It’s too much, all these projects of hers: the writing, the researching, the performing, the acting, the recording.
She knows it’s too much. Everyone knows it’s too much. But Rhiannon Giddens — Grammy-winning recording artist, musical folklorist, single mom and certified genius — is doing it all anyway.
“I can’t stop,” she says. “I want to stop. I’m trying to stop.”
Even before she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017, Giddens was busy. The founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops spent the years before and after 2010, when the Drops fully blew up, riding the festival circuit. She followed that with her solo years of auspicious appearances, an album produced by T-Bone Burnett in 2015, the first slew of awards and other projects rooted in that fertile ground triangulated by slave spirituals, Celtic folk, bluegrass and opera.
Since then she’s performed with symphonies and ethnomusicologists, written music for a ballet — Lucy Negro, Redux — and a video game — Red Dead Redemption 2, formed a banjo troupe of Black women, written an opera for Spoleto festival, played a recurring character on the TV show “Nashville” and taken a position as artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble, the chamber group founded by Yo-Yo Ma. And she’s still set to come home to Greensboro for her star turn in Porgy and Bess at the Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, now booked for January 2022.
It’s ridiculous, really. Her workload comes up in interviews all the time, she says. They want to know how she does it. But no one ever asks her why.
“Wow,” she says. “That‘s a good question.”
She doesn’t need the money. She got $1 million for the MacArthur Grant alone, to use however she wants. Plus she’s still got Chocolate Drops royalties coming in, on top of everything else.
And it’s not for fame.
“I have just the amount of fame I could ever want,” she says. “I’m not Beyoncé. I have enough fans to keep me going if I want to do shows. I am called upon by people I admire, offered platforms by organizations I respect.
“I’m really happy with that, and that I’ve gotten there without compromising who I am.”
And there it is: The reason for it all. Rhiannon Giddens keeps working, keeps writing, keeps performing, keeps collaborating because she’s still got something to say. And her integrity demands that she say it.
“I started out as a banjo player in a Black string band, you know what I mean?” she says. “There’s a lot of hustle that went along with that, especially when the Chocolate Drops took off. In that world, the message we were telling… it’s not easy. Not like we were looking for a Top 40 hit or anything. I’m just so used to hustling and working and trying to get the message out because there’s such a huge story, such a huge mountain to climb.
“When the opportunities came,” she continues, “I just took all of them. ‘You want to write an opera?’ What am I going to say? No?”
She recorded the new album, They’re Calling me Home, with her partner and collaborator Francesco Turrisi in Ireland, where they’ve been riding out the pandemic after a whirlwind of professional commitments.
“By the time the pandemic came,” she says, “I was pretty much ruined.”
Their forced exile resulted in this collection of American, Irish and Italian folk that has been reimagined, instrumentalized and otherwise run through Giddens’s singular process and Turrisi’s eclectic instrumentation.
“It all kind of correlates around the interests that I have,” she says. “Obviously most of my career has been excavating and illuminating and finding things that have been covered over or erased. A lot of that has to do with African-American history, that African-American piece of American history — it is all American history, you know?
“The classical world, Porgy & Bess, it’s all the same idea of: Who’s telling a story? Where are they coming from? I try to represent a lot of layers and I don’t shy away from things that complicate that story.”
Though the sparse arrangements come largely from her partner’s musicianship, Giddens lends her banjo and fiddle to a couple instrumentals on the album, the best of which might be “Niwel Goes to Town,” which sounds a bit like acoustic-era Grateful Dead.
“Amazing Grace” comes across as a chant over African percussion. In “When I was In My Prime,” Giddens delivers a Gaelic lilt with banjo and viola. “Waterbound” is a song she used to perform in Greensboro with Laurelyn Dossett. “I Shall Not Be Moved” is presented under a country-western idiom. Her Italian in “Si Dolce Él Tormento” is flawless, thanks to a decade of opera training. The title track, “Calling Me Home,” becomes a dirge inflected with the soul of a Black spiritual.
But it’s not a folk album, not a country album, not opera, not an academic work of Black history, and yet it is all of these.
“People who want to listen to music,” she says, “they want to listen to good music. They don’t really care about genres.
“Genres were always fake, anyway,” she continues. “They were always crafted, and they were crafted for very particular reasons, crafted for capitalism and crafted for white supremacy. It’s that simple.”
There it is again: the insight, the message, the point of it all.
Giddens can talk about the ethnocentrism of the music industry all day, its roots planted between the Emancipation and the advent of Jim Crow, its similarities to real estate redlining and separate but unequal schools, its inherent injustice.
“They catered to who they thought was listening,” she says. “And it dovetails neatly into the idea of ethnically pure groups and who [they thought] was the American voice.”
They recorded the album over six days in a small studio outside Dublin. Occasionally, she says, she will get recognized on the streets of Ireland, where they’ve been living since last March.
She never thought she would get this big, never imagined she would get to make these choices, never planned for a reach that would span the globe.
“When I was in Greensboro Youth Chorus, I wanted to work for Disney,” she says. “Even when I thought about a music career, it was as an opera singer. I didn’t know how to make it as a musician. Just sing at some concerts and I’d be happy.”
There’s no playbook for a career like hers. For guidance, she remembers something her mother told her long ago: “Know the essence of what you want, but don’t put a form on it.”
It’s metaphysical. Spiritual. Transcendent.
“You have to be open to the possibility that there is an organization of the world that is bigger than you think,” she says. “The way things are organized. The way things flow.
“All we can do is focus on the essence of what you want to do,” she continues. “The forms it comes in, you may not expect. There is no way I could have planned this out. When the opportunities came, I knew what I wanted to do at its essence.”
When she talks to young artists, she asks them to think long and hard at what “making it” means to them, to find purpose in their art and be ready to sacrifice for it, to be willing to walk away when things don’t align.
“When the machine stops,” she says, “all you got is yourself and your music. And if that’s not enough, you really need to think about what you’re doing and why. Because that’s the only thing you can take with you. Everything else is a house of cards.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ newest project, the album They’re Calling me Home, with partner Francesco Turrisi, is available everywhere April 9.