Rhiannon Giddens’ New Album is Where Home and the Healing Are

It’s interesting to hear Rhiannon Giddens’ new album, They’re Calling Me Home, take listeners on a widespread journey, while always returning to its titular premise—even as both her and album collaborator and partner Francesco Turrisi, found themselves trying to connect with the idea of home in a place neither is from during the record’s creation. “We’ve talked about a lot, Francesco and I, both being in a country that we weren’t born in and then also being on the road a lot,” Giddens explains over a video call from her residence in Ireland.  

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“Where are you at home, when you’ve moved away from your home?” she continues. “What is home? Because, when you come back to your home, you’re the visitor and when you go to the place that you now live, you’re still a visitor because you’re new.”

“One thing I’ve learned after many years of being a bit all over the place,” Turrisi adds over an separate video line from Greystones, Ireland, “is that [home] doesn’t have to be one notion. There can be so many aspects of home, in many different places, you know? And I think a lot of people just think that it has to be one particular place.”

Interestingly, though it might seem challenging to perform music around the idea of home while needing to newly internalize it for themselves. Turrisi explained that once it came time to record, the music, message, and feeling just came naturally to him and Giddens. “The easy part was in the studio, the hard part was everything that led up to it. You know, our whole worlds were completely upside down,” he says. 

They’re Calling Me Home  is filled with returning echoes from instruments that propelled there is no Other (2019, Nonesuch Records), including the minstrel banjo, frame drum, and viola. Additionally, like its predecessor, the new record touches on the sentiment of connection and identity—even, at times, through a shared somber lens. All the same, They’re Calling Me Home is very much its own project, exploring a specific facet within one’s understanding of personal identity. 

“Our own personal lives [have been] completely changed and [involve] trying to navigate how to be an artist when, for us, that answer always had a performance aspect to it. And then it’s [also a question of] how to deal with all of these other feelings,” Giddens says. “And so, the songs that [Francesco and I] ended up recording [for They’re Calling Me Home] were in large part, ones we’ve been kind of doing to kind of comfort ourselves, really. And so I think that’s why they were kind of at the forefront of what we would even think about doing [for the album.]”

All that said, Giddens goes on to point out a personally meaningful experience, which highlights how the idea of home and one’s very personhood might not be that distinctly separate after all. “I took my babies on the road when they were young—my daughter in particular, for a couple of years. And just watching her, you know, for her, home was me. Everything was always transient; we were in different places all the time [but] she wasn’t bothered by it,” Giddens explains. 

“I just think about nomadic cultures that are always on the move,” she continues. “It’s like, your family unit is your home, who you’re around. It can be a transitory; it can be something that you take with you. I think travelers do take a sense of their home with them wherever they go.”

Amusingly enough, even with so much thematic and sonic reprisal present on They’re Calling Me Home, Giddens and Turrisi still came face to face with their own entirely new change, since their dual relocations to Ireland a year ago after the pandemic began its surge. “It’s been a journey to adapt and to shift to being together, yet apart, and not working —not being on the road. All of a sudden we had to shift to that––being domestic. We’re here with our kids, like…forever,” Giddens says with a laugh. “There’s no going away; there’s no going off and working together and then coming back. So, I think we’re just part of that whole [global experience].” 

“Also, [Rhiannon and I] are two and a half hours from each other,” Turrisi clarifies. “So we’re not even in the same place [in Ireland.]”

Coming to live in a place that unfurled life that’s somewhat familiar and somewhat new, while also facing the unknown of losses and struggles brought on by the pandemic, heightened the severity and impact of change for Giddens and Turrisi beyond what the experience would have been through either change on its own.

“We’ve never been so isolated as a culture. We think about our global culture and yet, we’ve never been going through the same thing as much as we are now. It’s a weird thing,” Giddens says. “It’s like we’re on our own, going through the same thing as a lot of other people [but,] all at the same time. We’re connected in a larger sense, but not in an individual sense.”

In contemplating the juxtaposition of mutual and individual experience, the duo also reflect on the differences in their respective day-to-day lives and how their respective homes have overtly or subtly shaped their commitment to a shared decision. “When I go grocery shopping, which is the only time I really see people, what I see around me in general, is people just kind of putting their heads down and trying to get through it,” Giddens says.

“[Meanwhile,] I live in a place which is very nice, actually. Quite beautiful. [It’s been] such a luck to be able to go out and walk by the sea every day,” Turrisi says. “So that has been definitely a blessing and a privilege, you know, to be able to have that. I think there’s a combination of [many experiences and emotions]. I think people are going through extreme ups and downs of being resilient, and losing the plot.”

In the face of so many different lived experiences, filling an album with songs honoring varying cultural perspectives, instrumental characters, and most importantly, emotional processes, might seem counter intuitive if the idea is to coalesce around the single entity of “home.” However, Giddens doesn’t shy away from the idea that all this uniqueness does in fact resonate well with something that represents closeness, togetherness, and a sense of origin—eferencing her own fresh perspective about determining what home means for her and her family. 

“[This is] the first time that I’ve had a thought about what I want my home to be like because I’ve never stopped long enough to actually enjoy any of the places that I live. We moved around a lot [when I was] a kid,” Giddens explains. 

“It varies. We have been doing a lot of cooking [for example,] trying to fill it with the smells of home and the tastes of home,” she adds. “Ultimately, I guess my home is where my loved ones are, really. And the rest of it is something I’m just trying to kind of figure out.”

Giddens and Turrisi being the multi-cultural, globally cognizant people they are, it’s not surprising seeing the pair pursue a project intent on emphasizing such a large swath of artistic and emotional expression. Still, having a sense of comfort and confidence around fleshing out the broad concept of “home” doesn’t diminish the intense emotional weight, which is as much a part of this album’s journey—something heard in its emotionally warmer displays of connection.

“When [Francesco and I] are making a record, it’s pretty much guided by instinct, and in a lot of ways you know, it’s kind of a feeling,” Giddens explains. “We didn’t go into this [album] thinking, ‘Okay, this is going to be the shape of it,’ and all this kind of stuff. We were like, ‘We have some songs we want to do. We want to get in there and just have this emotional response to this [music]. [‘Calling Me Home’] in particular, had been a really strong [song] from the beginning of when we were doing these livestreams.” 

“Something about singing it, I felt so comforted by it,” Giddens adds. 

“Because it is, you know, death as it should be. Which is like, when we’re ready to move on, we move on. There’s no trying to keep us alive past our time; there’s no dying before our time; it’s like, we had a nice life and now, it’s time for the transition. That’s what [‘Calling Me Home’] is about, to me. There’s just something so beautiful about that image. And, you know, it’s written by a woman who has seen a lot of things. She’s been around for a long time, Alice Gerrard. It’s kind of, wisdom of the elders, you know what I mean?”

Considerate elegance applied not just around performance but also aspects like melodic progression, instrument timbre, and lyrical candor for songs like “Black as Crow,” “O Death,” and the title track—which, at least from each sonic surface, project vastly divergent moods—showcase just how much those musical attributes can plot out significantly different emotional routes for a subject like death, which initially seems cut and dry in its affective conclusion.

It’s worth remembering that, in spite of how painful some parts of They’re Calling Me Home might be to hear and contemplate, even in breaching the topic of death and loss, Giddens and Turrisi remain within the bounds of the album’s central questions of “What is home?” and “What does it mean to be home?” Where the challenge arises, is in cultivating the courage to view the loss of someone through the lens of a person gaining an opportunity of returning—whether that be to a being of higher existence, a status of spiritual evolution, or simply to the energy of the earth and the universe. Such expectations position They’re Calling Me Home as less of a casual listening experience and more as one very much focused on encouraging reflection, introspection, and a willingness to take in new facets of awareness. But that kind of purpose-driven existence is something Turrisi and Giddens wholeheartedly embrace.

“Normally the timing of such records is quite a lot longer, actually, from when we record them and when they come out,” Turrisi says. “There was definitely a feeling that [They’re Calling Me Home] is really a record about this time so, we really tried to rush it in a way that it will be ready, at least for the spring.”

“I think what’s really important when making art, is to let it be the thing that it needs to be [and to have] the function that it needs to have—not push it into something else,” adds Giddens. “And so, [They’re Calling Me Home] clearly has a very strong vibe and needs to be what it is. I know it’s not the party record of 2021 [but], I think that’s okay. This record can serve as something different and that’s, you know…it’s okay.”

Photo by Karen Cox

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