She certainly wouldn’t call herself a diva, but Mavis Staples was a good sport last week during her appearance on “VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul.’’
Paired with Chaka Khan and Erykah Badu, Staples led the three dynamos in a rousing rendition of “I’ll Take You There,’’ a soul classic Staples first sang as a member of the Staple Singers.
The performance capped an incredible year for Staples, who, at 72, never expected to be so in demand. She’s on the road nonstop, and in February she won her first Grammy for “You Are Not Alone,’’ a rootsy gospel record she made with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
As part of the First Night festivities, Staples will perform at Symphony Hall tomorrow. We caught up with her recently from her home in Chicago.
Q. Tell the truth: Do you think of yourself as a diva?
A. You know, I really don’t. They kept asking me, “How do you define a diva?’’ and I said, “Well, I’ve always considered myself more of an evangelist.’’ I’ve always thought divas were mean ladies. They come with the “beotch’’ and struttin’ their stuff. It’s just not me. But I was hangin’ with all those girls - Mary J. [Blige] and Erykah Badu and Chaka. This Florence and the Machine really blew me away. She threw me for the biggest loop. And I got a chance to talk with my old friend Dolly Parton. I was in heaven.
Q. You won your first Grammy earlier this year for “You Are Not Alone.’’ Was that important to you?
A. It was. My sisters and I were so sad when we were at the Grammys and we didn’t win the Grammy for “I’ll Take You There.’’ [Our father] Pops saw us with our heads down and told us, “Listen, I don’t want you all getting sad about not winning this Grammy. That’s just an award. You all are singing for your just reward.’’ All these years I’ve remembered that - that it’s just an award and I’m not singing for a Grammy. But for some reason, this year I wanted to get that Grammy. (Laughs.) I’ve worked hard and for a long time, and I was so proud of my CD with Tweedy. I just felt like it was time I get a Grammy.
Q. What did Tweedy extract from you that was so special on that album?
A. He took me back to basics. The record was sounding so much like the Staple Singers. At one point, on one particular song, I told Tweedy, “Don’t you think we should put a guitar solo in there? It’s kind of short.’’ He said, “Mavis, what are you thinking? The Staple Singers never sang a song more than two or three minutes long!’’ (Laughs.) So he had a plan. It was like he knew me and knew what I needed. He really looked out for me.
Q. Were you hesitant to revisit the past instead of push forward?
A. Oh, no. It had been so long and in between. Those songs were back in the ’50s and ’60s. I didn’t mind at all. I thought it was a great idea. It brought back beautiful memories. This music was the best music of my life. And I’m doing it again with different music.
Q. It was nice to hear you sing “The Weight’’ with the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy this past summer at Newport Folk Festival. What do you think younger artists see in you?
A. You know, I wonder. I think down through the years they’ve heard me and evidently they admired me. Especially the younger producers and writers, they probably feel like I might deliver their song in a beautiful way. I don’t look at it like that. I’m just plain old Mavis to me. But I know when I first met my idol, sister Mahalia Jackson, and I had a chance to sing with her, it was such a good feeling in your heart. I’m hoping that’s the way they see me and feel about me. I get this question a lot, but I’ve never asked them why they want to work with me. Me and Tweedy are about to get together for the second CD, so I just might pop that question to him.
Q. Every time I’ve seen you, I always tell my friends afterward, “Mavis just took me to church.’’ Did you ever consider becoming a preacher?
A. Years ago when I was a kid, little hundred-year-old ladies in these churches where we’d be singing would walk up to me and say, “Baby, you’re going to preach one day.’’ So I feel like I am being a minister through my songs. I’m a minister of music, and God has blessed me. I guess it wasn’t in the plan for me to take the book and build me a church. But I feel like that’s what I’m doing.
Q. What did you expect your career to be like at this point in your life?
A. First of all, when we started singing back in 1950, we weren’t singing for a career. We were singing to amuse ourselves. I remember mostly everything about my career, but I never would have dreamed that here, as a golden girl, I’m kind of in demand. We worked all this year. My sister Yvonne and I would come home for two days, change luggage, and go right back out on the road. We didn’t work this much when we first started! I’m just so elated, so grateful, and I’m just so happy.