Rhiannon Giddens has made a singular, iconic career out of stretching her brand of folk music, with its miles-deep historical roots and contemporary sensibilities, into just about every field imaginable. A two-time GRAMMY Award-winning singer and instrumentalist, MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, and composer of opera, ballet, and film, Giddens has centered her work around the mission of lifting up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been overlooked or erased, and advocating for a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins through art.
As Pitchfork once said, “few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration”—a journey that has led to NPR naming her one of its 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century and to American Songwriter calling her “one of the most important musical minds currently walking the planet.”
Forher highly anticipated third solo studio album, You're The One, out August 18 on Nonesuch Records, she recruited producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Alicia Keys, Valerie June, Tank and the Bangas) to help her bring this collection of songs that she'd written over the course of her career—her first album of all originals—to life at Criteria Recording Studios in Miami last November. Together with a band composed of Giddens’s closest musical collaborators from the past decade alongside Miami-based musicians from Splash’s own Rolodex, and topped off with a horn section making an impressive ten- to twelve-person ensemble, they drew from the folk music that Giddens knows so deeply and its pop descendants.
You’re the One features electric and upright bass, conga, Cajun and piano accordions, guitars, a Western string section, and Miami horns, among other instruments. "I hope that people just hear American music," Giddens says. "Blues, jazz, Cajun, country, gospel, and rock—it's all there. I like to be where it meets organically."
The album is in line with her previous work, as she explains, because it's yet another kind of project she's never done before. "I just wanted to expand my sound palette," Giddens says. "I feel like I've done lots in the acoustic realm, and I certainly will again. But these songs really needed a larger field."
Her song-writing range is audible on You're The One, from the groovy funk of "Hen In The Foxhouse" to the vintage AM radio-ready ballad "Who Are You Dreaming Of" and the string-band dance music of "Way Over Yonder"—likely the most familiar sound to Giddens’ fans. Her voice, though, is instantly recognizable throughout, even as the sounds around Giddens shift; she owns all of it with ease.
The album teems with Giddens' breadth of knowledge of, curiosity about, and experience with American vernacular musics. Though it might be filtered through a slightly more familiar blend of sounds, You're The One never forsakes depth and groundedness for its listenability.
Giddens also is exploring other mediums and creative possibilities just as actively as she has American musical history. With 1858 replica minstrel banjo in hand, she wrote the opera Omar with film composer Michael Abels (Get Out, Us, Nope) and, with her partner Francesco Turrisi, she wrote and performed the music for Black Lucy and the Bard, which was recorded for PBS’ Great Performances; she has appeared on the ABC hit drama Nashville and throughout Ken Burns’ Country Music series, also on PBS. Giddens has published children's books and written and performed music for the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption II, one of the best-selling video games of all time. She sang for the Obamas at the White House; is a three-time NPR Tiny Desk Concert alum; and hosts her own show on PBS, My Music with Rhiannon Giddens, as well as the Aria Code podcast, which is produced by New York City’s NPR affiliate station WQXR.
"I've been able to create a lot of different things around stories that are difficult to tell, and managed to get them done in a way that's gotten noticed," as Giddens puts it. "I know who to collaborate with, and it has gotten me into all sorts of corners that I would have never expected when I started doing this."