Two Trains Running: Rhiannon Giddens
photo credit: Dean Budnick
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Our latest cover story features interviews with Ben Harper and Rhiannon Giddens. After traveling down parallel tracks for many years, the two musicians finally crossed paths on a new, socially distanced collaboration.
Here is our conversation with Rhiannon (the interview with Ben is available here).
On Oct. 21, 2019 a chance encounter took place at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
Although Ben Harper and Rhiannon Giddens were both leading advocates and exemplars of American roots music, they had yet to meet face to face. That is, until Harper attended Giddens’ performance with her personal and professional partner Francesco Turrisi. The pair were presenting material from the aptly named There Is No Other, a dynamic project that emphasizes the impact of African and Arabic sounds on the music and culture of Europe and America.
Harper was taken with the performance and, when he finally struck up that belated conversation with Giddens after the show, he suggested that they record together. What eventually ensued was a transatlantic collaboration. The California-based Harper laid down tracks for a take on Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” and then sent those files to Giddens, who is based in Ireland, resulting in an engrossing, contemplative offering that’s built on lap steel, banjo, viola and vocal harmonies.
“Nick Drake is kind of hallowed ground,” Harper declares. “His lyrics and writing, his presentation, his singing, have a very particular embrace—unlike any songwriter either modern, or from back in the day.”
Despite the pandemic, both musicians have also remained active in recent months. Harper has just released Winter Is for Lovers, a new album in which he shapes 15 tracks into a sublime instrumental piece that focuses on his lap-steel guitar. He also recently launched a new label, Mad Bunny Records, and issued Birdthrower’s self-titled debut. Meanwhile, Giddens has continued work on her forthcoming opera Omar. She also recently started her tenure as the artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble and has offered a variety of online performances, some of which have appeared on the Patreon page she created with Turrisi.
“There are different ways you can record,” Giddens notes, in describing her contribution to “Black Eyed Dog.” “You can record with your brain on, and say, ‘I want to give somebody this thing,’ or you can record with your brain off, which is, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to come out, but I’m just going to fully immerse myself in the song.’ And that’s what I did for this. There was no other way of doing it. I just slipped in and things happened. That’s where a recording can sometimes capture the magic. And it’s a special thing.”
I’m surprised that you hadn’t crossed paths with Ben prior to that night at the Grammy Museum. I would have imagined that you’d have been on the same festival bill and met in that setting.
I’m sure we were at the same festival at some point, but our paths never crossed. It’s one of those things where, every once in a while, somebody would go, “Have you ever done anything with Ben Harper?” I’d think about it for a second, and then life would take over. I knew about him and I’d heard a bit of his stuff and, of course, he’s great. It was an obvious question for people because we’re both Black artists in roots music. But part of me is kind of happy that it didn’t happen solely because of that. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you’re the other Black person; let’s do something together.”
It’s great that it happened this way—the way that things normally happen. You hear about somebody, you have a meaningful interaction and then you do something together.
How familiar were you with Nick Drake’s music before Ben sent you “Black Eyed Dog?”
For whatever reason, I knew his mother’s music better. Somebody once sent me a link or I stumbled over this beautiful song by Molly Drake. It was just her playing the piano and singing. I sang that a little bit in my shows with one of my older musical partners. That’s what I knew. So when Ben sent it through and said, “This is a song by Nick Drake,” I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s Molly Drake’s son. That’s her famous son.”
What sort of guidance did Ben offer and how did you approach the music he sent?
What kind of guidance? None. He sent it to me and said, “See what you think,” and I was like, “OK, what does he want me to do?” [Laughs.] And I didn’t really get an answer, so I took the track, went into the studio and I just kind of put everything on there that I thought sounded nice. I figured he could take it off or do whatever he wanted.
When I’m working remotely, I just try and give as much as I can so that someone can then take it away. They can take away pieces if they want. It’s easier to take away than to add once it’s done. I added banjo, then I was like, “I think a little fiddle would be great.” And then, of course, I had to do the harmonies and I was like, “Gosh, I really like the way this sounds, but he’s welcome to take everything off or whatever he wants to do.”
So, I was thrilled when they said they wanted to release it; and when they sent back the master version, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, everything’s on there. That’s amazing.” I was delighted because I kind of found myself falling into his world a bit. I felt like it pulled things out of me that I don’t necessarily do all the time. I was really happy with the way it turned out.
You met Ben while you were touring with Francesco, supporting There Is No Other. While you were on the road with that project were you surprised by the response you received and did any of those songs reveal themselves to you in a new way?
I was shocked at the reception of that record, to be honest. It was a deeper dive than I’ve ever done into all the different things that make me tick. Francesco is kind of the perfect foil in that he can meet me on multiple different levels. We were able to take it anywhere I wanted to go, which is not always the case. It’s quite rare.
As we were out there performing, the power of music became more obvious to me. You can save a two-hour lecture by playing a three-minute song, if you set it up right. Two minutes of talking, a three-minute song, and you’ve accomplished what could otherwise take two hours.
When we started, I wasn’t sure what people would think about the mixture of sounds, as well as the message. But I was really gratified that our audiences got exactly what we were saying and appreciated all the things that we appreciated because, again, that’s not a given either.
I also felt that performing some of my previous work with the trio on this tour, like “At the Purchaser’s Option” and my slave narrative songs, made them even more potent. I had fun doing them with drums and electric guitars, but the setup for There Is No Other allowed the songs to have room to be what they are.
You were in Australia in mid-March and needed to cancel a show in that country as well as some dates in Japan due to COVID-19. Can you share your perspective on how the pandemic impacted your crew members, along with other friends and colleagues who aren’t necessarily fronting their own groups?
It’s been very challenging addressing the issues on a personal, professional and public level. I’m trying to do whatever I can do. I went for a payroll loan, then gave as much of it as I could out to my crew and my musicians. I also gave bonuses and paid them for work that got canceled.
I’m doing everything I can from within my limited platform. Hopefully, it brings more awareness to the fact that these folks don’t have a lot of alternatives. My bassist is not going to do a livestream to make money. I feel that those of us with name recognition, particularly people who have established careers, have the ability to do things—so that means we also have a responsibility to utilize that, to leverage that, to make things better in whatever way we can for the people who aren’t seen in the industry.
Most musicians that I know are middle class, at best, in terms of their socioeconomic status. And many of them are suffering for their art right now.
I have to say, middle class is very optimistic. Most people I know don’t have a safety net. They don’t have savings; they don’t have health insurance. The state of artists in the United States is dismal. I hate it when people say, “Well, they’re doing what they love.” As if that means it’s OK. But it’s not OK.
Everybody deserves to have a decent place to stay and to have health care. Some of this would be fixed if we had a proper social safety net in place. But we condemn our artists to make art in a purely capitalist society. You basically have to act like a corporation and that’s just totally anathema to what it takes to make good art.
I had a congressman tell me, “Well, you’re doing what you love.” And I was like, “I’m a small business that’s paying people wages to then buy stuff, to make the economy better and you’re telling me that?” This was when we were lobbying to increase streaming royalties, and my response was, “We’re doing what we love, so we don’t deserve to get paid, but the guy who owns Apple, who’s doing what he loves, he deserves to get paid? Is that what I’m hearing?”
The amount of money that the arts puts into the economy versus the way that it’s treated and considered is just not equitable. Sorry, you can tell this is something that bothers me.
It’s helpful for music fans to understand all that so that they can contribute to the dialogue and potentially help push for change.
It’s important to be open about it. I’ve never been shy about money. You know, money comes in to me, and it goes right back out again. I’m not a hoarder.
I talk to my audience about Spotify. Look, I use Spotify—it’s a great research tool. It’s not that I think the tool itself is wrong. I think the way it’s being utilized and how the revenues are being paid out is wrong. The CEO of Spotify recently said that musicians basically need to keep cranking out content to stay relevant. That’s a problem when you’ve got a technocrat in charge of what is ostensibly a music tool, but it’s not really being utilized in that way from the top.
I’ll tell people: “Do you know how much we get for a stream?” And they don’t know. They assume that, if they pay their monthly plan, all these artists are getting a living wage. But that’s not the case, and they don’t know unless you tell them. You have to be honest about it. I think that’s why some artists are increasingly turning to Patreon, particularly in this moment.
You launched a Patreon page in May. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like for you?
I started a Patreon page with my partner Francesco, which, as you mentioned, a lot of artists are starting to do, at least until they can get back on the road again. It gives their supporters a way to say, “Here’s a bit of money every month so that you can keep doing things that I love.”
For us, it was kind of a godsend because we’ve both been on the road for a while. He’s been on the road since he graduated and I’ve been on the road 14 years. So, after doing that for a long time and then not having the mechanism with which we create our art, it’s been hard. So Patreon kind of gave us an outlet, and then it gave people a way to connect on a deeper level.
It’s a lot of music-history nerds, which is what we are. So, we can kind of take a deep dive and not be afraid of alienating anyone. But we’re also doing things that aren’t just music—we’re talking about food and we’re talking about books that we love. We do an instrument corner, in which we make videos of all the different instruments that we play. We also offer special performance videos. We’re making stuff for people who seem to appreciate it and we’re talking with them, too. It’s been a nice way to focus during a very scary time. Of course, we’ll have more to share when we’re finally back on the road, so it’s cool.
On the subject of being on the road, plenty of folks enjoyed last summer’s Our Native Daughters gigs. Do you have plans to record or tour again, or is all that in flux?
We want to do another recording, it’s just a matter of how we are going to schedule it. We’re in the same boat everybody’s in. We’re all in different states. Actually, one of us is in a different country, so it’s challenging. Plus, everybody has solo careers, so the normal scheduling challenges are kind of tenfold now because of not knowing when we can start scheduling things.
We rescheduled a few things but we don’t know if they’ll get canceled or postponed again. We’re trying to figure it out, but there’s an interest in continuing the project. We all derive a lot of creative energy from it and we all love each other. I think another record is going to be in the works; we just don’t know how and when yet.
You mentioned earlier how you use Spotify for research. Thinking of Our Native Daughters, or some other project that involves engaging the past, when you’re looking for older music, how much of it is available on Spotify?
It’s a good question. I have two different places I go to do research beyond my own CD collection. For older stuff, I typically go to YouTube because that’s where a lot of collectors put their recordings. They’ll post their 78s with pictures and some of that stuff’s not available through Spotify.
A lot of times, what I find Spotify the most useful for is if I’m going to cover a song; I want to listen to all the different versions of it. So, I can just put the song title in and Spotify gives me all the different versions. It’s helpful to know what’s been done to death.
But for the older historical stuff, I like YouTube more. YouTube has its own problems, for sure. But for what I’m trying to do, it has been a godsend in a lot of ways because some of these recordings that folks have been sitting on for a long time find their way onto YouTube so that anybody can listen to them and pull inspiration from them. That’s particularly true of the stuff that is way out of copyright.
It’s great when those 78s make their way onto YouTube; although, I know secondhand of some collectors who refuse to post their music up there or share it with anyone outside their tight circle because, in that world, there is this whole cultural capital around possession. Is that something you’ve encountered over the years?
Yes, and I find it deeply problematic. That attitude is what plagues so much of the music industry—putting your name on something, slapping your thing on it, sitting on it, so that nobody else can have it because it’s incredibly rare. And oftentimes, the collectors who have them are white and the music involved is Black—not all the time, but a lot of the time. Collectors who sit on things drive me nuts because what is the point? So that you can feel superior because you’ve heard this thing that nobody else has heard? It’s fine to collect the thing but make a copy of it so that other people can derive satisfaction from it.
The premiere of your forthcoming opera, Omar, has been delayed due to COVID-19. Has the pandemic had any other impact on the work?
It’s been postponed until next year, and it’s all but done. The production was almost finished when everything came to a stop. I mean, obviously sets weren’t built, but the designs were going ahead when we realized that it was going to have to be on hold.
[Ed. Note: The Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. commissioned Giddens to write an opera based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim man from West Africa, who was enslaved and transported to Charleston in 1807. He remained a slave until his death in 1864. Said’s manuscript was written in Arabic and never published during his lifetime. The world premiere of Omar was scheduled for May 22, 2020, and it will now take place in 2021.]
I’m excited to have a little extra time for it because there are some things that we didn’t have time to do before. It’s a very big subject matter and one that doesn’t really get touched on very much—not in the opera form and not in pop-culture form. So, hopefully, there’s more time to develop a little bit of the education that can go with it, in terms of workshops and panels and things like that.
We were on a roll and you get the energy going, and then there’s a debut and it’s amazing; but I’m just grateful that it’s still happening. We lost one of our singers, which was a big bummer, but we’re lucky that we still have all the rest of them, which is incredible, including our Omar. So, it could be a lot worse, and I’m OK with the postponement.
What led you to this particular narrative?
The folks at Spoleto approached me after a show that I did there one year and said, “There’s this story that is just spectacular that we think should be told. We’d love to commission you to write an opera about this story.”
I hadn’t heard of Omar. Being from North Carolina, we don’t get taught that—there are loads of things about our history that we don’t get taught. [Omar Ibn Said lived his final years as a slave in North Carolina.] I was really struck by it and, as I started reading up on it, I realized, “Oh, my gosh, this would be amazing.” The story of Muslims slaves in America is so sidelined but there were quite a few of them; although, we don’t have lots of straight accounts, which is what makes his autobiography so important. Not only is it an account of a Muslim in slavery but it’s also in Arabic, which is the only such narrative I think we have. So, it’s important on so many different levels, and he’s just such an interesting character. I was just like, “There’s so much I could write about here.” I’ve really enjoyed working on it.
You were also recently named as the artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble. Where do you anticipate Silkroad headed in the short and long terms?
Well, it’s an interesting time to take over artistic directorship of anything. [Laughs.] But it’s also kind of an opportunity—if you want to call it that—with everything being slowed down to take in the ensemble and to get to know people, even just through Zoom, and think about where we want to go. My whole point of signing on was that I could see all the good that Silkroad has done and can do, but I felt that, particularly recently, if you’d ask people, “What is the Silkroad Ensemble?” They couldn’t really tell you and I think that needs to be addressed.
[Ed. Note: Yo-Yo Ma created Silkroad in 1998, as a multicultural music collective that has come to incorporate a variety of educational programs as well.]
You can be this world-class ensemble and do these beautiful commissions but also have a very specific mission that people can see. It’s hard because of all the different things going into it but I think they’ve done a great job. However, if it’s going to survive without Yo-Yo Ma, it needs to be something that people understand beyond just thinking, “That’s Yo-Yo Ma’s ensemble.” That identity has to be transferred to Silkroad itself, which hadn’t really happened yet.
So that’s why I’m coming on. I’m approaching it from a classical and a folk world, which is good because there are the elements of all that in there but I’m also a scrapper. I’ve kind of been at every level of how to build something and how to brand it in a way that is still artistic—not in a corporate way, but in a way that people know what you stand for. We built the Chocolate Drops from zero to wherever it went, and I was in the car making CDs. [Laughs.]
I think I bring that experience, and I’m going to be focusing on and expanding what Silkroad means and how it lives in the United States of 2020 rather than 2000. It’s a very different place and I think it needs to be able to adapt to where we are now.
Speaking of where we are now, you are currently living in Ireland. What has it been like looking over here at the cultural and political developments of the past few months?
It’s been really hard. We made the decision to relocate the kids here because my ex is Irish, so they go to an Irish language school—Gaelic, you would call it in the States, but they call it Irish here. So, there’s a commitment for them to know that side of their family. They’re already going to get the American side. And I was in the States so much that it didn’t even matter where my home was.
I’ve been here since March and it’s the longest time that I’ve been somewhere for awhile. It’s weird because it’s not perfect here, but the way that Ireland handled the crisis, barring some horrible disaster in the next couple of weeks, my kids are returning to school—not distanced school—but actually going to school. We can also move around. Of course, we’re all masked and everything.
I hear all my friends and my family in the States suffering and it’s hard. It’s also frustrating that I can’t be there in the midst of the protests. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, reading headlines and freaking out, but nothing can touch what so many people are going through right now. While it sucks to watch it from so far away, it doesn’t suck as much as it does for a lot of people in it.
So, I just do what I can. I do everything that I can to make art that will bring something to people—to continue to take jobs and to do things that mean I can have some power, make some changes and contribute in ways other than just being in front of people singing. My whole life is directed toward that—or at least the part that’s not putting food on the table for my kids three times a day, which is now a bigger part than it used to be. [Laughs.]