Rhiannon Giddens: Phoenix Rising Page 2

The limitations of lockdown have yielded an unexpected advantage: The organization has had time to focus on planning. Fletcher is impressed by Giddens's contributions to these discussions: "I didn't know how strategic she is. She's been a thought-partner that I could have only dreamed of."

Giddens sees this pandemic-induced planning phase as essential for bringing Silkroad into a new era: "We want to make Silkroad an evergreen organization, to always have something on the boil and make it so that when people hear the word Silkroad, they're not just thinking 'Oh, that group that Yo-Yo started.' We want it to be more of a state of mind."


Besides allowing Silkroad to get itself organized, lockdown was positive for Giddens in another way. She and Turrisi recorded their second album together, They're Calling Me Home, released on Nonesuch in April. "It was an important moment of creation for us in a very static and stagnant time," Giddens said. She also sees a lesson in it for listeners: "Hopefully, we'll connect people to that feeling of the oldness of this music and the generations who've had to deal with way worse than this."

Typically for her, she entered the studio with no preconceptions: "I'm not even sure what it is when I start it, and then over the course of the project the thesis of it comes out." As much as anything, this record was a rebellion against particular constraints that lockdown has forced on musicians. "A Zoom concert is not a concert. We were trying to do these streams and we were just dying inside. So I started saying, why don't we do this old stuff I hadn't thought about in years? Things that connected to our birth homes and birth cultures. We did it, and it was magic."


Part of that magic was the unusual blending of sounds, a signature of the Giddens/Turrisi style. Even the conventions of how to play an instrument are upended. A good example is the low-pitched cello banjo played by Turrisi, who is steeped in early music and world music techniques. "It wasn't ever designed to be played the way he plays it," Giddens said. "He's playing it the way he would play a lute or an oud, but it's on banjo, so it's this weird, inbetween sound."

A live-room studio is essential for her recordings, with no isolation, which allows for authentic interaction with her fellow musicians. "That's my favorite part of going into the studio, when you're living in that moment, thinking, 'Oh, my God, this is it—don't screw it up!' because you respect the other musicians so much. Those stakes bring a certain energy that helps you find something really cool."

The particular acoustic space where she records is a key consideration. They're Calling Me Home was made in a stone-walled space run by Hellfire Studio on a working farm just outside Dublin. Giddens found it ideal: "It had a really nice vibe. It was dead in the right way. It had high ceilings, but they were stone, so there was no reflection going on. You got a sense of expansiveness and freedom, but the sound wasn't going anywhere."

Although Giddens does not consider herself knowledgeable in engineering, the qualities of the sound she captures matter greatly to her, particularly when it comes to the unique timbres of her instruments. "It's interesting to mike the gourd banjo because it's completely covered, and it has a soundhole in the top. I'm getting all the sound coming to me, which is why I love to play it. Through all the different engineers that I've worked with, the ones who get it know that you just pick the right mike and you put it in the right spot, and it gets the banjo."

For They're Calling Me Home, the engineer was Ben Rawlins, who had worked on previous projects with Turrisi. It was Rawlins who recommended the stone room. He described his morning routine during their six-day session, designed to support the artists' commitment to naturalistic sound: "The stone room itself is quite long, so it allowed us to comfortably set up and lay out all the instruments on the floor for easy reach. I needed to set up a small microphone array to capture all the possible combinations of instruments. I brought my own collection of tube and ribbon mikes along with a pair of DPA 4006 omnidirectional mikes for room ambience."


Giddens is grateful for Rawlins's understanding of their sonic needs. "Ben's definitely one who gets it. You have to capture the low (footnote 1). It's very complex on the low scale, but if you do too much low then it loses the shimmer. My banjo sound is the first test. If they get that, then I know they can get everything else."

Rawlins was enthusiastic about the studio's equipment: "The desk there is an old BBC broadcast console, a very rare Neve 6604. I ran Pro Tools at 24-bit 96kHz through Lynx A/D converters. I decided early in the planning stages to avoid any EQ or compression during recording in order to capture both classically trained musicians with their full dynamic range."


His contribution made a big difference to the recording, according to Giddens, particularly his handling of her backing vocals on the haunting folk song "O Death." "I'm not much for post-production on voice, but he did some things on 'O Death' according to his art, and I was like, 'I would never have thought of that!'" Rawlins credits the omnidirectional mikes for this effect: "I asked Rhiannon to find any place in the room she felt comfortable with and let loose on the backing vocal. I don't think any close-miking technique could have captured her performance with the same effect."

Although Giddens often records her own material, she and Turrisi chose pre-existing songs for this album, some of them quite old. "Si dolci è'l tormento" was composed by Claudio Monteverdi at the beginning of the 17th century, but they handle it like a folk song. She sang it in her low register, overdubbing viola and octave viola. Turrisi played the cello banjo, which sounds like a gut-stringed guitar. Rawlins had strong recollections of recording this track: "I love the performance and its emotional impact and how the tube microphones added to the warmth and intimacy."


"It was a beautiful moment," Giddens agreed.

While Giddens and Turrisi seem capable of creating limitless sounds and textures together, they enhanced the record by bringing in two guest artists. One was Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, who plays on three tracks. Giddens was astonished by how he made the music his own with no preparation. On "Waterbound," an old Appalachian song, his contribution came out sounding distinctively Congolese. "I was playing viola, but like a fiddle," Giddens said. "There's Niwel on a nylon-string guitar but playing it almost like a kora," an African plucked string instrument. "And Francesco's playing an upside-down gourd." That odd mix was exactly what they were after: "The whole reason we got Niwel is because he's heard enough to be in the right chord space, but then he just does his own thing." Rawlins, who seated Tsumbu between Giddens and Turrisi, recalled how they literally couldn't stop: "I had to fade out the song. Niwel and Francesco just kept playing after the final chorus. But it was totally joyous."

The semi-improvised instrumental track "Niwel Goes to Town" was based on a melody Giddens had invented over the course of many preshow soundchecks. "It had just been sitting in my banjo. The tune itself is a little bit of our prelockdown life."


The session's other guest was Irish flautist Emer Mayock. On the breathtaking final track, a wordless version of "Amazing Grace," she plays uilleann pipes. ("Uilleann," pronounced "ILL-en," is Irish for "elbow.") Turrisi punctuates the rhythm with a frame drum while Giddens hums the melody, making her voice into a pipelike instrument. "I was close-miked because I'm humming, and there's pipes in the room. I would modify my voice to fit into Emer's tonal center, and I couldn't have done that in isolation. The experience of trying to match those tones was really cool and weird."


While projects like making the album and planning the future of Silkroad keep Giddens occupied, she's ready to jump back into normal life. Asked what she misses most during lockdown, she did not hesitate: "It's the performing and connecting to people in life and creating in real time. I'm happy here with my kids, cooking, and creating stuff, but I'd love to get back to my main thing."

Footnote 1: We followed up with Giddens, asking precisely what she meant by "capturing the low"—was she referring to low-level information or low frequencies? She responded, "Just where it is on the scale. It has a warm, dark sound in the low register."

thethanimal's picture

“They’re Calling Me Home” is a record to die for in every sense: musically, sonically, and thematically. I was hooked from the opening bars of the first (and title) track when I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago. “Breathtaking” is an apt description for the whole album, and I would elevate this version of “Amazing Grace” to “sublime.” I imagine this has been — or will soon be — in heavy rotation in Herb’s bunker.

Metalhead's picture

An amazing American treasure

Superb artist and on my must buy list.