Mavis Staples on We Get By, Prince, Ben Harper, Gordon Parks

We Get By, Mavis Staples’ 12th studio album, out today, opens with a mission statement: “Gotta change around here.” Since she first began singing with her family — her father, Pops, and siblings Yvonne, Cleotha, and Pervis — in the gospel-soul act the Staple Singers, the Chicago native has been preaching hard truths about progress, politics, and the American way of life. 

“I’ve been so disappointed with the world we’re living in [now], the way things are going, the way people are acting,” she tells EW, about the message behind her new record. “These songs that Ben has written just sums it all up: to alert the world what is happening today and how we need to do better.”

The “Ben” in this case is singer-songwriter Ben Harper. The two first worked together in 2016 on a song for Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note. That initial recording session was so successful that Staples asked Harper if he could write a few more tracks for her. He offered to do a full album instead.

“I feel like I’m back with the family with this record,” she says, about the resulting project. “I’m a happy old soul. I’m just trying to keep myself healthy. I want to continue to sing as long as I can. And the Lord blessed me to keep my voice. That’s my joy. When I’m happiest is when I’m singing.”

Ahead, Staples reflects on the message of We Get By, her love of photographer Gordon Parks, and the influence of sister Yvonne, who passed away in April 2018.

The name of the album is We Get By. What does that phrase mean to you?
That whatever you do to stop us, to cause us harm, to get in our way, we’ll get over it. We’re strong and we’re mighty and you can’t harm us. Just understand that we’ll get past you, no matter what. The first line in the [title] song really explains to you how we get by, and that’s with love and faith. If we keep the faith and we hold out, we know that deliverance will come. I tell you, that Ben Harper, he wrote a gem.

You first worked with Ben in 2016 on the track “Love and Trust.” What about that session made you want to collaborate on a full-length project?  
When he sent me the demo of “Love and Trust,” it sounded like two guys sitting on a porch down South. It took some time for me to make it my own, to stop hearing those voices, to try not to sing it the way they were singing it. I finally captured it and got really relaxed with it. I loved [the track] so much I said, “Ben only gave me one song; I wonder if he will write me some more.” When that message got to him, he said, “Let Mavis know that we should do an album together.” I embraced that. I love Ben and I love the way he writes and the way he sings. He’s such a beautiful spirit. I knew that I would enjoy working with him. I would have begged him to write me some songs if he hadn’t come through so easily. I really feel like I’m singing with my family on this album because it’s so much like what I’ve been trying to tell the world all these years.

That line in the song “Change” — “What good is freedom if you haven’t learned to be free?” — feels like a classic Staple Singers lyric.
Yes, indeed. What good is freedom if, by now, we haven’t learned to be free? When Pops [first] heard Dr. King speak, he called my sisters to his room and said, “Listen, y’all, I like this man. I like this man’s message. And I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.” And I’ve been singing it ever since. I just refuse to stop. 

Ben grew up a huge fan of the Staple Singers. What kind of conversations did you and he have about your family and singing with Pops?
That was the good part about it. We had so much in common with our families. Most black grandparents, when they fry bacon, they save the grease. And I was telling Ben about my grandmother saving this bacon grease and she’d put it in another can and sit it on top of this pot-bellied stove. And he said, “Mavis, my grandmother would do the same thing.” And Ben, well he took it a little further. He brought a can of Crisco into the studio. It wasn’t cooked grease but it was grease. And the poor band boys, they just couldn’t understand, and we just got the biggest laugh. That Crisco can sat right on top of the machines for the sessions.

Your album cover is a picture taken by the late, great Gordon Parks. Why did you choose that particular photo?
I didn’t know that was Gordon’s work when I saw those little girls. I had about eight pictures in front of me and I saw that one and I went, “Okay this is the one.” It just drew me in. [The girls] are outside that fence. They want to be in the playground, they want to be on the slides and the swings. It reminded me of myself and my sisters. Back in the day my mother would dress us in little dresses like that and put bow ribbons on our hair. We couldn’t go to the beach, we couldn’t go to the park. We had to play in a playground that was full of dirt and glass and didn’t have any grass. The same thing that these little girls are standing there wanting to be in that playground, my sisters and I had been through that. I saw the album. I saw the tone. I said, “This is the one I want. This right here.” That picture was taken of some little girls in Mobile, Ala. And it turned out, Mobile was the very first place [the Staple Singers] traveled when we got started singing.

In the liner notes of We Get By, you dedicate the album to your sister, Yvonne, who passed away in 2018. Can you talk a little bit about her impact on your life and career?
Yvonne and I, we were like Siamese twins. If you saw one of us, you saw the other. We were together at all times. Yvonne got me back on my feet when Pops passed. When my father died, I just didn’t know what I was going to do. Yvonne came to my house and she said, “Mavis, what are you doing? You get up.” I’d sit on the couch and I just couldn’t get started. Yvonne said, “Mavis, you know Dad would want you to sing.” And then she said some words to me that I didn’t know Yvonne knew. I hadn’t ever heard her say these words. I mean, she told me off. So when she left my house I got up. I said, “I have got to do something.” And then once I did that, I got back to making my records and we went on the road. I said, “Okay, Yvonne, we’re going to sing.” And she said, “Mavis, you sing and I’ll take care of your business.” I said okay.

So I go up on that stage a couple of times. I got off the stage, man, and I told Yvonne, “Yvonne, you have got to sing. I need to hear one Staples voice.” Because I was listening for Pops, I was listening for Cleotha. It was just hard. She said, “No.” I said, “I can’t do it.” She said, “Okay, I’ll sing, Mavis.” So she started singing with me again. I was so glad. I was comfortable, just hearing the family voice. Then Yvonne, she got sick and she started getting dementia. And I kept telling my manager, I said, “No, no, no, I cannot leave her at home. She’s going to go with me.” I kept her with me as long as I could. When I did leave her when I was on the road, I would call Yvonne three or four times a day. It was just love. Yvonne was so sweet and so comical. Oh, man, I miss her so much.

You’ve been touring for decades now, and are on the road most of the year. What are some secrets to keeping your voice fresh?
You know, Pops always told me, “Mavis, get your rest.” He wouldn’t allow me to go to any after parties. Good thing for me is a ginger tea and honey. [But] I can’t help but talk loud. My tour manager, Speedy, he would say, “Mavis, Mavis, you shouldn’t talk so loud.” Another one that told me that [was] Prince. Prince would tell me, “Mavis, why you talking so loud? Save your voice.” I’d say okay, but they don’t know my background. They don’t know where I come from. In our family you had to talk loud to get what you wanted because there were so many of us.

Speaking of Prince, we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of Time Waits for No One, the first album you two worked on together. What were some early memories you have of being in the studio with him?
Oh, lord, Prince. That was the best time of my life. That little guy, he was such a sweetheart. You know, so many people didn’t like him, but Prince was very humble and sweet. But it took awhile for him to start talking to me. He would actually talk to Yvonne more than he would talk to me. When I first got with him, he was so shy. I would be talking to him and he would just stand there and roll his big eyes and smile. At the time, Prince thought I was a kid or something. He would tell Yvonne, “Yvonne, I’m so glad you’re out here with Mavis.” I’d say, oh my god, he thinks I’m a little girl. So I had to start writing letters to Prince. I said, “If he’s going to write for me he’s got to know me.” And every song that he wrote for me on [the second album they worked on] The Voice has something from my letters.

You’re turning 80 this year. What’s something you wish you had known when you first started out as a singer?
I wish I had known how to sing better. I wish I hadn’t been so bashful because when I first started I couldn’t look at the people. I would look up at the ceiling all the time. Now I know that if you look out at people, you see the smiles on their faces and all of that encourages you to continue what you’re doing. I [also] have to give my father a lot of credit. Because he taught me, “Mavis, sing from your heart. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. And if you sing from your heart you’ll reach the people.” That is something I would have loved to have known like I know now.

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