Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Rhiannon Giddens’s recent work has been weighing on her. Since 2019, the folk polymath co-composed the opera Omar based on a slave memoir (and won the Pulitzer Prize for it), worked on multiple projects about African American music history, and developed a new show inspired by the transcontinental railroad for the multicultural Silk Road Ensemble. As she told me last year during a roundtable discussion about roots music, “I just want to go sit in the corner and play ukulele.”
That search for respite led Giddens to her latest solo album, You’re the One — a light-on-its-feet, pop-leaning record produced by Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys). It’s a left turn for Giddens, who first made her name as a banjoist, fiddler, and singer in the Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and later as a well-studied folk interpreter on projects under her own name. “It just felt like I needed to make music in a slightly different way for my own mental health,” she said in a video call last month.
You’re the One places the older folk styles Giddens has long worked with in conversation with more (relatively) modern influences, like Aretha Franklin (on “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad”) and Dolly Parton (on “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is”). It’s also her first album of all original material, following a series of albums that focused largely on reinterpreted folk music. Giddens had recorded some work of her own before, including the slavery-inspired narratives on 2017’s Freedom Highway, but these are mostly lighter — love songs and kiss-offs to men who aren’t good enough. Giddens wrote them over the span of a decade, saving up material for when the time was right. “I’ve never gotten anywhere in my career by saying no to an opportunity that I felt like I could do,” she says. “I take calculated risks.”
For You’re the One, you were interested in making something that was lighter and looser than your previous work. Where was that coming from?
I had been spending a lot of time with the story of Omar ibn Said for the opera and working on this series about the banjo and these podcasts about African American musical history, and I was like, Man, that was a heavy, heavy, heavy few years. My mission is never far from who I am and what I do, but there’s also different ways of doing it. Songs like “At the Purchaser’s Option” and even the Our Native Daughters project, all these things were quite intense, Omar included. I’d been feeling like, to be able to do more of it, I needed to take a break from it.
It’s refreshing to hear you speak so openly about that. Artists won’t always fully explain where a pop turn like this is coming from.
To play in the sandbox of a larger sound world and to work with somebody who’s worked in worlds that I don’t really engage in, like hip-hop and R&B, it actually makes me grow as a musician. I’m not interested in being mysterious or artsy. It’s like, Well, it’s time to do these songs. That’s kind of it, you know? And it doesn’t herald a brand new direction, that it’s the New Rhiannon. No. I don’t think anybody who knows me is going to think that. It’s not like it’s Taylor Swift production. It’s still pretty firmly rooted in the roots. Hopefully it signals that it is part of the journey.
Your 2015 album Tomorrow Is My Turn represented a similar sonic shift in your career, where you worked with a full band for the first time and with more contemporary sounds. When you were getting ready to make that album, what was going through your head?
I did “Another Day, Another Time” in 2014, which was the big folk concert celebrating the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The Chocolate Drops were kind of in transition at that point, so I was like, “I’ll do it on my own.” Which is the first time I had done something like that. I’d just really been seen as a banjo player up until this point. So I came and represented Odetta and represented Scottish folk music. T-Bone Burnett saw the impact that I had, and he was like, “It’s time to do a solo record.” I was 36 years old and was at that moment thinking, Okay, I’ve put ten years of myself into the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the universe is offering me an opportunity on a golden platter. My label said yes. T-Bone had time to do it. T-Bone likes my song choices. How do you say no to that?
T-Bone himself was like, “I felt like you were hiding in the Chocolate Drops.” And I don’t think he was wrong. I think it was safe for me to be in a band, to have this mission. So with Tomorrow Is My Turn, I had to start figuring out, What do I want to say as a singer, as an artist, as myself? I’d been wanting to tell women’s stories. And it had been hard to do that in a band of all boys. I had kind of subsumed some of my own desires in the band and in the effort not to be the “girl singer,” you know what I mean? I really wanted it to be a band. So this was an opportunity to do those things. I will always think it was the right choice. As much as I was sad to let the Chocolate Drops go, I was like, Okay, we’re going to do this.
I had read there had been a disagreement over whether original songs belonged in what the Chocolate Drops were doing.
At that time, there was a bit of a desire to do some original material in the band. There was not a full agreement. I’m not really interested in getting into names or anything like that. But it was part of the reason why the original trio didn’t survive, because there was a different idea of, Where is this music going? Every band known to man has this issue.
Original music was something that I had been cooking up on my own, but I didn’t bring it into the T-Bone record except for one song. I was still very shy and very protective of the songs that eventually make the core of Freedom Highway. I had written a lot of those already by the time I met T-Bone, but I held them back. It didn’t feel like the right time.
The original Carolina Chocolate Drops: Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson.
Photo: Andy Kropa/Getty Images
A lot of songwriters are like, “I’ve been writing songs forever,” which doesn’t seem to be the case with you. When did you realize it was something that you wanted to do or had in you?
I think I had written a couple of silly songs when I was younger, just to do. I’ve burned them behind my house. It didn’t do anything for me, writing a song. I think the first time I realized, Oh, this is what I want to do with my songwriting, is when I wrote “Julie,” my first enslaved-narrative-inspired song. That opened the floodgates. It was like once I found my replica 1858 banjo, which is fretless. It’s low. It’s got this sound that’s got a voice to it. And that’s what I wrote “Julie” on. That’s what I wrote “Purchaser’s Option” on. Once I found the banjo and my voice, then I wanted to write songs, but only inspired by those things. The idea of “My boyfriend left me and I want to write a song about it,” that never really was something that interested me. I was writing these songs to have an outlet for these stories.
And the new album, you were saying earlier, features songs from throughout your career?
Yeah, and they all have something to them. A lot of them have a very strong female perspective, and a lot of them are inspired by strong women performers. There’s only one song that came out of my own experience, directly: I felt this thing and I sat down and wrote a song. I really don’t do that very often.
Is that “You’re the One”?
What was it like writing that one?
My daughter was my first child. I had a year’s worth of postpartum depression with her. I didn’t realize that that’s what I had until it was gone, and I was like, The curtain lifted. I’m just going to be straight because I think we need to be able to talk about these things: I had a C-section with my daughter, which can be a very traumatic experience. It’s surgery to have a baby. Some people were like, “Yeah, it was great. I was up the next day.” That’s not what I had. Then, my son was totally natural childbirth, no drugs, no nothing. It was a totally different experience. I remember just lifting him, and he was like this fat little chub. I felt this emotion and I went, Oh my God, this is what they talk about. I always thought it was bullshit because I didn’t feel it with my daughter. Of course, I eventually did. I loved her. But it was all through this curtain that was down in front of my emotions. And then I just sat down with my banjo and composed a song around it. And I was like, I don’t know what the hell I am ever going to do with this, but it’s a sweet song, and I’ll put it away.
How were you thinking about this album getting the tag of “first album of all original songs”? That’s been one of the main ways it’s been marketed.
The last two albums, I had one original song apiece, and that’s all anybody ever wanted to talk about. I was like, “They’re literally the weakest songs on the record.” It feels to me that the industry is always hyperfocused on original material for some reason. And I’ve never really bowed to that, because I feel like I don’t need to put out every song I’ve ever written. They’re not all that good. So I’m like, “Okay, here’s the record with all original songs. I did it.” And it is a feat for me because I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again.
How did you know which songs were good?
The way I write — this is the way I wrote the opera, too — is that I carry these things in my head all the time. This is literally all I do, is I think about this stuff, whatever’s going into my art. I don’t keep up with Netflix. I don’t go play golf. So when I sit down and write a song, it just comes out and I write it. And it’s very little editing to the words. A lot of times, either somebody else writes the music or I get help writing the music. Dirk and I have that kind of songwriting relationship where we can just sit down and write the song, both words and music, together. But the concept of most of these really started with me. So I’m not writing ten songs and then I pick the best one. It’s like all the good stuff went into this one song. Because I made them, I felt like they were good enough to make a demo. Otherwise, it just doesn’t happen.
A lot of the songs have a layer of fiction to them, or they could be many different stories. But the song “Another Wasted Life” is rooted in the very specific story of Kalief Browder’s imprisonment. What made you want to write a song like that?
Reading his story: the injustice of it, the particulars of it, that he was innocent, that he was young, that he was put in solitary confinement, and that he committed suicide. There’s so much tragedy in the story and how it relates to our modern life and the thousands of Kalief Browders that are currently sitting in prison today. There’s a whole discussion about our carceral system which the smarter people than me can speak to, but specifically Kalief’s story inspired me to write the song. That’s how I write. I’m struck with, I can’t even fathom the emotional depth of this, and so I have to write something to channel that. Over half of the musicians on this record are young Black men. You can feel the emotion that everybody had in that track.
Yeah, their performance and your singing really stuck with me for a while afterward.
More than any other place in the record, I felt I was really taken over. That’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to Nina Simone. I wasn’t even planning on singing it the way that I did until it just started happening. I didn’t care if it was pretty.
What drew you to Jack Splash and made him feel like the right person for this project?
My manager suggested Jack Splash. I had never heard of him. Jack has produced a lot of R&B and hip-hop, which was interesting to me, but he also has produced Valerie June. I was like, So he knows the banjo, okay, great. I really wanted these songs to have a larger palette. I felt like the way that they’re written, they needed more than a banjo and a fiddle and the frame drum. They needed somebody who could really access those sounds without making it sound hokey or making it sound like I was trying to be something that I wasn’t. I said to him very clearly, “I want us to meet in the middle.”
The production made me think about how it feels like this air of seriousness has come over a lot of folk music today. It was a reminder that a lot of this stuff was dance and party music.
That’s it! I mean, it’s all party. It’s all dance music. Except for maybe ballads, but anything else — there’s super-sad shit that’s set to a really, really bouncy tempo. [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know. I was just like, We do have fun sometimes. And look, I’m the worst when it comes to freaking depressing shit. “Oh, God, here she comes. She’s going to talk about slavery.” But it’s okay to have a bit of a party and say, “In five minutes, we need to talk about this stuff again. But right now, let’s just celebrate how all of these instruments sound together and how awesome American music is.”
Giddens performing in 2015.
Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage
We obviously have to address Omar winning the Pulitzer. How do you wrap your mind around that, months later?
What the hell? It still sounds weird! It still sounds like a joke. It still feels like somebody’s going to jump up behind the couch and be like, “Ah, I got you.” Yeah, I always feel weird about awards for art. The Pulitzer’s kind of in a class by itself because it’s not a popularity contest. You’re giving it to hard-hitting journalism stories and photos that are doing really important work. And I feel like that’s a part of why we got it, not just how we executed it, but because of the topic. I think it’s all wrapped up in it. And I love that. I’m like, Is it the best opera ever written? No. But is it doing what it was supposed to do? Absolutely. It feels good, I’m not going to lie.
I read interviews where you were saying that you made Omar because you were motivated by this desire to let Black opera singers have other things to sing that came from the Black experience. The Pulitzer seems like a fast track to legitimizing this work in the canon.
You never know what’s going to happen. But the thing I love the most about what happened with Omar is that it had six co-commissioners, which is very unusual. So it’s going to have six premieres before it’s even open for other people to do it. Most operas, you get your premiere and that’s it, bye. We’ve been tweaking it. We’ve been talking to the singers. We’ve been using the time. So it had just come off of a record sold-out run at Boston. You could not get tickets to Omar for love nor money, which is amazing. They said they never have that for a new work that nobody’s seen before, to sell out ahead of time. It’s great if it wins an award, but if nobody wants to see it … For me, that was just this cherry on the top.
I do think that I will see young Black singers use some of these arias for their audition aria, and that would be the best. That’s a dream, because that’s what I wanted when I was 18. I wanted “Julie’s Aria” and it didn’t exist then, so somebody else hopefully will want to do it.
During one episode of your PBS series My Music, you asked Rissi Palmer what she wanted to see occur in country music in ten years. Have you thought about what ten years from now would look like with regard to everything you work on?
This is a difficult question to answer because I’m not sure our current civilization will be working in the way that it is right now in ten years. I’m literally thinking, Do we have five? I’m not saying the world’s going to melt. What I’m saying is that the way that we do business, the way that we flood around the world in airplanes, I’m not sure where that is going to be. So when I think about what I want to see, I want to see a return to community-based music. I want to see a return to the local. Because what we’ve been doing is not sustainable. And look, I’m as guilty as everybody else, but as my manager says, “If you don’t get on the plane, it still flies.” At this point, I’m just doing the best that I can. I’m doing carbon offsets. I’m doing ecofriendly everything I can, but until the system changes, there’s not really much I can do.
I try to think about every day as, Here’s an opportunity to try to add to the positive conversation. I don’t want to say make the world a better place because I think that’s very egotistical. Just put more positive energy out there, put more stories out there, complicate the narrative, play music for people, encourage people to play music themselves. I was talking about this to Natalie Merchant. She and I are both very firm believers in community music-making and how the lack of it is contributing to our mental-health crisis. I really, firmly believe that we don’t dance together anymore. We don’t sing together anymore. And it’s what we’ve done for literally millennia. When there was trauma, we came together and we made art together. It didn’t matter how good it was. We’re not doing that anymore, and we’re getting sick. So that’s really what I would like to see is more square dancing, more swing dancing, more group sings, more choirs, more bands in the garage. I don’t know how to make that happen, but I would love to see it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
An original slave narrative from her 2017 album Freedom Highway, inspired by a real slave ad for a woman whose baby could be sold with her “at the purchaser’s option.”
A group of four Black women banjo players assembled by Giddens, also featuring Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. They recorded a 2019 album for Smithsonian Folkways.
One of the songs Giddens performed was the African American work song “Waterboy,” a staple in the repertoire of Odetta, the singer who Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Queen of American Folk Music.”
The legendary producer worked on Inside Llewyn Davis and handled production on Giddens’s first solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn
“Angel City,” the album’s final track.
The song is a conversation between a slave and her mistress as Union soldiers approach, based on a story in Andrew Ward’s history The Slave’s War. The slave refuses to leave with her mistress or protect the money she “got when my children you sold,” and later escapes her mistress, who’s caught by the soldiers.
“He Will See You Through” on 2019’s There Is No Other and “Avalon” on 2021’s They’re Calling Me Home. The latter was nominated for the Grammy for Best American Roots Song.
Powell, an Appalachian fiddle expert and longtime Giddens collaborator.
Splash produced the Memphis folk singer-songwriter’s most recent album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers.