Rhiannon Giddens Unveils a Playful and Powerful Side in ‘You’re the One’

Rhiannon Giddens has made a habit of approaching her music career differently. In fact, she’s one of the rare artists whose albums have consisted mostly of covers, give or take an original song—until now. On August 18, Giddens released You’re the One, her first album of entirely original material. “I like doing different things,” Giddens tells American Songwriter in a phone interview from her hotel room in Rome, Italy, about her approach to You’re the One.

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 “I don’t like to repeat myself in my projects,” she adds. “I’ve been doing unusual things, in that [I] have an album with one original, and everybody wants to talk about the original. There’s an obsession with original songs. So I said, ‘Well, I have them, let’s do it.’ [It] just seemed like it was time for change.” 

You’re the One is a collection of 12 songs the culture-blending musician has written over the past 14 years, ones that have stood the test of time to the point where they all proved to be album-worthy, the unique stories of each song connecting to one another. But she walked a long road to get here. Giddens’ musical journey began not as a songwriter, but as an opera singer, graduating from the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 2000. She then became a master banjo player, which led her to form the Grammy-winning folk band Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005. Since then, Giddens has been a member of several other bands, including Our Native Daughters with Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla, along with Gaelwynd and The New Basement Tapes. She’s the recipient of two Grammy Awards, winning Best Folk Album in 2022 for her collaborative project with her Italian musical partner Francesco Turrisi, They’re Calling Me Home, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops won Best Traditional Folk Album at the 2011 ceremony for Genuine Negro Jig. She’s also a Pulitzer Prize winner for co-writing the 2023 opera, Omar, with Michael Abels. 

“All of my projects have been very mission-based. I’m telling a larger story with the music,” she explains of her past endeavors that, she says, have been based on her “interpretations of existing songs.” “This album does that work still, but in a much more subtle way. The idea of all these different song styles belonging together, it’s a subtle way of saying, ‘All of this belongs together.’”

Throughout her more than 15-year career, Giddens, who has multiracial ancestry of European-American from her father’s side and African-American and Native American heritage from her mother, has been a musical virtuoso, dedicating her practice to exploring African-American history through music. More specifically, “The place that African-Americans hold within creation of the American cultural identity, and how places that they have been in actuality have been often covered up as a part of the false American narrative that we’re told,” Giddens describes, an effort she calls her “life’s work.” 

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

It was through exploring these “enslaved narratives” that Giddens tapped into her identity as a songwriter. Listeners hear this throughout her discography, from Songs of Our Native Daughters, the debut album from Our Native Daughters that explores the historical identity of Black women, touching on themes of racism and sexism; to her 2017 solo album, Freedom Highway, named after a civil rights protest song originally recorded by the Staples Singers. “I never considered myself a songwriter,” she admits. “It wasn’t until I started writing these songs based on enslaved narratives and very deep cultural connections. I started writing songs that I had to write, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with them until I record them and started playing them. That’s been part of my mission.” 

Giddens categorizes herself more as a song interpreter than a songwriter. The 46-year-old calls herself as “a student of older songs,” studying the standards that came out in the 1940s and ’50s, as well as the vaudeville performers from the era of Tin Pan Alley, a famous collection of music publishers in New York City in the early 20th century. The many historical songs she’s interpreted over the years include “Birmingham Sunday,” a song written by Richard Farina and made famous by Joan Baez, about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, by the KKK that killed four young Black girls and injured many others, and Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver.” “I don’t know if I call myself a master interpreter, but I think I’m a good one,” she observes. “There’s a lot of really important traditional songs that need to be done. I often feel like I belong to another era.” 

Typically, artists have a writing process, but in Giddens’ case, it’s a lack thereof. She notes that she doesn’t write often, but when she does, she saves up her songs and leaves them alone until her intuition kicks in, telling her what to do with them. “I’m not a really prolific songwriter. I don’t have a particular style that I write other than I rhyme and I write choruses,” she continues, on why she feels more like a song interpreter. “I’ve never really felt like my point of view was important enough to trump all the other amazing points of view that exist out there in song form. I never really had a drive, ‘I must get my point of view out in the world.’ I’ve never been moved to do it before now.”

While Giddens may not refer to herself as a “master interpreter” like those that came before her, such as Nina Simone, she certainly makes a strong case for that title through the songs on You’re The One. Despite the album’s heavy subject matter, which ranges from the flawed criminal justice system in the U.S. to grappling with postpartum depression, Giddens describes its spirit as “playful,” a side of herself she feels listeners haven’t seen much of before. “None of this is state of the art, like the new thing. But the way that it’s put together I feel is very modern and very fresh,” she says of the album’s vintage-sounding production. “I didn’t really want it to sound retro, but it’s a mixture of old-fashioned and fresh. I think it pulls it all together in a way.”

Across the 12 tracks, she plays with words and various music styles, including blues, folk, and Zydeco. She demonstrates this versatility on the album’s Aretha Franklin-inspired opening track, “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad,” as well as the Celtic-leaning “You Louisiana Man,” which was the first that Giddens and the band recorded at the studio in Miami, setting the tone for the record. “I brought my musicians, and then we set the space up and then let them do what comes naturally to really good musicians, which is they listen to each other and then they make a sound that meets in the middle,” Giddens says of the recording process. “We let the magic happen in the studio. A lot of these songs, all of them, were performed live in a huge studio all at the same time. There was a very palpable energy of creation, so that’s why I think it sounds organic.” 

She reveals that many of the songs she writes start as poems, which rings true for the title track of You’re The One. The song was inspired by her experience with postpartum depression after giving birth to her daughter in 2009, followed by a son in 2013. “It was like there was a wall between me and my feelings, and I just couldn’t feel them,” she says of her mental state after enduring childbirth for the first time. “It woke me up. I had a lot of sympathy for myself with my first child, ’It’s not your fault. You weren’t wrong, you weren’t broken that you didn’t feel these things. It was just something that happened to you.’ So it was a great experience and I’m happy to have it enshrined in a song.” 

Giddens honors the mission-based part of her artistic identity with “Another Wasted Life.” The song was inspired by the true story of Kalief Browder, a Black teenager who was arrested for the alleged theft of a backpack containing expensive items. He was kept in solitary confinement for nearly two years. He was eventually released from prison but tragically committed suicide in 2015 after suffering from depression due to the abuse he suffered while incarcerated. “I consider that he was murdered by the system,” the singer says of the song’s meaning, with the last verse proclaiming, It’s another day / Another murder / A punishment taken further / A surrender without murmur /God trust his soul is at peace. “It’s not ever going to be a fair system. That song is to highlight the amount of waste, the waste of their lives, and the families’ lives who don’t get the time with their loved ones. It’s a very important song to me, and it is the largest example on this record of what I have been doing my whole career, for the last 15 years.” 

She cites the exploration of American music, feminism, and activism as some of the overarching themes of You’re the One, which are trademarks in her artistry. “Often the songs that I like the most that I write, including ‘Another Wasted Life,’ are the ones that are moved purely by a story that I feel like needs to be heard,” she says of her songwriting mentality. “I’m always going to be more interested in the higher purpose. But I also understand that these other kinds of songs hold a very important role as well. So that’s something that I’m learning to relax about.” 

Giddens will spend the remainder of 2023 and early 2024 touring across the world, including her debut headlining performances at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on September 15 and the Beacon Theatre in New York City on March 16, 2024. The revered storyteller admits that she’s unsure if she’ll ever release another album of original songs—but she’s open to seeing where You’re The One takes her. “There’s a lot of homage and playfulness with this strong streak of serious feminism and activism that’s still pretty obviously there, but I hope that people put it on and enjoy the sounds of Americana,” she says of how she hopes the album impacts fans. “I hope it adds to this idea of American music comes from all these different things. And what box to put this record [in], I hope nobody can figure it out, because I want it to be one that you don’t have to put in its own box.”

Keeping her artistic vision open, the singer is receptive to the idea that perhaps one day, other artists may interpret the songs of You’re The One like she’s done with the many poets that have paved the way for her. “That’s when you know you’ve made it,” she says with a laugh. “I just go where I’m led.”

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

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