Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens is best known as a member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning folk/string band. But since meeting producer T Bone Burnett at a concert in 2013, Giddens has branched out and proven a commanding force on her own.
Burnett invited Giddens to be part of a collective that worked on last year’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. The tracks are based on recently uncovered handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics dating back to 1967. The project includes some big names: Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons.
And earlier this year, Burnett produced Giddens’ debut solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, which mixes gospel, jazz, blues and country styles. Most of the songs are covers of artists who influenced Giddens, including Odetta, Dolly Parton and Rosetta Tharpe.
In advance of April 27 concert at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, Giddens spoke to Isthmus about her latest ventures and why being solo doesn’t mean she’s doing it alone.
Why did you decide to reinvent older songs for your solo album?
It was an opportunity to highlight some of the women who have inspired me. You’re helped along the way all the time. It’s important to understand that you’re never doing it on your own.
Why did you pick Tomorrow Is My Turn for the album title?
I was really into that song and captivated by Nina Simone’s rendition of it, and thinking about how a lot of these women had to open doors and fight a lot of stuff that I don’t have to fight at the same age. It was an emotional project, so it seemed right to name it after that song.
How involved was T Bone Burnett in the recording process?
I was very flattered and excited to get the opportunity to work with him. It was kind of a combination, a partnership, where we figured out what would be best for each song. He expects you to do your very best, but it’s not a pressured situation. It’s an organic thing, so it always feels like I’m doing really good work when I’m with him.
You had a pretty stellar backing band for the album.
It was a combination band with the folks that [Burnett] brought. I suggested the Punch Brothers and brought some members of the Chocolate Drops, and it was kind of an instantaneous vibe.
How does going solo compare to being in a band like the Chocolate Drops?
I have to make all the decisions and do all the interviews, and the pictures are all of me, so that takes some getting used to. But on stage, I’ve got the band with me and it’s still a collaboration; I’m just in front of it.
What was it like being among the all-star lineup for The New Basement Tapes?
They’re amazing, and everyone was really after the music and wanted the music to succeed, and there wasn’t a lot of ego. They were all nice people, so it was a great experience.
What was your biggest take-away from that experience?
The biggest obstacle can be yourself. Have faith in yourself as an artist and faith in yourself as a musician, and things will come out all right.
You recently performed and spoke to students at the White House for an event called “The Gospel Tradition.”
It was a big honor to be chosen to do that. It’s not every day that you get to sing for the president and the first lady. And Aretha Franklin was there!