The birth of a solo career is often a matter of chance, as was the case with Rhiannon Giddens, who since 2005 has stood front and centre of the North Carolina old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.
In 2013, Giddens – the band’s singer, violinist and banjo player – was invited to take part in the Another Day, Another Time concert in New York, a celebration of the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis, alongside Patti Smith, Gillian Welch, Marcus Mumford and a slew of other notable musicians. Being in the right place at the right time certainly paid off for Giddens’ solo career, as it was at this concert where she met seminal producer T Bone Burnett (Roy Orbison, Elton John, Elvis Costello).
“T Bone Burnett offered to do a solo record for me after we did the Another Day, Another Time concert together in New York,” Giddens explains. “A lot of things happened there – I guess I made a big splash, and T Bone decided that I had been in a band for long enough and it was time to do something on my own.
“I’m the kind of person that just does what’s in front of me, and I was there to do some songs and get in and get out, and I didn’t expect that performance to lead to what it did. It was such a fairy tale story.”
Apart from her Coen Brothers tribute, Giddens has featured on a number of compilation albums, adding her vocal stylings to the musical creations of those who have come before her. This has given Giddens the chance to work with some of the biggest names in music, including Tom Jones, with whom she recorded tracks for 2014’s The Wexford Carols – a compilation of traditional Irish Christmas carols.
“I love collaborations in general,” Giddens says. “Whenever I get the chance to work with other people who are in it for the same reasons that I am, which is for the music and the heart and the spirit… One of my favourites was definitely the Bob Dylan compilation we did for Amnesty International, Chimes Of Freedom. We did the recording to tape and it was a really memorable day.”
Giddens’ debut solo album includes a number of songs penned by prominent female musicians such as Dolly Parton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The selection came easily to Giddens – it was simply a matter of including the tracks that didn’t quite fit the sound of Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“It really came out of my experiences and an urge to pay homage to the women who had come before me. Being a woman musician, you’re in the minority, even though that is changing slowly. You see yourself surrounded by men all the time, not just as performers. There are loads of female performers, but where you start to really notice the divide is when you get into management and producing and labels – that can make it feel very, very isolating.”
[Rhiannon Giddens photo by Dan Winters]