Rhiannon Giddens sings the feminist history of Americana
The North Carolina singer, now based in Limerick, has recorded her first solo album with T Bone Burnett
Rhiannon Giddens lauds ‘the bravery of the Dolly Partons and the Loretta Lynns, feminists in a male-dominated environment’. Photograph: Larry French/Getty
After the first few words, you just know that Rhiannon Giddens has spent much of her time in Ireland. The North Carolina singer has lived for the past few years in Limerick with her Irish musician husband, Michael Laffan, and their two young children, both of whom attend Gaelscoileanna.
“My two-year-old son has more Gaelic than I do,” says Giddens, who is in Dublin to undertake promotional duties for something she never thought she would be talking about: a solo album. It was never on her mind until she started working with producer extraordinaire T Bone Burnett.
Up until a few years ago, Giddens was best known for being a member of old-time country roots band Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy Award for best traditional folk album.
Carolina Chocolate Drops, founded 10 years ago, forged an envious reputation as the go-to music act for anyone wanting a fix of all kinds of African-American music. Everything from early jazz, string band, gospel, old blues and older country – performed by multi-instrumentalists who gladly swapped fiddle, banjo, harmonica, bones, kazoo, bodhrán, jug and snare drums – was delivered with a clear understanding of where the music came from.
In September 2013, however, Giddens’s life was about to change. Invited to perform at the concert Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, by the film’s music supervisor, T Bone Burnett, Giddens found herself in Manhattan’s Town Hall sharing a stage with the likes of Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Conor Oberst, Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford (as well as Inside Llewyn Davis actors Carey Mulligan and Adam Driver).
With the Punch Brothers as the de facto house band, Giddens’s stunning performance caught people unawares. Cue a follow-on invite from Burnett to work on his overseeing of last year’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.
“I’m a very ensemble-oriented person,” says Giddens. “I love being in a group and I love working with other people. The idea of me being on stage by myself makes me wanna die of boredom, as I think that could be very uninteresting.”
After recording her parts for Lost on the River, she was all set to start recording the next Carolina Chocolate Drops album.
“But then T Bone said to me that this is my time. Did I agree? I trusted the energy that was around me and I trusted the judgment of one of the greatest producers in the world within my genre saying, ‘Let’s do a record’. So I thought, who am I to say no to this opportunity? Also, I have been given a voice that I have taken care of, and so I feel there’s a responsibility to that.”
Feminist frame of mind
The resulting album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, isn’t what you might expect. There is no forthright ego or self-indulgence here; instead (with the exception of one original composition), Giddens has chosen to present a range of songs either written by or made famous by women.
From Odetta, Geeshie Wiley, Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Elizabeth Cotten and Nina Simone (whose cover of the Charles Aznavour song was pivotally chosen as the album title), Giddens traverses music history and heritage with a feminist frame of mind.
“When I got the phone call from T Bone about recording a solo album, he asked me what my dream record would be. At that time, I really hadn’t been thinking about a solo album, but I did have this idea in the back of my mind about songs that didn’t really fit in with Carolina Chocolate Drops – songs of, from and about women in Americana throughout the decades. I saw Nina Simone sing Tomorrow Is My Turn, and that fully captured my imagination. So it was that, as well as the melange of American music and how it became something of a common well from which so many drew.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that all of the songs are by women, because I’d had a shortlist of those, but as it started to build, I got thinking of other women who had inspired me. It didn’t start out as such, but it did become a concept of sorts.”
Giddens is at pains to highlight that there were no strategic political notions underpinning the choice of songs; rather, she outlines, it’s about the acknowledgement, no more and no less, of early female pioneers.
“I know my history, and I know how fortunate I am. I know where I come from and the music I listen to. I know what these women had to go through. The bravery of the Dolly Partons and the Loretta Lynns of this world, of being feminists through their songs in an incredibly male-dominated environment. Politics doesn’t come into it for me; it’s really wanting to pay it forward.”
Tomorrow Is My Turn is out on February 6th on Nonesuch/Warners
THE IRISH CONNECTION: GIDDENS’S TOP 3 IRISH SONGS
- THE PARTING GLASS “It’s so gorgeous. I think the melody of the song is beautiful and I also love the sentiment of it. It’s just such a lovely way to end something.”
- THE CHRIST CHILD’S LULLABY “My husband [musician Michael Laffan] has been singing a lot of Gaelic songs these days, and I really admire so many of the ones I’ve heard. This is just great. I’m really into the mother thing, and this one has a most terrific chorus.”
- I’LL TELL ME MA “I think this was popularised by both the Clancys and the Dubliners in the 1960s, and it’s one of those songs that my kids love singing along to. I have this one memorised, so it’s good to bring out when they’re getting stroppy.”