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Rhiannon Giddens Is a Songwriter, Too

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Most of the album’s songs deal with romantic ups and downs. “Relationship songs are the low-hanging fruit,” Giddens said. She sings bluesy double-entendres, portents of heartache and wry kiss-offs — like the album’s opening song, “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad,” which harks back to 1960s Muscle Shoals soul with a horn section and “shoop, shoop, wah-ooh” backup vocals.

The album’s title song, “You’re the One,” is also a love song, but it’s about a mother’s pure, joyful love for a newborn son that Giddens said emerged from her realization that postpartum depression had placed “a curtain” between her and her daughter. “All these shades of gray slowly turned into a new Technicolor world,” Giddens sings, and what had started as a banjo and fiddle tune bursts into an exultant chorus.

“I’ve already started getting complaints that it’s too poppy,” Giddens said with a shrug. “I just think it’s catchy, and it came straight out of my banjo.”

Giddens hasn’t abandoned her socially conscious sense of mission. The album’s bleakest and most contemporary-sounding song — with minor chords and a hip-hop undertow — is “Another Wasted Life.” It’s Giddens’s response to the plight of Kalief Browder, who took his own life after spending three years, mostly in solitary confinement, at Rikers Island.

She offers a more upbeat, but equally purposeful, lesson in “Yet to Be.” In a folk-rock shuffle laced with an Irish jig, it tells the story of two migrants — a runaway Black Mississippi farm girl and an Irish lad — who fall in love while working at an American bar. “And then the baby was a brand-new start,” she sings.

“I’ve always focused on how do we survive, rather than staying in the pit of the horribleness,” Giddens said. “Look at all of this music that exists because of a million and one moments like ‘Yet to Be,’ right where people are just coming together. And if they’re not making a baby, they’re making a song or they’re trading tunes or they’re picking up somebody else’s instrument and going, ‘Let me see that.’”

After the album’s release this month, Giddens will go on tour with a full band, a contrast to her bare-bones performances with Turrisi. “I know I get intense,” Giddens said. “But yeah, there is also the thought of, ‘Maybe I can bring more people, a new slice of folks, to the fold of what I do.’ Bringing them in with these kinds of songs. And then when they come to what I do, maybe they’ll discover the other things — and dig them.”


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