Rhiannon Giddens is a songwriter, too

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Rhiannon Giddens is a songwriter, too
Rhiannon Giddens in London, July 19, 2023. The historically minded, socially conscious musician offers bluesy, racy, playful tracks on “You’re the One,” her first full album of her own songs. (Serena Brown/The New York Times)

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK, NY.- Rhiannon Giddens has earned a little fun.

Giddens — a singer, songwriter, banjo player, fiddler and actress who won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2017 — has devoted herself to serious, high-concept, deeply researched projects.

“I’m a mission-based artist,” she said in a video chat. “I’m that girl at the party that you back away from, because she’s going to talk about either banjos or slavery, or maybe both.”

But “You’re the One,” her new album due Aug. 18, mostly sets duty aside. It’s her first full album of her own songwriting; it’s also her most playful project yet. “I need to make the record that I need to make at that moment,” she said. “I needed to do something with these songs that I loved. And I wanted to have fun and I wanted to explore different sounds.”

Giddens, 46, was at the home in Ireland that she shares with her two children and her partner, Francesco Turrisi — an Italian jazz musician who explores global traditions and has made two duet albums with her that examine African, Mediterranean and American crosscurrents. A microphone stand sat behind her, and her latest bit of crocheting was close at hand.

Giddens has made it her mission to delve into “difficult and unknown chapters of American history,” she said, and to reveal complicated cultural entanglements. “We like to say it’s a melting pot,” she said. “But it’s more of a patchwork. You can see the bits and pieces, but we don’t always know where all the patches are from. We’ve erased that history.”

The mission has kept her busy and prolific. Earlier this year, Giddens and her collaborator, Michael Abels, shared the Pulitzer Prize in music for “Omar,” an opera based on the autobiography of an enslaved African Muslim. She is the artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble, the cross-cultural global-music project founded by Yo-Yo Ma; it will be touring in November with “American Railroad,” which celebrates the multicultural labor force that built the transcontinental railroad.

Giddens created a 10-part series for the online educational site Wondrium on the history of the banjo, reaching back to its African origins. She hosted a podcast, “Aria Code,” that examined famous songs from operas. Not to mention her ballet score, her lectures, her role in the series “Nashville” as a gospel-singing social worker and her solo and collaborative albums, which have encompassed a panoply of musical and historical legacies, both sobering and hopeful.

“You’re the One” is Giddens’ closest approach to pop material since her 2015 solo debut album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” which was filled with songs made famous by some of her idols: Odetta, Patsy Cline, Elizabeth Cotten. Giddens’ songs reflect music she admires and add her own twists.

“We’re all part of this lineage,” she said, “of who came before, and who we listen to, and who helped shape our internal sense of what we sound like.”

“Me, I don’t do genres. I just do songs,” she continued. “Some songs have a twang and some songs have a scoop and some songs have a vibrato, and I just follow what they need.”

Dirk Powell, a longtime collaborator who co-wrote three songs and plays multiple instruments on “You’re the One,” said, “One of the beautiful things about Rhiannon is that vocally and musically and energetically, she can step into so many different spaces. It’s not a matter of putting on a different garment for a different style. She literally has the ability to go all the way in and sing from that place, from that source. She completely inhabits this full range of who she is.”

Giddens has only gradually emerged as a songwriter, and “You’re the One” may turn out to be her only full-length original album. “Chances of me doing a bunch of all-original records is slim, because I just don’t have enough,” she said. “I think there’s people who are very good at writing original albums every two or three years. That’s not me.”

While each of Giddens’ albums has included something of her own — and she wrote most of her 2017 album, “Freedom Highway” — Giddens’ originals have largely appeared alongside songs old and new: spirituals, string-band country, Celtic ballads, minstrel tunes, blues, civil-rights songs, slave narratives, a 17th-century Italian madrigal and more.

Giddens amassed the songs on “You’re the One” over more than a decade, channeling and mixing favorite styles, mingling homages and hybrids. Its oldest song is “Hen in the Foxhouse,” a cheerful yet pointedly feminist funky blues — with a scat-singing bridge — that she wrote 14 years ago.

“I like to play with words,” she said. “In terms of my own songwriting lineage, my lyricist lineage, it’s a through line: Stephen Sondheim, Tom Lehrer, Tin Pan Alley. I find a concept or an emotion, and sometimes I want to turn it into a song.”

For her new album, she enlisted the producer Jack Splash, who has worked with Valerie June, Kendrick Lamar and CeeLo Green. “She wanted this new album to be brighter and lighter and open and colorful,” Splash said in a phone interview, and she wanted all of her musical influences to come into play. “She let me know that that might seem like a tall order, as far as trying to get all of that into one album.”

The core of the album was recorded in just six days at a historic studio: the Hit Factory Criteria in Miami, where James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and the Bee Gees made hits. It has a large room where a band of a dozen musicians — merging Giddens’ folky regulars with Jack Splash’s R&B experts — could record together live.

The songs on “You’re the One” go era-hopping: evoking vintage movie musicals with the string section and tremulous crooning of “Who Are You Dreaming Of,” recalling bawdy 1920s piano blues with “You Put the Sugar in My Bowl,” revisiting Southern soul with “Wrong Kind of Right,” and turning to Creole fiddle and foot-stomping in “Way Over Yonder.”

Other songs turn into rooted but recombinant blends. “You Louisiana Man” opens with a Cajun-style button accordion but veers into old-timey banjo and fiddle, takes on a funky backbeat and a gospelly tambourine, and ends up sporting some Afrobeat-tinged horns.

Most of the album’s songs deal with romantic ups and downs. “Relationship songs are the low-hanging fruit,” Giddens said. She sings bluesy double-entendres, portents of heartache and wry kiss-offs — like the album’s opening song, “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad,” which harks back to 1960s Muscle Shoals soul with a horn section and “shoop, shoop, wah-ooh” backup vocals.

The album’s title song, “You’re the One,” is also a love song, but it’s about a mother’s pure, joyful love for a newborn son that Giddens said emerged from her realization that postpartum depression had placed “a curtain” between her and her daughter. “All these shades of gray slowly turned into a new Technicolor world,” Giddens sings, and what had started as a banjo and fiddle tune bursts into an exultant chorus.

“I’ve already started getting complaints that it’s too poppy,” Giddens said with a shrug. “I just think it’s catchy, and it came straight out of my banjo.”

Giddens hasn’t abandoned her socially conscious sense of mission. The album’s bleakest and most contemporary-sounding song — with minor chords and a hip-hop undertow — is “Another Wasted Life.” It’s Giddens’ response to the plight of Kalief Browder, who took his own life after spending three years, mostly in solitary confinement, at Rikers Island.

She offers a more upbeat, but equally purposeful, lesson in “Yet to Be.” In a folk-rock shuffle laced with an Irish jig, it tells the story of two migrants — a runaway Black Mississippi farm girl and an Irish lad — who fall in love while working at an American bar. “And then the baby was a brand-new start,” she sings.

“I’ve always focused on how do we survive, rather than staying in the pit of the horribleness,” Giddens said. “Look at all of this music that exists because of a million and one moments like ‘Yet to Be,’ right where people are just coming together. And if they’re not making a baby, they’re making a song or they’re trading tunes or they’re picking up somebody else’s instrument and going, ‘Let me see that.’”

After the album’s release this month, Giddens will go on tour with a full band, a contrast to her bare-bones performances with Turrisi. “I know I get intense,” Giddens said. “But yeah, there is also the thought of, ‘Maybe I can bring more people, a new slice of folks, to the fold of what I do.’ Bringing them in with these kinds of songs. And then when they come to what I do, maybe they’ll discover the other things — and dig them.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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