Mavis Staples is happy. She bursts into song numerous times during our interview, for a baritone rendition of “What a Wonderful World” and a bubbly blast of Pharrell’s “Happy.” (The latter she sings with such infectious joy that I forget the song annoys the hell out of me.) Staples’ incomparable voice has inspired millions for over half a century, from her leading role in the ‘70s soul-power movement to walking alongside Dr. Martin Luther King.
In the documentary Mavis!, premiering February 29 on HBO, Mavis shares her stories with the warmth of a favorite aunt and the cautious humility of a lifelong churchgoer. For her latest album, Livin’ on a High Note, the 76-year-old Chicago native recruited a heady mix of talent old and new—Nick Cave, Tune-Yards, Aloe Blacc and Benjamin Booker, to name a few—to pen songs with one stipulation: Make them happy.
It’s a big week for Staples: the new album is due out this Friday, just four days after she picked up a Grammy for her song “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” from last year’s Your Good Fortune. So we’re proud to present this conversation with Staples, including additional insights from Booker, on collaboration, faith and writing in the key of joy.
Does America need an album of joy more than ever right now?
MAVIS STAPLES: I really think so. I watch the news and it’s just horrible. Sometimes I feel like I’m still living in the ‘60s. People are really having it rough. Police are shooting mostly black kids. We really need a lift. When I spoke with these songwriters that’s exactly what I told them. I wanted to sing some songs about happiness. All my career I’ve been singing my protest and freedom songs. My father used to tell the songwriters, “If you want to write a song for the Staples, read the headlines.” If there was something going wrong in the world, we wanted to sing a song to try and fix it. What I want now is to make people happy.
What’s it like writing a song for Mavis?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: I got a call from Mavis and we talked for a while. I was really nervous and wanted to figure out where she was coming from for this album. She wanted a positive album with upbeat songs that was a celebration of life. From the conversation, it seemed like she was in a really good place in her life. I had been messing with some guitar riffs on tour, recorded the song, sent it in and didn’t hear anything for a while. While on tour I saw she was playing a venue in South London so I went to check it out. We met before the show and on stage she said, “Benjamin Booker wrote a song for me.” I was like, “Oh wow! I guess she’s using it!”
Can music still be a vehicle for social change or is that something we’ve lost over the years?
STAPLES: I really think music is still powerful and still strong. We’ve got to get a message across in the lyrics. The songs that are being sung today are good for lovers and breakups. It’s a brand new day. With this girl Adele, you can see what her songs do for people. You can’t ever count out music.
Is it hard to write a joyous song?
BOOKER: It’s really hard for me to write happy songs. My own music tends not to be super positive, or if it does have a positive message, it’s usually approached from a darker place. It’s something that I had never really done before and really had to think hard about how to do it. It’s also one of the first times I had ever written anything for anyone else. It really came down to me trying to understand Mavis and how she was feeling at the time. It was a good experience. At that time, I think I needed that little boost of positivity.
Did it take you time to muster the courage to appear in the documentary? You seem to blush when talking about smooching Bob Dylan.
STAPLES: That’s something I can’t help. Bobby was my first love. We still talk, but I didn’t know if Bobby is married now. I don’t want to be putting his business in the street. The first time I heard about it was years ago in a record station in Cleveland. This disc jockey shocked me when he asked about Bob Dylan. He said, “Is it true that you and Bob Dylan were courting?” I said, “Where did you get that!?” I would have never put that out there. I didn’t know anything about computers or the internet back then. Nothing is sacred on that internet! They tell everybody’s business!
Why does Mavis resonate with millennials and a younger generation?
BOOKER: When people are truly talented it doesn’t matter how old or young you are. She’s been lucky enough to work with people who are big with younger kids. When it comes down to it, she’s just one of the greatest singers of all time. At any age you can understand that. She’s also just so sweet. Her nickname is Bubbles. When we first talked she started telling me crazy stories and called me Mr. Booker. She’s someone I’d want to spend hours and hours with.
Was there ever a time when your faith was rocked to the core or a time when you doubted your beliefs?
STAPLES: I’m a Christian. I’ve been born again and I believe in God. Nothing could rock my faith. After my mother’s passing I did, for a moment, want to know why. Why? I was angry with God. I didn’t think I could sing. I didn’t think I could go on. Now when I sing, I’m singing for Momma. I asked the Lord to forgive me for being angry at him. Right now, I don’t go to church a lot. I know who I am. I know I have a good heart. I live right and I don’t feel like I have to go to church all the time. I’m still here.