Mavis Staples was planning on yet another busy summer. The gospel/soul legend had three months of dates with Norah Jones and Patty Griffin booked, but after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Staples will now be holed away in her Chicago apartment for the foreseeable future. Staples has been catching up with old friends, Facetiming her bandmates, and re-organizing her closets, but the energetic 80 year-old is feeling restless. “I have my health and my strength,” she says, “and I know that in order to keep that, I have to stay in. But I’ll tell ya, I want to get out.”
Rolling Stone recently caught up with Staples, who just released the timely new message song “All In It Together,” to ask some quarantine questions.
The new song you put out with Jeff Tweedy, “All In It Together,” feels very relevant. It’s amazing, I kept hearing these people on the news saying, “We’re all in this together,” and I said, “We got a song! Tweedy wrote a song called ‘We’re All In It Together!’” I called Tweedy and I said, “Tweedy, do you see these people quoting the song we wrote?” Because we recorded it back in 2013 or so and we shelved it. I said, “They gotta get that song off the shelf.” I said, “Tweedy, are you psychic? Did you know this was going to happen when you wrote that song?” Tweedy called [my label] ANTI Records, and said let’s put it out, and they got it right out. We are all in this together, and I think that when we come out of this, we’re going to be a much better people. It’s a bad thing that’s happening but it really seems to be bringing us together. People are doing things that they’ve not done for others, and it’s plain to see that this is the way that we should be towards each other.
How has it been being at home?
I’m good, I’m good. Believe it or not, I’m good. I’ve been inside for seven weeks. When it started, I was just fine with it because I’m pretty much a homebody when I’m home. I know how serious this is, and I know that I’m doing the best thing. My heart breaks for the people whose relatives are passing on with no one to be with them. When I look out, and I see all of these cars in line for people getting food, it really breaks my heart. I pray a lot for everybody, because these are really trying times. I think about my family. I wonder what Pops would do. I know he would stay in too, and he would probably be writing some songs. I’ve also started cleaning [laughs]. I started with closets, and then I went into my drawers. I found so much: pictures of my friends. I’ll look at them and I get stuck, I start thinking about what was happening back then, and I start laughing.
Have you been listening to music much?
I listen to music all day. Mostly to old-school stuff, because that keeps me thinking of good memories. Some of it is gospel, but I love Curtis Mayfield. I listen to Curtis crooning, and I put Prince on. The Drifters. I can’t say this, but I really don’t listen to a lot of Motown. My favorite guy in Motown was Marvin Gaye. I listen to Marvin, “What’s Happening Brother.” But I listen to some new stuff, too. I listen to Yola, because she just gave me her CD. She is great, I’ll tell you. I love her. And what’s the name of my cute little girl, she and I just did a song together… Norah Jones! I like her.
How is your family?
I got worried for about a week, because I had to rush my brother [Pervis Staples] to the hospital. He has something in his stomach, like an ulcer, that bothers him from time to time. He could have gotten corona from somebody in the hospital, that’s what I was mostly scared of. I had to keep calling different nurses and ask “Is he okay?” Then, after a week, after he got back home, I could breathe again.
Are you missing the road?
I miss my friends, my fans. I miss the band, but we get on the phone and we Facetime. We’ve all become family after we’ve been together for a while. But I tell you, I want to get out. I miss getting up and packing my bags, getting on a plane. It’ll be back.
Have you been quarantining alone?
No company, just me by myself. The good thing is I have a balcony. I can go out and get fresh air. That’s a good thing. My goddaughter Penny, she has stocked me up well. I’m just a lucky old soul. And my road manager, he knows I like the Garrett popcorn, and he sent me a whole big can of popcorn. You know, I’ve been munching. Normally, I try to stay away from sugar, but this is the caramel and cheese mix! I go to the fridge quite a bit. I have good food. I have some ham salad in there. I eat a lot of cereal in the morning. I get Cheerios and Special K and my goddaughter Penny, she likes to cook. She will cook fried catfish and oh man, turnips and mustard greens. I like greens and cornbread. My refrigerator is loaded. My pantry, I have lots of soup. If push comes to shove and I can’t get any groceries in here, I have cans of soup galore.
You’ve lived through some pretty dark and difficult times in your life. Does what we’re going through right now feel like anything you’ve ever experienced?
This is something totally different. This is the worst. The disease, it’s invisible. You are scared to press the elevator button. All of my trials and tribulations that I have been through in the past can’t touch this. And this is the whole world. This is everybody. I get angry at times when they saw that we’ve been knowing about this since January and we only got started on it in March. I’m not going to call out any names, but I’m very angry at one person in this world.
Sometimes I get down, and then I have to say, “No, I can’t do this. I can’t stay like this. I’m getting depressed. I can’t afford to be depressed. I have to stay feeling good.” So I have to work myself back. I start talking to myself, I’ll say, “Mavis, you can’t do this.”
One day, I went and stood in my living room and my brother Pervis calls. He said, “Mavis, what you doing?” I said, “Pervis, I am standing in the living room, wondering which way should I go.” He said, “Well, I tell you Mavis, you can go north, you can go south, you can go west, but don’t go east, because if you go east you’ll go walk out into that lake.” Because I’m right on Lake Michigan. That’s all I needed, was a laugh. I told Pervis, “I needed you to call me right then.”
Have you been in touch with people?
I’m talking on the phone more than usual. Different friends, they call me and I call them, just to talk to somebody. But yeah, I wish I had a puppy or a kitten. I’ve had dogs all my life, but the last one I had to put asleep, and I just decided not to get another. But that would’ve been good company.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans right now?
Tell all of my friends, and my fans, that Mavis, we’ll be back. We’ll be doing it again. We’ll be having fun again.
I hope you keep enjoying your popcorn.
I’m going to get some right now.