Original disco diva Candi Staton is back with a brand new album Life Happens, which is as good as (the only) reason to get on the phone with an icon. I think I even cut bits of this, but it's a pretty good chunk of what went down. One day I'll get the hang of editing audio so I can include bits like the interviewees laugh, for now you'll just have to use your imagination...
You’ve done a new album! How do you keep track of how many albums you’ve done? I was trying to pull it together…
Oh my goodness, I think I’ve done about almost 30.
So what’s your favourite thing about this new album, compared to everything else you’ve done?
This album is about what I wanted to do, I’m totally in control and I had nobody telling me what to do, how to do it, what to sing. So that’s the good part about this album.
I saw on Twitter that you had a memory of the Warner Brother executives telling you had to sound like Donna Summer [she laughs], when was the last time someone told you what to do?
Oh you know producers have a way of telling you what they think is a hit or what they think is not a hit, what songs should be on the album, what songs they don’t like. But when you want to do a song, and you love it and they say ‘well I don’t agree’ - but this was different. I did four songs with Rick [Hall], one of them didn’t make the album, three of them did. But also with my son and I, Marcus Earl Williams, who is co-producer on the album, we did the rest of them. We did two songs in London, Close To You and I Like Where I’m At, so it was about three producers on this album and I love it. I love the album [Life Happens], it’s like an anthology of my life, what’s going on in my life, what’s happened to me personally. Each song has a story so that’s good and I think it’s a good album.
Yeah, it deals with the difficulties of relationships, I assume it relates to your own personal experiences…
Uh huh, yeah they are. All of them come from personal experiences.
One of my favourite ones is She’s After Your Man…
[big laugh] Oh my goodness! Everybody’s favourite!
I feel a bit guilty, it’s definitely the sassiest song on the album, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be funny but I think there’s comedy in there.
It is! Every time I listen to it, everybody who listens to it starts laughing. Because you know what, it’s really true, it’s a funny song but it’s actually a truthful song. Beware, because there are these girls, or your significant other, whatever, it happens all the time, someone is trying to hit on you, get next to somebody that you’re with, it’s what happens.
I really love the lyric “like my sister Maggie says, ‘people change - but not much’”, what’s your relationship with your sister like?
Well we’ve always been close, my sister and I, it was six of us and we’re the only two left now. My other siblings have all passed away so we get together when we can, she lives very close to me so we have get togethers and she’s also a singer and she’s a school teacher. She was a school teacher but she’s retired now, that used to be her favourite saying, all the time especially when I was getting with people she didn’t like. She didn’t like them but she always had that questions mark, like ‘aaaah don’t know about them...’ that kind of thing where she was always saying ‘yeah people change, but not much’. They don’t change much.
How does the saying work in relation to you - as in what has changed, but what has stayed the same?
Well I’ve been through a lot of different relationships with people, I’ve been through several marriages that didn’t work. I’m not with anyone right now, I’m single, my relationships have been tumultuous if you will. The longest relationship I had was with my ex husband John who was a drummer, we stayed together for 17 years, other than that it’s always been three years, two years here, maybe four years there. One thing I don’t do is stick around. When I know it’s not going anywhere I don’t have time to try and make it work, I’m just not that kind of person to try and make something work that I know is just not going to work.
I think that’s something everyone can identify with, and in part explains the success of a song like Young Hearts, because it completely taps into that mentality.
Right, yeah. I’ve always done those types of songs! I’m a nice person. And I guess I think everybody else should be as nice as I am, but it doesn’t happen that way. People come into your life for different reasons, someone told me one time there are three reasons - some people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. There are people that have come there for a lifetime and you’ll have a forever friend, but then there are some people that come in there just for a reason. They see something that they might be able to identify with or maybe a groupie, just come in to ride for a while on your celebrity list, backstage, just wanna identify with you. An it’s okay, stay, they try to be there for a while but when they don’t, they’re only there for a reason and once that reason is fulfilled they move on.
I wanted to talk about how people will identify with this record. The album is mostly about relationships with men, and as a gay male listener, it’s really easy to identify with. In one of your answers you said ‘significant others’ earlier, do you notice how people transfer or take meaning, specifically gay men, from your songs?
Oh everybody can, I mean it’s all across the board. Whether you’re gay or straight, it doesn’t matter, we have that same problem with relationships. We’re just human. That’s how it is, we’re just human people and we’re trying to be with someone, and we’re trying to tell that person, get along with that person and sometimes it’s about our background and our upbringing and the way we were raised. They’re gonna be doing what they were taught as children all the way up and you’re gonna be doing what you were taught as a child and sometimes it clashes. And that’s why relationships sometimes don’t work. You’re attracted at first, everything looks so wonderful it’s good and then all of a sudden the real them starts to come out. And that’s when the problem comes.
It’s interesting you say about that, one of your lyrics is criticising the way kids try to emulate pop videos and try to be sexy.. it’s a difficult time to bring up children in terms of all these influences.
It is! Look at this world, the world around us is amazing now. Things that we couldn’t even think about. My mother wouldn’t even let me look at certain movies, even though they only kissed! And now you see the sex act on tv - kids if you’re not careful, they can go and look at anything they want to look at. And they’re being matured so early, and I think that has a lot to do with them, they get it, they’re growing up so fast. And there’s nothing they can’t tell you what to do. You don’t need to tell them about the birds and the bees! They can tell YOU about the birds and the bees. And some. It’s amazing how kids are being raised, there’s no kids left. I have my three year old grand daughter, who spent the night with me. I woke up and I had this night gown on, and she said ‘oooh, you’re trying to be so sexy!’ I’m like, whaaat?!! ‘You’re sexy!’ and I was like ‘Oh my god….’, She’s only three, what do you know about sexy?
It’s incredibly worrying [we go on to have a little chat about her kids] but skipping back a bit, you’ve performed at Horse Meat Disco, which has been instrumental in reviving disco music in the last decade (and not just for the gays), what it was like doing that gig and generally how you feel about disco revival?
Oh I love it, yeah babe - it’s never gone away actually! Cos now they call it house, it’s been house once they stopped calling it disco. You know this guy came and burnt a lot of the disco music, they thought he did away with it, but he didn’t do it. How can you burn a bunch of albums and figure you’re gonna get rid of a genre of music?! Dumb. It was real dumb, but a lot of people took it as ‘oh, disco, it’s over’ but they came right back, the beat never changed, the music never changed, house music, whatever you wanna call it, it’s the same thing. I would love for it to come back, I thought it was the most fun music in the world! What was wrong with dancing. Nothing’s wrong with dancing, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Your new album has elements of disco, but it’s very soulful, it’s got this kind of jazzy feel to it too. How would you describe it?
Yeah, it’s got a lot of music. You can take any of the songs and dance off of them, they’ve got great beats, like She’s After Your Man is like a type of James Brown kind of thing, and then I LIke
Where I’m At is kinda like an old sixties kinda sound and that was done in Europe and You Treat Me Like A Secret which was part of my experience, I had a guy one time that I was dating, and he never wanted to take me with him, he’d always tell me how to get there.
That’s awful! Do you think that’s because you’re famous?
Woah woah woah, I was like, wait a minute. Why should I have to drive? You invited me to this thing, but you wanted me to drive? I said ‘No thank you, I’m not coming’ but we would go to dinner and he would take me to these little offshore little places where nobody would… and I began to figure it out, Oh he’s got somebody else, he don’t wanna be seen. So, I’m just his side dish, so forget him. I left him, I said you know what you got it. But I said, ‘I’m too big to hide, you can’t hide me’.
I can’t imagine dating someone like you and being able to hide it.
[chuckles] It’s impossible! Oh boy, but it’s always these kinds of things that you run into out here… you run into all kinds of guys, you never know what they’re after. Especially people in my business. You don’t know if they’re there just for the namesake or they’re there because they like a song or they’re there because they’re you’re fan or are they there because they really care about YOU as a person. So it’s always those questions marks when you meet someone.
So, I take it you know about this person near Liverpool that got fined £400 for playing your song loudly…
[Candi bursts out laughing] I heard about that! I even commented about that, I thought they needed to give him his money back, he was a young heart running free, he was just a victim of the very song I was singing. [big chuckle] oh my god that was funny. And it made the paper, they fined him!
FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS
Yeah, that was horrible, they never should have done him that way. He was just enjoying his music. That’s one of the few things in life that you can enjoy, and that’s music. He was just enjoying his music, he was not robbing banks and stealing cars, he was just playing his music.
But how would you feel if your neighbours were playing really loud music?
At first I would tell them to chill, ‘wouldn’t you mind turning it down a little bit, you’re disturbing us’, I would go to them, I wouldn’t call the cops.
I think it was over the space of six months…
OK. Well that was a little long, he was probably having his own party. They might have done that, I’m not sure how that went down. It was kinda funny when I heard it.
What music would you play really loudly?
I don’t, I mean I live in the country, I can play music as loudly as I want to, and all my neighbours they really don’t care cos they live so far away from me. I live on eight acres, so I’m not close to anybody, but I really don’t play music that loud, I have music in my house, my bedroom, when I want to listen to stuff, I have it in my den. but I dont play it to disturb anybody, it’s just for me.
In terms of your songs over here, You Got The Love is just massive. When you have a song that’s everywhere - especially one that’s covered by people like Florence and the Machine - you must hear it in some unusual places.
Yeah I do, I hear it a lot in - you know I think she did a great job, she covered it and she also got a big hit out of it, it’s the words and just the lyrics in the song that made it so big, cos we all get there, we all get there don’t we? We throw our hands up in the air and say ‘I just don’t care no more’. Life does that to you. So I think that’s one of the reason the song never dies down, we’re always going through the same old same old, every day. So we know god’s got the love to see us through. Yeah he does.
So many of your songs have that message. Because on the surface they seems like they’re all about relationships with men but the song Where I Am At, definitely has a spiritual reading.
Yeah, also Have You Seen The Children and Another World Coming. All of those have spiritual over... overtones, whatever you call it, to it. You can pick a word! They have a little spiritual things going with it, especially Another World Coming, I was actually talking about Heaven.
Well, it’s about world peace isn’t it?
Yeah, world peace, it’s true. That we’ll have peace and joy and love, and Have You Seen The Children, I had to put that song in, it’s kinda like In The Ghetto. Where I talk about social things, In The Ghetto was about the story of a little kid, a little boy growing up, dying in the street. So Have You Seen The Children was about a little boy here by the name of Trey Martin, that was killed in cold blood. He was 17, coming home with some candy and some iced tea, went into the store, walked in with a hoodie on and one of the white guys in Florida who was racially prejudiced, though he was trying to rob somebody and shot him. He had a little bag of Skittles, that’s all he had, they said he had a gun but he didn’t. And so that’s what that song is about. You know in that song I say ‘you can’t even go to the store no more’, that’s what that was about.
It’s really powerful to talk about on a pop album, a lot of artists would shy away from including that.
I know, that’s why I put it on last, you can listen to it if you want to, we just put it on last. But I just needed to say that, I needed to put that out. Some people love it, some people can’t listen to it, some people feel they have that same feeling, we know what we go through here in America, we have a lot of - you guys don’t do what we do here, what they do to us here - we have a lot of problems in terms of race here. So that’s the reason I did a few social songs. But where I’m at I ended it with, I’ve been through all this mess, all this hell, and where I’m at now, I’m single and planning to stay single.
It seems crazy to hear you say that stuff about America, it’s astounding that it’s still an issue.
It baffles me, it really does. It baffles me to know that people still have that - something that we can’t even help. Who can help the colour of their skin when their born? We didn’t put our own skin on, it was like that when we go here. There’s nothing we can do about it, but simply because we’re a darker complexion, we’re called black people and african descent, it’s an automatic hate thing… What is that about? That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. No more than a turtle can help he’s got a hard shell and a leopard has spots. You don’t have prejudice against him, the people in the jungle, the guys in the jungle say you got spots on you so we’re gonna ostracize you, we’re not gonna treat you right. No! It’s just so dumb.
There’s so much awful stuff happening in the world right now, and you made these allusion to wars happening in other countries on the album - and it’s the thing you said earlier, we’re all human. And so many people go out of their way to point out that we’re not the same, when we are.
Yeah we are! Yeah, that’s like you’re gay and they do hate crimes, that’s so crazy! How you gonna change a person? I don’t care how much you hate them. It doesn’t, you don’t suppose to do that, you suppose to love everyone, everyone is supposed to be loved. I dont care what you are, I love everybody. it doesnt matter. We’re all gods kids. And we’re all grown and we all make our choices, and your choice is different to my choice but i don’t hate you because of it. It’s your choice and you don’t hate me because of my choices, we just lock hands and try to get along and try to get along together until we leave this earth. We don’t have it all together, but together we have it all.
You strike me as a very forgiving person, especially when I think about all these men that you’ve dated, where does that capacity for forgiveness come from?
I’m a Christian. That’s who I am, been that since the day I was born, I was born into Christianity, I started singing in my church, probably even humming in my mothers’ womb when she was carrying me, cos thats the only place she went, was church. [chuckle] I started in church, I grew up in church, was taught right from wrong, as a child I was taught compassion and love and that’s what I do now. And when I stand up in front of an audience and I tell them ‘I love You’ it’s not because I’m trying to get their favour, it’s cos I mean it. I mean I love you, I really do.
That’s amazing. I’m gonna wrap it up now, but one last silly question before we go. Have you ever seen a drag queen perform to one of your songs?
Yes! Right here in Atlanta, it was so funny [laughs] and they had it down too, it was hilarious. He had ALL the moves, and I was like ‘you go gurl!’. Hahaha, oh my, yeah I have.
Did she know you were in the audience?
Oh yeah! She did it for me! She did it for ME. I felt special.
There is no greater honour for a singer than to have a drag tribute.
[laughs] yeah I love to laugh and I take everything funny, everything is funny to me. This world is too serious, it is…
Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in Gay Times Magazine, GT437.