Candi Staton has just released her third Americana-aimed album, Life Happens, with guests John Paul White and Jason Isbell. She discovered they were eager to collaborate after she appeared in live tributes to the Muscle Shoals studio scene and a documentary on the subject. That is hardly surprising given that they, like her, are Alabama natives with deep musical roots in the state.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more resilient performer than Staton. She’s rolled with monumental changes in the musical landscape and managed to hang on to the blend of vulnerability and grit that defines her as a singer. She’s the exceedingly rare recording artist in the roots scene with a background in gospel (of both down-home and contemporary varieties) and Southern soul (from that relatively brief yet important Muscle Shoals chapter of her career), but has also cut disco sides, inspired dance remixes and had tracks sampled by hip-hop acts.
Style aside, Staton’s poured out her heart in her music through painful, even abusive marriages to low-down men and refused to let the bad times diminish her range of emotional expression.
CMT Edge found her ready and willing to talk about all of the above.
CMT Edge: There are those who’d say that when you migrated from Southern soul to disco in the ‘70s, you switched from authentic to synthetic music. By that logic, you’re back to making authentic music now. But how do you look at the stylistic breadth of your career?
Staton: I look at it as a person that can paint pictures. If you take a guy that paints pictures on a canvas, he doesn’t paint the same picture every day. Today he might wanna paint the stars, he might wanna paint the water, he might wanna paint a picture of a person or a dog. That’s the way I am. Some days I feel like singin’ disco. Some days I feel like dancin’. Some days I feel like I need to get up and jump for joy. Some days I feel sad.
In the songs you’ve written and interpreted and in the interviews you’ve given, you’ve spoken about mistreatment in your marriages and that it’s never matched up with what you want or deserve. What role has testifying to all that played in your healing process?
You know what? It’s done a lot. When you keep something bottled up, it’ll explode. That’s why we have psychologists and psychiatrists and people that we can lay on the couch and we can talk to. I’d rather sing. When I get on the stage, it’s therapy for me that I can sing through it. Each time that I relate to a particular incident in a song, it releases something. I can deal with it a little bit better than I did yesterday.
You wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on Life Happens. Your songwriting credits date back to at least your 1979 album, Chance. How did you first get into writing?
I am a great admirer of Ashford & Simpson. I used to study their music, analyze the words: “Ain’t no mountain high enough/Ain’t no valley low enough/Ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from you.” I said, “They’re talking about normal, everyday-life things that would separate people. But they made a song out of it, and they made it so simple that it’s a singalong song.” The thing I love about Americana music and gospel music and soul music, it carries a story.
It’s been an entire decade since the compilation came out featuring the Southern soul recordings Rick Hall produced on you in Muscle Shoals. That renewed interest in the possibility of you working with him again. Why didn’t it happen until this album?
He came to New York to see one of my shows when I was [promoting the 2009 album] Who’s Hurting Now? We were in a big venue and it was packed and Rick was there. … After the show was over, I rushed down and hugged him and he said, “We’ve got to do something together again.”
I said, “OK, Rick.” I didn’t really take it serious.
Then he kept calling me. “When we gonna get together and do that record?”
I said, “Rick, I’m so busy. I’m going to Europe.” …
Then one day he called and he said, “Candi. Let’s set a date, OK?” We did, and the rest is history.
I love Randy’s version. And you know what? One day we’re gonna put it out. … I knew John. But I’d never met Jason. Someone called those two guys to do that song with me [on Letterman]. I’m not sure who did it, but when I got there, they were there. … We got in there rehearsing and we went over it once, then we did it for the show, and it came out perfect.
When you want the Americana audience to pay attention, it helps to bring in a couple of genre faves.
Mm-hmm. What better way to get introduced to the Americana audience than to bring some of their top guys in there singing with me? Then when the show was over, I said, “Would y’all mind being on the record?”
I understand that you weren’t aware “Commitment” had been a hit for LeAnn Rimes.
Rick sent me a lot of songs. The one thing I’ve always wanted in my life — as an 18-year-old all the way up to where I am today — I was looking for commitment. ‘Cause when I get into a relationship, I’m committed to that relationship. It didn’t happen that way, not for me. But that was my heart’s cry. … That song said it all for me. It wasn’t to try to outdo LeAnn, ‘cause you can’t. I just did it ‘cause I wanted to do my interpretation of my feelings.
You’ve cut other songs that had previously had a life in country music, from “Stand by Your Man” to “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Did you connect with those earlier recordings?
I try not to sing songs that I don’t feel. I can’t make myself feel some stupid lyric that has nothing to do with my life or anybody else’s life. I’m a feeling singer. It has to come from my heart. It has to come from my spirit, my soul, before I can even sing it. … That’s why they call me a soul singer.
You released the new album through Beracah, the label you’ve had for decades, dating back to when you had your own show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. How did all that come about, and how different was your gospel-soul from the music around you at the time?
Well, I’m a different kind of singer than your regular gospel artist. I do some traditional, but not a lot. I like to make up my own songs and sing how I feel. And it didn’t go over well. I even had some DJs — we presented the record to them to play it, and they said it was too black to be white and too white to be black. And I didn’t understand that. …
I’m a natural born fighter. I don’t take “no” for an answer. If you can’t give it to me, I’ll work for it and get it myself. So I woke up one morning and said, “Let’s just do our own label.”
Everybody was like, “What? We don’t have a label!”
“We’ll make one.”
The only airplay we did get was on white stations. Black stations wouldn’t play our music because it was just too — well, it was like this record! (laughs)