Livin’ on a High Note isn’t just the name of Mavis Staples‘ new album, out February 19th; it’s also how she feels these days. While the singer acknowledges that she should be talking about retirement after a 60-year-plus musical career — both as a member of the legendary Staple Singers and as a solo artist — Staples says she’s entering a new chapter. The proof comes in the form of High Note, which features songs written especially for her by a diverse range of artists, including Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Neko Case, M. Ward, Tune-Yards and Son Little. And with her recent Grammy win and an upcoming documentary, Mavis!, the 76-year-old Staples is on a creative roll.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Staples told Rolling Stone recently. “I’m livin’ on a high note. I’m having a rebirth. I’m so happy. The fact that all of these young writers would take time out of their own schedule to write a song for Mavis — it had to be titled High Note, this album.”
The idea for the new record came from a meeting between Staples, her manager and Andy Kaulkin, the president of Staples’ label, ANTI-. “All of a sudden,” Staples recalls, “Andy said, ‘Mavis, what do you think about different writers writing songs for you?’ I said, ‘I think that would be great, if I can get them to write songs.’ He said, ‘Everybody would be happy to write a song for you.’ And lo and behold, it got started like that.”
After working with producer Jeff Tweedy for her last two albums, You Are Not Alone and One True Vine, Staples turned to M. Ward to produce Livin’ on a High Note, whose sound draws from soul, blues and folk. “I’ve been a Staple Singers fan for a long time,” Ward says. “I went out and saw Mavis and her band play and I really loved it. I started collecting songs from different songwriters. It started to come together in a magical kind of way.”
“He was great,” Staples says of Ward. “I didn’t know him, and I was asking around — Kelly Hogan and Neko — and they said, ‘Oh, Mavis, you’ll love M. Ward. He’s shy, he’s bashful, so don’t be offended if he don’t talk to you a whole lot.’ I said, ‘No way he’s not gonna talk to me. I make people talk.’ He talked enough to let me know what was going on with the song.”
Staples says she spoke with a lot of the songwriters over the phone to discuss what she was looking for in terms of material. Their lyrics presented a challenge for her, but Staples says she wanted that. “I’ve been singing my message songs for years, and I have been bringing people bad news,” she says with a laugh. “At the same time, I wanted to be uplifting them by telling them certain things that were happening. My father [Pops Staples] would tell the songwriters, ‘If you want to a write a song for the Staple Singers, read the headlines. We want to sing about what’s happening in the world today. If it’s something going wrong, we want to sing a song that could hopefully fix it.'”
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