New album is star showcase By Kevin Ransom
Well, we’re almost halfway through 2015, and Rhiannon Giddens' stellar solo debut, “Tomorrow is My Turn” – which was released to effusive critical acclaim in February -- still gets my vote for the best album of the year so far.
For the previous nine years, Giddens had been wowing the trad-music crowd as the primary singer (she also plays fiddle and banjo) for the Carolina Chocolate Drops -- the African-American roots-music band that specializes in interpreting vintage folk, blues, swing and string-band music.
But their music didn’t really break out to the wider national audience until their 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig” -- their first major-label disc after three independent releases – won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
And in the last two years, Giddens has created even more buzz, first with her show-stopping performance at the 2013 “Another Place, Another Time” concert staged in New York City to celebrate the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” folk-music movie.
And then there was her sublime singing on the 2014 “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes” album. Both of those projects were helmed by roots-music uber-producer T-Bone Burnett, who also produced “Tomorrow is My Turn.”
But the release of “Tomorrow,” and her subsequent solo shows, have taken Giddens to a new level, both musically and in terms of her public profile. The album received rhapsodic reviews from the "New York Times," "Rolling Stone," "The Los Angeles Times," "National Public Radio" and a host of other media outlets, who also made her the subject of splashy, in-depth feature stories.
And the music on her solo album casts a wider net than that of the Chocolate Drops, so she is now reaching a much larger audience. In short, Giddens is now a star.
Giddens says she was already thinking of making a broader musical statement when Burnett approached her backstage after her stirring performance at the “Another Place” show and asked if she was ready to make her own album.
“I had been storing away songs for a solo album I thought I’d make someday, songs that I loved, but which I didn’t think would work as well within the context of what the Chocolate Drops do,” says Giddens by phone from a tour stop in Boulder.
“When T-Bone approached me, I wasn’t thinking of making a solo record right then – the Chocolate Drops were making plans for our next record. But sometimes things just come knocking on your door when you don’t expect them, so this suddenly felt like the right time to do it.”
When she presented her list of songs to Burnett, they recorded them all – more than could fit on one album. But as they began assembling a track listing, a theme emerged.
“The project shaped up as mostly being about women artists who’ve played really important roles in American music over the decades, but who didn’t really get the acclaim or fame they deserved,” says Giddens.
“I just thought this album was an opportunity to make a strong statement that was not wholly within the framework of the black American string-band-music the Chocolate Drops specialize in,” she says.
One striking way that Giddens differs from many roots-music / pop / rock singers is that she’s classically trained – she has a music degree from Oberlin College, and she planned a career as an opera singer. She has the powerful pipes and ability to fill a concert hall with her voice, without a microphone.
But after college, she began exploring vintage roots music more deeply, fell in love with it, and had to adapt her stunning vocal instrument to the grittier folk / vintage blues canon, so as not to overpower the songs.
She still loves opera, and performs with symphony orchestras once or twice a year – but on the Chocolate Drops albums and on “Tomorrow,” she sings in an earthier, more nuanced, more subtly-expressive fashion – at least compared to what we’d hear from her if she was starring in “Carmen” or “Don Giovanni.”
But when called upon, she can still unleash the full impact of her prodigious pipes, like she does on “Water Boy” – the “Tomorrow” track that she performed on David Letterman’s show in February, knocking Dave’s white socks off. It was fitting that she chose that song to flex her vocal power, because it’s a song Odetta recorded and performed regularly: Odetta was also a classically-trained singer who adapted her technique to sing more rustic folk and blues.
The title track of “Tomorrow” is also the album’s thematic centerpiece, and was the first song Giddens picked when she began thinking about making a solo album – so, its message helped to dictate the theme of women artists from the past not getting their due at the time. It was co-written by French composer Charles Aznavour, but is most strongly associated with Nina Simone, who recorded the English translation in 1965.
“I’d been watching her live performance of the song online, and it really had a great impact on me,” says Giddens. “I’d also read her biography and autobiography, so I knew she’d gone through some hard times, as many people did during that era, and hearing and seeing her performance of the song made me think about the struggles that she and other women went through. But she was a strong woman, who helped force open a lot of doors for the next generations of female performers.”
Giddens also has a nuanced philosophy when it comes to her role as an interpretive singer: “My attitude is, if you’re going to interpret the song, make it your own, or else why do it? I don’t like hearing covers that are the same arrangement as the original or most popular version. You can be faithful to the strong structure without copying it.
“On the other hand, if a song is somewhat obscure, I don’t want to mess with it too much, because it doesn’t need to be re-interpreted or taken someplace new. So, I like to strike a balance, and I think we did that on this album.”
One example is Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” the Hank Cochran composition that became one of Cline’s most beloved tunes. Giddens is faithful to the vocal melody, but the spare arrangement is much different than the countrypolitan sound favored by Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley. It’s anchored by a pulsing acoustic bass, and her plaintive vocals are framed by a subtle but sensual horn arrangement that includes a brooding baritone sax.
As a solo artist, Giddens has continued one of the missions she’s devoted herself to as a member of the Chocolate Drops. One rousing track on “Tomorrow” is Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s stomping, rocking-gospel “Up Above My Head,” which is driven by barbed, stinging electric guitar and lively Western-swing fiddles. Her vocal delivery is sly and evocative, drawing in part on Tharpe’s gospel-shout style.
“After one show, a woman came up to me and said she loved the song, and had never heard of Rosetta, and thanked me for turning her on to Rosetta’s music,” says Giddens. “So that continues to be gratifying -- to help young people discover great artists from the past who they’d never been exposed to before.
(Kevin Ransom is a longtime music critic and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The Detroit News, Guitar Player magazine, Rolling Stone, the Ann Arbor News and Musician magazine, among others.)