Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne Bring Soul to Campus

In an interview before Saturday’s show at Lisner, Ms. Osborne discusses working with a legend.

Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne Bring Soul to Campus
October 23, 2015
Grammy-nominated singer Joan Osborne had always been familiar with the Staples Singers—she’d heard their hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” on the radio. But one frosty night, as she was driving through West Virginia, she popped the band’s cassette into her car and really listened to their gospel harmonies. Suddenly, she understood their power.
 
“Their sound was so otherworldly and ghostly, and the harmonies were incredible. I was in a trance,” she remembers.
 
She was blown away, in particular, by the mystery and depth of vocalist Mavis Staples. Ms. Staples has been one of her idols ever since, and now she’ll be joining the legendary artist and civil rights activist at Lisner Auditorium as part of a joint tour called “Solid Soul.” 
 
Ms. Osborne calls the experience a dream come true. Already, the two have performed together throughout the country. Before they take on D.C., Ms. Osborne spoke to George Washington Today’s Julyssa Lopez and shared details about her relationship with Ms. Staples and the direction of soul music. 
 
Q: How’s the tour been so far?
A: It’s been really great. Mavis is one of my idols not just in music, but also because of her history. As an American, it’s a real privilege to be sharing the stage with her. It’s also a lot of fun—she’s a really sweet, funny, warm person. We were on the tour bus the other day, and I was showing her this Van Morrison song I think she could cover, and she was telling how she’s worked with him. She has a million stories about things she did last week and about things she did 40-50 years ago. You can talk to her for 15 minutes, and you’ll get an amazing amount of funny, interesting stories. 
 
Q: How did the tour come to be? How were you guys paired together?
A: Often over the years, if people would ask me in interviews who my influences were, I would talk about Mavis and her singing voice and her style. She’s always defined what great singing should be. So, maybe somebody along the way heard that, and it might have been that my campaign finally paid off. The promoters of this tour had done some other shows with different combination of artists, and it’s possible that they thought of Mavis and thought of me. As soon as I got the email, I said, “Yes, where do I sign?”
 
Q: Do you remember when you first encountered Ms. Staples’ music?
A: I had heard a couple of the Staple Singers’ big hits, like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” and I always liked them. But it wasn’t until I was driving home to Kentucky from New York City for the Christmas holiday one year, and I went by a truck stop in West Virginia. They used to have cassettes and CDs for sale, and I saw a cassette of The Staple Singers. It had their earlier gospel recordings from back in the ‘50s. I put this in as I was driving down the back roads of West Virginia, and it was an incredible experience. Their sound was so otherworldly and ghostly, and the harmonies were incredible. I was in a trance. That’s when I really feel in love with their music.
 
Q: You’ve worked with the Funk Brothers and the Grateful Dead, and now you’re working on this tour with Ms. Staples. Does working collaboratively with other artists energize your own work and sound?
A: I’ve been really fortunate to be invited into different musical situations with the Funk Brothers and the guys from the Grateful Dead and things like that. It’s good to be able to get inspired by other people and take that inspiration into my own work. If all you’re doing is singing your own songs and your own work, it’s possible to get into a little bit of a rut. So for me, it’s nice to get pushed out of the nest and my own head and wrap my mind around what someone else is doing and what you can bring to that music. It’s a different set of challenges, and for me, it’s kept things fresh.
 
Q: What’s been the preparation process? How do you prepare for touring with one of your heroes?  
A: As I said, I’ve been a fan of hers for decades. It wasn’t like I had to introduce myself to her music. I went back and listened to her recordings that I hadn’t heard in a while and went on this great YouTube safari to find these beautiful videos. The Staple Singers did these Soul Train appearances in the 70s, and then you can see footage about them on the March on Washington, and the things Mavis has done more recently. That’s one of the great thing about Mavis’s work: She could have rested on her laurels and on what she did in the past, but she’s still making records and working with amazing people. There’s some stuff online of her and Jeff Tweedy singing these recent records he’s produced for her. She’s also done a record with a new artist called Son Little, and she’s kept very current and very vibrant. She’s very much in demand with these young producers and writers. So that was a big part of the preparation—digging into what she’s done lately, which is just as interesting as what she’s done in the past.
 
Q: The tour is called “Solid Soul.” How do you feel about where soul music in America is going today?
A: As far as soul as a genre, it’s constantly being reinvented in music and in urban music in particular. You’ve got artists on the top of the charts, who are re-experiencing and reinterpreting soul music, like Adele and Sam Smith. They’re huge pop successes channeling these influences from arguably the heyday of American soul music. So obviously, the genre speaks to people on a massive scale.
 
For me personally, I feel like that’s my one job as a singer. Whether it’s country music or rock or blues, my job is to be as soulful as an interpreter of the song, whether it’s somebody else’s or my own. That’s what everyone wants from his or her music. And that’ s what music can do, reach into places where your intellect and other kinds of art don’t go.
 
Q: What can you say about the setup of your show on Saturday?
A: The way that it’s structured is, I come out and do a short set with Mavis’s band. She has a great band she’s been working with for years now, and they’re super cool guys—they have also a gospel-meets-indie-rock vibe. I do a short set of my music with them. Then Mavis comes out and does a short set of her own. Then we sing together, and it’s really fun, and it becomes this total love fest by the end of the night. Mavis turns the whole place into church.