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Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi: Trading Comforts

Photo credit: Karen Cox

Tyran Grillo By

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While Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi are often billed as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, respectively, on their latest Nonesuch release, They're Calling Me Home, those categorizations are interchangeable. To be sure, Giddens' voice is a central pillar of the album's tent-like structure, into which she and Turrisi invite lifetimes' worth of emotional timelines. But her viola and array of banjos house histories of their own. Their voices are sobering reminders that all the hatred and strife we as a global community have endured in recent years have roots that long outdate us.

Having been confined to their home in Ireland since the pandemic brought the world to a halt in 2020, Giddens and Turrisi felt compelled to mine the past in the hopes of finding nutrients for the future. In the same way that their debut, there is no Other (Nonesuch, 2019), explored distances of identity, so too this follow-up examine distances of physicality. Whether in the soulful cries of "Calling Me Home," throughout which the afterlife offers bittersweet respite to the fallen, or the Italian lullaby "Nenna Nenna," which tries to lift those who have yet to take their first steps, tensions between flesh and spirit permeate this record. From the lush arrangement of "I Shall Not Be Moved" to the bare accompaniment of "Si Dolce è'l Tormento" and "O Death," all funneling into a wordless "Amazing Grace," a common theme of mortality emerges as our zeitgeist.

Against this cultural patchwork, this listener had the privilege of collapsing a personal distance by speaking with Giddens and Turrisi via screen and speaker about such impulses and more.

All About Jazz: "Tradition" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in reference to the music you both create, and I am curious to know your take on it. How do you see yourself extending certain traditions and, if at all, working against others?

Francesco Turrisi: I didn't grow up with any of the types of traditional music that I've studied and investigated. I discovered them as an adult. I trained at conservatory in jazz and piano, very far from traditional stuff. As a result, I have less fear of daring. One thing I've learned that applies to a lot of traditions— whether it's music, crafts, or food, for example—is that tradition is fluid. It's neither a static thing nor a set of rules but something that changes quite rapidly and does so naturally. I wouldn't trust anyone who tells you otherwise.

I have the utmost respect for everything I explore, whether it's southern Italian music, Turkish Ottoman music, or jazz. When I get interested in something that has a long tradition, I really delve into it, study as much as I can, listen to the people. But then, ultimately, I'm aware that I'm never going to be a representative of a tradition. What I do is find something in that particular language that I can make a part of my own language, which is a mix of everything.

I do have one memory from childhood involving a group of my grandfather's friends on the streets of Sicily. They used to set up chairs outside and play mostly stylized dances from the 19th century—waltzes, mazurkas, and such—on guitars and mandolins. Seeing all those old men playing like that, you'd think they were as traditional as it gets. But then, one day, one of them showed up with an electric guitar and a small amplifier. I remember saying, "What are you doing? You're completely nuts!" To which he responded, "This is great! Now I don't have to work so hard. It's loud and everyone can hear me." What I've taken from that anecdote is that the people who actually are the tradition are much less strict about all the rules the gatekeepers insist should be there.

Rhiannon Giddens: I would echo many of the things that Francesco's already said. I think there are extremes within every group. You have the gatekeepers and those who are more relaxed; it's just that more of the gatekeepers seem to come from outside the tradition. But you do have people within who lay in wait for the next generation. "You can't do that," they say. "That's not how we did it!" Whereas the old-timers just want to play music. It also depends on the music's function. If you look at the jeli tradition in Mali, where they're keeping track of lineages and stories and where the music has a very important cultural role, how that changes will have more of a weight to it than, for example, the dance music, which serves a different purpose. So, I think that question has to be approached differently in all regions.

The one constant of tradition is that it changes. It's only since the advent of writing music down, and even more so when people started recording music, that traditions became known as such. Suddenly, people could point to a recording and say, "That's how it was done in 1953." But what if the guy playing it was drunk that day, or tired, or forgot? What if that version of a tune you're holding up as definitive is half of two other tunes he combined because he's 95, you know? In general, there needs to be a balance struck between putting a straitjacket around it and just doing whatever you want because it doesn't matter. I think there's a happy medium to be found.

AAJ: It makes me think about the title of the new album, They're Calling Me Home. The concept of home is somewhat similar. Nominally, it has a static identity but is also fluid because it can change depending on your circumstance. It can be added to and taken away from. What is the significance of the title for you?

RG: The song "Calling Me Home" is about death and going to the other side, but then we decided to use the whole line: they're calling me home. It shifted the meaning to thinking about [my birth home of] North Carolina, about my family who I haven't seen since last January, about what it means to be an American abroad during this past year. The double meaning opened itself up naturally. It made sense.

FT: I was already reflecting on this idea of home back when I did my solo piano album, Northern Migrations (Taquin, 2018). My parents migrated from southern to northern Italy before I went to Holland and ended up in Ireland. I love the fluidity and ambivalence of home—it doesn't have to be one place necessarily. It can be just one aspect, like the coffee I make every morning for myself. At the same time, home can be many different places. While we were still touring, having a suitcase next to my hotel bed was enough to make it home. The fact that we've been stuck in one place for a year made us realize what's important about this place but also the other places that are a part of what home means to us.

AAJ: Given the circumstances, what would you say you've done differently on this album than on there is no Other?

RG: The main difference is that we produced it ourselves. Joe Henry, who produced the last record, has a light hand, but there was still someone there. With this one, we did what we wanted and how we thought it should sound. We had our engineer, Ben Rawlins, and it was just the three of us hunkering down and getting it done. I wouldn't want to do it that way for every project. Producers are important artists who bring their own perspectives. It's also good to just let it go and not have to make certain decisions, but for this record, we couldn't have done it any other way. Francesco and I have known each other a bit longer now, too, so that was different.

FT: When we made the first record, we didn't yet know exactly what we were capable of doing. That's why it was interesting to have Joe, who catalyzed the process for us but also brought up ideas that we wouldn't have thought we could do together at the time. Now, a couple of years later, I have a much stronger image of what we're capable of doing. In that sense, it went more organically into the range of material, imagining the sounds. I have to say, though, that the collaboration with Ben was very important. As much as we like to produce ourselves and come up with ideas, it's hard to record and listen, so you need a pair of ears you can trust on the other side. I've worked with Ben for many years and he understands our process. The other main difference for me was that I don't play piano—my first instrument—at all on this record. The piano is so big from all points of view—sonically, acoustically, but also physically. I can't be as close to Rhiannon when I play it, so not having it literally puts me in another place. I find that this is a more folky record because we're closer to each other playing acoustic, naturally balanced instruments.

AAJ: On that note, could each of you speak about what the other brings that you've never felt or experienced before as musicians?

RG: I've been very blessed to have found great collaborators over the past two decades and among them people who connected very strongly in some ways. But I never found anyone who could take all of what I do before I met Francesco. There was always a big piece being left out. With Francesco, nothing's off-limits. Maybe the grooves we find are different, but they're compelling because they're different. I never realized how much I compartmentalized myself before. There were times when I'd suggest something, but people would respond with confusion. That's never happened in the history of our collaboration. For me, that's massive because I'm such a weirdo in terms of what I like.

FT: I was always hired as the jazz pianist, the harpsichordist who can improvise, the percussionist, the accordion player who plays Balkan music, or what have you. Not even in my own projects did I feel able to touch upon everything. When I sit at the piano, I'm always influenced by a certain aesthetic and sound. But, at the same time, I had attractions to things I couldn't explain, like buying Middle Eastern lutes and playing them for myself. I used to get depressed sometimes wondering why I was even doing it. There was no place for all this stuff and I never felt I'd be as good as those who dedicate themselves to just one of these instruments. At one point, I just wanted to quit everything and only play the piano. But then I met Rhiannon and knew what it was all for. With her, I could bring out everything I had in that cabinet and find a place for it. And because she's an amazing singer, that already adds so much to what I can do. I'm not a virtuoso in everything I play because it's humanly impossible. Having someone to accompany puts things into context and makes them more doable for me. We've already discovered so much together but we haven't exhausted it. Even now, we're constantly surprising ourselves.

AAJ: What has music given you and what do you hope to give through it in return?

RG: For me, art gives the ability to process emotion. Just recently I was having one of those bad days when I'm just walking around trying not to cry. I kept playing the theme song to the Japanese show Midnight Diner over and over. It helped me get through the day.

FT: My parents never really felt strongly about music, so I'm not sure where the interest even came from. But once I knew it was what I wanted to do, I couldn't think about or do anything else. I'm so omnivorous and it feeds itself into new space. It's a refuge for sure, not only playing but also discovering new music. Coming from jazz, I think there's something magical about the way jazz works on a stage, communicating in ways I never felt I could create anywhere else in life. I'm always surprised when people tell me what the music makes them feel because without words it's more abstract to me.

AAJ: For you, Rhiannon, how does the voice operate differently than a banjo or other instrument that's separate from the body?

RG: Because you can't separate it from your body, like you said, your state of mind and where you are and how you feel can be such an influence on how you sing. It's all part of the package. It makes you confront things in a good way that instrumentalists don't necessarily get the opportunity to do. Sometimes, you can't avoid it as a singer because it affects your voice. But the downside is that it's connected to your body; it's definitely a double-edged sword. I've become a better singer from being an instrumentalist. I feel the music in different ways and it all feeds and strengthens itself. I'm a better banjo player, for example, because I play the fiddle. That's why I think it's good when singers can pick up an instrument, even if they don't play it in public—to know what it's like to not just open your mouth and create something and maybe not take your voice for granted so much. It's a really good cross-pollination. It's important as a singer to recognize that you're not always the most important thing in the room. There are different ways of using the voice and communicating that have nothing to do with words. You're not always necessary. Coming to prominence as a banjo player, even though I'm a far better singer, was a good thing for me because it took the focus off my voice and has given me the right attitude toward singing.

AAJ: You've already talked about how the album came about as a matter of circumstance but was there anything that surprised you when putting songs together or songs that needed to be included?

RG: Once we had all the recordings, that's where the hard work started. We had maybe sixteen tracks and we're coming out with an EP in the fall of songs that didn't make it. There was some back and forth about what would remain. There were some Irish tunes, for example, that we felt stood better on their own.

FT: For me, it was both surprising and not surprising. It's not like we went to the studio with a list of songs and just executed it. We did have some tunes in mind but we didn't really know how they were going to sound. We also had two guests musicians [Uilleann piper Emer Mayock and Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu]. Niwel is more of a jazz guy, so he can just show up and fill a room, but by the time he came to the studio, we only had these old-timey tunes left for him. It worked amazingly in both cases and we were so uplifted by that.

AAJ: How would you see what you have accomplished on They're Calling Me Home in the metaphysical sense? What does it activate for you?

RG: I think the urge to make it and get it out comes from the instinct of the artist, the balladeer, the song catcher, and the musician to make sense of what's going on from a musical point of view. We're not doing it through songwriting—I leave that to other people. I was initially looking to comfort myself with these songs. Then, we felt the need to share it in the hopes that maybe a measure of the comfort that we have found, other people would also find. We pushed to get it out while still in this moment. To hear people say that it really is speaking to them in a cathartic way has been amazing. It's not like you can sit down and say, "We're going to make a record that'll be cathartic for people." We just made the record that we needed to make and get out there. It was a very emotional and spiritual process.

FT: I feel the same. We actually had two other records in mind before coming to this one, but the pandemic made that logistically impossible, which meant we had to go into the studio as we were. It was very true to who we were at that moment and very special because we were trying to figure out what was going on. This set of extreme emotions that I've gone through over the past year is something I've never felt before—a combination of desperation but also feeling thankful and privileged, all the while trying to find comfort at home. Maybe that's why the album has resonated with people so far. We didn't go in with an emotional or political agenda, but, through the choice of material, it just came out in a genuine and honest way.

AAJ: For me, the album is a reminder of how the pandemic has limited my relationship with the outside world while enhancing my relationship with the inner world. Each of the songs populates that inner world—a landscape that was barren for the last year—with a sense of humanity in a space that has been emptied and exhausted by what has been happening all around us. More than catharsis, I find it to be a simple comfort. You are putting yourself in a vulnerable position allowing us into your own world, gifting something from it in return. This requires a lot of trust in both directions. Would you agree?

RG: This record was born from within; there was no point to be made other than that. One of the reasons why this pandemic has been so hard is that our modern culture depopulates that inner world you mention. Everybody should have art in their lives all the time. The most tragic thing for me is how we crush that out of ourselves to live in this world. And I didn't even realize how much it had been crushed out of us as artists, because now suddenly I didn't have any way of dealing with my inner world. We have traded a lot for these comforts.

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