"We were always aware that we were 21st century people... it really does you a disservice to pretend that you're not."
The rise of Rhiannon Giddens has been swift. From relatively unknown musician (outside her native North Carolina, at least), to international purveyor of roots music par excellence, Giddens has, over the past three years, been on the up.
And not without good reason. Possessed of an exquisite voice, and an accomplished banjo and fiddle player, Giddens embodies what Americana music has become — a wide-ranging and free-flowing umbrella genre that captures the best parts, the more earthy parts, of the blues, Appalachian tradition and of course, country music.
"I heard bluegrass growing up and just assumed, along with everybody else, that the banjo was a white instrument... and just having that completely turned around, energised me."
Giddens, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio where she studied opera, began her love affair with this red-dirt variant of the music early on. "I fell in love with it via contradance [a folk dance similar to a square dance]... it's an old, old folk art form, and the music in my local area was a lot of old-time," she remembers.
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"So that's where I first heard, like, the clawhammer banjo. So I fell in love with the music first, and then I started learning the history of it, and it was like, 'Whoa!'" she laughs. "I mean, I heard bluegrass growing up and just assumed, along with everybody else, that the banjo was a white instrument... and just having that completely turned around, energised me."
After leaving the Conservatory, Giddens played with Sankofa Strings, a group which, in 2005, morphed into the successful Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Drops hit a chord and so began a period of heavy touring and recording, leading to their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, taking out the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album early the following year.
"We never, ever wanted to become a museum piece," Giddens stresses on the Drops' musical outlook; their interpretation of the 'old', but their need for the 'new'. "We were always aware that we were 21st century people... it really does you a disservice to pretend that you're not."
The Drops, having released four records and an EP under their own name, have become a mainstay in the Americana/American roots world. But it's away from the confines of this group that Giddens came into her own, only a few years ago.
"The fervour of a spiritual, the yips of a folk holler, and the sultry insinuation of the blues," is how The New York Times described Giddens' version of Odetta's Water Boy, performed at the T-Bone Burnett curated Another Day, Another Time concert at New York's Town Hall in September 2013. Giddens, on the bill alongside the likes of Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Joan Baez, Jack White and Elvis Costello, effectively stole the show, and this is where her rise began.
"I'll always be grateful. I call him my fairy Godfather for that reason."
"I absolutely remember that," she smiles. "I'm a perfectionist, so my whole thing that night was, 'Just don't fuck up', you know? So when I performed it, I walked off-stage and thought, 'Yeah, I went OK'... and then the articles started coming out, and it was like, 'Oh, wow'."
Oh, wow indeed. Not only was the audience and co-cast impressed, but Burnett (who's produced the likes of Roy Orbison, Leon Russell, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, et al), offered, on the spot, to produce Giddens' solo debut — high praise indeed, and a move that led to 2015's Tomorrow Is My Turn, Giddens' first full-length record under her own name.
Giddens was, in the interim, asked to be a part of Lost On The River — The New Basement Tapes recordings, a reworking of a slew of previously unheard Bob Dylan songs (along with Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith). This was a feather in the cap, but it's Tomorrow Is My Turn that's capped this rise.
Rolling Stone noted it brought a "freshness and vitality"; the UK Telegraph called it an "exceptional record"; The Guardian called it "agile and emotional" — it's the mark of a musician with a rare talent for adding new to the old, on her way to the top of the roots music pile. "When is this gonna happen again?" Giddens says with a laugh. "T-Bone Burnett calling and saying, 'Lets do a record'? I'm not an idiot!
"Making my own record was a huge step forward for me. I really believe in the Chocolate Drops, but I was also hiding a bit, it's a lot easier when there are other people taking the weight as well as you," Giddens confesses. "So [Burnett] helped me see I had a lot to offer as a solo artist, and there's a lot I want to say.
"He saw an opportunity where he saw someone he thought needed to be given a little push; let's put it that way. And he did that in a really great way, and a really supportive way, and I'll always be grateful. I call him my fairy Godfather for that reason."