It's early July, and Mavis Staples is sitting in the offices of Epitaph Records, a truth that is surprising to her.
The 71-year-old gospel and soul legend from Chicago isn't the first artist of heritage status to be embraced by Epitaph's adventurous Anti- division, but she's no doubt outnumbered by the corporation's younger, more punk-leaning brethren.
None of that, however, explains why Staples is stunned this afternoon, repeatedly using the words "awesome" and "blessed" during an hourlong interview. Ask a question about one of her songs, and Staples doesn't answer it. Instead, she sings the number.
Ask Staples about recording for Anti-, which recently released her Jeff Tweedy-produced "You Are Not Alone," and she starts telling stories about hanging with Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, the punk rock founder of Epitaph / Anti-. Ecstatically Staples relays that he gave her a tour of Epitaph's coffee collection. "He said to me, 'Mavis, we've got all different kinds, different flavors of coffee out here.' I will sleep tonight with a big smile on my face. I am just so happy."
If Staples speaks with the wide-eyed optimism of a first-timer, it's because in some ways she is. Though she has been singing for 60 years and got her start as a member of the Staple Singers, her career seemed destined for the nostalgia circuit as recently as 2003. Having been devastated by the 2000 loss of her father, Pops, the patriarch of the Staple Singers, her recording output slowed. Unable to find a label, she funded the 2004 album "Have a Little Faith" herself, and it was eventually picked up by Chicago's Alligator Records.
Nearly six years later, Staples has returned to recording and performing at a prolific pace. (Her sister, Yvonne, also a member of the Staple Singers, continues to sing with Mavis.) "You Are Not Alone" is her third album for Anti- and her first collaboration with Tweedy, the architect of Chicago's art-pop collective Wilco. It reconnects Staples with the folk-gospel sound that marked her work with the Staple Singers in the '60s, when the family band would tackle songs from Bob Dylan. Tweedy resurrected two songs written by her father during the period and mixed them with works from Allen Toussaint and gospel traditionals.
"I really believe that the best stuff in Mavis' career has been the stuff where it's not necessarily just her voice but the voice of her and her family and her father," Tweedy said. "You don't need much else."
"You Are Not Alone" continues what's becoming something of a tradition for Anti-, the multigenre offshoot of Epitaph Records. Overseen by Andy Kaulkin, Anti- has helped rejuvenate the careers of gospel-wailer Solomon Burke and forgotten soul vet Bettye LaVette and has done so by setting artists up in unexpected collaborations.
Having LaVette work with Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers brought a contemporary backbone to her sound and helped alert the press to the artist's legacy. "Being on this label," Staples said, "I won't say I've gotten more respect, but I've met more people, like people who want to interview me.
"I've been singing 60 years, and I have known other people who have sang a lot of years, like Koko Taylor, and I don't know if they were as blessed as I am. I'm just grateful. I'm overjoyed. I've never come to a record company and sat and done interviews. I've never done that."
Though Tom Waits and Neko Case are Anti-'s most prominent artists, the label also has earned a reputation as a home for the left-of-center, and the combination of Staples and Tweedy fits the company's genre-hopping approach. "From a business level, it's a no-brainer," Tweedy said. "The fact is nobody is buying the genre records as much as they used to. You have to try to find an audience that's younger."
Kaulkin doesn't want any of the credit. He released, in collaboration with avant-blues label Fat Possum, Burke's 2002 album "Don't Give Up on Me," which saw the artist singing the songs of Elvis Costello and Waits, among others. It won a contemporary blues album Grammy.
"The Solomon record made me aware of what we could do, and it gave us some credibility," Kaulkin said. "Our mission is not to revive older artists who are at a career lull. We're like any other label. We're looking for great artists and artists who have something to say.
"Mavis is one of those artists, and she has something to say. It doesn't matter how long she's been around and how old she is."
WHEN | WHERE Mavis Staples' "You Are Not Alone" is out now; Staples appears on "Letterman" Tuesday at 11:35 p.m. on CBS/2; and she plays a sold-out show at City Winery in Manhattan Wednesday.