Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy make dynamic duo (again)

Mavis Staples.
Chris Strong
Mavis Staples.

Mavis Staples won’t say which one it is, but there’s a particular note on a song from her new album that didn’t come to her naturally. It’s on “Jesus Wept,” and Staples thought it should go one way, but producer Jeff Tweedy had something else in mind.

“He’d say, ‘Mavis, you keep going down with that note, but I want you to take it up,’” Staples says recently from her home in Chicago. “So we’d do it again, and I would keep going down with it. Tweedy would say, ‘Mavis, you’ve got to take it up,’ but I resisted until finally we were holding up the album. I finally did it his way, and you know what? He was right.”

Tweedy, of course, remembers that moment in the studio a little differently.


“I’ve heard her talk about this showdown in the studio before, and I don’t remember it that way at all,” the Wilco frontman says with a laugh in a separate interview. “I remember maybe I was being uncharacteristically persistent with her, because 99 percent of the time I’m going to trust Mavis Staples’s note choice. But this was a particular note where the song was so fragile that I needed to hear it. She finally gave it to us.”

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Either way, that one fleeting bit of friction, which turned into a revelation, speaks volumes about Mavis Staples at 73. At a time when she could simply take comfort in her legacy as an icon of gospel and soul music — dating to her time in the Staple Singers, then as a solo artist — she is instead pushing forward.

“One True Vine,” which Anti- Records recently released, is another fine addition to her catalog. It marks the second collaboration between Staples and Tweedy, after 2010’s “You Are Not Alone,” which finally — and rather belatedly — earned Staples a Grammy.

That album stoked the flames of a renaissance, both commercial and critical, that began nearly a decade ago. Since then, Staples’s profile has reached new heights and new audiences, from joining young indie-rock bands at the Newport Folk Festival to showing them up in a recent tribute to Levon Helm during the Grammys telecast. For someone who’s so humble in conversation, she certainly knows how to steal a show. (She is likely to do exactly that Thursday night when she performs her new album, in addition to her usual repertoire of such Staple Singers classics as “I’ll Take You There,’’ at Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro.)

She and Tweedy are a funny pair. She has obvious affection for Tweedy, playfully boasting that he can’t keep up with her even though he tries. When she relays stories about him, she mimics his voice in a pinched, nasally whine, even though he doesn’t talk like that. (“I think she does that voice for all white people,” Tweedy jokes. “Actually, it’s a producer voice. I’ve heard her imitate Ry Cooder and Prince [both of whom have produced Staples] like that before.”)


Their chemistry is palpable, especially on record, though neither can pinpoint why that is.

“I don’t know that you can define it,” Tweedy says. “The way Mavis and I interact communicates on a level deeper than language. I think we’re both very trusting of our guts.

“Mavis has complete confidence in her gift and she’s also secure in her gift to understand that you can always grow and shape what you’re doing in a new way,” he adds. “I think that’s one of the reasons she is so remarkable. She’s able to adapt, she’s hip, she’s open to new sounds and ideas. She’s never closed off.”

Compared with “You Are Not Alone,” the new album stands out for the intense restraint that Staples showcases. She demonstrates that on the phone by singing a hushed snippet of song the way it appears on the album, then taking it up an octave with regal force. The difference is staggering, but no less compelling when she keeps the lyrics in check. She may hold back the volume, but certainly not the feeling.

“When we talked about doing another record, Mavis’s original instinct was to start more stripped-down,” Tweedy says. “She and I had a few versions of songs from the first record where it was just me and her with acoustic guitar. I think she enjoyed playing like that. It was really her instinct to pull things back as far as we could.”


Even then, her husky voice conveys a broad palette of emotion on songs that aren’t your garden-variety gospel fare. This new album is not just a call to come down the aisle and accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. There’s room for doubt, for reflection. And there’s an acknowledgment that it’s not always easy to find solace in your faith. Sometimes salvation is elusive.

Staples lays out those sentiments in the opening “Holy Ghost,” a cover of a song written and recorded by the indie-rock band Low. It starts dry, just Staples leading the song over acoustic guitar and backup singers holding forth behind her. She’s steady as she intones: “I feel the hands, but I don’t see anyone / It’s there and gone / Feeds my passion for transcendence / Turns my water into wine.”

“See, I’m not trying to convert you,” says Staples, who once told the Globe that she’s an evangelist armed with her voice instead of a congregation. “I’m trying to make you feel good, to make you feel comforted. This is good-news music, and this is what I know how to be. It’s just me being Mavis.”

More information:

Staples also performs at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine (July 13) and the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, Maine (July 14).

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.