There's a new album by Rhiannon Giddens, an album that could only have been made by this artist and only in the last year. The singer, fiddler and banjo picker loves to explore the roots of American music and in particular the impact and continued relevance of early Black American music. She and her partner Francesco Turrisi birthed a new album in quarantine at home. Well, not quite home: The North Carolina native and her Italian musical partner have been in Ireland and in lockdown. They made this album, which they named They're Calling Me Home, in a studio on a working farm outside Dublin.
They're Calling Me Home includes folk and classical tunes with new songs written by these two collaborators. I spoke with Rhiannon Giddens about one of the songs they wrote for the record, "Avalon." It's a song about missing home — the food, the culture, the comforts. But like many of her songs, it also brings deeper philosophical questions, about death and what comes next, to the same table where those comforts are enjoyed.
You can hear the entire interview with Rhiannon Giddens, along with the rest of All Songs Considered, by clicking here.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bob Boilen: The inspiration behind this record is obviously being in one place, [but] not at home.
Rhiannon Giddens: Yeah, it's a locked-down, pandemic record. I mean, it wouldn't have existed in any other time. And it really does come straight out of me and my partner Francesco sort of grappling with what everybody's been grappling with. In our own particular way, being locked down in Ireland, which is an adopted home, but not where each of us were born, being an ex-pat and knowing that you can go home whenever you want is a lot different from being an ex-pat and not being able to go back home, you know? It really brings me into the sort of subtle yet large differences between being an ex-pat, being an immigrant and being a refugee. And they're all varying degrees of privilege. There are those of us who are very used to the idea of just being able to hop on a plane, hop in a car and go home, you know, and there's lots of people all over the world whose homes don't even exist anymore because of war, who have to go somewhere else because of economics and don't have that ability [to return]. And also thinking about, you know, what exactly is home? Is it a concept? Is it a physical place? Is it emotional? Is it all of these things? When you move to somewhere else through choice, you look for the similarities in the new culture and your culture, and that's how you build points of connection. When you can no longer go back home, even to visit, you start feeling the differences.
Oh, that's really interesting. So what are some of those differences?
Like, food and music, I feel like are very similar in the way that they evoke childhood feelings, nostalgia.
Yeah, comfort, the way they connect you to a place. You know, you can kind of go sip from the well. When you can't do that anymore, you feel the lack of it even more. And that throws into sharper relief the fact that it's not around you and what actually is around you is different. We found ourselves trying to recreate food. I'm making biscuits because I can't get them here. And Francesco's like, bought a machine to make himself cappuccino because you can't get Italian coffee. And we found ourselves doing that musically. And I mean, the nucleus of the new record is us trying to create a little — I mean, we can't recreate our birth homes here, nor would we want to because we you know, we're here and this is our new home. But there's just these pieces of our birth homes that, musically speaking, really came out in [us] comforting ourselves through music.
So in this song, "Avalon," it's sort of about coming home. But what is home in the case of that tune to you?
Yeah, "Avalon"' is kind of a cross-section of the two main themes, really, of the record: It's about home — missing home, what is home — and then it's also death. And so home obviously being a euphemism also for that passage to the next whatever it is, you know, when we die. I find this always happens like I write something. [I] make it, and then think about all the things that it means afterwards. So like, for me, "Avalon" is kind of operating on two different levels: the words, which are sad because it's talking about a mother or a father who have passed on to the other side. And you're kind of contemplating, "OK, hopefully they're waiting for me where I'm I'm going to go one day," right?
But then there's this kind of undercurrent of joy that kind of came out in the way that it was written, in the way that we performed it, which I think is the other side of the coin that we don't always get to. The one constant that we all have is that we will die, you know, and there's actually a comfort in that. That is something that is not a question. How and when and why and all of these things, we have no control over that. And I think that there is this thing when you connect to the inevitability of it and the fact that [death] is the one that's the one event after birth that we're all going to experience.
I find admiration in the fact that someone finds comfort in that. I don't. I guess I'm not a believer in the next world and reuniting and seeing my loved ones again, even in my wildest dreams.
I don't know if that I am either. I don't know.
You know, for me it's simply because we don't know. Why not? You know, my eight year old [has] been kind of focused on this for a few years. And I remember as a child being the same way. My daughter's eleven and she never really thought about death in this way. You know, maybe it hits her later, but he will just out of the middle of nowhere, go, "What is the point of living if we're just gonna die?" Like, seriously, we'll be talking about Transformers or something. And then he comes up with this and I'm just like, you know, "What do I say?" And so for me, it's like we have this beautiful day. We have this moment. And no matter what, it is something that we're all going to go through.
"Avalon" is like: You've had your life. And that is a thought that a lot of people have in terms of, you know, "Who cares what happens in this life, at least we have the next one." [To me] that's not it at all. It's more like that would be a beautiful thing, but I'm not ready for that quite yet. There's joy of thinking about that. Because no matter what you believe, even if you don't believe anything happens after we die, we go back to the earth. Like, our bodies decay, you know what I mean? There's a lot of different ways to meet somebody in another world. And for me, it like connects. I think even that knowledge of, we came from something and are going back to something that's vast or way vaster than we are individually is amazing.
And mind blowing.
Yes, it is mind blowing. It should be mind blowing no matter what you call it or what it is or whatever. So that's kind of what I feel like I'm tapping into with these death songs. It connects me to a greater sense of humanity. It's like, no matter what, that person — Lucy Australopithecus like millions of years ago — went through this thing that I'm going to go through. And so I'm not special. We're just like everybody else. And that's a beautiful, comforting thing to me. But maybe I'm a weirdo.