Home Read Albums Of The Week: Rhiannon Giddens | You’re The One

Albums Of The Week: Rhiannon Giddens | You’re The One

Still think of Giddens as a banjo-toting Americana purist? This diverse outing — which finds her embracing Aretha-style R&B, funk, soul and more — should remedy that.


THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: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 Grammy and Pulitzer-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.

For her third solo studio album, You’re The One, 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 of her 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 12-person ensemble, Giddens drew from the folk music she knows so deeply, along with 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 range is audible on You’re The One, from the groovy funk of Hen In The Foxhouse to the vintage AM radio 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 opens with Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad, an R&B blast (complete with background “shoops” and a horn section) inspired by a titan. “I listened to a bunch of Aretha Franklin, and then turned to fellow Aretha-nut Dirk Powell and said, ‘Let’s write a song she might have sung!'” Giddens recalls. Her vivacious tribute to Franklin’s sound is a vocal showcase, spotlighting her soaring high notes and nearly-growling low ones. Another of the album’s highlights, If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is, intentionally puts an edgier spin on the sass of Dolly Parton’s early work, which Giddens channeled in the midst of some real-life frustration. “I was like, ‘I’m giving you everything, why are you leaving?’ ” she recalls of writing the song, which started as a poem.

Jason Isbell joins Giddens on Yet To Be as her duet partner and the album’s only featured artist. “He’s been such an ally in the industry to black women,” Giddens says. “He’s a great singer, and he’s uncompromisingly himself — also just a really good person.” Yet To Be” the story of a black woman and an Irish man falling in love in America, is meant to channel some of the optimistic flip side of the brutal, real, and undertold history that Giddens has so effectively brought to the forefront with her work. “Here’s a place, with all its warts, where you and I could meet from different parts of the world and start a family, which is the true future,” Giddens explains. “I think so much about all of the terrible things in our past and present — but things are better than they have been in a lot of ways, and this is a song thinking about that.”

One of the album’s more sentimental songs, You’re The One, was inspired by a moment Giddens had with her son not long after he was born (he’s now 10 years old, and she has a 14-year-old daughter as well). “Your life has changed forever, and you don’t know it until you’re in the middle of it and it hits you,” Giddens says. “I held his little cheek up to my face, and was just reminded: Oh my God, my children — they have every bit of my heart.”

You Louisiana Man blends Giddens’ banjo acumen with accordion, organ, and fiddle to create a Zydeco-funk classic. About a feeling that Giddens “turned up to 11” during the songwriting process, the song shows the power of framing a record around banjo instead of guitar: “It just gives you a bit of a different vibe,” as she puts it.

Perhaps most potent is the song Another Wasted Life, Giddens’ composition inspired by Kalief Browder, the New York man who was incarcerated without trial on Rikers Island for three years. “People are making so much money off prison systems,” Giddens, who has performed for incarcerated people, says. “They just don’t want anyone to remember that that’s happening.” Inspired sonically by another musical icon — Nina Simone — the forceful, anthemic song channels Giddens’ rage at the broken system. “Doesn’t matter what the crime, if indeed there was this time,” she sings. “It’s a torture of the soul.”

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. “They’re fun songs, and I wanted them to have as much of a chance as they could to reach people who might dig them but don’t know anything about, you know, what I do,” Giddens says. “If they’re introduced to me through this record, they might go listen to other music I’ve made with a different set of ears.”

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) which received the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and, with her partner Francesco Turrisi, she wrote and performed the music for Black Lucy And The Bard, which was recorded for PBS’s Great Performances; she has appeared on the TV drama Nashville and Ken Burns’ Country Music.

Giddens has 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.

“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,” she says. “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.”


Previous articleAlbums Of The Week: Grace Potter | Mother Road
Next articleAlbums Of The Week: Jon Batiste | World Music Radio