One of music’s most powerful voices creates a stunning album that speaks to her own intense passion.
By Steve Houk
You know, Rhiannon Giddens has deep thoughts.
Not just about the many details of the day, and there are surely many of those when you’re a mother of two, a wife, a Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and an actress.
But as far as her overall creative thought process, she definitely goes very deep exploring the many intense facets of some of the tougher sides of African American history. She went deep with her first band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, conjuring up authentic string band sounds that beautifully conveyed the light and dark of the black experience of the early 20th century. She went deep on her miraculous debut solo record Tomorrow Is My Turn, paying homage to some of music’s most powerful, and in some cases most underrated or even ignored black female artists, by gorgeously rendering some of their most emotional songs.
But for her latest record, the stunning Freedom Highway, Giddens went even deeper, and as opposed to her first two records, wholly original. Delving into the agonizing and excruciating history of her enslaved ancestors by reading and then adapting slave narratives into song, Giddens made a record that is deeply moving, yet at times also celebratory. And she felt a particular kinship and empathy towards one particular segment of the slave population.
“When you read these stories, the plight of the African American woman is just intense,” Giddens said on a break between dates of her current tour, which comes to the Lincoln Theater May 9th. “It’s just terrible, it’s so difficult to read. As a woman of privilege now, to be able to have lived the life that I’ve lived and the rights that I have, the privileges I have, it just makes me all the more responsible to tell the stories. The complexities of these stories, the complexities of their life, I feel that deeply because I’m a mother and a woman of color living a very very different life, I just felt like it was really important to tell these stories. I didn’t really have a choice. I feel that way. The best ones really flowed through me and I gave them life, but they came from somewhere else. I do believe that. Pretty heavily. It’s not like ‘I feel like doing this today…” The songs had to be written.”
Freedom Highway is a catharsis of sorts for Giddens who thrives when thinking, feeling and writing about history that hits home is involved. When she learned these slave narratives existed, she knew she had to put them to song because they had never really had a chance before. And she realizes the painful truth that what happened yesterday is still going on today.
“I’ve always been into history, I’ve always been interested in how people live, and all of this kinda stuff,” the eloquent and candid Giddens said. “So I see what happens today as being just an extension of what happened yesterday, you know? I always am driven to try to understand what happened at the inception of this country, at these major points, because the more I understand that, the more I understand what’s happening now. I was really into the Civil War and slave narratives from around that time, and one book in particular called The Slaves War by Andrew Ward. And these stories kind of, well, they wanted to be songs, and I hadn’t really written very much at this point, but I just remember thinking, the Irish and the English and all these people have these narrative ballad traditions, talking about what regular people were going through. But African Americans, we had to hide things and code things, if you were singing about this stuff, you’d be killed or whatever. It’s just not a part of the culture. So I just started thinking about what if.”
After recording Tomorrow Is My Turn with master producer T-Bone Burnett, Giddens realized she wanted to do something that was a little more her own, not only from a content standpoint but a creative and production-oriented one as well.
“I knew after Tomorrow Is My Turn that I needed to do something different. I love T-Bone, and I think he did a fabulous job, it was definitely a conversation, I definitely had input into that and he was very generous. It was really wonderful. But it’s his record. I definitely knew that I needed more input, I needed to have a different relationship with this new record. I knew I wanted to put more original material on it, I knew I had this idea what the message was gonna be. I started writing more since Tomorrow Is My Turn, the New Basement Tapes project was a real jump start for that for me that told me that I can write songs, you know?”
And as far as her own creative process, Giddens has grown and prospered during this latest experience, finding ways to be more collaborative and open to new ideas while staying true to her own.
“I think that’s just such an important thing as a writer, to let go of your own expectations. Being able to let go of something that you think was the cleverest thing you’ve ever written, that’s the biggest lesson I feel like I’ve had. Being willing to take direction even if it’s just from inspiration, from your musical partner, being able to see what’s best for the song. I feel like I’ve had the most success doing that, I feel like the music lives the best when I do that, so I’m going to continue to do that. That’s really been a big growth area for me, just getting out of my own way, really. And I never want to get in my way again.”
And in a recent visit to the National Museum of African American History in Washington, not only was Gidden’s fervor for history recognized, but a surprise in one of the exhibits blew her away as well.
“The stuff in the basement there, it’s intense, I mean, I already know most of that, I lived there, I live in the basement of the African American Museum. But it’s beautiful, the way it’s put together, it’s so lovely. I think it’s incredible. You do get a feel for realness. You get a feel for the story. And I admit it, when I got to the exhibit that had the banjo and it’s got my big ass quote on there, I cried. Nobody warned me and I just walked in there and was like, oh my God! But overall, the parallels that can be drawn to today, that’s where it lives, that’s where we need to focus. How can we become better people today by looking at how terrible that we can be.”
Rhiannon Giddens with special guest Amythyst Kiah performs Tuesday May 10th at Lincoln Theater, 1215 U Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.