Q&A: Rhiannon Giddens shares experience with The New Basement Tapes

Marisa Charpentier

Throughout her career, American singer Rhiannon Giddens has formed Grammy Award-winning folk band Carolina Chocolate Drops and collaborated with musicians such as Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello on “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.” In 2014, T. Bone Burnett approached her about joining The New Basement Tapes, a project in which musicians wrote songs to uncovered handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics. Since 2013, Giddens has been pursuing a solo career, releasing her first solo album, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” in February. The Daily Texan spoke with Giddens at Austin City Limits about her work throughout the years.

The Daily Texan: You studied opera at Oberlin Conservatory. What about opera made you want to pursue that?

Rhiannon Giddens: The thought of being on stage and being able to do these really interesting stories and sing all the time, and not having to speak like you do in musical theater – that kind of drew me to that genre.

DT: After graduating in 2000, what eventually led you to create Carolina Chocolate Drops?

RG: I went back home to North Carolina, and I discovered the history of black string band music, and the history of the banjo being an African-American instrument. Being able to study that music, me and the other two founding members decided to form a band and sort of spread the word and the music.

DT: Why did you choose to pursue that genre?

RG: I just thought the history was so important, and I just love the sound of the banjo. It’s a big piece of musical history that really hasn’t been explored as much as it should, especially in the black community. In the black community, we had forgotten that we’d even played the banjo, and the white community’s forgotten it too. There are a lot of those pockets of history and musical history that sort of get overlooked or rewritten or whitewashed, so that just became the mission of the band.

DT: What inspired you to pursue solo works in the past few years?

RG: T. Bone Burnett approached me about doing a solo record. I was talking about doing another Chocolate Drops record, and he said "It’s time for you to do something on your own." When somebody as important as T. Bone Burnett approaches you about doing a record, it’s not something you kind of try to put off.

DT: What was the experience like working on The New Basement Tapes?

RG: It was great. Everyone was so fantastic. It was hard for me coming in as an acoustic musician and not really as a songwriter with all of these big name guys. It was a big challenge, and I feel like I rose to it.

DT: What was it like being the only woman on the record?

RG: I always felt like an equal – that was never an issue. But you do kind of feel like you need to uphold the gender. You kind of feel like you need to prove yourself a little bit more than normal. That wasn’t anything that anybody made me feel. I feel really confident about the contributions I made to the project.

DT: How would you describe your writing process?

RG: I don’t really have a process yet, but a lot of times if I’m reading historical information, a song will kind of appear and write itself, and sometimes I sit down and actively try to write a song. I think I’m at my best when I’m inspired by something – either a historical event or a personal thing.

DT: If you weren’t doing music, what would you pursue instead?

RG: Folk arts. I knit, I weave and I crochet. I draw and illustrate. Something creative for sure.