The latest album from gospel-music legend Mavis Staples is the Grammy-nominated One True Vine, but she's no gardener. A fixture in the music world for decades, she is the subject of the compelling new book I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway. The husky-voiced soul singer (who plays Toronto's Koerner Hall on Feb. 7) dishes on former boyfriend Bob Dylan and shares some of the secrets to her success.
No retirement plan required
People ask me when I'm going to stop. I give it a thought for a minute, but it goes right away – right out of my mind. This is my life: my singing, my touring, meeting different people from different cultures all over the world. It never gets old for me. I can't imagine sitting at home. Right now, I've been home too long. I'm ready to go. It's in my blood. Pops Staples took me aside when I was young and told me, 'Your voice is a gift from God, and if you don't use it, he'll take it back.'
Regrets are fine, but don't wallow
It's good to regret. I think they help, in moving forward. Everything can't go the way you want. I can't redo my relationship with Bob Dylan, for example. I could kick myself, because we were really in love. It was my first love. I'm grateful that we had it, though. That's what you have to do – be grateful, but then move on. You messed up. When we see each other now we give each other a hug. I play with him, because he's all settled back. So, I make him laugh. I'm a ham. The last time we spoke was when we recorded one of his songs, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking. I was already in the studio, with the band, and all of a sudden there is this presence. I looked around and there he was standing there with his cowboy boots on and his hat. I looked up and said, 'There you are, there's the player." He said, 'Mavis, I'm not a player.' I said, 'Yes you are – you're a player.' So, we had fun.
Change your means, but keep the message
You can't be stagnant. Gospel music was home to the Staple Singers. We sang folk songs and others, but it was never about moving on from gospel. I can sing a love song, and you'll hear gospel. We sang to inspire. A song like I'll Take You There, people wanted to put us out of the church, because that song had a beat and people danced to it. I'll Take You There, it's about taking you to heaven. But people were saying that the Staple Singers were singing the devil's music. But the devil ain't got no music – he don't. I recorded a secular song in 1969 called A House Is Not a Home. I was so nervous the church people were going to get me. But they ended up playing it on gospel radio. So, you can't stay in one place, no matter how comfortable that place is. It's all about growing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.