Talking about Life with Candi Staton
It’s so great to have Candi Staton back. Not that she ever went away, but on her new album, Life Happens (Beracah/Fame), her voice resonates with a force that shouts, “I’m here to tell you that bad stuff happens in life all the time, but I’m happy and satisfied to be where I am.” On this album, Staton stands up and testifies to the hard times, the difficulties, and the losses we all go through in our lives. Wrapping her strong, soulful voice around these lyrics, Candi Staton weaves her voice into our hearts and souls, grabs our emotions, demands that we keep our eyes open to life around us–our hearts ready to break and mend–and compels us to live every moment of our lives fully and with purpose. Knowing what we know now can only make us stronger and create a better world. Whether it’s the album’s opener, “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” or a languorous ballad like “Eternity,” it’s Staton’s moving and soaring voice that seizes us, carrying us to dizzying emotional heights.
“I Ain’t Easy to Love,” a muscular call-and-response soul shout with Staton trading barbs with John Paul White (the Civil Wars), kicks off the album. It defines the unstoppable energy that dominates the entire record, even in its slower moments. In “Close to You,” a tune that channels the slow-burning blues of Bonnie Raitt, the smoky funk of Etta James, and the seductive languor of Maria Muldaur–driven by Toby Baker’s slinky lead guitar–the singer sensuously whispers and claims the ache of desire for her new lover. “Commitment,” which echoes Sting’s “Every Little Move You Make,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Fire,” and the very best of Southern soul from Joe South to Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” (whose refrain is echoed in the horns on the chorus), follows naturally from “Close to You”. The singer pleads longingly for what she deserves: “a friend and a lover who’ll love me for the rest of my life.” She pulls no punches as she cries out her yearning: “Commitment/someone who’ll go the distance/I need someone with staying power, who’ll make me go weak in the knees…I need honor and love in my life from somebody who’s playing for keeps.” The warm notes of Mose Davis’s Fender Rhodes fall rapturously into Staton’s tender plea for a love that lasts more than just one night on “Eternity,” a poignant and passionate ballad whose emotional power derives from Staton’s gospel phrasings and her hymnic shadow vocals. It’s a heavenly song.
On the funky rap “Beware, She’s After Your Man,” Staton delivers some age-old advice to her sisters, while on “You Treat Me Like a Secret”—which starts with a riff off of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious”—the singer calls out her man’s deceptive character and his inability to be real with others about his lover: “Whenever we’re together, you can’t keep your hands off me/you’d think I’m the only one your eyes ever see/whenever we ‘re in public/oh it’s a different story/people observing us would think you hardly know me.” These two songs call out the deceptions and the misery into which relationships can so easily fall.
Every song on the album showcases Staton’s forceful vocals and her still-powerful ability to tell a story of love, loss, redemption, despair, and hope, wrapped in the sweet and strong soul phrasings that she first brought us in songs like “I’m Just a Prisoner.”
I caught up with Candi Staton by phone recently for a delightful and candid conversation about her new album and about her career.
HC: Why this album now? How did it happen?
Staton: A couple of years ago, I was touring for my album, Who’s Hurting Now?, and Rick Hall showed up at one of the shows. I hadn’t seen him in many years, so after the show I changed as fast I could to go out to see him and give him a hug. He said, “Candi, I think we’ve got another hit record in us.” It took about two years for us make the record, and Rick produced three of the songs on the album: “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” “Commitment,” and “Never Even Had the Chance.” It was so good to work with him again; he’s a perfectionist, but he’s always in the service of the song.
HC: Why this title?
Staton: You know, Henry, I’ve been through a lot; my life hasn’t been a Cinderella storybook. I’ve been in a lot of relationships, and I found out that people come into relationship looking at those things that are around you instead of looking at what’s in your heart to find out who you really are. I found out pretty quickly that the men who wanted to be with me were interested in the trappings of my music life and some of them wanted to control me and my career; when they really saw what was in my heart—that I’m doing music because it’s part of who I am and not a solely a business—they left. There was this one man, Henry, and he’s pretty famous, who would introduce me as his neighbor or friend to his friends; he wouldn’t even pick me up when we were going out some place, but he’d give me directions to meet him there. He was treating me like his secret—which is the subject of the song “You Treat Me Like a Secret”—so I dropped him. So, the album is a, anthology of my life, a musical story of what I’ve gone through—from the hope at the beginning of a relationship and the feeling that this is gonna work out to the anger of finding out about your man’s cheating and divorce.
HC: When did you start singing?
Staton: I was five years old. It was in the Baptist church where we went, and I had to stand up on a chair when I was singing because folks couldn’t see me over the altar railings, and I couldn’t see them. I sang “The Lord Will Make a Way Someday.” My sister, Maggie, was two years older than I and already singing, and I wanted to be like her; she was a little bit shyer than I was; I always liked to perform. Our pastor took us around to other churches to sing; then two other girls joined us and we became the Four Golden Echoes. When I was 11, Maggie and I were sent to the Jewell Christian Academy in Nashville, and Bishop Jewell put us together with another girl and we became the Jewell Gospel Trio. When we were teenagers, we got to meet tour with the Soul Stirrers, C.L. Franklin, the Staples Singers, and Mahalia Jackson; can you imagine, Henry, what is was like for me to be meeting these folks as a young girl, but they treated us so good; we were at the right place at the right time. But it was also kind of funny since we were the only group that traveled with a band, and here’s Sam Cooke and others looking up to us because we had our own band. (Laughs)
HC: When did you start playing piano?
Staton: We used to tour with a group called the Davis Sisters, out of Philadelphia, and they had a piano player named Curtis Dublin. Every time I saw him, I’d beg him to teach me how to play. (Laughs) He showed me a few basic chords. After that, any piano we got to on the road, I’d sit down and start banging on it.
HC: You started out as a gospel singer but you became best known for your hits “Stand By Man” and “Young Hearts Run Free.” What role does gospel music play in your life now?
Staton: Well, I was raised in the church, but I was always a little rebellious. They’d be preaching all the time “thou shalt not,” and I wanted to know what “thou shalt.” (Laughs) I took a gospel sabbatical for 25 years; people talk about a rat race in pop music; let me tell you, there’s a rat race in gospel music, too. I went back to church around 1982-1983, and my pastor, Lorenzo Harrison, really helped me to see that religion itself is not good; relationships and love are the key. We had a couple of different television shows, New Directions, which lasted 10 years, and Say Yes, which lasted 10 years. I got out of church in 2000, but I still bring a little bit of gospel to everything I do; I bring my testimony into every show I do, and out a little bit of it in every song I do. I don’t do songs, like “Mr. and Mrs. Untrue,” about things I don’t do anymore at my shows these days.
HC: Who are some of your greatest musical and songwriting influences?
Staton: Oh, Henry, there’s so many, and I’m likely to think of more when we hang up. Ashford and Simpson: they wrote some great songs; look at a song like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Marvin and Tammi; God gave such great gifts to people like them. David Crawford, who wrote my hit “Young Hearts Run Free.” Ray Charles; Aretha Franklin, of course she’s one of the greatest; Gladys Knight; Teddy Pendergrass: oh he was such a beautiful singer; I loved his voice, and I really miss him. Mahalia Jackson: I got a lot from her; I loved the way she held her notes and curled them; she sang from the heart. Oh, and Mac Davis is one of my favorite songwriters, as well as the late George Jackson.
HC: Tell me a little bit about your own approach to songwriting.
Staton: First I come up with a melody that I’ll be hearing. I wake up writing. I have a piano in my bedroom, so sometimes if I hear a tune or I come up with a lyric, I’ll just get up, turn on the recorder, and play the melody, and get it down. I write a lot with Mose Davis, and he’ll come up and have some tracks done. I’ll tell him to leave them with me and let me live with the tunes for a while and then I’ll put some lyrics to them. I write lyrics by listening; I might hear someone talking, and I’ll develop a story out of that. That’s how the song “You Treat Me Like a Secret” came about; I said to this guy that “you are treating me like a secret if you don’t want me to come with you,” and the song developed from there.
HC: What are the elements of a great song?
Staton: Songs that have messages that will go through generations, that are not simply overnight successes. Christmas standards are songs like that. Songs like “I Will Survive”—that song has meaning for any generation. Songs that have writing that will give people something to hold onto; those are great songs.
HC: In what ways do you think you have evolved or grown as an artist over the arc of your career?
Staton: I’ve learned that attitude determines altitude. Keep your ego down. Don’t think more highly of yourself than you should; keep asking yourself: “Do you know who you are?” Don’t lose sight of yourself, and be respectful of other people. You learn in this business that the same people you meet going up the ladder are the same people you meet coming down.
HC: You’ve done so much in your career, how would you like to be remembered?
Staton: As an artist, as a mother, and as a caring person. I can be your fan cheerleading you and be there for you, and I hope my children and other musicians in this business will remember me as a person that loved people.
HC: What’s next for you?
Staton: I have a book I’ve written, What to Do When Your Child Turns to Crime, that I want to get published and out there. You know, Henry, I’ve had a child go to jail, and this book is a step-by-step guide to help others in the same situation by showing them how they can pray their child through jail or prison. We’ll probably self-publish it and make it available on our web site; the proceeds will go to the ministry, Apples of Gold, Pitchers of Silver, that I started to help abused women and victims of domestic violence. I’m also working on an autobiography; it’s in the early stages now, and I’ll work on it when I get back from my upcoming tour in Europe. I’m also loving being a mother and a grandmother now.