An Interview with Rhiannon Giddens


“I think that’s why American music is so popular: everybody sees a piece of themselves in it. It’s important to say we’re just a link in a chain.”

Artistic paths not taken for Rhiannon Giddens, for varying reasons:

Opera diva
Nashville pop star
Broadway lead
“An interpreter in a gown with a big hanging microphone”


An Interview with Rhiannon Giddens


“I think that’s why American music is so popular: everybody sees a piece of themselves in it. It’s important to say we’re just a link in a chain.”

Artistic paths not taken for Rhiannon Giddens, for varying reasons:

Opera diva
Nashville pop star
Broadway lead
“An interpreter in a gown with a big hanging microphone”

An Interview with Rhiannon Giddens

John Lingan
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I spoke with Rhiannon Giddens in mid-June 2023, soon after the announcement that her opera, Omar, cowritten with composer Michael Abels, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The award is just the most recent jewel in Giddens’s crown; she’s also won two Grammys, a MacArthur grant, a spot in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, and the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, among many other honors. 

But these achievements only hint at the broader impact of Giddens’s work over the last twenty years. Since debuting with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an all-Black old-time music group featuring Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, Giddens has arguably done more than any single musician to broaden the look and sound of the Americana scene. You can hear her influence in the growing number of prominent Black artists who play and sing country- and folk-oriented music, notably Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla, who collaborated with Giddens in 2019 as the quartet Our Native Daughters. 

Giddens’s multicultural background (her father is white, her mother is Black, and she also has Native American heritage) lends her special insight into the polyglot origins of her music—and her country. Omar tells the real-life story of an enslaved Muslim man in South Carolina, and Giddens’s song-based albums similarly address grave historical events, from slave auctions to church bombings. She has an evangelical sense of purpose when speaking about the banjo, and a dire need to complicate the widespread preconception that it’s simply a hillbilly guitar. In interviews, at educational concerts, and on television series like her current PBS show, My Music, Giddens has told the true story of the banjo, which originated in Africa and the Caribbean. To her, its evolution into a “country” signifier embodies America’s intrinsically multiracial culture. This global, historical focus makes her a natural collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma, whom Giddens succeeded as artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble. 

In August 2023, Giddens released You’re the One, her first album of all-original pop material, written in a variety of styles, from classic soul to lush balladry. In a shift from her earlier, more rustic-sounding records, You’re the One was produced by Jack Splash, a collaborator with Kendrick Lamar and other pop stars. On the verge of beginning her biggest-ever tour, and having just won a major award for composition, Giddens in 2023 is emblematic of the changing, expanding nature of Americana music today: there are more Black and brown artists than ever, and those like Giddens and Flemons now collaborate with major institutions and serve as cultural ambassadors. But as Giddens is the first to say, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to sing. 

—John Lingan

I. Storytelling on a Grand Scale

THE BELIEVER: How does one learn that their opera has won a Pulitzer Prize? 

RHIANNON GIDDENS: In this day and age, the answer shouldn’t be surprising. I had put my son to bed and went for a walk, and Twitter beeped and I looked down and that was how I found out—from Twitter. I hadn’t even remembered it was happening. You submit it [for consideration] but I hadn’t even thought about it again after that. And then I turned around and there it was, a tweet! I sent it to my sister.

BLVR: You’ve written from enslaved people’s points of view before, but why did this particular story, Omar, seem more like an opera than a song?

RG: Well, I was asked to write an opera. And I didn’t really question whether this story should take that shape. Why not an opera? Like, why is this story not worthy of the opera treatment as much as Othello or Aida, any of these big, grand stories that have been set on the operatic stage? This is just as operatic as any of them. Opera, at its heart, is a cross-disciplinary collaboration that holds the biggest emotions that humans have. It’s armies and deathless love and all the things we experience as humans. Opera is a container big enough to hold it all; it’s a way to tell a story on a grand scale. And I don’t know of a more dramatic story than that of a thirty-seven-year-old scholar stolen from his homeland and taken across the ocean in horrific circumstances to a place where he speaks none of the languages and manages to survive for over fifty years. That’s operatic in scope to me. 

Now, the issue is that our [contemporary] perspective on opera is very particular and narrow. When it started out, it was way more for everybody. Now it’s seen as a high-class thing, and is completely absent from the culture. It’s been taken over by movies and TV. [But] there is this renaissance that’s happening right now in modern American opera that is not just coming from African American communities: The Central Park Five, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, even Brokeback Mountain and Dead Man Walking. Now you’ve got Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, and Champion by him as well. And these other pieces like The Factotum, which is Will Liverman’s reimagining of The Barber of Seville in a Chicago barbershop, incorporating other aspects of Black music. There’s a lot of innovation that’s going on right now and new audiences coming to the opera house. And so it is exciting in that way, if it can be sustained. And I hope that Omar winning that prize keeps lifting the waters for everybody. Anytime we can actually challenge the status quo of who gets to be representative of the American story, I think we win. 

BLVR: Tell me about your exposure to opera—and to folk music, for that matter. I understand that your father had a voice.

RG: Well, my dad was a singer, for sure. He still is. He went to the University of North Carolina Greensboro for music, and he was studying opera and classical music. He didn’t end up staying, but he had a beautiful baritone, very much like how he was trained. So when he sang folk music, he sang it full-throated, just beautiful. Like my mom said, “He sang Schubert like it was butter.” And I sang with him, and with my sister. My aunt is a singer. My cousin’s a musician. My uncle was a bluegrass musician. The whole family is very musical. It was just kind of what we did. We’d sing folk revival songs. Not the roots stuff that I got into later, but you know: Peter, Paul and Mary, and Donovan. I wouldn’t have heard opera outside of “What’s Opera, Doc?” and those sorts of things.

When I was seventeen I went to a choral camp the summer of my senior year, and kind of fell in with musical theater kids and people who were wanting to make music a career. I still couldn’t read music really well, but I learned to fake-read, hold the paper, and sing with the other kids. I already knew how to sing harmonies, but [theater is] just great training, right? I got introduced to Sondheim. I didn’t know any of this stuff. 

So I decided to apply to music school. What I knew about opera, I got from watching one on TV. Might have been a Mozart [opera] or something; I don’t remember. But I bought a couple of opera compilation CDs. They would have had, like, Domingo and Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé and Mirella Freni and all these people sort of doing the hits. I applied to two schools, Carnegie Mellon and Oberlin. Carnegie Mellon’s more of a musical-theater school, and Oberlin’s more of an opera school. And I just knew that in opera, [you] didn’t have to talk. That was the fear. In musical theater, you have to memorize dialogue and stuff, and I was just not into that. I still really didn’t know what opera was. I had no idea what I was getting into; I just liked the idea of singing all the time. I chose to go to Oberlin. Then I learned what I had done to myself.

BLVR: What did you learn there that still informs the work you do now? What did that training do to your voice? 

RG: I had to learn everything at once. I didn’t know how to read music. I didn’t know the Western art canon. I didn’t know the repertoire. I didn’t know everything. It was a really hard five years, and I loved every minute of it. But I was also in bits, crying at my teacher’s studio, because I couldn’t figure out how to learn this music, because I couldn’t read music. There’s something that’s freeing about that, because I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into. I sometimes think the less I know about something, the better, because then I just get in and ask, OK, how do I do this? How do I figure this out? Who can help me figure this out? 

And that was opera. It’s like a sport. It’s athletic. There was somebody who said, “If you do a full opera and you’re the main character, it’s like a football game.” Like, the same amount of calories spent. You’re standing onstage and you’re filling the entire hall with just your voice. I mean, it’s remarkable, really. Everything after is kind of like, Well, it’s not a three-hour opera that I just performed all in French with high Cs. I bring that same focus to a folk song or to whatever song we’re doing. And I think it is unusual to shift that focus to the things I’ve done since. It’s one of the things that makes me me.

II. Service-Based Music

BLVR: So how did that transition start, from opera to folk? 

RG: I graduated and came back to North Carolina and I didn’t know how to use a microphone. I could play some guitar chords, but I’d never played the fiddle or banjo or anything. But when I came home, I started going to contra dances. They’re like square dances, but in long lines. It’s a European thing. There’s this conversation between France and England going on with [the evolution of] this dance, and then it becomes English country dance. The things in the Jane Austen movies. But then in the States, it starts to change and gets combined with other things. And then a lot of times, the players for these dancers are African American because the dance musician is a servant position. Enslaved people become the dance bands. And then you have things like quadrilles and these sorts of square formations starting to turn into square dances in places like Kentucky and North Carolina. This is all scholarship that Phil Jamison has published.

When I started, I was mostly dancing with older white people; I was usually the only [Black] one, the raisin in the oatmeal. But I loved the live-music aspect of it. I started hearing this banjo music that I’d never heard. This old-time plunky thing. I’d only heard bluegrass and I was like, What is that sound? That’s amazing. And I met the band Gaelwynd at a contra dance. They played Scottish and Irish tunes and were doctors by day or whatever. I was this twenty-three-year-old fresh out of opera school and they were looking for a singer. Those poor folks; I learned how to sing on a microphone doing gigs with them and learned how to start changing my diction singing these Irish songs. And this is before I had done my research and I’m just making the bouzouki player wince with my overdone diction and vibrato. They’re all lovely; I’m still friends with all of them. I listened to a butt-ton of music that was being put out under the “Celtic” moniker, wondering how I could find a way to that kind of singing but still be me and not fake. [Singing operatically] “I wish I was on yonder hill.” I mean, I could do that, but it’s not me.

So it’s all kind of happening at the same time. And then there’s the moment when I’m like, I want to get the fiddle and the banjo and I want to start learning during all this. I’m an administrative assistant during the day and then have this other life. I took a second job at the Macaroni Grill as a singing hostess to buy my fiddle and banjo. I started learning fiddle from Nora Garver in the Celtic band. I would play twin fiddle with her. But then I met Joe Thompson, the African American fiddler. He was eighty-six years old. That’s kind of where my final education started, really. 

BLVR: You and your bandmates in the Carolina Chocolate Drops had a kind of apprenticeship under him, right?

RG: That’s the next five years of training. When I found Joe, it was like, Oh god, he’s from the town my family’s from. We’re related up in the family tree. I know this man. I recognize—I could see myself in this music. That was a really important piece of it too. I feel very lucky because there’s nothing better for an opera singer than to be the banjo player in a dance band. Because that’s what the Chocolate Drops were at the beginning. We were a dance and old-time band, and then we had other things we could play. I started as a caller. I would call dances. Service-based music, that’s what that is, because you’re there to serve the dancers: if the dancers weren’t there, you wouldn’t be there. And I often say the best way to start out is with dancers and kids because they’re two of the most honest audiences you’ll ever have. If you’re hitting it, you see it in the dancers’ bodies.

Being a caller is being responsible for people. You’re in charge of the whole evening. How do you keep it flowing? How do you teach the dance? I did that for years: I would go around and call different dances, then started playing for the dances, and then started playing with Joe. The foundation, I think, of what follows for me is this combination of the exacting classical approach and the service and community orientation that came next. This idea of telling the history of this music, of supporting an eighty-seven-, eighty-eight-year-old man as he got older—I think all that is just an antidote to the bullshit that goes on in the music industry. Starting with that focus has kept me on a path, I think, that feels real.

III. “Telling Other People’s Stories”

BLVR: How did you develop such an interest in telling other people’s stories? That’s been a constant in your songwriting and now your opera as well.

RG: Well, it came from the very fact that we don’t know what we think we know, and what we’re being told is—they’re not even trying to hide the fact that it’s just lies. You kind of go, OK, this thing I was told my entire life, that the banjo was invented by white people in Appalachia—it’s not just a little bit wrong. It’s not like it was invented by white people in Arkansas or Maine, or by Irish people, which I’ve been told before. It was invented by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean! I mean, if that is so wrong, what else have I been told that is that wrong? It’s like, if that is so wrong, what else don’t I know?

And then the corollary is always: In whose best interest is it that I don’t know these things? In whose best interest is it that these divisive narratives have become truth for people? Because it’s always in somebody’s best interest. Nobody makes this shit up just for the fun of it. It’s got to be working on lots of different levels. You’ve got to have a grand plan of white supremacy. And it’s not a conspiracy; it’s not like there’s some mastermind behind it. It’s just the way of American thought. England practiced genocide on Irish and Scottish people by saying that Gaels, who have one of the oldest literate languages in Europe, were savages. They wanted land, so they used this rhetoric of race. Then you have trans-Saharan Arabic slave traders talking about sub-Saharan Blacks being natural slaves. 

These racial attitudes that have already existed for a while come together in this unholy alliance during the economic explosion that happens around the slave trade. I mean, people are making money hand over fist. So it is in everybody’s best interest to reinforce this racial notion of a permanent underclass. When you’re looking at where white supremacy comes from, I mean, it’s just literally enforcement of the status quo to maintain the wealth of the many in the hands of the few. That’s it. And it’s an underclass of all colors, where everybody has one thing in common. They’re all poor. That’s why this narrative is so fucking important, because it strikes at the heart of anywhere those people come together. Poor white people, poor brown people, poor Black people, living together. 

BLVR: What role does music play in all this? And how is your own music a response to it? 

RG: We’re so often told, Well, you guys do this kind of music, and you guys do this kind of music, and you don’t really do each other’s music. But take the banjo, which used to be an instrument that everybody played. There were Black people playing [banjos] in the Caribbean as ceremonial instruments, as sort of spiritual instruments. It becomes a dance band instrument in North America. And by the 1820s and ’30s, it’s starting to transfer over to European American hands and people in rural areas. 

There were Black people in Appalachia; there were brown people in Appalachia. There was all this mixing going on constantly, continuously, everywhere. Thousands of interactions, millions of interactions. And so the banjo is starting to be played by everybody. The first recorded instance of banjo and fiddle being played together is by Black people playing them in Rhode Island in [1756]. It’s a pan-American instrument. There are banjo orchestras. There’s a famous Black banjo player who’s a celebrity in Australia. 

But this all starts to change by the early twentieth century. Because you still have blackface minstrelsy, though it’s starting to go underground in the nineteen-teens. You have [The] Birth of a Nation and the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan and this growing idea that there’s too many immigrants. You see the rhetoric happening, this obsession with mongrelization. Henry Ford is very vocal about the “jungle music” of the time, and he’s very anti-Semitic, so he sees an unholy coalition between Blacks and Jews. And that’s when you really start seeing this idea of the banjo and Appalachia being an ethnically pure receptacle for good old-fashioned Anglo culture.

BLVR: You live in Ireland, whose influence is foundational to US music and culture, especially in the Appalachian region you’re describing. What are you learning from it? Are you playing or learning more Irish music?

RG: Irish music is foundational and a major pillar of the creation of the unique American sound. I, however, think it’s more foundational in the Atlantic world, from the Caribbean up to the centers in New York, the waterways, Baltimore. That’s where Irish music, I think, really inserts itself. But I don’t think it’s more than German tunes or English tunes or Welsh tunes or Scottish tunes [in Appalachia]. 

The recording of Irish music in America during the 1920s is what revitalized the Irish traditional movement. Not a lot of people know that. But it was dying out in Ireland because the culture was being murdered by the English. A lot of that culture was tied to Gaelic speakers, and the aristocracy had fled hundreds of years before. So there was not any kind of reinvestment in the native Gaelic culture. It was being pushed out along with the people because of the famine. And then by the ’20s, Ireland was fighting for its independence, and impoverished. They didn’t really value that music in that culture. It was being kind of invaded by English culture.

This is not answering your question, but that is what drives me; because that’s more interesting and it’s more true than these nationalistic narratives that were told. 

IV. “What Is Art For, Really?”

BLVR: That same drive—to dissolve boundaries and false narratives—must inform your work with the Silkroad Ensemble. What’s your relationship with Yo-Yo Ma? 

RG: My first memory of Yo-Yo would be because I had one of his records, Haydn: Cello Concertos. It was one of the handful of classical music CDs I had when I went to college, and I had it memorized. From then on, I knew him as a famous classical guy who I never would have anticipated meeting.

And then Silkroad reached out and asked me if I would join them for a song on their Sing Me Home record. It was a record full of different vocalists. I did a recording session with them and met Yo-Yo for the first time, and it was a great experience. He’s a talker; he loves to talk about philosophy and life. We sat and asked each other: What can we do with this art to make the world a better place?

He was already really thinking about what music meant for him. This was some years ago. He told me his story: He’s been playing cello since he was able to hold an instrument. And he’s been famous for almost that long. I mean, he’s playing for President Kennedy when he’s seven or whatever. It’s crazy. And he said he realized as he became an adult that he played cello because that’s what he’d always done. And he realized he was getting to the point where that wasn’t enough, to be doing something just because that’s what you knew how to do. A lot of classical musicians find themselves in that place.

He was at the point where he realized, I actually have to choose playing the cello every day. I should never do it as a default. And I was really struck by that because I thought, Here’s this guy who can do whatever he wants and he’s thinking in these terms. It was a good conversation for me because I’m never going to be as famous as Yo-Yo Ma, but I feel like we’re in a similar sphere. We’ve done a lot of things and we’re really trying to answer that question: What is art for, really?

For me, the cultural ambassadorship is hand in glove with the story of the banjo, and I’ve always felt that mission. I mean, I was just at the airport and this Black TSA agent was like, “Here, give me your guitar up here,” and I was like, “Well, it’s a banjo,” and he’s like, “All I can think of is Deliverance.” If I had a dime… But, you know, every moment like that is an opportunity. I’m going to go through the whole You know who invented the banjo, right? Blah, blah, blah, blah. And that’s one more Black person who knows that. My daughter was just patting me on the shoulder in the airport. She’s like, “I know, Mom.” But I can’t help myself, because I’m just like, This is kind of why I’m here. And I don’t know what that’ll do in that man’s life. He may immediately forget it or he may not. I’ve seen people be really struck by it.

BLVR: How does the Silkroad Ensemble allow you to further that mission, the “cultural ambassadorship”? 

RG: It decenters me. And my tradition, which I think is important because I’ve been focused on it for so long. You know, the United States and African American tradition and the banjo—I’ve been focused on that for so long, and you get into Silkroad, all of a sudden I’m in a larger global context. That’s the way forward for me. I’m very steeped in the history of the United States and have mined that for a lot of artistic ways to connect people to history, but ultimately, it has to be connected to a larger story of human migration, of global movements and global collaboration.

Silkroad was also an opportunity to continue making my point that diversity in America isn’t new. It’s so not new. It’s beyond not new. It’s even beyond thinking people are Black, white, or red. There’s every shade of brown in between. And I think it’s important to remind people in America that we’re not unique, and how many things that we call American have roots all over the world. You know, I think that’s why American music is so popular: everybody sees a piece of themselves in it. It’s important to say we’re just a link in a chain.

V. “Once Beyoncé Picks up the Banjo, My Job Is Done”

BLVR: Your new solo album has very little of that old American banjo tradition, and its influences are certainly diverse. Have you felt edged out of that country-music mold because of the narrow expectations for success?

RG: There was a time when I could have gone down that road. I could be a pop-country singer right now. I’ve got the voice. I had the looks and the size and all that shit at one point. I could have made a go at it. When T-Bone Burnett had me do a solo record [in 2015], if I’d had a bucketful of original songs and a desire to be a country singer, that would have been the moment. But that’s not who I am. I kind of walked in the other direction. I might not have been successful if I had tried to do that, but I did my own thing and on my own terms, and I am proud of that. 

But I am dying for some big, famous person—in the Black community, specifically—to pay attention. I’ve said it in interviews: I won a fucking Pulitzer for an opera about an African that was enslaved. A Muslim. It’s our history, you know? But, like, nobody cares in that world. Not one interview from any mainstream Black press. On top of the Grammys, on top of the MacArthur, they just don’t care. I don’t know if I’m not dark enough or I’m not Black enough or whatever. Would I like more Black people at my concerts? Sure. Would I like some interest from the mainstream Black media? Sure, but I know I’m niche. So OK, fine. Can somebody over there pick up the damn banjo? Once Beyoncé picks up the banjo, my job is done. 

I don’t want it to be a punch line or anything. I just want it to be available and for more people to know they have a right, they have stock in that. There are now so many people of color playing the banjo and playing that music and writing their music. It’s available out there if people get hip to it, but the resistance is so strong. 

BLVR: But it certainly seems like there’s been increased attention to diversity in the country/Americana world, at least among certain artists, writers, and audiences.

RG: You have not seen an equivalent movement of Black people into the audience. I mean, it’s happening slowly. And I will say that I’ve talked to good numbers of independent and non-mainstream Black journalists. But there is a huge disconnect I feel between mainstream Black culture and what’s happening in the Americana and bluegrass spaces, these acoustic spaces. There are more young Black people there. The numbers are still small, but it is happening. And it will be happening more beyond me because I’m just too old, or old-fashioned. Even the new record is full of old-fashioned songs. 

I chose to leave Nashville. I was just tired of being the token. And it’s not that I was the only one, but I felt like I was being trotted out anytime Americana wanted this and that. I’m good friends with those folks; we’ve talked about it. And I recognized that I was, you know, serving a purpose, and so I would go do these things. But I felt very alone. 

Now there’s a concentration of similar-minded people within Nashville. It feels weird sometimes, because I won’t say I’ve been forgotten, but, like, I do feel like that movement has kind of moved on without me. It’s kind of, you know, continued on. But someone like Brandi Carlile, she can do things that I simply cannot do; she’s far bigger, a kingmaker. So I’m like, All right, they got that covered now. I will go elsewhere. I had already kind of started moving, like doing the Silkroad and writing the opera. I go where the universe is telling me to go. Where are my talents best used? 

It’s the reason I left opera in the first place. Then the new opera opportunity came to me, the ballet came to me, and they were so uniquely suited to what I do. How could I imagine this? I don’t—I can’t imagine the next step. I couldn’t have imagined writing kids’ books. I couldn’t have imagined any of the stuff that’s happened. So I’m in the phase of, like, really kind of taking stock, asking, What am I supposed to do? 

BLVR: It sounds like you’re having your Yo-Yo Ma moment.

RG: You have existential crises in this industry all the time, because there’s always fear of missing out. There’s always, What is so-and-so doing? Oh, they got a billboard. I didn’t get a billboard. They sold out and I didn’t sell out. It’s just constant. All this shit that it’s like, I don’t have any control over that. All I can do is use the tools I’ve been given. 

I’m in a real philosophical space. I’m forty-six years old, and why am I here? I mean, that never stops, right? You think you know and then it changes. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done, and now I’m kind of going, What is it that I’m supposed to continue to do? Am I supposed to keep flying around this fucking planet, playing for a thousand people here, five hundred here, two thousand here, eight hundred here, eating up gas? Am I supposed to keep doing that? I don’t know. I loved acting in the TV show Nashville. But do I start doing auditions? 

I’ve been very close to being on Broadway. Twice. The first time I was actually in New York, about to replace Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along, and they shut down the show. When something like that happens, you either go, I’m going to double down and I’m going to move to New York and I’m going to be on Broadway. Or you go, OK, well, that wasn’t meant to be. The other Broadway thing, John Turturro was like, I’ve got this script and I just think you’d be perfect for it. And we worked on it during the pandemic. He gave me acting lessons through Zoom. I had a coach I was working with on all this shit. I, like, actually sat and read a scene with De Niro. And then they couldn’t get the funding and blah, blah, blah. 

It’s just all these weird-ass near misses for the kinds of things that could possibly catapult somebody into another level of stardom. Those things continuously fail for me. So it’s like, what do you do with that? You go, I was meant to do something else with my time. And then the opera does so great. I really do believe in that—you know, movements and energies and all that. You can find the thing you were best suited for. It’s a struggle. 

VI. Good Old-Fashioned Fun

BLVR: Especially in light of that, how did You’re the One emerge? It’s all original songs, a milestone for you. Was that something the universe presented?

RG: To misquote Jane Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that original material gets more attention, more opportunities to reach more people. I’ve never been like one of those songwriters where I just broke up with my boyfriend and I’m going to write an album’s worth of material. I don’t like writing about myself, per se. I just think other people do that and they have lives that are interesting enough to do that. I don’t. But I’ve enjoyed learning to be a songwriter and I’m collaborating on songs. And I am not prolific, but I have had a steady kind of trickle of songs I’ve written that I didn’t put on any project, because I’m so focused on the history and the stories I’m trying to tell.

I got to a point where it’s like, Let’s go back to having a full band onstage. Ultimately, it’s a fun record. I haven’t done that. I try and walk that tightrope to make people feel like they should take responsibility for their education, but not make them feel like I’m castigating them for something they have no control over, in terms of the history of the United States. You have to be an artist who makes people have fun too. I needed a palate cleanser. I needed a break and to explore other aspects of my art and my music and my voice. I have to keep learning. I’m an obsessive learner. 

BLVR: How did that attitude affect the writing and recording—the sound, in other words? 

RG: We had a big studio in Miami, Criteria, that’s seen a lot of famous records. The core of Jack Splash’s guys are all young Black men who play at church together. They’re mega, mega talented. And then I brought my guys I’ve been playing with over the years, a bunch of acoustic instruments, accordions, banjos, fiddles, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar. And we found this path through the sounds, and that’s what I’m most excited about. I mean, my own songwriting is whatever. I think there’s some good tunes in there, but I think the sound we created is really hip. It sounds like nothing else. We made it in, like, six days. You just go, Here’s the song and let’s cut it.

But this is not, you know, “Rhiannon Goes Pop.” I had a bunch of songs and I found a good partner in Jack Splash. And I said to him very clearly, “I want to use sound worlds that I haven’t used, and that’s what you represent. But I also want to be myself. I don’t want my fan base to be like, Oh god, she fucking sold out.” I could have gone to some really hip pop producer and said, Here’s some songs. Make them into pop songs. But I didn’t want to do that. [Jack] and I found this middle place. He thought the budget wasn’t going to allow live tracking with everybody and I was like, “I will forego whatever I would make to have us all in the same place at the same time.” A few of those songs were, like, ten and eleven people tracking at once. Super old-fashioned.

BLVR: Speaking of old-fashioned, one of my favorite songs on the album is “Who Are You Dreaming Of.” It has this lovely mid-century, orchestral feel, unlike anything I’ve heard you do. How was it to sing like that?

RG: In another time, I would have been an interpreter in a gown with a big hanging microphone. That’s what my voice is, you know? There is a world where I would love to go out with an orchestra just doing those songs or the old PBS special, singing the American songbook or whatever. But “Who Are You Dreaming Of” was a way to slip into that world.

Francesco [Turrisi, Giddens’s partner and musical collaborator] and I just did a vocal and piano recital. I had a microphone, obviously, but I just sang for an hour and a half, in about five or six different languages, because we were kind of messing around with that whole idea of a classical recital, where you always do different languages. But we had, like, ’70s Italian pop songs, next to a classical piece, next to a bolero from Cuba.

It all belongs together, and that’s what people used to do. And there is a dream that when I’m older, I can ascend to my elder-statesman-hood by doing those sorts of performances. I would love to do that in the future. Do an Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter tribute show or something. There’s so many… I mean, there’s never a dearth of ideas, that’s for sure. I would be dead before I’m bored.

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