Awards and mementos fill the walls of Mavis Staples’s apartment in a high-rise on the South Shore here. Next to a window with a long view over a choppy Lake Michigan on a rainy, windy February afternoon, there was the platinum single of the indelible 1972 Staple Singers hit “I’ll Take You There.” There was a tambourine with Prince’s trademark glyph, a souvenir of the two solo albums he produced for her on his Paisley Park label. There was a photo of Ms. Staples with the Obama family, autographed by the president with thanks for a “magical evening” when she performed at the White House for a PBS soul-music special. And on a small table sits “my one Grammy,” Ms. Staples said, for her 2010 album “You Are Not Alone.”
That album, produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, was only the midpoint of an extraordinary productive streak for Ms. Staples at a time when most performers have retired or wish they could. Her late-blossoming solo career has yielded six albums and an EP since 2004, including her new album, to be released on Feb. 19, “Livin’ on a High Note” (Anti-). She has had previous solo albums: attempts to make her a pop hitmaker on Stax and Paisley Park that ran aground in part on record-company politics. But her 21st-century run of albums has reaffirmed Ms. Staples’s lifelong messages — faith, family, freedom, honesty, perseverance — as she both reaches back to the sound of the Staple Singers and tries some new twists.
“Livin’ on a High Note” is a collection of songs written for her by indie rockers half her age, among them Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards), Nick Cave, Neko Case, Ben Harper and the album’s producer, M. Ward. It uses the electric-guitar twang and bluesy ease of her longtime road band; it also takes some chances while bringing out the pleasure and righteousness of her singing. Pharrell’s “Happy” was very much on her mind when she made the album, she said: “I wish I had that song.”
When she spoke to songwriters, she told them: “I want something joyful. I want to stop making people cry. I’ve been making people cry all my life. The songs I sing, the freedom songs and my gospel songs — I know I’ve been inspiring and uplifting people. But now I want to reach them in a joyful way.”
Ms. Staples, 76, is a small, round woman with a cherubic face and a voice that has lost none of its gutsy power since she unleashed it, some six decades ago, as the teenage lead singer in the Staple Singers, the gospel group directed by her father, Roebuck Staples, known as Pops, who died in 2000. Pops Staples had grown up picking cotton in Mississippi, learning guitar from the Delta bluesman Charley Patton, before coming to Chicago and bringing some of that rural blues flavor — along with a particular tremolo electric-guitar tone — to the devout songs he performed with his children. When the family first appeared at churches in the 1950s, Ms. Staples recalled, “They’d have to stand me on a chair so people could see where the voice was coming from.”
In conversation, exactly as in her songs, Ms. Staples’s cadences are deep, syncopated and emphatic — preacherly — and regularly punctuated by her easy laugh. “Sometimes I sit here, and I talk to the Lord and I talk to Pops,” Ms. Staples said. “I say: ‘Well, Daddy I’m getting ready to make another record. Do you believe that?’ And then I can just see him getting tickled and getting a twinkle in his eye.”
She added: “When you take a lyric and you know what it means, you want to make it real. Make it where you can see it and feel it. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. If you sing from your heart, you will reach the people.”
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SOURCE: The New York Times