Interview by Daniel Coston
Daniel Coston: Is it different to keep a band together when you are the bandleader, as opposed to everyone coming up together? Or is there any difference?
Rhiannon Giddens: There’s different challenges. When you’re in a partnership, on one hand, you all have to agree on something to get it done. But on the other hand, you have support, and you it’s not just all on you. It’s the good, and the bad. And when you’re leading it. the buck stops with you. You have to make all of the decisions. What I’ve done with this group, is that I don’t do the hired gun kind of band. I’m just not interested in that. And it makes my life a little harder, because it means that if one of my guys decides to leave, I’d be in the lurch. I’d have to rejigger my whole show, which I’ve done multiple times. And I’m fine with that. But that’s the only way I can operate. I only operate in a way of collaboration, even if I’m the one at the top. Making the decisions, and making the investment with the money. I still creatively like to feel like a part of a team. And that’s what this band is.
I don’t ever say, I want it to be this way. Somebody would suggest this, somebody would say, “I think this is too fast.” Everybody’s invested in the show. There are some times when they’re not going at a tempo that I like. But I’m like, "This is what the band’s doing right now." Within reason, I’m going to go with it, because I fostered a sense of A Band, but it’s under my name. And I think that’s what makes so show so strong, is that because everyone is invested in it, and giving 100 percent to it.
What we’re doing now, is just different every day. The improv that’s going on, and the interplay that’s happening, it’s pretty stellar.
Coston: You have a really bad-ass band.
Giddens: This is a bad-ass band. It’s tighter now, than it was [several months ago]. It’s a really unique set of people. We play in a way that’s very compatible. To have Jamie Dick on drums, and Jason Syfert on bass. They had never met. I hired them to be the white rhythm section for the black string band. (laughs) We talk about that, sometimes. But that’s American music. There’s so many instances of that kind of thing. Where you wouldn’t think those things could me swapped. And the fact that they had never met, and as soon as they started playing, it was like they had been playing together for years. To still have Hubbie [Jenkins] so great, and he’s expanded past what he was doing with the Chocolate Drops. Now he’s playing electric guitar. He’s playing like those first-generation electric guitar players, who all came from finger picking acoustic guitar, and it’s just got a really nice feel about it. And with Dirk Powell, you have this powerhouse of so many different genres. It’s like playing in an ensemble. He can play anything, and it let him the chance to play things he doesn’t always get to say. He plays really amazing electric keyboards, and that’s his first instrument, the piano. Nobody knows that, because he’s always playing banjo, fiddle and accordion. This shows has really allowed him to jump into that, which he loves, as a musician. And he plays guitar, it sounds totally different. And the fact that we’re playing songs with minstrel banjo, and electric guitar, all at the same time, it really adds to all of this, “What is this? What is this music?” This is pulling from all of the things that make American music great. It feels so good to have people respond to that, and go from one thing to the other, it all fits. It’s been really great.
Have you thought about what you want to do next with this band?
Oh, yeah. Everybody’s been asking. I really want to record. I just want to go into the studio, and just explore. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t have a burning set of songs, like I did with Freedom Highway. My instinct is, we just need to get in there, relax, and let things happen. Sometimes, when we are soundchecking, we’re coming up with these really cool things. To have that time when there’s no pressure, there’s no gig, there’s no timeline, there’s no label up and down our throats. I want the group to make some stuff. I think that’s the next step. And I want to keep the record cycle going….
Coston: Which is hard to do these days. With touring, and promotion….
Giddens: And you’re not making any money off of it. That’s the thing. That’s what would keep you going in previous years. Okay, I’m making this record. Eventually, I’ll make some money off of it. I don’t expect to make any money off any of my records. That’s just the industry. I don’t know how long labels are going to be able to give out record deals. So while I have it, just make as much music as I can, and use it to tell the stories that need to be told.
Coston: There’s also a freedom in that, because you know that it’s you. You’re the one saying, “This is what I want to do.”
Giddens: The upside to the collapse of these entities is that you can eek out an existence. Because if you don’t give it up, you hve the ability to have control over your stuff, because of the tools you now have access to. It used to be all in the hands of a few people. You can make your own records, your own books. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Coston: Are you hoping to record soon?
Giddens: Yes. We’ve been talking about it already. Hopefully the first part of . We’ll just see what happens. All bets are off. You’ve got to let the art lead. If it’s fits within a two-year pattern, great. But you can’t let that lead.
Coston: Talk about where that pull, at this point in your life.
Giddens: A friend was just asking me, “Do you still get to a contra dance any more?” And I was like, “No.” Honestly, that’s not where I choose to spend my energy now. I went through that time, and that part of my discovery of this kind of music. It was really important. The way I spend my energy now is through activism, through telling these stories, and being a voice that’s very necessary right now. I’m okay with that. I don’t regret it. That was an important part of my life, and it got me where I am. But you have to accept where you are, and how you are supporting your main themes in life. You change, and that’s okay.
People ask about the Chocolate Drops, and the Chocolate Drops was a really important part of my life, and circumstances led me away from that. I was holding on with both hands, and teeth, and nails, and everything. Trying to continue the mission. And the universe said, “It’s time to let it go.” And if I hadn’t done that, I don’t know where I’d be. I gave everything I had to the Chocolate Drops. I brought the current lineup into my solo career, at great financial debit to myself. Which didn’t care, because I made a commitment to these guys. They all came in, it was great, and everybody benefited, but I couldn’t keep doing that, obviously. And I did everything I could. But you also have a responsibility to the people, to the things that you have, and the people that you have. But you also have a responsibility to what you are here to do. And if I had turned down T-Bone Burnett, if I had not made the most of that opportunity, then that really is spitting in the face. Because that has led me to where my true vocation is, which is not with the Chocolate Drops. And that was a very important part to get me here.
I’m very, very confident in what I’m doing now is what I’m supposed to do. And I can do it in such a way that I could not do as a Chocolate Drop. Tell these stories, and I can write these songs. I can not co-opt a band to do my thing. I can do my thing, and I can know that the Chocolate Drops is sacred, and is fine where it is. And that is very important to me. I can see it now, very clear, now. There was a lot of angst. My God, I agreed to take this on, and all of the sudden I’ve got this opportunity. But I had to follow the voices. When I look at my timeline from that, it’s super clear.
Coston: We were talking about the IBMA keynote address, which you just gave. As someone who is from Greensboro, what is it like to find yourself giving the keynote address to the IBMA in Raleigh, how much of a mindblower was that?
Giddens: It was pretty funny. Just doing the bluegrass keynote was funny. I told Paul, “You know, I don’t play bluegrass, right? You know what I do.” And kudos to them. It’s incredibly brave to do that. Because there is this part of the population there that is not really ready for change, but you can’t wait for them to be ready. All you can do is say, “Hey, this is the truth. And you don’t have to take it, but we’re gonna give it to you. And it’s your choice whether you walk away, or you listen.” And I’m willing to listen to you, and to what you have to say, especially if it’s substantiated with research. But if you’re not willing to listen to this with an open mind, then it’s like, there’s nothing else to take about. I tried my best to make it inclusive, and not close people’s minds as much as I could. Even though I have no control over that. But as I am from that area, I grew up listening to bluegrass. This is how I grew up. In some ways, I am a good choice to [give that speech] because I am somebody that could come from that world, but could say, “Listen to this. This is what happened.”
And I researched it for every inch of it’s life, because if I’m going to say this stuff, I’ve got to have it backed up.” My bibliography for the speech was over a page long. There was six or seven books on that list. And there some amazing stories in those books. You’ve gotta let the facts speak for themselves, but you can’t do it without books.
It’s cool to come home [to North Carolina] and do that. I would’ve never pegged that five years ago, or ten years ago. But it’s cool.
Coston: In 2017, is it strange that we’re even having to discuss race? Or that the songs speak better to those things than even we can?
Giddens: That’s one of the reasons why we’re doing what we’re doing. Music has a way to reach people that words don’t. Words, by themselves, or books, or lectures. Music and songs have a way of creating this emotional bridge to these things, and I think that’s why artists are important. I do. I think we’re an important part of the conversation. We’re not peripheral to it. We are central to it, and always been. Music has always been a cultural reflection, like popular music. I do think that we have a responsibility. I really do.
It’s in the old songs. There's the grios, the minstrels, the bards. Musicians have had a very important role in transmitting history, transmitting people’s unhappiness with the ruling establishment. It’s always been there. It can’t stop now.
Coston: The day-to-day life is in all of those lyrics. Go back a couple of hundred years, you’re hearing all of the issues that the Scotch-Irish were dealing with, and all of the things that immigrants were going through.
Giddens: It’s all there.
Coston: It’s amazing to me that while the songs on Freedom Highway come from all different eras, the music and the messages are timeless, even sometimes even more so than we wish them to be.
Giddens: People say, “Oh my God, your record is so timely.” I’d love for this to be an historical exercise, but it’s just not. Bu, you’ve just gotta keep driving.
Coston: When people come to see you, and this band, what do you think they will gt out of it, and what do you hope that you get out of it?
Giddens: You never know. I really don’t try to prescribe thing. If there’s one thing I would just hope, it would be that they would be inspired to know more. Obviously, you hope that they have a great night. You want them to be entertained. But taking something away, that’s what I hope. A few people might go pick up a book. I’d feel good about that.
Coston: You hope that in their own way, they continue the conversation?
Giddens: Yeah! And be open to it. Just be open to the conversation. That’s all I ask. They’ve got to take it from there. We can’t do it all. People have to do it themselves. That’s what I would hope.