First Listen: New Music from Mavis Staples & Jeff Tweedy

The gospel legend and an Americana icon team up for a powerful new album


Mavis Staples, rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress, and civil rights activist.

Though separated in age by decades, Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy have forged one of music’s most unique and prolific partnerships. Out this Friday, If All I Was Was Black is their third record together in seven years, following 2010’s You Are Not Alone and One True Vine in 2013. The first two were a jovial mix of gospel spirituals and covers. But as the title suggests, their latest collaboration is heavier fare, bringing Staples full circle from her days singing protest songs in the 1960s.

On tracks like the seething album opener “Little Bit,” Mavis laments the treatment of black men by police and the crushing disappointment of watching the despicable events this August in Charlottesville, Virginia, while Tweedy provides shards of tension-filled guitar. But on other songs, such as the touching “Ain’t No Doubt About It”—which Garden & Gun premieres below—Staples is hopeful, urging people to find common ground. She trades lead vocals with Tweedy, her soaring voice underpinned by his aching words that register just above a whisper. “It’s clear to see that these times we are living in can be distressing, but a quick fix would be supporting each other, loving one another—instead of division,” she says. “[Let’s] come together, have faith in each other, be there for one another, be friendly, be kind. That’s what ‘Ain’t No Doubt About It’ is all about.”

The new material was mostly written by Tweedy after he and Staples had lengthy conversations about the country’s state of affairs. Staples traveled from her home on Chicago’s South Side to Tweedy’s North Side loft studio to record. “Jeff boiled our discussions down to songs—we know each other and our intentions pretty well,” she says. “I like to say he wrote the songs for me and through me.”

Staples has been on the road this fall opening for Bob Dylan—no slouch in the protest-song department himself—and while there aren’t any shows yet confirmed for Staples and Tweedy, it’s clear from If All I Was Was Black that the pair have found their muse in each other—and a resolve to do their part in trying to make a difference. “Tweedy is a genius—he’s so passionate about his art and his poetry,” Staples says. “We both want the same things for our country and for the world. [We’re both] fighting the same fight.”

If All I Was Was Black is out on Friday, Nov. 17. Check out the exclusive premiere of “Ain’t No Doubt About It” here.