Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy represent different generations and musical genres, but that didn’t stop them from pairing well on their new collaboration, You Are Not Alone.
Over the years, Mavis Staples has been produced by some of the most talented and revered musicians in the world — people like Prince and noted guitarist Ry Cooder. Now, after her latest collaboration, that list includes Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
“Someone asked me about all of those guys, and why I thought they all wanted to work with me. I said, ‘Well, it’s because I’m amazing,’ ” Staples says with a hearty laugh. “Have you seen me lately?”
Staples may be joking, but even at the age of 71, her voice — which powered the legendary soul-gospel group the Staple Singers — remains a true American treasure, and it shines brightly on her new Tweedyproduced solo album, You Are Not Alone (Anti-, $18).
For Staples, the record is the culmination of a decade that began on a tragic note, with the death of her father, Staple Singers founder Roebuck “Pops” Staples, in 2000, and her sister Cleotha’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease a year later. In 2004, Staples reemerged with the comeback effort Have a Little Faith. She then signed to the hip Los Angeles imprint Antiand served up 2007’s Cooder-produced, civil rights– themed We’ll Never Turn Back and 2008’s Live: Hope at the Hideout, a concert collection recorded at the noted Chicago rock club.
It was during the Hideout recording that Staples first met Tweedy, who was wowed by her performance. The two would soon spark a creative collaboration and a close friendship. “The attraction for me was just Mavis,” Tweedy recalls. “I didn’t have any grand designs in terms of making a record. I just wanted to get her good material and get out of the way.”
Tweedy and Staples began hashing out songs to record at Wilco’s loft/studio space. “I was just delighted at the songs he’d chosen for me to hear,” Staples remembers. “Each one I would listen to fit me like a glove. He had some songs from way back, some traditional gospel songs [such as ‘Wonderful Savior’ and ‘Creep Along Moses’] that were even older than I am.”
In addition to familiar gospel material, Tweedy also presented Staples with more recent fare — notably “Losing You” by Randy Newman. “I hadn’t ever heard that song, and I fell in love with it,” Staples says. “That took me straight to my father. He’s about the only one I could ever sing it [about] where I could make it true to me. He’s the only person I’ll never get over losing.”
Tweedy also penned several standout songs for Staples, including the stirring title track and the wistful “Only the Lord Knows.” Aided by Staples’ tight road band (led by guitarist Rick Holmstrom), various members of Wilco and Americana songbirds Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, the album exudes the same communal spirit as the best of the Staples Singers’ work.
“All these songs carry that same message and feeling that I’ve been singing about through the years,” Staples says. “It’s the same message but presented in a different way. The tempos and the melodies are different, and that’s what kept it interesting for me.”
Even with You Are Not Alone just out, there’s already talk of a second Staples/Tweedy collaboration, a prospect that makes the singer gush. “For a young man like Jeff Tweedy to work with me, at this time in my career, at my age — you just don’t expect it,” she says. “For a genius to come and ask to produce you — I’ve just been blessed.”