As far as musical excavators go, few are as unflinching as Rhiannon Giddens. Through her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and a growing body of solo material, the 42-year-old multi-instrumentalist has mined the darkest recesses of the American subconscious to give voice to the used, abused and oppressed. But on There Is No Other, she mines her own musical history with the help of Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi.
“This record is a little bit more all of me, in some ways,” says Giddens, speaking via Skype from her home in Limerick, Ireland. She and Turrisi, 41, both live in Ireland and bond over a mutual background in conservatory training. They’re also in a romantic relationship. “Francesco is a musical partner that shares every aspect of my life. [And] because he’s able to play as many instruments as he does, it gave us quite a bit of freedom to express ourselves in a more pure way.”
Released this month via Nonesuch, There Is No Other is the third major project that Giddens has been a part of this year. In February came the world premiere of Lucy Negro Redux, a ballet for which she composed her first theatrical score. That same month saw the release of Songs of Our Native Daughters, a collection of songs about slavery and racism recorded with Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla.
There Is No Other pulls back for a more expansive view of Giddens’ mission of reclamation and re-contextualization. Its 12 tracks mix haunting originals with classical movements and sprightly renditions of American and European folk songs, including “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Brown Baby,” a tune best known for its recording by Giddens’ self-described “lodestar,” Nina Simone.
“It’s not so much that this one is a personal record, but I could express myself using all of what I do in a way I haven’t really been able to do before. I was pulling in things from my classical background, and doing banjo as well,” says Giddens. Her other instruments on the album include octave violin and viola, and on “Pizzica di San Vito” she even sings in Italian. By contrast, her other solo records “were telling stories that have more of a through-line,” she says.
All three of Giddens’ recent co-creations were assembled during a fertile stretch in 2018, but her collaboration with Turrisi traces back much further. The pair first played together four years ago with Kate Ellis, who contributes cello to several tracks on There Is No Other. Giddens found a reason to work together again when she invited Turrisi to assist her with Lucy Negro Redux at the end of 2017, and he’s since become a touring member of Our Native Daughters’ live band.
Despite the transatlantic divide of their upbringings, the two found much common ground. Initially that rapport was on a musical level — and in particular, a rhythmic one. Giddens’ primary instrument, an 1850s replica minstrel banjo, paired perfectly with Turrisi’s frame drum, called a daf. His specialization in North African and Middle Eastern traditions proved a not-so-distant cousin to Giddens’ own in the southern United States. Turrisi’s other instruments on the album include piano, accordion, tamburello, lute and cello banjo.
“I started realizing how much [those regions] were actually an indelible part of the Renaissance, or what we think of as European music. The instruments were all coming from these areas,” Giddens says. “When you dig into things, you realize how local and connected these cultures have always been. People have always been on the move, and nothing is pure.”
Underlying the musical bond with Turrisi was a cultural one. Much as Giddens’ family was surrounded by racism in North Carolina, so Turrisi’s faced discrimination when it migrated from Sicily to the Italian mainland in the 1940s. “They still had people putting signs up saying, ‘We don’t rent to Sicilians,'” Giddens says. “There’s always been this struggle and discrimination. And that doesn’t even consider how many Sicilians moved to the Unites States and were considered ‘black,’ or considered ‘other.'”
On There Is No Other, the interplay between Giddens and Turrisi lends a wiry, often eerie edge to their reading of a standard like “Gonna Write Me a Letter” or the Italian aria “Black Swan.” But she singles out “Trees on the Mountains,” a cascading piano ballad pulled from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah opera, as a personal favorite. “That’s more of my classical background, but part of my mission is to make classical music in a form that people who don’t listen to classical music can appreciate without it being inauthentic,” she says.
Compared to the thumping groove and bloodied, broken imagery of Giddens’ last solo record, 2017’s Freedom Highway, and even to the arch storytelling of her contributions to Songs of Our Native Daughters, this new album finds her striking a noticeably gentle tone. As its title suggests, There Is No Other exists on a plane where cultural differences are a point of celebration, not exclusion. That alone is enough to warrant a mental health break.
“It’s exciting to be able to do things differently. I don’t want to make the same record over and over again. I don’t want to be like, ‘Here’s another record of slave narratives,'” Giddens says, with a wry peal of laughter. “I was really feeling the need to do something to pivot a little, get out of my head a little and be in my heart and in the sounds.”
If Giddens revels in being a citizen of the world on There Is No Other, it may in part be because, as an African-American woman, she feels more welcomed abroad than she does at home. Having now been in Ireland for more than a decade — her ex-husband is Irish, and she’s remained there so her children can be close to their father — Giddens appreciates the distance.
“I’m just an American here. I don’t have to be an [African-] American in America, dealing with these thoughts every day,” she says. “I understand why a lot of black artists went to Europe… It’s doesn’t make you think each country doesn’t have its own problems, but it gives me moments where I can breathe for a second.”