Rhiannon Giddens is always looking back, as she looks gloriously forward.
In music, who came before does matter.
The heritage, the beginnings, those risk takers and visionaries, is how music came to be. I mean, no Robert Johnson, maybe no Eric Clapton. No Bessie Smith, perhaps no Billie Holiday. No Louis Armstrong, maybe no Wynton. No Chuck Berry or Elvis, maybe no Beatles. The influencers, the pioneers, the groundbreakers of music, are what give it its heart and soul.
Rhiannon Giddens passionately understands that without those who came before her, she wouldn’t be where she is right now, an immense talent on the precipice of true greatness.
“We don’t come to any of this alone,” Giddens said as her first solo tour, which brings her to the Lincoln Theater on April 12th, begins. “We come with not only people helping us now, but the people who came before, and it’s always just this continuum that we’re on. We don’t come outta nowhere. There’s always something going on before that makes it possible for us to do what we do.”
Rhiannon Giddens gets it, and “it” comes out profoundly in her exceptional music. In the liner notes of her astounding debut solo record “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” Giddens pays devoted homage to a who’s who of roots and blues and popular music pioneers, and as it should be, they all seep beautifully into her sound. Whether it’s Odetta, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline or Nina Simone, or her own powerful voice, Giddens has crafted a glorious and rare tapestry, influenced by others but all very much her own. The result is the emergence of one of the most memorable artists in recent years.
Before a solo career beckoned, Giddens, a North Carolina native and opera trained singer, was (and remains) the face of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a rockin-on-the-front-porch old time string band that conjures up a foot tappin’ hip shakin’ old school vibe replete with banjos, fiddles (both played by Giddens), washboards and singalongs, with Giddens leading the way with her soaring vocals on mostly traditional songs and arrangements. Speaking of paying homage, the Drops were steeped in it.
Things were going just fine when in 2013 Giddens was asked to sing solo at a one-off show, Another Day, Another Time at NYC’s Town Hall, a star-studded event celebrating the folk music awash in the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Giddens’ stunning version of Odetta’s “Water Boy” was the talk of the evening, and event organizer and respected producer T-Bone Burnett literally found her backstage and offered her a solo record opportunity. She jumped at it, and the result is her tremendous solo debut.
“It kind of just snowballed, I mean, this was the first show I’d done on my own,” Giddens says, “there was never any intention to do a solo career, for me, it was just like, a show. It was definitely in my book of things to do. I was thinking about it a little bit, but more sort of maybe in the next couple of years kinda thing. We were working on the next Chocolate Drops record and was just like super stoked about the direction that we were going in. But you know when the universe presents an opportunity to do solo records where (T-Bone) goes,”What do you wanna do?” so do you go hey, can you come back in a couple years? Like, you just don’t do that. Yeah, I’m gonna take this opportunity and see what happens.”
But was the somewhat jarring emergence of her solo career a tough sell to her family in the Drops? On the contrary, it seemed like a sweet twist of fate, and her mates has been incredibly supportive of Giddens’ move.
“I talked with the Chocolate Drops and I was just like, look guys, I’d really love for you to come with me on this journey, because A, it would keep us together and keep working on the material, and B, that’s what I want, you know, for my band, I’d like you guys to be part of it. And they’re really really supportive, and have done such a great job on the material, and it just feels really wonderful. It’s kind of like, the universe is doing things for me, I wouldn’t have ever stepped out like this, but it happened. I’ll follow the music, you know? And I think it’s just elevated us all. And I think whatever the next Chocolate Drop project will be will be better because of it. We’re all kind of lifted by all the stuff that’s happening. But it’s pretty astonishing, the course my life has taken in the last year and a half.”
And the word astonishing certainly fits “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” where the listener is transported into a swirling and sublime potpourri of sounds amidst a bevy of genres, all anchored by Gidden’s majestic vocals. You hear a dash of Judy Collins, even Joan Baez, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, but it’s all essentially Rhiannon Giddens. And the result is a masterful combination of a burgeoning world class artist and a nurturing veteran producer working together in each of their wheelhouses to make utterly memorable music.
“T Bone is such a great producer, and we worked really hard on it,” Giddens said. “When you have a labor of love like T-Bone and I did, that’s the jackpot for me. I feel like we were a really good match for this material. I brought the majority of it, and he has such a deep knowledge of Americana and the roots of American music, and we put together this amazing band, and it was kinda one of those moments in time, and something I’m really proud of.”
In 2014, in the midst of her solo transition, Giddens was asked to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being a part of Burnett’s Bob Dylan-lost lyrics project “Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes.” Giddens jumped at the chance, who wouldn’t, to collaborate with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith on this treasure trove of a project. It was a soul-searching, challenging yet transcendent experience for her, and one that would ultimately even better prepare her for her next journey.
“When I was in the middle of it,” Giddens confided,”I was like, oh my God, I’m gonna die, I’m so overwhelmed right now but I have to keep going, I just have to. At the end of it, it was like, oh my God this is amazing, it’s incredible. I think these things really test you as an artist, I mean, that’s where it’s at. When you really have to rise to the occasion, you have to push yourself, you kind of have to push through barriers within yourself. There were no barriers at that studio other than the ones that were in my own heart and my head. I felt so grateful to have that experience because I learned so much about myself as an artist, and I’m so proud of the music that came out of that. The whole thing was amazing. There’s very few things in my life that have been that incredible, and like, changed my life. That’s definitely one. The whole thing, the recording, just kind of battin’ with those guys, it was just a really great experience. And all the hard stuff that’s wrapped up in it is just as important as the stuff that’s so fun. It’s still really important to have the moments where I just wanted to go stick myself in the eye with an ice pick or something, you know? It’s important for the artistic process.”
Late on the final night of the Dylan project, Giddens wrote a song, “Angel City.” She sang it for the group the next day, encompassing her deep emotions about the experience, all part of her amazing journey.
“I stayed up all night the last night, and this (song) was my experience. I felt like I learned from and was able to apply the things that I learned. I just kind of realized that all at once and kind of had this epiphany, and I wrote the song. It’s such a story, I usually don’t write music that way. And when T-Bone suggested we put it on the record, it seemed to fit.”
For Rhiannon Giddens, the sky is the limit. Her talent and conviction are all she needs to soar to new heights, as well as reinforcing that important deeply held belief to remember those before her, all as she soars mightily ahead.
“That’s what makes my life sort of meaningful is being connected to the past and knowing where I stand on that continuum,” Giddens said. “The whole theme of honoring and paying homage to women who’ve come before me, who had paved the way, and who had much harder lives than I did for the most part. If I don’t have that meaning, then my music has no meaning. It really kind of makes what I do make sense and that’s how I like to go about it.”
Rhiannon Giddens performs April 12th at the Lincoln Theater, 1215 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.