Rhiannon Giddens Interprets the Women Who Inspire Her

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Over the last decade, progressively larger roots audiences have heard Rhiannon Giddens apply the operatically-trained, thrillingly-controlled storminess and sultriness of her soprano to a striking array of styles, from sly string-band blues to dramatically countrified hip-hop and the wheeling percussiveness of Gaelic mouth music. But whether she was performing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops or countless side projects, the repertoires really didn’t have room for torch balladry a la Nina Simone or Patsy Cline.

Those are the kinds of songs that train the spotlight on a singer’s expressive abilities. But while Giddens has hardly hidden her vocal power over the years, she’s focused mainly on making music in ensemble settings, wielding her fiddle and, occasionally, even flatfoot dancing to her partners’ rollicking grooves.

On Tomorrow Is My Turn, she collects songs sung by formidable female voices of down-home blues, pre-rock gospel, Civil Rights-era folk, politically-pointed vocal jazz and golden-age country — Simone and Cline included — along with one original. It’s Giddens’ turn to put her interpretive gifts front and center.

CMT Edge: You’ve said on a number of occasions that you see yourself as more singer than songwriter. Early on in your musical journey, did you expect you’d be asked so often about when you were going to start writing more originals?

Giddens: Not really. I have been nudged a bit, particularly by T Bone Burnett. That’s been wonderful for me as an artist. I don’t expect to ever do 100 percent original [material]. But I do think that as a 37- almost 38-year-old, I do have some things to say. It’s cool that I’m starting to explore that. I’m definitely down with it, after having been an interpreter all my life.

Along with producing this album, T Bone Burnett drafted you to be part of a songwriting team that also included Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello for The New Basement Tapes. I’d say that’s a significant nudge.

That was definitely more of a push. It goes all the way back to the Hunger Games soundtrack that he did. All he did was say, “If you guys want to submit a couple of songs, I’d love to hear ‘em, about your thoughts about the story.” … So that was really one of the first times that I’d written a song for a purpose, and it was for T Bone’s project.

Do you look at the thought you put into selecting the songs for this album and showcasing the women who originally sang them as part of interpretation?

I do. I think that when you don’t write something, you’re interpreting it. … I just think you have to find your way to the heart of the song, no matter whether you wrote it or whether you’re interpreting it. Of course, I’m influenced by all those women and all the music that I’ve listened to since I was born. So I can only be myself interpreting.

I think it’s a mistake to try to be anyone [else] or to try to say, “Oh, Patsy Cline did it this way, so I’m going to do it this way.” … I wanted to communicate what I thought was the heart of the song. Once the list had been chosen, then it was like, “Let me stop listening to the originals and find my own way into these songs now.”

People can find layers of meaning in this project by reading the liner notes and seeing you point to your source material and explain why the songs and original performances grabbed your attention.

What’s coming out now, I guess, in me is the classical training, where everything you do is interpretation. That’s what you do. You read the dots on the page and then you put your emotion into it, but you don’t change what they’ve done. Then going to the Celtic music, where, “If I’m singing in Gaelic, I have to start trying to learn Gaelic, and what is it really saying? And is the pronunciation right? Let me talk to people who grew up speaking Gaelic. Let me understand the culture.” Then to the old-time music and Americana and black string-band music: “Who played this first?”

There are all these things where you’ve really gotta know where the music comes from or you can’t really do right by it, you know? So all of that combined, I don’t really know of any other way to look at music now. That’s how I approach it: “Who did it first? Why did they do it? Why do I wanna do it?” I just ask all these questions before I start singing the song.

Some of your liner notes talk about the original singers’ performances, but in a few cases you also mention your admiration for how particular artists like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline handled their careers. Why did you feel that was worth pointing out?

That’s just always something that’s really interesting to me, when people are able to make their art in difficult circumstances. You do wanna hold somebody’s art separate from themselves [and their career dealings], because their art is a separate thing. But I’m always so happy when I learn that people do things in their life that I admire, like treat people well. …

I love knowing the history. Like Alberta Hunter, the jazz singer from the ‘20s, I mean, she owned her copyrights. That kind of stuff really interests me. She was out of her time. There were lots of dudes who weren’t owning their copyrights, and here’s a woman: “No, that’s my song.” I find that really empowering, and it makes me wanna do even better. We’ve still got a ways to go, of course, in a lot of things in this country. But when I look at my life, I have a lot of things that they had to push through [to get].

On this album, people can’t help but pick up that you bring operatic training into folk and pop contexts. What difference do you feel like it makes that you have those sensibilities at your disposal?

It could be very cluttering, you know? And I think it’s the kind of thing that age has really helped, and time, and sort of letting things marinate and be as they are.

I used to have a lot of trouble with my identity as a singer: “What do I do? Do I sing Celtic music? Do I sing classical? Do I sing blues? What does that mean? What is my voice?” I struggled with that for a long time, and I think the years that I spent in the Chocolate Drops being an instrumentalist and an occasional singer were really indispensable, because it just let me let that loose, and I’d focus on other aspects of the music.

This is my first vocal record and my first tour as a singer, really, since I was a classical singer. All of that stuff has sunk in and mixed in sort of organic ways. The important thing for me is to just let that happen, and to continue listening. I listen to classical music; I listen to roots music. I still practice. I do all that stuff. I think it’s about prep, prep, prep, prep, prep, and then when you’re in the middle of it, kind of letting the voice do what it’s gonna do.

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