By Scott Cunningham
Published May 18, 2015
To say Rhiannon Giddens has been busy lately would be a bit of an understatement.
In the past 16 months, she has recorded her first solo album, was hand-picked by T-Bone Burnett to contribute to The New Basement Tapes (a revival of long-lost Bob Dylan lyrics), and has performed at the White House.
She is also touring nationally and will visit Portland Tuesday evening at the Aladdin Theater.
I recently spoke with her by phone from San Francisco where she had sold out a four-day residency. If you have seen her previously in any way, I can assure you that she is every bit as genuine, humble, and pleasant as she appears to be.
Her recent run of success started at a performance in September 2013. Legendary producer and musician T-Bone Burnett had assembled an all-star list of musicians for a celebration of 1960’s folk music. Giddens sang Odetta’s Waterboy, a performance that was widely regarded as the highlight of the evening.
“I was approached by T-Bone to do a record,” Giddens recalls. “He left it up to me to put forth an idea for an album.”
What emerged was “Tomorrow Is My Turn”, a homage to American female singers that reaches as far back as the early 1900’s. Released in February, the album draws from material that has inspired both Giddens and others throughout the years.
When approached by Burnett, she was already thinking about a new project and had been thinking “about how amazing these ladies are and how they influenced me.”
Most of the album was recorded in January 2014, but Giddens had to take a break to attendThe New Basement Tapes sessions, also produced by Burnett. Joining her were Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, and Taylor Goldsmith.
All of the Basement Tapes sessions were filmed and the documentary that emerged can be viewed on Showtime. What is most striking about the film is the way it captures the process the artists went through to write music and create arrangements for the Dylan lyrics.
In viewing the film, it is easy to see the connections that formed between the artists and how that contributed to each of the tracks and the finished album, which is titled “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.”
“I think (music) is always stronger when you have that genuine connection with somebody,” Giddens explains. “It’s nice for people to see that is what happens artistically. It’s just not artists going off to a corner and writing all these brilliant songs.”
One of the highlights of the film is the sub-story of Giddens and Mumford writing the music for the song Lost on the River. The pair worked to no avail for several days on the song, and the frustration Giddens feels clearly comes through.
In the last days of the project, the song finally came together and the end result is nothing short of extraordinary, a fact not lost on Giddens.
“It is definitely always going to be one of my favorite recordings that I’ve done. Everything just came together in the most beautiful way,” she told me.
After finishing Basement Tapes, she returned to Nashville to finish “Tomorrow is My Turn.”
Giddens recognizes that she grew through the Basement Tapes project. Looking back on the experience she says, “It was really hard thing for me. It was a very important journey for me to make as an artist.”
Angel City, the last track on “Tomorrow is My Turn”, is the only song on the album that is written exclusively by her and serves as a thank you to the other artists in the Basement Tapes project.
“At the end of that experience I stayed up all night and wrote Angel City as a thank you to all the other musicians that were there. It seemed also to stand for anybody who is there with you on your journey. None of us stand alone. It’s important to remember that, always.”
Taking all of the recent attention in stride might be difficult for some artists, but Giddens is happily viewing it as part of her journey.
“When something like this happens, it’s probably a once a once in a lifetime thing. You appreciate it and roll with it and just do the best you can with what’s coming down the pike,” she says.
Something tells me a lot more success is waiting for her down the line.
Rhiannon Giddens and her band play at the Aladdin Theater on Tuesday night. Doors are at 7:00pm and tickets are still available.
Joining Giddens on the current tour are Hubby Jenkins (banjo), Malcolm Parson (cello), Rowan Corbett (multi-instrumentalist), Jamie Dick (drums) and Jason Sypher (bass). Fans of the Carolina Chocolate Drops will recognize Jenkins as a longtime collaborator with Giddens and a founding member of that band.