It’s become commonplace, during the last miserable year, to embrace silver linings of any sort—needlepoint, baking, credibly bailing on social obligations. To these pleasures we can now add another: Rhiannon Giddens’s They’re Calling Me Home, one of the most quietly beautiful and evocative records you’re likely to hear this year—and one that “a hundred percent wouldn’t exist without the lockdown,” according to its creator.
It’s not a party record. “This is definitely a March/April album, it’s not June/July/August,” Giddens said of the spare, traditional music drawn from Irish, American, and Italian cultures. “I just felt like it was of the time, and it was important to get it out.”
The wildly talented Giddens, 44, whose many admirers range from the folk singer Peggy Seeger to the economist Paul Krugman (the Nobel-laureate fanboy once tweeted, “Rhiannon Giddens at Alice Tully Hall!!! … One of the best concerts of my life”), was Zooming from her home in Limerick, Ireland. She’s originally from North Carolina but has been touring so much the last 10 years that “I’ve basically just been going where my kids are.” She and her Irish ex-husband, Michael Laffan, a musician, have an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. When the couple separated, and she met her boyfriend and musical collaborator, Francesco Turrisi—an Italian multi-instrumentalist also living in Ireland—“it kind of doubled down my Ireland life. So I said, all right, I’m here, this is my new home.”
During lockdown, Giddens and Turrisi have used the Patreon platform to share recipes, playlists, book recommendations. (“Here’s one of my VERY favorite and most quoted books about the real origins of American square dance … ”) They’ve also streamed performances, but “our last memory of these songs was doing them onstage in front of people—and it really sucks playing them for a computer in your living room,” so they soon found themselves drawn to “traditional songs, folk songs. That’s the stuff that we were comforting ourselves with and playing.” This material—including gorgeous, yearning tracks such as “Waterbound,” “When I Was in My Prime,” and “Black as Crow (Dearest Dear)”—turned into They’re Calling Me Home, which the couple recorded at a studio outside Dublin with the musicians Emer Mayock and Niwel Tsumbu.
Krugman was right, by the way. Giddens is a genre-busting, electrifying performer, equally assured picking bluegrass or singing “Underneath the Harlem Moon.” Her voice is a wondrous thing, powerful yet nuanced. “I started singing at an ungodly age, standing in my crib and warbling at passing family members,” she has written. An opera-trained graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, she’s also a virtuoso banjo and fiddle player who won a Grammy with the rootsy string band Carolina Chocolate Drops before being invited by the producer T Bone Burnett to record a solo album.
One of the most quietly beautiful and evocative records you’re likely to hear this year.
On that stunning 2015 debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, she mainly covered songs associated with others—Nina Simone, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The equally fine follow-up, Freedom Highway, consisted mostly of originals about the Black American experience across history, and ranged musically over blues, gospel, folk, and hip-hop. Her first collaboration with Turrisi, There Is No Other, in 2019, drew from an even deeper musicological well, with Arabic, African, and European influences.
Giddens’s many side projects include composing the music for a ballet and an opera, acting on the TV series Nashville, hosting the WNYC opera podcast Aria Code, performing with the Black-women’s banjo ensemble Our Native Daughters, and succeeding Yo-Yo Ma as artistic director of the cross-cultural Silkroad collective, which Ma founded in 2000. In 2017, the MacArthur Foundation named her a “genius” fellow for “enriching our understanding of American music by reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country genres and revealing affinities between a range of musical traditions, from gospel and Celtic to jazz and R&B.” In short, a classic underachiever.
“For me, it’s always: Is there a story that needs to be told that illuminates important pieces of our culture? If so, I’ll do it,” she says. “And if it’s ballet, if it’s opera, I’ll get the people who can help me tell that story. Because I know I can tell it in a good way.”
Giddens admits that, in certain respects, lockdown has suited her: “I have a lot more skill in the kitchen now. And I’ve spent a lot more time with my kids—that’s been great.” She does look forward to seeing her family in the States, and while she doesn’t miss the traveling, she is eager to perform onstage.
“I was talking to my therapist, and you kind of realize—after it’s all gone—that one of your emotional regulators is performing,” Giddens said. “Whatever you’re feeling builds up, and you get onstage and kind of work through it, and that’s part of where you get your energy from.”
When the time comes, her audiences—including the occasional off-duty economist driven to rapturous tweeting—will be glad to again be the beneficiaries of all that emotional regulating. Meanwhile, there’s some excellent new music to transport us.
Rhiannon Giddens’s They’re Calling Me Home debuts April 9
George Kalogerakis is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL