Rhiannon Giddens on “They’re Calling Me Home,” Traditional Music, and the Divine Creative Spirit
Knocked Off Balance
Apr 09, 2021
Photography by Karen Cox
American roots singer/songwriter, Rhiannon Giddens, has, together with the help of her musical and romantic partner, Francesco Turrisi, written and recorded a new album during the COVID-19 pandemic that she and Turrisi have released today. The album, They’re Calling Me Home, features haunting vocals that harken to centuries past. It features banjo, guitar, flute, fiddle, and other instruments. It also features components less familiar that Giddens and Turrisi have explored throughout their decades as nuanced, precise players like Scottish or Gaelic songs. Giddens, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, later studied at Oberlin College’s Oberlin Conservatory for music in Ohio. Since, she’s been recognized by prestigious prizes and earned a Grammy for her work with the roots group, The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
We caught up with Giddens to ask her about her experience becoming a musician later in life (she only started playing instruments in her 20s) and writing an album with T Bone Burnett in her late 30s. We also asked her about her relationship with Turrisi, how it got started and how it manifested to now two fantastic LPs.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music?
Rhiannon Giddens: Oh, I guess when I was young. They say I was singing when I was a little itty-bitty thing and making up songs. I always have been a singer but it wasn’t really on my radar as a career or anything, it was just singing with family or singing to drive my mom crazy, that kind of stuff.
Did you take to instruments early on?
I didn’t. I had piano lessons for about three months, but that didn’t last long. I learned a few guitar chords, those are still the ones I play today, when I was in high school. That’s about it, really. It was all voice.
What made you want to invest in music, to turn your hobby or interest in music into something you spent concerted effort on?
I was going to a boarding school in high school, a math and science boarding school. In the middle of that, in the summer before I went to my senior year, I did a choral camp, a six-week camp for chorus. You go up there and learn choral repertoire. I was so—I hooked up with the musical theater kids and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is blowing my mind, this world of people who love to do music. I think this is what I want to do, you know?’ So, I got into school for music and that was it. I haven’t taken a math class since senior year of high school [Laughs].
I’m originally from Princeton, New Jersey, and I live in Seattle, Washington. But I have little to no experience with North Carolina, where you’re from. I also know you went to college at Oberlin, which is very different than North Carolina. So, how did those regions influence you?
Yeah, they’re quite different. You mention Princeton, my sister went to Princeton for college. So, I visited that campus quite a bit and played in the town, which was cool. She’s seven years older and I remember her disconcert of the north and the south. Going like, “Oh my god, it’s so different! I can’t get iced tea up here!” And she knew exactly where in the trip from North Carolina up, she knew where she stopped getting sweet iced tea in the restaurants. For me, it wasn’t quite as extreme. But it was still, like, this place is different. My teacher was from New York and Jewish and I thought she hated me! [Laughs] You know, because she didn’t say goodbye to me for 15 minutes like we do in North Carolina. But she didn’t hate me and I learned how to adjust. But that was important to know what it felt like to be in a place that was not even close to what I was used to.
How did you get better? How did you develop your voice, your playing style?
Oh, gosh. That’s an interesting question. I picked up instruments after I graduated in my 20s. I took some lessons here and there and some workshops. But two things really got me better. One was I was just willing to suck. When you pick up an instrument as an adult, you’re just going to suck for a while. And it hurts. It hurts your ego. Because by the time you’re 23, you’re good at something, you’re at least kind of good at something. You’re getting the hang of life and you don’t want to me like a four year old again, anymore. But I think it’s great for the soul and spirit to do that. So, I locked myself in my room and just suffered through it until I got a decent sound. And I was always listening and watching peoples hands, what are they doing, what if I do this or switch that? Because I didn’t really have anybody teaching me on a consistent basis.
The other thing that got me good, or at least good enough to perform, I’m an okay instrumentalist in my field, in what I do, I’m not wiz but I can play a few things. I was in a band with a really great fiddler. She was classically trained but she played Scottish and Irish music. I was kind of second fiddle to her. So, I just played with her all the time and played harmony to her. So, I had to match her tone whenever I could. She had a beautiful tone and I really think that really had a big effect on me. I guess the other thing is playing with Joe Thompson, you know, for just sheer connection to the music. He was an 87-year-old mentor that connected me to the Black string band music of Piedmont. That really cemented everything I’d been working on up until then.
As you were putting yourself out there more, stepping on stage in public with your band The Carolina Chocolate Drops or putting out your first solo records, what were some of the first major turning points?
Well, definitely the thing with The Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Black Banjo Gathering. That whole thing. Becoming a band, making a record. It all happened really fast. Once it started rolling it just rolled really quickly. That’s a very seminal piece of my life. I say meeting Joe Thompson and forming The Chocolate Drops with the other two, that’s a major crossroads for me. And then after that, the next really big major crossroads was when I left the band and did a solo record with T Bone Burnett. He’s amazing and he kind of pushed me out of the nest. He was like, ‘You’ve been in this band and you’ve been kind of hiding in this band so here’s a kick in the butt, make a record!’ And I rose to the occasion. I think I was sort of like, ‘Alright this is my chance here at 37.’ That was a very clear crossroads there. So, those two moments are super important. Then, after that it’s probably meeting Francesco. That was really big.
What is it about traditional music, old time music that speaks to you and what about it sticks with you?
Well, it’s just got very deep roots. All the different aspects of American Roots music that I’ve been exploring, whether it’s Anglo-Celtic music or if it’s African-American stuff or everything in between. Because that’s the thing, once things come from across the ocean, once they hit the United States, they automatically start mixing. You take somebody like Sheila Kay Adams who sings ballads from the old country but the way that she sings them, the way that folks do that has been affected by other groups. That’s what I love. I love going across the ocean and learning about that. But the stuff that’s really interesting to me is the early Americana before we started splitting stuff up and segregating music. I just think there’s a lot to be gained by exploring that world.
You seem remarkably willing to go to new or uncomfortable or foreign places. Have you thought about that much, that trait?
Yeah, I think it is one of my hallmarks of who I am. I’m just willing to throw myself into the uncertainty over and over again. I gain a lot when I do that because it just shakes me up. I’m never in any danger of getting used to where I am [laughs] which can be a bit of a stress sometimes. But I think it’s just who I am. That’s what I’ve done. I do a deep dive in something that I didn’t know I could do and then I’m onto a deep dive of something else. Then I’m knocked off balance again. I don’t like being in balance! I don’t know, it suits me. It’s interesting. Then as I get older, it all weaves together into this interesting perspective.
You’ve received greats praise from many organizations and well known people in the world, from Steve Martin to the MacArthur grant folks. What does that do for you, as an artist?
I don’t know. For me, it’s not the genius label because the MacArthur people hate that title! For me, the MacArthur and also the Steve Martin—of course, the money was very helpful. I’m not going to lie about that. But even more for me, they felt like a validation from my peers, people I respect. It felt like a validation of the path that I was on and encouragement to keep going. It was massive because before the MacArthur came, I was really close to being burned out. Trying to figure out how to make it all work. It was very good timing. Like I said, even more than the money I was just so gratified to fell that people were listening and that people saw value in what I was doing. Because I am not following, you know, a normal path. I’m kind of using a really dull machete to cut my own path through the undergrowth and it just felt like people were like, yes, we see you keep going and we honor you. And that was amazing.
Can you talk about the genesis of your relationship with the Italian musician Francesco Turrisi and how that blossomed into two LPs?
We met I guess some years ago now when he emailed me out of the blue. He heard that I was living in Ireland and he was really fascinated with the Black string band stuff and kind of felt like it was something that really needed to be talked about more, which I agree. He emailed me out of the blue and said, “I kind of feel like our two worlds would go together, I feel like our musics would speak to each other. So, if you ever want to do a project, let me know.” We got together and it was really cool, there was a lot there with cellist. Then years passed and we could never make any projects work. Then came the fall of 2018 maybe—I can’t remember. A few years ago, he got in touch again. It was just at a point where we could get some stuff going and by then we had both split from our partners and were single. So, it just kind of all happened together. We became an item and also just started working on project after project together, you know, a ballet, a record and all this stuff. So, yeah, it’s just been a really amazing thing.
My wife is a musician here in Seattle and I play bass in her band sometimes and so I know the weird line one has to walk being in a collaborative relationship with the person they’re also in love with. It’s quite a balancing act!
Yeah, I mean, it’s like you have challenges no matter what in every relationship. Our challenge has been, since the lockdown, our relationship was always on the road, gigging and working. And now we’re, like, making food and taking care of children because, you know, we’ve got three between the two of us and we’re like, “Oh my god, what does this mean!” We’re figuring it out though. It’s totally fine it’s just funny, it’s just different.
What about the new record? What was the genesis of it? It’s multi-lingual, there are a lot of important themes and influences from all over the world. How did the new album come about?
Well, it’s really just a meditation on what home means to us and how we were responding to the pandemic. Just thinking about death and how these are really big dark emotions that we’ve kind of in our modern world done everything that we can do to distance ourselves from and I just think now is the best time to dig into these things and sort of face it and go through it rather than try to run from it. These are the songs that are comforting to us and that were bringing some emotional comfort as we were doing streams and preparing things and whatnot. We just decided to record those things.
How did the events of the last year, between COVID, shutdown, protests, police brutality influence the music? Were these on your mind a great deal?
I think it’s really more our reactions to witnessing all that. It’s not really a reaction to that but kind of our emotional—sort of how we dealt with how we felt about it. How we’d been dealing is sort of doubling-down on things from our home and home cultures that comfort us. Or thinking about being part of the larger race of humanity. There’s been people who have gone through pandemics and all of these sorts of things many times before. I was just reading about a village called Eyam in England. That back in the bubonic plague days, they got plague but none of the other villages around them had it. So they isolated themselves in this village and locked themselves down for, like, an entire summer. They had to bury their own dead and this one woman buried six of her children and her husband. You know, and they felt like they were contributing to the common good because that meant that potentially thousands of people saved even though they lost half their village. It’s just like—well, what are we complaining about again? [Laughs] This is just what people do and this is what we’ve done. We should be looking for the ways we can uphold the best parts as we get through this.
It seems more and more to me that people in the Western world are incentivized to get away from the things that makes us fundamentally human. There’s so much we don’t know about ourselves.
Absolutely. I feel like everything in our modern ultra-capitalistic, white supremacist society is geared to separate us from those emotions. It’s one of the reasons why people are consuming other people’s art so much. It’s also de-arted our life. The 9-to-5 workday, the factories. All of the things we’ve traded to have these luxuries, that’s really deep stuff. We’ve traded a personal relationship with the divine, with the creative spirit on a large scale and that just makes me sad. I just think everybody should be able to grasp that and have a piece of that and not have to rely on us to provide it for them, you know? But that’s just where we are and I accept that as an honorable job. I feel like it’s an honor to provide that release for people but it just means that now we’re in this lockdown situation, it’s just harder and harder to find that. The lockdown has shown a lot of the cracks in our society.
Can I ask a cheap question? Does your name get confused often with the singer Rihanna’s? Is that a stupid thing to ask?
No, it’s not a stupid thing to ask. It’s just annoying because when she came on the scene everybody started mispronouncing my name. But I think that everybody’s mispronouncing her name too. So, it’s like we’re both victims of mass-mispronunciation. There have been a couple of really funny stories where someone says, “You know, I told my husband that we had tickets to your concert and he got really exited and then I had to tell him he was thinking of the wrong Rhianna!” [Laughs] It’s more just an annoyance but it is funny.
Thank you for indulging me. Alright, last question: what do you love most about music?
I just love the way that it can effortlessly tell a story and connect you to the emotional heart of it. I think that’s what its purpose is.
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