Callowhill: The Way In

Philadelphia’s Callowhill finds musical freedom through real-world responsibilities

There comes a time, after you’ve spent countless nights playing alone in your room, jamming in some shared practice space and gigging around town, when you accept that music isn’t the center of your world anymore. You and your friends are navigating careers, postgraduate programs and parenthood, and you don’t have the free time you once did. What do you do?

Start a new band. Make a dynamic record. Play whenever you can. That’s what’s worked for Philadelphia indie rockers Callowhill.

“When you’re younger, it seems like, ‘I’ll go to the show and find 10 people who want to be in a band with me,’” says drummer Katy Otto. “But to find musical chemistry as I get older also feels rarer and thus more precious.”

Otto, guitarist Julia Gaylord and bassist John Pettit are scene vets, with credits in more than 10 bands among them. Guitarist Nikki Karam, the only one who doesn’t contribute vocals, is newer to the stage, with just a few one-off cover bands (tributes to Electrelane, Patti Smith and Siouxsie And The Banshees, all collaborations with Pettit) prior to Callowhill.

Their first full-length, The Way Out (released on Otto’s Exotic Fever label), is moody and melodic, with an urgency that comes from understanding that everyone already has a full schedule, so any energy that goes into the music is an active choice.

“Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder, ‘Oh, well, what if I worked part-time or didn’t have a job like this and could do music all the time?’” says Karam. “But I think the fact that I do have limited time to do music makes me like it more.”

For Pettit, who’d put music on hold for a while, it took seeing a friend pick up a guitar well into her 30s and immediately start a band to realize he didn’t have to choose between total immersion and abstinence. “Now it’s just like a comfortable, familiar place for me in life, outside of my job and other duties,” he says.
Callowhill is an escape, a way to create, connect and have fun—and that’s plenty. “If I were to not be in the band at all,” says Gaylord, “I wouldn’t feel complete.”

—M.J. Fine

Patty Schemel: Living Through This

Now clean for 12 years, former Hole drummer Patty Schemel pens a warts-and-all memoir

A few months ago, the washing machine in Patty Schemel’s L.A. home broke, and she promptly prepared for the apocalypse. “I was like, ‘Fuck. My god, now we’re fucked!’” she says. Then reality settled in. “I realized, ‘Well, I have a fucking washing machine. I have a washing machine.’ That’s crazy! Who would’ve thought?!”

Appliance ownership might seem trivial, but for the former Hole drummer, it was once as inconceivable as a pet unicorn. During most of Schemel’s life, heroin made it impossible to imagine a future that involved anything besides abject misery.

Her new memoir, Hit So Hard (Da Capo Press), is an intimate, brazen account of her battle with drugs and alcohol, as well as the volatile years she spent drumming for one of the 1990s’ most infamous rock bands—and she spared none of the harrowing details.

“In my book, there isn’t a moment that glorifies heroin and addiction,” Schemel says firmly. “It’s a pretty honest portrayal of what the day-to-day life of a junkie is and the progression of the disease of addiction. The stereotypes are real, like, ‘If you keep using heroin, you’re gonna get a habit and then you’re gonna have to do stuff you don’t wanna do to keep using.’ All the nightmares and disgusting realities are all true.”

The daughter of recovering alcoholics, Schemel took her first drink at 12. As a young person coming to terms with her homosexuality, she treated her feelings of isolation with drugs and alcohol. Schemel publicly came out in a Rolling Stone article in the mid-’90s because she knew the pain of hiding.

“When I came out as a grown woman, I felt really safe in my environment to be an out lesbian, and it was important to not lie about who I was,” she says. “Growing up, I didn’t see any out lesbians, and I think maybe I wouldn’t have felt as alienated if there were some.”

The disease of addiction only exacerbated her estrangement, and Schemel spent what felt like an eternity attempting to fill the void. She started shooting heroin in ’92 or ’93 and later supported a six-year-long crack habit. She went from performing in front of thousands of screaming fans and sleeping in four-star hotels to crashing on the streets and selling her body for drug money. By her rough estimate, she’s been through 22 detoxes and 14 rehabs.

Now a dozen years sober, the 50-year-old Schemel is married and raising a young daughter, as well as playing drums in Upset, teaching at Rock N’ Roll Camp For Girls Los Angeles and running a dog-care business. All this self-rediscovery was a long time coming—much of Hit So Hard is her desperate quest to “disappear.” One of the book’s more devastating moments is when Schemel is strung out and catches a glimpse of a Ludwig drum kit in a church. Suddenly, she remembered she used to play.

“To rediscover drums in recovery as a sober person, it’s something I know so well,” she says. “It’s that comfort, the familiarity that I’ve been playing drums since I was a kid. It’s a place I go to feel.”

—Jeanne Fury

Peter Oren: Minding The Environment

Peter Oren tackles climate change on his sophomore album

Anthropocene, the title of Peter Oren’s second record, is a term coined by Nobel Prize-winning Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen to describe the era in which humanity has had a substantial impact on the environment. “It’s a topic we can’t ignore,” says Oren. “The hurricanes on the East Coast and the fires in California show us that we’re living on a tinderbox. About a year ago, I knew two gardeners, one depressed, one angry. They asked me where all the climate-change songs are, so I started writing.”

Oren played guitar as a teenager and fell in love with poetry in high school. He put his passions together in college and started writing songs, many of them with a political slant. “I don’t have a solid understanding of composition or theory,” he says. “Songwriting is a constant process of discovery. Do these two chords sound good together? If yes, go. If not, scrap it.”

Former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer supplied the low-key production that keeps Anthropocene (Western Vinyl) focused on Oren’s mellow baritone and the lyrics. Session players add subtle asides that intensify the gravity of the message Oren delivers.

“I add nuance and metaphor to keep the message personal,” he says. “I want to sound like I’m talking to a neighbor about climate change and how concerned I am and how I want to work together with my community to find a solution. I don’t know if we will. Our problems stem from an economic and political situation we have to change before we can exercise collective power. We have to get out in the streets and stop trying to work within the system. Republicans and Democrats have the same goals, and the minority party is always underfoot. Instead of being a collaboration, it’s a fight for power. Whoever wins makes the other side’s life hell.”

—j. poet

Grayson Capps: Soulful Songs From The South

A less formal approach to writing and recording agrees with Grayson Capps

“On this collection I started with an empty mind, a guitar and the voice recorder on my iPhone,” says Grayson Capps, describing the creation of Scarlett Roses (Royal Potato Family), his seventh solo album. “I pressed record and freestyled a song. If I liked the outcome, I’d edit it and sand it down into something more concise.”

The 50-year-old Capps has been playing music for as long as he can remember, inspired by the impromptu living-room jam sessions he witnessed growing up. “I remember hearing Fred Stokes, a friend of my father’s, play his old Martin around the house when I was a child in Brewton, Ala.,” he says. “Bobby Long, another friend, and my dad sang along. The pure joy of those days surpassed any record or formal concert I ever heard and continues to inspire me to this very day.”

Capps was already writing songs when he moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University as a theater major. When one of his teachers told him rock ’n’ roll was the future of theater, he gave up acting to play in two short-lived bands: the House Levelers, a folk/punk project, and Stavin’ Chain, a blues-rock outfit. He started his solo career with an eponymous album in 2005, promising himself that he’d release a new recording every year. After five years, and as many albums, he recalibrated his approach. He moved back to Alabama, set up a writing shed in his backyard and took six years to make Scarlett Roses. Capps is happy with this more leisurely method.

“My shack is small,” he says. “I have a desk, an old-school four-track recorder, an AC, a wood-burning stove and two guitar hooks. It’s very simple and allows me to have a clean slate when writing. Making this album was a new experience, from writing more free-form to discovering the fruit of my new surroundings to moving on from old swamps to more stable terrain.”

Once the songs were written, Capps took some friends into a studio with longtime producer Trina Shoemaker (Josh Ritter, Brandi Carlile) and cut them live. “We rehearsed and recorded at the same time,” he says. “The songs have a freshness because of the nature of discovery we had in the moment.”

His signature amalgamation of country, rock, folk and blues is intact, giving Scarlett Roses a down-home, lived-in flavor. His relaxed vocal delivery imbues the songs with an authenticity that complements his clear-eyed approach to the complexities of modern life. “Bag Of Weed” is a wordy blues tune that describes the pitfalls of ignoring reality; “Moving On” is a jazzy, twang-heavy ballad describing the trials of a life spent on the road; “Thankful” is a funky country tune that celebrates the bright moments that make life worth living.

“Writing songs helps me move through chapters of my psyche with a sense of examination, understanding and completion,” says Capps. “Being a self-employed, middle-class artist in America is one of the most punishing roles a citizen of the USA can play. Songwriting is necessary to maintain my sanity.”

—j. poet

The Ballad Of John And Rose: A New Compilation And Festival Celebrate American Primitive Guitar Music

The Thousand Incarnations Of The Rose, a compilation and festival of American Primitive Guitar Music, blooms this spring

Sometime in 1958, a teenaged guitar player from Takoma Park, Md., named John Fahey started recording imitations and send-ups of the blues in the basement of Joe Bussard, a fellow 78-RPM record collector. The next year, he made his first LP, Blind Joe Death, which was issued on his own Takoma Records. Back then, people didn’t record solo instrumental guitar music, make their own records or start record companies to put them out; Fahey started his own scene from scratch. In the coming decade, Takoma became a magnet for other guitar and banjo players with a similar penchant for synthesizing folk, blues, Indian and other material into instrumental music that prioritized the expression and evocation of emotion.

Since the turn of the century, a legion of newer guitarists, from veterans with personal ties to the original Takoma recording artists to youngsters born in the 1990s, have kept the music alive and growing. And this spring, 59 years after Fahey sent Blind Joe Death to the pressing plant, both the past and present of American Primitive Guitar will get their due. On March 23, Craft Recordings will release The Thousand Incarnations Of The Rose: American Primitive Guitar & Banjo 1963-1974, a double LP compiled and annotated by the style’s most esteemed scholar, Glenn Jones. The album uses classic tracks by progenitors such as Fahey, Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke as well as lesser-known figures like George Stavis, Fred Gerlach and Max Ochs (Phil’s cousin) to illustrate the music’s depth and breadth.

Says Jones, “One of my goals for the set was to make the compilation one that you could listen to without feeling that the players had little or nothing in common.” To this end, he organized the LP so that each side expresses a different aspect of the music. “I tried to do the bluesy/folksy stuff first, then the Indian-influenced stuff, then the compelling oddities and, finally, the more sophisticated compositional stuff,” he says. While heads who are already in deep might lament the set’s lack of previously unreleased material, as a historical document that lays out what American Primitive is about and spotlights some marvelous, nearly forgotten music, it’s a monument.

Hard on the heels of the album’s release comes the first ever festival of American Primitive Guitar, also called The Thousand Incarnations Of The Rose. It takes place in Fahey’s hometown of Takoma Park the weekend of April 13-15 and features 29 performers, including elders such as Peter Walker, Harry Taussig and Peter Lang; players with links to the first generation, but who didn’t start recording until more recently, such as Jones, Charlie Schmidt and Richard Osborn; and newcomers like Sarah Louise, Dylan Aycock and Rob Noyes.

The event represents a convergence of initiatives from within and outside of the American Primitive community. It all started when Steve Korn of Washington, D.C., performance space Rhizome floated an idea to Jesse Sheppard, who plays guitar in the duo Elkhorn and has documented many of the American Primitive players on video.

“Elkhorn played Rhizome last summer, and Steve said he knew I had worked with a lot of the AP players,” says Sheppard. “He was thinking about doing some kind of festival around this music, an idea that had been floating around for a while, but no one had done anything with since Fahey’s memorial concert. (Fahey died following heart surgery in 2001.) This happened after Glenn and I had just spoken about the album and how excited he was about the liner notes he’d written. So Steve and Glenn and I started talking, and soon after that we brought Glenn’s friend Kathy Harr on board to access her experience putting on festivals and events like Terrastock. The organizers of this festival are all volunteers deeply connected to their communities—another thing that makes this event unique, But there was actually a third conversation that I was unaware of at the time, which was that the city of Takoma Park had recently commissioned a consultant to look into ways they could promote themselves, and one of the ideas that came back was to host a mid-Atlantic guitar festival.”

Besides live concerts at Takoma Park’s Community Center and various locations around town, the festival will present a panel discussion about the music moderated by writer Byron Coley, screenings of previously unseen live videos of players including the late Jack Rose and the first D.C.-area showing of the Voice Of The Eagle: The Enigma Of Robbie Basho documentary.

—Bill Meyer

Charlotte Gainsbourg: The Departed

With her first studio album in eight years, Charlotte Gainsbourg grieves the loss of loved ones

Charlotte Gainsbourg didn’t plan to have two films and an album coming out in the same season, but, c’est la vie. She’s starring in The Snowman and La Promesse De L’aube and releasing Rest (Because), her fifth album and first studio outing since 2009’s Beck-written/produced IRM.

“I don’t decide anything,” says Gainsbourg about the scheduling convergence. “I can’t push a film back in order to finish an album. It’s not possible that way. So the music has always come second.”

Second in her schedule but not in her heart. She likens making albums to directing films, but compared to acting, they’re more “personal” as well as more “demanding.” This coming from the actress known recently for accepting demanding, and controversial, roles in the films of Danish director Lars von Trier.

“It’s true that I’ve had more experience with films than with albums,” says Gainsbourg. “I can’t say music comes second, but I feel less experienced, although I started both at the same time. I was 12, and I did ‘Lemon Incest’ with my father, and I did Paroles Et Musique, which was my first film (both in 1984). I like to keep it that way in my mind, that I did start with both feet in both directions.”

Gainsbourg’s father is, of course, Serge Gainsbourg, the late French superstar, and her mother is British actress and singer Jane Birkin. It was a long time after her father’s death in 1991 before Gainsbourg felt she could return to music: She made her first album with him when she was a teen and didn’t make her second, 2006’s excellent 5:55, until two decades later. To distance herself from her father’s legacy, Gainsbourg has sung mostly in English; Rest marks the first time she’s written all the lyrics herself (except for one song that she happened to have sitting around written for her by Sir Paul McCartney), and it’s the first time she has sung predominantly in French.

Gainsbourg started thinking about the album five years ago, first working on demos with New Zealand psych/pop artist Connan Mockasin, then with French electronic composer SebastiAn. Gainsbourg’s first meeting with SebastiAn was a disaster: He showed up late, drunk and full of “paternalistic” advice. Gainsbourg says they laugh about it now.

“He was saying very true things, but I was quite charmed by him and at the same time I thought he was exactly wrong,” she says. “He was saying, ‘You should do an album in French. You should sing exactly as you did with your father.’ He was being a little too sure of himself.” But Gainsbourg still shared her ideas for the album: She wanted a dark, electronic sound inspired by horror-film scores.

“At first that could sound very contradictory to my voice and to the fact that I don’t have a big singer’s voice, and I wanted something really heavy, musically,” says Gainsbourg. But SebastiAn, who produced most of the album, proved to be the collaborator Gainsbourg wanted. They did some demos in France, but most of the album was completed in Brooklyn, after Gainsbourg and her family moved to New York City following the death of her stepsister, fashion photographer Kate Barry, in 2013.

Barry’s death haunts Rest. Several songs address her directly, and several others implicitly. “Lying With You” recounts Gainsbourg’s deathbed visit to her father. The album title comes from the most delicate track, one she did with Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and it alludes to both “rest in peace” and the French for “stay,” as in “stay with me.” That double meaning in two languages is appropriate, too, since many of the songs alternate verses sung in French with English choruses. Rest is full of dichotomies. Along with the orchestral tones extrapolated from film scores, there are moments of perky new wave, gentle waltzes and singsong nursery rhymes. It’s not a sad album.

“It’s important to express the grieving not only with sadness but also with anger,” says Gainsbourg. “I like to work with oppositions. Even the last track (“Les Oxalis”) is sort of nearly a disco—there’s a sort of very dancing mood to it—but at the same time the words express a ballad in a graveyard. The words are completely opposite. That’s the way I could keep a bit of privacy: to be very transparent with my words but to have some kind of shield with the music.”

Alternating languages within the songs was a conscious choice in order to manage the emotional distance, too. Many of the lyrics began as journal entries, and Gainsbourg was coping with loss.

“I did it in a very selfish way,” she says. “I needed it to be personal, and I needed to say these things. Not as a therapy to try to get better, but the only way I could talk is sort of talk to myself and to the people who are dead and who I love. I needed to be very direct with the way I spoke out. The French helped in that way; the French was a real support when it was a question of being very sincere and even crude, or quite real. The English was a good excuse for me to be more sentimental, and of course more rhythmical, because the English sounds nicer. It’s an easier task to write in English, but the sincerity is more in French.”

Steve Klinge

Fits: Paradise Found

On its debut album, Fits does more in 21 minutes than most bands do in twice that time

Fits singer, guitarist and songwriter Nicholas Cummins—who identifies as gender nonbinary—says the band isn’t out to break the rules of rock ’n’ roll. “I’m not a gender revolutionary,” says Cummins. “We’re making the music we make because it’s who we are.”

Despite what they say (Cummins prefers the pronouns “they”/“them,” rather than “he”/“him” or “she”/“her”), the music Cummins makes with Fits on debut album All Belief Is Paradise (Father/Daughter) is groundbreaking. The 12 tunes come at you full force, cramming a lifetime of songwriting into a compact 21-minute blast. Loud, hard, fast pop/punk tunes are married to droning ambient sounds to create wide-open scenarios that frequently abandon verse/chorus structure in favor of unfettered emotion.

Cummins grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, where they had no way to express their feelings. “I played football and baseball, but I wanted to play with my sister’s dolls, too,” says Cummins. “By the time I was 14, I was dyeing my hair black and wearing anti-George W. ‘Not My President’ T-shirts. My mom was mentally ill, and anything you said could send her back to the hospital, so I never said what I was feeling out loud.”

Playing bass in a high-school punk band helped, but after relocating to Philadelphia, then Brooklyn, Cummins started writing the songs that would become All Belief Is Paradise. “With the help of my friends in Brooklyn, the memos on my iPhone became the songs that Fits is playing,” says Cummins. “Everyone (drummer Brian Orante, guitarist Joe Galarraga and bassist Emma Witmer) contributes their own parts to the arrangements. They’re a little wider and not as compact as they were when I played them as a duo with Brian. They take more of a meandering route, even though everything’s still packed into two minutes. The songs allow me to view my life with a healthy perspective and see where I am and where I’ve been.”

—j. poet

Midland: Dwight Disciples

Midland finds the direct route from Bakersfield to Laurel Canyon—and it runs through Nashville

For some guys, it would’ve been an opportunity that warranted some serious consideration. But for Mark Wystrach, it was never really a viable option. “I dated a model (Angela Lindvall), and I did a shoot in Vogue with her,” says Midland’s lead singer, who grew up on an Arizona cattle ranch. “I ended up doing some modeling for five or six years, but by no means was I ever a full-time model. My parents own a live country-music honky tonk, so music was always the goal.”

Modeling did, however, help pay the bills. At the time, Wystrach, guitarist Jess Carson and bassist Cameron Duddy were all living in Los Angeles and struggling to stay afloat in various capacities. “None of us ‘made it,’ so to speak; none of us got to release any music,” says Carson.

The three spent the better part of the decade playing in various bands, but the deciding moment didn’t come until one of them finally got married. “I had a talent show instead of a rehearsal dinner,” says Duddy, who’s also an award-winning music-video director. “We rented out this shitty bar in Victor, Idaho, and, oddly enough, that was the first time we were onstage together.”

Now well into their 30s and living in Dripping Springs, just outside Austin, the three are getting their first nibble of success as Midland. That’s thanks in large part to a nifty boozer ballad called “Drinkin’ Problem,” which found its way onto country radio late last summer, peaking at number three and bolstering anticipation for the late-2017 release of the band’s full-length debut, On The Rocks (Big Machine). All 13 tracks were written or co-written by Midland, which took its name from the 2003 Dwight Yoakam tune “Fair To Midland”—although there’s a bit more to it than that. “For me, it’s more about spiritually and creatively meeting in the middle,” says Carson. “Which is what we did when we started this band.”

On The Rocks was immaculately produced in Nashville by Music City vets Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Dann Huff. Midland’s stylistic compass skews more in the direction of Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon, however. While the guys may voice their affection for Texas icons Jerry Jeff Walker and Dale Watson, their pristine three-part harmonies pay obvious homage to the Eagles. Impeccably crafted songs like “At Least You Cried,” “This Old Heart” and “Electric Rodeo” carry a certain world-weary emotional weight that confirms a reverence for classic country songwriters like Merle Haggard and Gary Stewart. “We’re just fans of great songwriting,” says Carson.

“We’re a vocal group,” adds Wystrach. “But the artists who influenced us weren’t necessarily vocal groups.”

An authentic crossover act, Midland—chiseled cheekbones, vintage Nudie suits and all—offers country purists the perfect excuse to find some common ground with mainstream Nashville. “We didn’t think these songs would get played on the radio,” says Carson. “But it’s cool that they can live in the commercial world, too.”

—Hobart Rowland

Radiator Hospital: Songs Of Experience

Time apart brings Radiator Hospital closer together

Sam Cook-Parrott of DIY rock outfit Radiator Hospital claims that every friend he’s ever made was through playing music. “The first band I ever played in was a duo with my only friend at the time,” he says. “That’s how we learned to make more friends.”

Cook-Parrott has never had any problems in this department. Radiator Hospital had amassed nine releases (one LP, several singles and EPs) when it left Grand Rapids, Mich., for Philadelphia in 2012; its discography has since doubled. This October, the band released Play The Songs You Like (Salinas), billed as its first outing in three years. Technically that’s true, as far as albums go. But between downbeat folk offerings (Cook-Parrott’s Everly Brothers-esque Afterglows, a project with friend Mikey Cantor of the Goodbye Party), split singles and EPs (with Great Thunder and Martha) and other side jaunts (Cook-Parrott’s work with Allison Crutchfield, twin sister of this issue’s cover star; guitarist Cynthia Schemmer’s excellent record under the name Swanning), these players have never been far from visibility.

Torch Song in 2014 was the last record that all four of us played on,” says Cook-Parrott, referring to the lineup of Schemmer, drummer Jeff Bolt and bassist Jon Rybicki. “To me, that’s what a Radiator Hospital record is.”

Other things a Radiator Hospital record might be? Fun, catchy and infectious. Lean and mean, with songs rarely exceeding three minutes. Riffs and licks rooted in timeless rock ’n’ roll and American songwriting (Ronettes, Brian Wilson) but amplified with carefree basement-show energy. Songs of innocence, songs of love and heartache—like speedy Play The Songs You Like jammers “Love Story” and “Out Of Mind.” And recently, an expansive sonic palette: On the new album, recorded in Philly with Jeff Zeigler, the band dabbles in stirring piano meditations (“Also Ran”) and buoyant indie-pop jams in the vein of Talulah Gosh (the Schemmer-led “Half Empty”).

Schemmer came to the band in 2012 with experience in New York’s Very Okay, but it had been a long time since she’d played her own music. In 2015, she wrote and recorded Swanning’s Drawing Down The Moon to channel decade-old grief over the loss of her mother.

“I needed to get out of my comfort zone and start writing my own songs again,” she says. “And because I did that, I pushed myself to write more guitar parts for this Radiator Hospital record. It gave me more confidence.”

For Schemmer and Cook-Parrott alike, their time away from Radiator Hospital was channeled right back into the band, making Play The Songs You Like a culmination of experience in the most revved-up way imaginable.

—John Vettese

Mavis Staples: Soul Survivor

Mavis StaplesIf All I Was Was Black is an album of its time—and beyond

“Sometimes I get so worried,” it begins, “I don’t know what to do/But all the things I worry about/Very few of them come true/And when they do, I call on you.”

“Ain’t No Doubt About It” opens Mavis Staples’ new record—her 15th solo effort in a career that’s now spanned 67 years, including her youthful tenure in the legendary Staples Singers family group—on a note of earned love and gratitude. If All I Was Was Black (Anti-) also marks Staples’ third collaboration, following 2010’s You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine, with Jeff Tweedy, who wrote all of its 11 songs and produced the album.

Much of Staples’ solo work, like the Staples Singers’ before it, is rooted thematically and expressively in the gospel milieu in which she sang her first notes. But there are other notes, too—blue notes, soul notes, love notes, sad and glad notes—all an array of colors and textures, all here put to the work of defining and delineating the state of our (dis)union, circa 2017.

In many ways it feels like a different America than it did even two years ago. And in others, as Staples observes, it feels like the same old one of generations past.

“When I’m watching the news sometimes, I feel like I’m back in the ’60s,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. There’s just so much going on today in our world that is not right to me. We’re not loving each other the way that we should. You have a lot of young people who are living in hate. I just pray that we can come together and love one another the way we should.

“What’s the harm in love?” she asks then—a question that should feel rhetorical but somehow, sadly, doesn’t. “There’s nothing more beautiful. Shine your light on your neighbors, speak to your neighbor when you pass them by. We can all do this together.”

Much of If All I Was Was Black articulates this emphasis on love, on reaching out to bridge the gap between people—nowhere more so than on the aptly titled “Build A Bridge,” with its spare, echo-and-tremolo-laced guitar runs and observations on community and perceived isolation: “Look around at our city/Look at us out on the street/Got kids lookin’ over their shoulders/People lookin’ down at their feet.” So what’s to be done? “I’m tired of us livin’ so lonely/I think I know what to do/Gonna build a bridge right over the mountain/I’ll walk right over to you.”

Among the many things If All I Was Was Black also is, it’s irrefutable evidence that Tweedy has the chops to write a solid soul tune—a bunch of them, in point of fact. But borne on Staples’ voice, that instrument with years of experience and memory behind it, the album lifts off the ground and stays aloft for all of its 35 minutes.

“Jeff is just such a great human,” says Staples. “We have a special bond and friendship. I felt it from him early on. He gets it, and I just love working with him. He knew I couldn’t make a happy album right now; there’s too much going on in the world. So we got to talking. We didn’t make the songs on this record point to a specific person or just one event. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.”

True enough. And yet “Build A Bridge” (with its implicit reversal of a recent, much more isolationist catchphrase lately heard in American politics) and “We Go High” (with its evocation of one of the more striking public statements of former first lady Michelle Obama) situate the record in a very specific moment in American life. If it’s not a happy record, exactly (“There’s evil in the world/And there’s evil in me/Don’t do me no good to pretend/I’m as good as I can be,” Staples sings on “Try Harder”), it’s a record that places its faith in the power of love to begin to heal the baser elements of our character.

Whether that’s undue optimism, the listener may decide. As for Staples: “I thank the Lord every day that I’m still here,” she says. “After all I have seen, I don’t have time for crying. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves. We’re living in trying times. I’ve got work to do. We’ve all got work to do. You know I’m just going to keep singing about it until I’ve got nothing left to say.”

—Eric Waggoner