“I’m the messenger,” Mavis Staples says on the eve of her 80th birthday. “That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day.”
That message—a clarion call to love, to faith, to justice, to brotherhood, to joy—lies at the heart of ‘We Get By,’ Staples’ spectacular twelfth studio album and first full-length collaboration with multi-GRAMMY Award-winner Ben Harper. Backed by her longtime touring band, Staples breathes extraordinary life into Harper’s compositions on the record, delivering roof-raising performances with both a youthful vigor and a commanding maturity.
The arrangements here are spare but weighty, matched by Harper’s suitably lean and thoughtful production, and Staples seizes the opportunity to showcase her remarkable and continued evolution as an artist, one still growing and exploring more than half a century into her storied career. ‘We Get By’ is undoubtedly a timely collection, arriving such as it does in the face of deep social divisions and heightened political tensions, but like everything Staples touches, it’s also larger than any particular moment, a timeless appeal to the better angels of our nature that’s universal in its reach and unwavering in its assurance of better things to come.
“When I first started reading the lyrics Ben wrote for me, I said to myself, ‘My God, he’s saying everything that needs to be said right now,’” Staples remembers. “But the songs were also true to my journey and the stories I’ve been singing all my life. There’s a spirituality and an honesty to Ben’s writing that took me back to church.”
Hailed by NPR as “one of America’s defining voices of freedom and peace,” Staples is the kind of once-in-a-generation artist whose impact on music and culture would be difficult to overstate. She’s both a Blues and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; a civil rights icon; a GRAMMY Award-winner; a chart-topping soul/gospel/R&B pioneer; a National Arts Awards Lifetime Achievement recipient; and a Kennedy Center honoree. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and sang in Barack Obama’s White House. She’s collaborated with everyone from Prince and Bob Dylan to Arcade Fire and Hozier, blown away countless festivalgoers from Newport Folk and Glastonbury to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, performed with The Band at The Last Waltz, and graced the airwaves on Fallon, Colbert, Ellen, Austin City Limits, Jools Holland, the GRAMMYs, and more. At a time when most artists begin to wind down, Staples ramped things up, releasing a trio of critically acclaimed albums in her 70’s with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that prompted Pitchfork to rave that “her voice has only gained texture and power over the years” and People to proclaim that she “provides the comfort of a higher power.” In between records with Tweedy, Staples teamed up with a slew of other younger artists—Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Valerie June, tUnE-yArDs, and M. Ward among others—for ‘Livin’ On A High Note,’ an album The Boston Globe called “stunningly fresh and cutting edge” and which first introduced her to Harper.
“Ben wrote a song for that album called “Love and Trust,’” explains Staples. “When he said he that he wanted to produce me, I told him, ‘Well shucks, if you write another song like that, count me in.’”