Rhiannon Giddens is almost as much a historian as she is an acclaimed singer, songwriter and banjo and fiddle player, which is why Ken Burns made such good use of her as an expert witness in his “Country Music” series. She combines her depth of music lore with a gift for storytelling in a new audio mini-memoir, “To Balance on Bridges,” which Audible is announcing today as the newest forthcoming entry in its “Words + Music” franchise, a series that has top musicians speaking as well as singing their truth. Giddens’ entry comes out July 22, and Variety has an exclusive preview (below).
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Audible · Rhiannon Giddens’ To Balance on Bridges – Exclusive spoke with Giddens from her current home in Ireland about how she came to do her installment of “Words + Music,” which, at about an hour and 15 minutes, combines a compact and selective autobiographical narrative with the performance of eight rearranged songs from her repertoire. In coming up with “To Balance on Bridges,” Giddens follows in the recent footsteps of others who’ve done similar projects for Audible, from St. Vincent to Sting to Sheryl Crow, though none have had anything like her trenchant thoughts on race, identity and string-band music in America.
Variety spoke with Giddens from her current home in Ireland about how she came to do her installment of “Words + Music,” which, at about an hour and 15 minutes, combines a compact and selective autobiographical narrative with the performance of eight rearranged songs from her repertoire. In coming up with “To Balance on Bridges,” Giddens follows in the recent footsteps of others who’ve done similar projects for Audible, from St. Vincent to Sting to Sheryl Crow, though none have had anything like her trenchant thoughts on race, identity and string-band music in America.
She was drawn into the project by T Bone Burnett, her original producer when she left the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops to begin making albums as a solo artist. (Burnett joined Audible as a member of the Emerging Voices Advisory Board, and he provides a brief introduction to “To Balance on Bridges.”)
“It was T Bone who brought me in to do it, and it was always a very attractive idea. but we couldn’t really schedule it,” Giddens says. “It’s changed quite a bit from when we were first talking about this. -It was originally a three-night concert that was going to be recorded, to then take the best of those three nights, and (the spoken sections were to be) like an interview situation with someone. Then the pandemic happened, and I think Audible in general shifted” ideas about how some of the “Words + Music” entries would be recorded. “They obviously needed to pivot and shift to a different way of doing it. And so it became more of a script — more pre-thought about what I was saying. They’re two very different things; even if the outcome is similar, the way that you arrive to it is fairly different. So once I kind of got my head space into, ‘Okay, this is going to be a recorded thing,’ then we were off to the races.”
Don’t tell Giddens that she has, in effect, recorded her autobiography, because she swears that is something she would never do. The fact that these “Words + Music” pieces are mostly coming in under 90 minutes is allowing a lot of ace musicians who feel they would never have the inclination to write a memoir to casually sneak one in, with just enough sketchy selectiveness about what to discuss, and a carefully chosen set of songs, to make it something shorter, sweeter and more innately musical than the dreaded “life story.”
“I would never think about writing an autobiography, unless it was just a music book where I use my experience to illuminate songs,” the North Carolina-born singer insists. “This in particular was pushed by the music, and then what am I going to say about those songs? Why am I picking them, and what are the pieces of my life that are relevant to those pieces? And so that’s how it was driven. I’d never write an autobiography unless it was just a music book that I use my experiences to illuminate things. I’m never interested in telling my story unless it feeds a larger point that I’m trying to make, just about some of the stuff that I’ve been working on for the last 15 years.”
Giddens talks a great deal in the piece about being “neither/nor, something more,” a phrase she recalls from her childhood. “People often talk about the different sides of the track. I was born on the track, in the middle of a lot of different dualities,” she declares at the outset, growing up as the “definition of ethnically ambiguous” and being of mixed “caste” to boot. She had a father who “could sing Schubert to make you weep” and a grandmother who watched “Hee Haw” every Saturday night, among other disparate cultural influences. She wound up going to Oberlin with the intent of going into classical music. Her performance here of “The Trees on the Mountain” from the opera “Susannah” makes clear how far she might have made it in that world.
But the world of roots music called louder. She had an epiphany when she learned the banjo was not invented as part of white mountain music. “That was all a lie… African descendants in the Caribbean actually invented the banjo, and for the first couple hundred years it was played only by Black people. Louder for the folks in the back: The whitest instrument in America was actually Black. Cue my head exploding.”
Giddens puts a humorous emphasis there on her own shock at learning this bit of musical history to draw fellow explorers in. “I’ve always thought it was important to be open about how it was such a late discovery for me, and that it was such a complete discovery,” she says, “so that it invites people to then discover with me more. It’s like, let’s discover this together, because we’re all kind of in the same boat in terms of what we know about a lot of this stuff.”
The piece is hardly all fun and discovery, as Giddens brings in the slave-themed “The Purchaser’s Song” and talks about the horror that enveloped her when she really researched that time. The song itself, though, is a thing of remarkable beauty; although Giddens has performed it on banjo hundreds of times in concert, she chose a piano accompaniment for this version, reflecting a previously unrecorded arrangement of it she’d done for a ballet in Nashville.
In writing this, as a spoken-word piece with music interludes, “I would think of songs, and then I would think of a story and then that would inspire me to think of another song. I tried to pick songs that either existed in another recorded form, but that I had an opportunity to do in a really different way, or were just perfect illustrations. I was trying to find a journey through especially the last 20 years, since I’ve been doing music. But I just really want to be on the record as saying, like, there’s just so many different ways of doing things, not just like one same type of thing over and over, like eight different types of blues songs. I believe you don’t have to be focused on just one thing to live a fulfilling life; (that it’s better to be), broadening out and not knowing how your journey is going to end — and obviously I am still alive, so I don’t know. You can’t guess what’s going to happen for you, and I think that’s a great place to be. So I wanted to pick things that illustrated those moments in my life that I couldn’t have predicted.”
“To Balance on Bridges” was written and recorded at a point in Giddens’ life where, for now, she does have a happy ending — having been given a MacArthur “genius grant” that afforded her years to record and tour music that has a more ethnomusicological bent, without fear of how to make it completely commercial viable, followed by serendipitously meeting Italian musician Francesco Turrisi, who has become her partner on her last two albums as well as in their chosen life in Ireland. Their most recent album, “They’re Calling Me Home,” came out in April on Nonesuch.
“It does feel like I’m at a moment of transition in my life, and it does feel very satisfying to be able to say that since I graduated (from Oberlin’s music school) in 2000, that I’ve been sort of on this arc. And it’s not to say that I’m not still on it, but I feel like a lot of the stuff that I did on the record that I just put out with Francesco, it’s kind of like the record I would’ve made 20 years ago, had I been able to. I had to have 20 years of experience to make it, and the right partner to do that. And so it does feel like it’s a not an end, but a pause point of reflection.
“I’ve always said that you should never sort of reflect on your life too soon, because there’s so much to live. Like the 21-year-olds putting out an autobiography: I’m like, ‘Okay, so you’re a millionaire. But do you have something to say, and to read?’ That’s not to say that they shouldn’t do it, but it’s just not something I’ve ever really understood. And this is not an autobiography, but it’s like an autobiographical piece, which I’m content at 44 to do. I would never want to do something much bigger than that, but I’m naturally at a point in my life where I kind of go, okay, this has been an a journey. All of the things that have happened have gone into the music that I’m making now, with someone else who feels very similarly in his head. And I never would have foreseen that when I was 22.”
Of the new project, Giddens says, “This has been a great process, and Audible is a really stellar group of people who made the process as easy as possible or me to get it done. It’s just been a delight from beginning to end, other than the actual writing, which, you know, made me want to pull all of my hair out sometimes. But they couldn’t do anything about that, but everything else, they made a breeze.”
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