The first lady of Southern Soul has returned. Three years on from a no-holds barred approach to domestic violence in His Hands, she has teamed up with the same musicians to record a sequel, the more upward-looking Who’s Hurting Now?
Once again it boasts the sort of music and textures that strongly evoke the dusty landscape of the southern United States, shimmering in the sun.
Yet when we caught up with her in Georgia, she tells us it isn’t nearly as hot as we’d think.
“It’s cold, we’re shivering over here!” she trills down the phone. “We’re having some real cold weather at the moment. But then I’ve been watching CNN and they showed you in London – it’s completely shut down! I hope it’s warmed up when I come over!”
Staton will be visiting to tour the new album, a selection of relatively intimate venues chosen to house her return. So does she feel this is a journey back to her first principles of house music? “I do think so, yes!” is the emphatic response. “It’s what I’ve always done, and the way I’m singing at the moment is what closely resembles some of the earlier stuff. I’m having a great time doing it, though. I had a vacation for twenty years I guess, where I was doing nothing but gospel, but this is what my friend Al Green and I call ‘life music’.”
She explains further. “Some of this music is all about life, falling in love, getting out of here, going to work. And then you have David Crawford writing a song like I Don’t Know.” Crawford it was that penned Staton’s biggest commercial hit, the disco favourite Young Hearts Run Free, and though this is far from the dance floor, Staton proclaims undying love for the track.
Perhaps most striking of all on Who’s Hurting Now? is the song Mercy Now, a form of protest song that takes on weighty issues like nuclear weapons, directly alongside family security. “It is extremely relevant for the issues of today,” says Staton, noticeably more serious now. “It speaks to the individual and it speaks to the country. It tells a story but says about the need to really get things right”.
So does she feel the appointment of Barack Obama has gone some way towards achieving that? “Oh, we’re just basking in the afterglow of having a president who really seems to care about us! The last eight years have been really horrible here, it’s brought us to where we are today.” She pauses. “And I mean it, it’s been really horrible. But now it feels like we have something to hang on to, we have hope! I mean, he’s intelligent, he’s an educated man, and we’re extremely proud of him”.
And what about in her home state, Georgia? “We’re feeling it too, oh yes. We have been trying to struggle with the government here, as crime is getting worse. The whole world is messed up right now.” Which brings us back to Mercy Now. “It seems more like a prayer,” she says. “Who am I talking to? I have to be talking to God, it’s not a heavy thing as such but it’s reality.”
There are rays of hope through the album for Staton, mind. “With His Hands, I think it was definitely the case that everything on it was gonna do somebody wrong. This is my light at the end of the tunnel. It’s saying that you might be down at the moment, but that you’ll get out of this.”
Will Oldham wrote the material for His Hands, though he contributes just the one song to the new album, Get Your Hands Dirty. It addresses an inherent laziness in men, and Staton freely admits she wasn’t initially taken by its tone. “I thought ‘Yeah, I don’t really know about this,’ but then I got into it, I went ahead and did it, and I think it has a good message.”
After a pause, she elaborates. “It’s about guys that don’t work. I think there’s a lot of that now, and especially here in America there are guys that go out and find a woman that’s got money, and end up not having to do anything. I think it hit home when we were recording the album and we came to London. When I got off the plane I saw that picture of Prince Harry I think it was, using the wheelbarrow with his charity work. The headline said he was getting his hands dirty, and that really spoke to me!”
With her aptitude for different styles of music, is it safe to assume Staton gets a lot of offers for collaborations? “Well no, not recently,” she ponders. “I would love to do some more music with Groove Armada, after the song we did on the last album. I can do practically anything!” She laughs. So what of disco, will she be returning to that? “Oh sure,” she says easily. “I’m working with that now; it’s got me at the moment. I work with the keyboard player of the band around me at the moment, his name is Mose Davis and he plays in The Counts, who are getting back together to tour Europe. We work together – he does the songs and I do the lyrics. In one of the songs we’re working on now it’s saying “you kind of treat me like a secret”.
With a host of live performances coming up, what is the secret of a good Candi Staton live performance? “To me you have to get yourself fully involved, you’ve got to feel the music. You can’t coast at all. Every show is important to me and I think it’s a lot about attitude. I like to think my audiences feel the spirit, the love I have for these people who come out to see my performance and hear my music. I don’t take that lightly! Sometimes we get tired of course, we’re human after all, but you have to overlook that if you can.”
It seems odd to think of Staton getting tired, given she’s 65 and showing no sign of having aged in the last 15 years. When asked how she’s looked after her voice in that time, the reply is simple and sweet. “Well I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t smoke! I’m a kind of a health freak; I get lots of rest and keep a positive mental attitude.”
This is an attitude she agrees runs through the core of Who’s Hurting Now? And given her allusions to disco music on the horizon, it looks like her future music will be full of positivity also.