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Artist on Artist: Neko Case talks to Mavis Staples

"I had a picture of Pops Staples taped on my guitar to always remind me to practice."


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Neko Case and Mavis Staples both have glorious voices that can stop you in your tracks, and when they've got you in their grip, they both make sure to impart serious ideas about what it means to be human. Case, whose solo career took off during her early-aughts sojourn in Chicago, and Staples, a Chicago lifer who made her name in family gospel band the Staple Singers, are separated in age by more than three decades—the former turns 43 on Sunday, while the latter is 74—but they're connected by the passion for social justice that fuels much of their music. Case just happens to traffic largely in the profane, while Staples has opted for the sacred. Another thing they have in common? The good taste to have hired Kelly Hogan as a backup singer. Their conversation for this week's Artist on Artist is just as heartwarming as you'd expect from two such empathetic and compassionate musicians.

Case and Staples perform Friday night at the Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest—the beloved club's 17th annual party and its second in collaboration with the Onion's A.V. Club. Case headlines at 8:45 PM, preceded by Staples at 7:30; Friday's music starts at 5:15, and the two earlier acts are Nude Beach and Trampled by Turtles. On Saturday the music starts at 1:30 PM, and the bookings lean more toward indie rock, with headliners Young the Giant. Also performing are the Hold Steady, Superchunk (on their first tour without founding bassist Laura Ballance), the Walkmen, the Both (aka Ted Leo and Aimee Mann), and several Hideout regulars—Jon Langford, Girl Group Chicago, and Steve Krakow's gargantuan and unhinged Vision Celestial Guitarkestra. A portion of ticket proceeds goes to local schools and charities, including Rock for Kids. Peter Margasak

Mavis Staples: I feel great working with my friend Neko, because we are like family. We sing together real good when we're on shows together—we sing with each other. And we're both with Anti- Records, and when I joined Anti-, I joined because of Neko. When they told me that Neko was on the label, I said, Well, that's good enough for me, I'll go.

Neko Case: Oh, Mavis!

I did, Neko, and they are so supportive. When you go into that Anti- office, it's like a family affair. It's just love, beauty, and sunshine.

That's true.

And they support our shows.

They never tell you what to do. They just trust us. And they treat us really good.

Right, right. Neko, how about when we walk in there, and all of the pets greet us?

That's great. You know you can trust people who bring their dogs to work.

There is one dog there named Stanley. You know Stanley?

Yeah, he's my boyfriend.

Yeah, me too, wait a minute now!

He gets around. He's got love enough for all of the ladies.

He follows you around—he lets you know that he likes you, because he follows you wherever you go in there.

I know. I feel bad because I'm so tired.

I know how that is. I'm sitting here, Neko, with the pain—you know I had a knee replacement and I had surgery. But the knee is feeling better now that I'm talking to you.

Aw, thank you! Are you still in physical therapy and stuff? Is it feeling extra mobile, like, does it feel better than before you had the surgery?

Oh, girl, yeah. I think I'm going to make it now. I think at the show at the Hideout—that's the greatest place, isn't it?

Yes, it is.

I believe at the show at the Hideout I'm gonna have to use my cane. I might not have to, 'cause I still have about seven days.

You'll just look extra tough if you use your cane.

Right! And you know, if I look like I'm going to fall, you come and get me. You can say, "Mavis, hold tight, Mavis. You'll be all right."

No problem.

And where is Kelly Hogan?

Kelly Hogan is asleep right now, because we got in really super late. She's upstairs. We're going to go do a sound check later. You've spent a lot of time recording with Kelly.

Yes indeed. She makes my stuff sound like the Staple Singers background. She really has that voice. I think she was born around the time we first started singing, because she's spot on, you know. I get jealous when [Anti- president] Andy [Kaulkin] tells me that you and Kelly are together all the time, and Mavis, I'm sorry, but you're left out, you're on your own.

[Laughter.] But you know it means a ton to her to come sing with you. We all like to share and cross-pollinate, as she likes to say. I'm sure Kelly Hogan would come whenever you needed her.

I love her.

She and I are both so heavily influenced by your music. Me personally—your singing, obviously, but also your dad, Pops Staples. His guitar playing was the hugest influence on me becoming a guitar player. I'm not a great guitar player, but what I loved about Pops, and I've always wanted to tell you this, was that he never overplayed anything. His tone and his beautiful passages with space in them—he made the guitar sound like he was madly in love with it. His guitar sounds so respected and so—ugh, I can't. I can't. I had a picture of Pops Staples taped on my guitar to always remind me to practice.

Really? Oh, that's great.

I still have it.

That's great. Thank you so much, Neko. Pops, you're exactly right. He never overplayed anything. He would tell me, "Mavis, the musicians aren't supposed to play over your voice, they're playing between." So I said, "OK, Pops." I'm not a guitarist—I wish I could play that guitar. But I certainly thank you for that, Neko. Coming from you, that's really an honor. Pops Staples, he was a handsome guy.

Oh, yeah! He's the reason I own a Jazzmaster too. It's exactly like you were saying. The guitar should not go into the singing or above the singing, and the Jazzmaster has the best low end of any guitar and that beautiful caramel sound. Yeah, Pops is totally to blame! In a good way. You and your sisters' and Pervis's voices together—that's what all harmony singers aspire to. We all owe you one.

Oh my, thank you, sweetheart. You make me feel so good.

It means a lot to be in this interview with you.

This is history, Neko. For me to talk to you, this is a history-making moment. I hope they get every bit of this!

We'll talk a bit about the Hideout, and then we'll bust on loose. The Hideout, you know, that's where I met Kelly Hogan. She did an interview, whatever you call it, for—

Oh yeah! She interviewed you for your EPK for your last record, or the one before that.

Right! That was for Have a Little Faith.

Yeah, that record is beautiful. [The interview was actually for 2007's We'll Never Turn Back. That record is also beautiful. --Ed.]

But I knew Kelly years before, so she just introduced me to the Hideout, because she suggested that's where we do it.

Yeah, the Hideout is amazing because of the goodwill of the people who own it and their pride in Chicago history, especially to do with music. You really feel like you're in a place where their history is being made while you're actually there. You don't feel like you're missing out. Someday people will look back and it'll be the thing where you get to say, "I was there for that!" You've been many places where you can say—you've been at the center of many amazing musical events.

I chose to do my live CD there. The place is just a little small funky club, but the, the—I'm trying to think of the word for "sound." The acoustics! Ha. I'm not good with these words. I have to learn a lot of the musicians' lingo. But yeah, the acoustics were so good and it turned out so nice.

And there's nice energy there too. The owners have so much energy and passion and excitement. They're so excited. Tim and Katie [Tuten] and the twins [Jim and Mike Hinchsliff].

It makes things so much fun. The last time we were there, we did this Hideout festival. They built me, what do you call it—see, I'm having brain fade. I'm getting old!

Yeah, you know, I'm having the same thing. Nouns are hard when you're tired, you know?

And when you're having knee surgery, you can't think straight. We'll put it on all that.

Back to the Hideout—it's just the most cozy place to work. When they had these festivals, my mind was blown. I thought it was just going to be a sidewalk fest, but there were 10, 15 thousand people out there. I said, "Oh!" And we had a football game. Go Hideout! We love the Hideout.

I remember seeing that and just going, "Oh my gosh, this is so huge. Who could convince the city to give them two city blocks?" But then I was like, of course Katie could convince the city to do that. Of course they did.

I tell you, it blew my mind! Oh, you know what I was trying to think of, Neko? It was a throne. They built a throne. Somehow the drummer, he needed some kind of throne for his drum set, and they thought that there was supposed to be a throne for Mavis.

That's awesome!

I said, I'm not a princess, I'm not a queen. I don't need a throne. But that was so funny. I just had to tell you that. I hope that they built the throne for Neko this time. It was really out of place.

That is so funny.

Kelly will tell you about it. But Neko, I never knew your puppies' names.

Oh boy, there's a lot of them. There's Liza and Jerome and Burt and Swan-y.

Oh my gosh. You've added some, because you only had two the last time I saw you.

I know. I had lost two, but four is kind of my limit. And there's always dogs that need to be adopted, so I'll always end up with at least four.

But you've got a family. That's great.

We're going to have to cut it now, because we're overworking baby sister Neko. We can't be doing that. She needs her rest! She won't be able to sing. You want her to perform, don't you?


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