Mavis Staples : The Gospel According to Jeff Tweedy
Photo by Spencer Tweedy
Staples’ previous album for Anti- Records was a collection of freedom songs, produced by Ry Cooder. For You Are Not Alone, she felt like it was time to go to church and to the streets to find songs of inspiration and salvation. “Jeff said, ‘Mavis, I got these songs for you and if you’ll come over to the loft, we can see if you like any of them,’” Staples says. “He had about 14 songs, and we chose eight or nine out of that. Some were from way in the past, and I said, ‘Where did you get that from? That song is older than me! You’re taking me back to my childhood now.’ Pops used to play those songs for me on his big 78 record player, things by the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers and all. And then Tweedy played me ‘We’re Gonna Make It.’ Now, that’s a blues song, but when you listen to the lyrics Little Milton is singing—they’re right on time.
“When we started the sessions last December at the Wilco loft, he had some Staple Singers on his iPod and asked what I thought about doing some of those. It gave me a chance to relive that time and be young again, visualizing where I was then. I told Jeff, ‘These songs are the happiest time of my life. It was when we were just singing to my father’s guitar.’ So we chose three of those. Everything started to tie in just right.”
Little did Mavis Staples know, but the real prize—a song so inspired and moving that it’s likely to go down as an instant gospel classic—was still waiting on the horizon. “You Are Not Alone,” fittingly the new album’s title track, is a shiver-inducing original by Jeff Tweedy that sounds like it is heaven-sent. In some ways, it actually is.
“We were deep into the sessions,” the singer says. “Jeff told me, ‘Mavis, this is a title that’s been going around in my head: I want to write this song for you called ‘You Are Not Alone.”’ I said, ‘Write it, Tweedy. Write it!’ That name sounded so good, and I wanted to see where he was going with it. But he didn’t write it until we were almost finished with the session. He wrote some lyrics and put the song on a disc. He told me I could take it home and get familiar with the melody, but these weren’t the real lyrics. He said, ‘I’ll write those tonight and have them tomorrow when you come to the studio.’ And he did!
“The song just draws you in and it’s so comforting. My brother, Pervis, just can’t get enough of it. He’ll call me up and say, ‘Mavis, you’re not alone. I’m gonna always be here with you.’ I’ve never sung a song in my life that made me feel like that one. Man, my skin was crawling in my bones when I sang that song. And it’s on time for today. Nobody wants to feel alone. When I sang that line, ‘Open up this is a raid,’ I told Jeff, ‘This is unique.’ I never thought I’d be singing lyrics like this.”
In the revered annals of Tweedydom, this collaboration with Mavis Staples is one to open new doors to a place Tweedy hasn’t gone before. Look at music as an endless assortment of various tributaries, though, and perhaps this collaboration isn’t such a surprise after all. Tweedy’s roots in Uncle Tupelo included the entire spectrum of American music, a point that the musician has always prided himself on. Even with acoustic instruments and down-home presentation, his early years have a direct link to the Carter Family catalog and beyond. Tweedy produces the album here like he’s borrowing from the backwoods, spicing up the arrangements with a touch of Spectorian splendor crossed with plenty of bluesy bottom, and then lets Staples shine in regal glory as she delivers a message of human hope, humility and, yes, a touch of heroism—all in honor of the Lord.
There really hasn’t been an album like this since, well, maybe ever. The players fall into the gospel groove like they’ve found a new best friend, making sure a foundation of swing and strut never wavers. It’s one of the keys that anchors the music to the past while promising something of the future. Tweedy also ensures that simplicity is ever present, a key in Staples’ voice to staying a primary force. She has her love light turned on bright, too, like someone who has found a way out of the shadows to walk in the sun. It is such a righteous return to form that it’s impossible to imagine her not reaching a whole new audience. She has captured the spirit of today and wants to spread it further. “Songs are timeless,” she says. “You can take a song, and God don’t have to be in the lyric, just positivity and truthfulness. Someone asked me how I sing the songs with such feeling. I said, ‘Listen, I just go to my heart. Because I know what comes from the heart reaches the heart.’ God is love. I love you. I love the world. I’m about love. Since day one and I was a child, it’s all love.”
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