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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The singer Mavis Staples has returned to some of the music of her youth.

(Soundbite of song, "Downward Road")

Ms. MAVIS STAPLES (Singer): (Singing) Lord, this downward road is calling. Oh, well, it's calling...

INSKEEP: She was once a member of the Staples Singers. Her father, Roebuck Pops Staples, led the family band and wrote the song we're hearing now. The Staples' gospel and soul music became musical accompaniment to the Civil Rights Movement. Now, decades later, Mavis Staples reinterprets old songs on the album "You Are Not Alone."

With musician Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who produced this album, she re-imagined old recordings like this one from the 1960s.

(Soundbite of song, "You Dont Knock")

THE STAPLES SINGERS: (Singing) You dont knock, you dont knock you got to walk on in the door, the door to heaven's inn. There's love. There's love in God for you, to share, to share the whole day through...

Ms. STAPLES: You know, I listen to that and I listen to my voice. I was a little skinny, knot-kneed girl, very happy to be singing with my family. And then I hear my voice, I was really in a high pitch. I can't do that now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: And it sounds really, really good to me.

INSKEEP: Well, now that your voice has matured a little bit, let's listen to how that song sounds now that youve re-recorded it with Jeff Tweedy and some members of Wilco.

Ms. STAPLES: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "You Dont Knock")

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) I know, I know my friends are there. To rest, to rest in heaven's nest. You dont knock, ring, push or hold. The doors are open a-waiting for your soul. You dont knock, you just walk on in.

INSKEEP: Your voice sounds richer now, for one thing.

Ms. STAPLES: It really does. It really does. I was just going to tell you that when you came back to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, I didnt mean to take the words out of your mouth or anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You can go ahead and say that, if you want.

Ms. STAPLES: But it does. It sounds richer. Now that I listen to that I was really sounding like a kid, back in the day.

INSKEEP: Now, what was it like when Jeff Tweedy then approached you and said, you know, I've also written some songs of my own that I would like you to sing?

Ms. STAPLES: Well, he didnt say it like that. He told me, Mavis, I have a song title in my head that I want to write for you. He hadn't written any songs yet. In fact, we sang everything we were going to sing. And then Jeff Tweedy took his guitar and he sat down and he started picking at it and picking.

He told me, he said, Mavis, Im going to give you this disc with the melody of a song. You can get familiar with the melody. And the next day, he had the lyrics and they were just great. And this is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever sang.

(Soundbite of song, "You're Not Alone")

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) You're not alone. Im with you. Im lonely, too. Whats that song? Can't be sung by two...

INSKEEP: It sounds like if you had recorded that song a week earlier, or even a day earlier, it would have been a different song than it was on that day.

Ms. STAPLES: You know, I never thought of it like that. I was just so in love with the song. You know, we're living in such trying times now and people are lost. They dont know how they're going to pay their rent or where their next meal is coming from. And you might hear a song like this if you're in that position, and I would say, well, she's singing that song directly to me and for me.

So this song, you know, I couldve sang it to myself a few years ago, you know. I actually got choked up singing the song. I didnt want to let go. But down in the bottom I said, let me finish. Dont let me cry right now. You know, but it hit me like that.

INSKEEP: What was happening a few years ago that you couldve used that song?

Ms. STAPLES: A few years ago - we'll, a little more than a few years ago, I had lost my father. And I just sit down and couldnt get up. I had sang with my father for more than 50 years and now he was gone. And hadn't been for my sister, Yvonne, said, Mavis, you have got to get up. Youve got to sing. Pops would want you to sing. And that was all I needed, you know.

And from that I started trying to get on some labels, nobody would take me, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: And I have forgotten, since Im really old school here, these record companies want the kids, you know.

INSKEEP: Do you still hear your father in a way when you're recording music, hear what he would maybe tell you about how to play or how to sing?

Ms. STAPLES: Oh, yes. I feel Pops' presence many times when Im singing. And we were in New York at one time, I was about 13 years old and these kids sang before us. They were about the same age as I. And I got on stage and started doing what they were doing. I started singing at the top of my voice and moving around. They were jumping around.

And Pops snatched me off stage and he said, Mavis, what are you doing? I said, I'm singing, Pops. He said, listen, let me tell you something. You're singing God's music and you dont need any gimmicks. You dont need to clown. You be sincere and sing from your heart, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart.

And I have kept many things in my heart, in my head, that my father taught me. And it keeps me surviving.

(Soundbite of song, "Losing You")

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) Do you know how much you mean to me? Shouldve told you, cause it's true. Ill get over losing anything but Ill never get over losing you.

INSKEEP: Were you thinking of anyone in particular when you recorded that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: I was thinking about my father. I was thinking about my father.

INSKEEP: Mavis Staples' latest is "You Are Not Alone."

(Soundbite of song, "Losing You")

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) I've been cold. I've been hungry but not for a while. I guess most of my dreams have come true...

INSKEEP: Hear more at NPRMusic.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer.

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