This is the other part of an interview I presented earlier, which had Giddens talking specifically about racism in old music, how to approach that in the present, and how she feels about the race dialogue in its current form.
This section of the interview focuses much more on her work with Carolina Chocolate Drops (Amazon, iTunes), her work as the only woman and person of color in the New Basement Tapes (Amazon, iTunes), and her brand new solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, produced by T-Bone Burnett (Amazon, iTunes)!
Giddens is an incredibly talented musician and vocalist whose great gift is being able to reinterpret the songs of others for a current audience, making them her own while retaining the qualities that made the song worth covering in the first place. Her sense of politics and race is also one of her strong points, fierce in her assertions with a sense of humor and open mind and ears. She’s an energetic and sharp person to talk to, a fun stage presence, and I have the strong feeling that she’ll be capturing the attention of wider and wider audiences in years to come.
J7: How have you approached a post-Dom Flemmons idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops? Did it change the direction of the band for you?
RG: I felt a huge responsibility. Being the lone original member, I felt a big responsibility to the music and to the fans. I knew that we were leaving on a high note, the ensemble at the end of last year – myself, Hubby Jenkins, Dom, and Layla McCalla. The shows were really good and people were really getting what we put down. Then Layla left, which we always knew was going to happen because she’d been working on her solo album all year, but Dom departing, it gave me the opportunity to really think about if I was going to continue the band. And if I was going to continue the band I had to have a really strong idea of the band. I thought really hard about what the things are that make us unique. What are the things that even through the changes and the years and the personnel we have kept going? What is honest about what we do? And what do we do that serves the music so well? I really took the time to sit down and think of all that stuff.
I was looking for people who shared the ideals, who were interested in the history, and who were going to bring things of their own to the mix, so I found an ensemble that clicked immediately and ever since then we’ve been on the road. Malcolm came in last December and Roland came in this January. It’s been going really well. What I really tried to do in the composition of the shows was to keep a good amount of things that had become Chocolate Drops staples, the breakdowns, the favorites like “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” and then as the ensemble was playing together and we started working up new material in the same similar vein, not pushing it, just letting it be what it’s going to be, and let the four of us feel the energy. That’s what we’ve always done, keep that through line going, and then let the new ensemble be what it’s going to be and not try to force it into an old mold.
One the things about this band that we think keeps people coming and that we think we do really well and that makes us unique and aim for those is the detail lets that fall as it will and each individual person in the band. You don’t have to play that because Layla used to play it like that. I hired you because you’re a great musician and you bring your own aesthetic.
J7: You want it to be alive and not just a museum piece.
RG: Exactly, and that’s probably how we started in the beginning, and so I doubly didn’t want to become like a copy of earlier Chocolate Drop shows. Some songs that Dom lead, he’s such a personality that you don’t want to betray them by trying to do them in some other way, so Hubby brought some stuff that he’s been working on, but there are a couple things that Dom sang lead on that we still do that I think are just good songs and it wasn’t just his particular flavor. But for the most part, it’s this evolving thing that maintains a really strong impression of what the band has always been, and audiences are responding really well to it, which has given me a little relief. I’m always like, okay, how are they liking it, I’m always gaging how things are working with the audience. People are like, yeah, we miss Dom and he was awesome, but we really like what you guys are putting down, it’s what we’ve come to expect, but there’s new stuff, too, that’s exciting, and the new stuff is still within our wheelhouse. It’s not like we’re pulling in something crazy. We’re staying in what we do, but we’re keeping it fresh.
RG: That’s something that I’ve been aware of from the beginning. I knew when we first started out – me, Dom, and Justin – I was the girl and I contain all that stuff, I knew that might be a push, to put me out front. I fought that. I thought we were about something very different and I was not comfortable with any of that, so I’ve always been an advocate for ‘it’s a band’ and I have no intention of becoming the lead singer. I’m the front woman at this point because I’m the only original member left and I’m the only one with history from the beginning to now, but I knew that Hubby had tons to offer that he hadn’t really had the opportunity to do and I knew that he would be a good partner. In terms of a band, I work best having people to knock ideas off of and feeling like it’s a real ensemble, that’s what I’ve always wanted. If I want to do a solo thing, I’ll go do a solo thing, which I am doing incidentally enough this year, but in terms of the Chocolate Drops, I never wanted it to be Rhiannon Giddens and the Chocolate Drops. That’s not what the band is about.
Hubby leads a fair few tunes and there’s still plenty of breakdowns. I am singing more, but that’s just a natural thing. I’m not going to be throwing the new guys to the wolves much, going here, do these four songs. I want it to be more natural. Right now, whatever the music is — working and flowing and what’s ready — that’s what is in the show and that constantly is changing little bit by little bit as the weeks have passed, and we rotate things in and out. So, yeah, I’ve been very conscious of that. The thing that people are saying now is that they get a feel for each person and they get a feel that it is an ensemble, and it’s not a lead and a back-up group.
J7: The Chocolate Drops have a very specific origin story with the banjo gathering and time spent with Joe Thompson, and now you’re the only physical link with that narrative. How has that affected the band?
RG: The music will change and that’s the way it happens, because that’s folk music. The links get further and further, and music changes. I think that Hubby’s on and listens to recordings of Joe, and he’s really done his homework, and he’s like, ‘actually you guys play it differently than he played it when he was younger.’ So he’s poring over these things, which I think is great, because our way of doing it isn’t the only way and now the new guys are listening to our recordings and bringing it back to the old stuff that we used to do years ago. It’s actually been a really cool way of exploring the older stuff that the trio had left behind, going back to it with fresh ears. I’m the only one left who played with Joe, but that is what it is. I play the fiddle the way I play it and the banjo the way I play it because I played so much with Joe and with Dom and Justin, and so when we play these things that influences how we play it. And it is a link. It’s not the same, but it’s still a link. I really believe in letting these things be organic and letting the music find its way.
We didn’t play it like Joe played it. We changed it quite a bit, if you listen. Just through osmosis. We just let it be and come out the way it needed to come out. That’s the way I feel with this ensemble now. We did Merlefest and Justin Robinson came out and played with us for our set. It was fantastic. He and I got together and did the old fiddle/banjo thing and then the rest of the guys played. We were jamming in the parking lot, all of us practicing, it was this awesome version of “Georgia Buck.” This is what it’s about. He’s going to come join us for a couple shows in the summer. That was really great and there’s room for that, too, and there’s room for “Black Annie” the way we play it now. There’s room for it all, I think.
RG: It kind of did. It lead to my Year of T-Bone. That concert happened and then T-Bone said, ‘I want to do a solo record for you.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ I had plans on doing Chocolate Drops stuff, but T-Bone Burnett says he wants to do a solo record, and the record label says that’s a great idea, I mean, you learn to take these opportunities as they come. So we started talking about that. I saw him again at something else, a project in California that will be coming out in a year or two, and started talking about this Basement Tapes thing and thought, this sounds really interesting. And then again, at the L.A. ‘Another Day, Another Time’ concert that we did. So I was in his path a lot and we were planning this record and so he pulled this group together and I said, ‘That seems like a really smart thing to do.’ I felt like I could bring something non-reverential — I don’t really know much about Dylan, I didn’t know anything about the Basement Tapes, I felt like everybody else has probably got that set pretty well, so it was an opportunity to bring a blank slate to these sessions. It ended up turning out really well.
RG: It was an experience where we got to finish these lyrics and everybody had a hand in writing songs. We all were the band for recording all the songs. I was playing fiddle on some stuff, I was playing banjo on some stuff. I was definitely more limited than those other guys because they all play all these electric instruments – bass and mellotron and guitars, pianos and stuff – and I was playing fiddle lines and banjo stuff. But, you know, everybody wrote songs, everybody performed on everybody else’s stuff, everybody sang harmony with everybody else. It was a real unique, interesting experience, and I think the music will reflect that.
J7: And on your solo album, I assume you took the opportunity to do some different work on that.
RG: I did. Some things weren’t really fitting in the Chocolate Drops’ world. I had been compiling a list of songs from women in roots music that I really admire, either interpreted by or written by. Also I had a list of things by Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, and Jean Ritchie. It was just an eclectic mixture of stuff. T-Bone really liked that idea and so we went for it and assembled a band, his guys and some people I suggested, and recorded it in nine days. It’s very exciting. It’s a very unique record I think, there’s Patsy Cline right next to a beatbox, mouth music piece. I’m really proud of it and everybody at the label seems really happy with it, so I’m excited about it and about touring to support it, putting a band together. Two of the Chocolate Drops will be with me. It’s definitely a real step out for me, but one that I’ve waited to do the right way and, like I said earlier, I didn’t want the Chocolate Drops to become that project, so I waited and then this opportunity came and it’s like, here’s where I need to do these things, and not dilute what the Chocolate Drops are doing. It paid off.
J7: With the focus on women artists, it sounds like it has a historical component that’s comparable to the same aspect of the Chocolate Drops’ music. The history of the music seems to interest you a lot.
RG: Yeah, I can’t really get away from that. I think that’s okay, because we have plenty of the other in this music industry and any opportunity – well, the music always comes first. The song has to be amazing. And then I want to know more about it. I read a lot of history and I’m aware of my place in the world and I think that’s important. I know how lucky I am as a woman musician, being able to tour on the road with my family, being able to make a living at what I’m doing, being able to run my business and not have people pushing back all the time. Reading biographies and autobiographies from women artists of previous generations, I understand how lucky I am, and I think it’s important to homage the women who came before who had to fight through a lot more stuff than I have had to fight through. To just remember that, to just go, ‘remember this was kind of hard’ and these women are pretty awesome for, despite that, making amazing music and having careers. With the banjo music, with this, it’s always important to recognize who comes before and where you are in the span of the span of things.
Also, a lot of these folks, Ethel Waters, Rosetta Tharpe, aren’t really recognized for their place in American music. Rosetta Tharpe, a lot of people say she invented rock and roll guitar, but nobody knows who she is in terms of the general public. I think, just as with the Chocolate Drops, if somebody goes and discovers who Joe Thompson is or who Blind Lemon Jefferson is after listening to one of our tunes, it’s the same with this project, hopefully they’ll really enjoy our versions. I think they are very fresh, modern arrangements of these songs, but then if they go for Rosetta Tharpe and they find out how awesome she is, I feel like it’s part of a double intention.