Good to the last Drop: Rhiannon Giddens takes her turn

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As a thank-you letter, it’s penned in calligraphic flourishes. Famed Americana producer T Bone Burnett encouraged her to display the complete range of her mighty, operatically tempered voice across a full recording for the first time. It wasn’t often that she was able to push her vocal limits within the Chocolate Drops catalog, where their dusted-off old-time tunes were best served by parity and taut syncopation. As that band’s lineup has evolved and its direction has fallen more on her shoulders, she found herself thinking more about songs that didn’t necessarily fit with what the Chocolate Drops were doing, songs that could thrive outside of the niche the band occupied. Giddens said she wasn’t exactly looking to diverge into a solo career when it happened, yet in retrospect, how it happened appeared to be sheer celestial alignment.

Giddens fronted the Kronos Quartet last week at Tennessee's Big Ears Festival.
Giddens fronted the Kronos Quartet last week at Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival.

It began when Burnett asked her to participate in Showtime’s 2013 all-star concert film, Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis, after being impressed with the Chocolate Drops’ contribution to the Hunger Games companion soundtrack, “Daughters Lament” (an adaptation of a tune by Adams). When her turn came, Giddens didn’t so much as impress; rather, she was incandescent. By the audience’s reaction, she was the brightest light among a parade of artistic supernovae. Her gymnastic recitation of the tongue-twisting Celtic traditional “S’iomadh Rid The Dhith Om/Ciamar A Ni Mi” — known more concisely as “Mouth Music” — has been hailed as a legitimate showstopper, despite being a relative unknown compared to fellow performers Jack White, Marcus Mumford, Chris Thile, Joan Baez and Patti Smith.

If it was to be her breakthrough performance, it could not have come at a more providential moment. Burnett, the hand turning the wheel on the evening’s festivities, asked her backstage if she was interested in working on a solo album. Not long after that he began identifying a team of artists for a rather desirable job: giving life to a collection of unfinished songs from Bob Dylan’s legendary Basement Tapes sessions given to him by Dylan’s publisher. Burnett wanted to assemble a band of skilled collaborators he found particularly interesting, but also artists who either wholeheartedly admired Dylan or possessed a native connection to the period from which Dylan’s unfinished sheaves drew. In some cases, it was both. In the case of Giddens, it was unequivocally the latter.

“I think Dylan is an incredible songwriter, but I don’t own any of his recordings,” Giddens said. “Compared to a lot of people, I know nothing about Dylan because I guess I spent so much time with the era before him. T Bone knew that’s what I’d bring. I brought an absolute irreverence for his lyrics because he’s not one of my idols. I was sure the rest of the guys had enough Dylan lore for four of me. I’d just go as a blank slate and approach the words as just words, which I actually think everyone ended up doing.”

It wasn’t because of lack of interest, but while many young musicians were absorbing Blood On the Tracks in their formative years, Giddens was mastering Tchaikovsky and Verdi in the Oberlin Conservatory. She would eventually find her voice alongside Mumford, Elvis Costello, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith in the project that would become known as the New Basement Tapes, even though she had to make up more difficult ground than simply knowing the Dylan discography.

Giddens, an experienced interpreter of the folk and classical canon, was still in her infancy as a songwriter and was being asked to help finish the songs of one of America’s most beloved songwriters with a group of strangers. The group nonetheless gelled quickly, she noted. They wrote, played, recorded and ate almost nonstop for two weeks. In the end, the final product, Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes, shows her more than holding her own against some of rock’s most established songwriters.

“I like to say that I won’t have the full measure of what I took away from that for years to come,” she said. “It’s one of those experiences that’s too much to consider this close to it. I’m going to look back and go, ‘Jesus, we did that?’ I already feel that way a little bit.”

It’s possible that the most important takeaway from those two weeks was also the first. “Angel City,” the closing track on Tomorrow Is My Turn, is her debut as a songwriter. It’s a gentle ballad that harkens to the music, and possibly the influence, of her close friend Dossett, the product of what was essentially a songwriting immersion course. It came out as her emotional response to everything that happened during that grueling period.

“I stayed up all night the last night writing it, just super inspired by what we had done and how we had all been there for each other,” Giddens said. “I played it for everyone the very first thing the next morning and that was it.”

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