Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi join sonic forces once again on They’re Calling Me Home, a pulsing cry from the pandemic darkness hallmarked by vocal grace and rhythmic power. Locked down in their second home of Limerick, Ireland at the start of the global COVID-19 saga, Giddens and Turrisi dug into the loam of their collective musical ancestry, unearthing spiritual stones with which to challenge notions of death, exile, and the hopelessness that has snaked through day after day of the quarantine. The couple took to Dublin’s Hellfire Studios in the fall of 2020 with a concentrated but international ensemble to embrace a natural Celtic lilt on old-style American fiddle tunes, Italian lullabies, and defiant hymns that also address the racial and political turmoil half a world away. They’re Calling Me Home pounds like a forearm across a shield stoically aware that many of the questions and much of the doubt faced today has long been endured.
AI- The songs on They’re Calling Me Home, the selections, the arrangement, Rhiannon, you’ve said that when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, with death and loss as a planet, as a people, we’ve already done this before. And some of these songs, originally, sprang from that and were able to help during those times. I think that’s a notion you’ve carried with you throughout your musical career.
RG- I think the idea of any kind of exceptionalism is not a good one (laughs)! I think being more keyed into the historical cycles that have been happening for millennia, the cycles of the rise of empire, the fall of empire, the taking over people’s lands, I think it’s important to realize that we’re just in this latest iteration of what’s going on. Everything’s been sped up so much with technological innovations and the way that the globe has kind of shrunk a little bit in terms of how fast we can travel. But it’s just in degree, it’s not in substance. So I think that’s actually a good thing to realize. We’re not special really (laughs)! We’re just at the end of a long line of things that have been happening like this.
You are in Ireland, where you both have been since the beginning of the pandemic, of the lockdown. I know that’s a part of the world that you’re very familiar with, that is also considered home. But I wanted to get both of your perspectives. First, Rhiannon, what’s it been like watching America from across the ocean? And I don’t just mean with the pandemic…
RG- Oh, I know what you mean! It was hard! There was lots of despair and felt really impotent. Like, “What can I do? I can’t contribute! I can’t get out there and sing or raise money or whatever! I can’t do anything!” I did a few things from here, but yeah, it was a tough time. I don’t know if it looked any different from out here. I just felt worse about it. It’s been a challenge that’s for sure.
Francesco, early on, Italy was hit very hard by the pandemic. Same thing, I know you two had your own immediate problems there, but watching what was happening through a phone screen or television screen, how have you felt?
FT- It was really hard, especially at the beginning, ’cause as we came back, we were on tour in Australia when the thing hit, and in Italy, it was already happening. So I was seeing it already there. And as we came back at the beginning, the situation was a disaster down there. One of my aunts got really ill, actually. Luckily, she survived. It’s a bit of a miracle. But yeah, it’s the feeling of impotence and the feeling of just being removed, I guess. That was quite tough ’cause normally I would go very often to Italy. It’s not far from here and just not being able to go back certainly has been hard.
Do you both have your children there with you in Ireland?
RG- Yeah. That’s why we’re here, basically (laughs)! We each have children. We have three between us.
That’s got to be the biggest blessing of the whole situation– being able to have that immediate family there.
RG- That is true. Obviously, since we’re usually on tour a lot, the time with the kids has been a premium. Now that we’ve had so much unstructured time with them, it’s gonna be a hard transition back for all of us, I think. But they’ve been lovin’ it and we’ve been lovin’ it and that has been definitely a very positive thing.
Let’s talk about being at Hellfire Studios and working with Ben Rawlins. I would guess that wasn’t just from a convenience perspective because the album sounds fantastic! Had you worked there before? Recorded there before?
FT- I’ve worked with Ben many times over the years. I’ve never worked in the Hellfire Studio, but he suggested it actually. Ben is a very special sound engineer for me because I come from jazz, in theory, but I also worked in classical music and different types of acoustic music, folk music, and Ben is the only person I know actually that can record all of those things. Because he comes from classical music too, he has the understanding of sound in the classical way, but at the same time, he works a lot in Irish traditional music. So for me, it was very important to have a person like that, that I knew could understand what we are trying to do. It’s not that easy to just walk into a studio with a random sound engineer. He suggested [Hellfire Studios], and I trusted that. We couldn’t see the studio at that stage. We just had to kind of blind book it (laughs)! But I trusted him. He said it’s a nice room with a very interesting atmosphere, stone wall, very natural sound. And it was right! It was perfect!
RG- It’s the kind of record that I don’t know how we would have been able to do it any other time because it came out of just how we’re feeling in the moment, and it’s a studio nobody’s ever heard of, an engineer that my folks don’t know, and it would have been a hard thing to greenlight, I think. And we wouldn’t have even conceived of it, to be honest. It just so literally came out of our experience here. So it’s a really special record in that way. And now that, of course, we’ve worked with Ben in this way, hopefully, there’ll be other projects that we do with him ’cause everybody’s so impressed with the job that he did. It was really an opportunity for us to put substantial roots down in our Irish community because we worked with a photographer and a videographer who are Irish and who live here. All of the videos, except for the first one, we worked with Irish artists here– dancers and visual artists and stuff. That’s been a really, really cool and unexpected piece of this.
You talk about recording the whole thing as a document. I noticed in the liner notes of the album, you thanking Laura Sheeran and Karen Cox for documenting it. And of course, I’ve seen the videos that were made. Is there a larger work involved with the making of that record? Like a film or a photo array in the works of any sort?
RG- I hope we can put a little something together ’cause Laura got a lot of footage. She has used some of it for some videos– one which will come out later this year, one which has already come out. And she’s also got a lot of our work from the previous album as well. So we’re hoping to put a little something together just about how we work together now that we have two projects.
FT- It has become a little Irish team, so whenever we do something (laughs), we call both Karen and Laura to document. And then we don’t really know what we’re going to do with it! But at least we have it!
RG- And they are both so amazing! We feel very lucky, really! It’s such a sweet team now. I’m thinking in the future, hopefully, we’ll get something put together. But it’s like Francesco said, it’s just good to have it because these were all very special times.
You bring up that dynamic between the two of you. This is your second album together, you are together. How has that changed since the last project? What have you learned from each other and how has that expanded what you plan to do next?
RG- It’s really cool to have the two like this. I mean, it’s not what we planned. We were gonna come back to this duo vibe maybe after another record. Now, we have a different kind of record of the beginning of our relationship, there is no Other, that was sort of at the beginning of our collaboration, and it was really an album of discovery. Just kind of, “What can we do? We can do this and that!” Now that we’ve been playing together for a while, and even, especially in lockdown, we’ve just been playing with each other– that’s it! ‘Cause you can’t play with anybody else! We’ve been really discovering a lot of things. So this one, the second one, there’s more of a focus to it because we already knew what sounds we could do going in. It was more like, “We want to focus on this and we want to focus on that.”
FT- The first record was obviously more of discovery, but we also had a producer, Joe Henry, who has a sound in it to a certain extent. It’s amazing what he brings to the record, but I think this time, it was just the two of us– and Ben of course! We don’t have to underestimate his support and him being listening ears! But for me, in a way, this felt, as a process, a little bit more organic or natural in a way that we know so much more of each other and the sounds that we can bring to each other. For the future? I don’t know. We’re still discovering stuff and that’s exciting!
RG- Yeah, I don’t think we’re ever gonna stop (laughs)!
FT- Because we have a lot of instruments and sounds that we can bring to the table.
You were able to include a couple more musicians. Niwel Tsumbu, who I will say, this is my first introduction to him. He’s absolutely amazing! And Emer Mayock. These are friends? These are musicians that you’ve known?
FT- Yeah, these are musicians I’ve worked with. Emer was in a band that I used to have a long time ago with traditional music and Mediterranean music. And Niwel, I’ve played with him a few times. I’ve played in his project. He’s a super interesting musician. He writes the craziest music and is the most amazing guitar player! But he doesn’t really get to play that much, I find, considering how talented he is! When it came to the idea that we wanted to look for someone local, they were the first two people that I thought of actually in terms of what I could imagine would work– with their sounds, with our sounds.
RG- And it just felt so right in a lot of ways because they represent between the two of them the old Ireland and the new Ireland. Emer is from Ireland and has long, deep roots here and plays Irish, traditional music. And then Niwel is a transplant from the Congo and brings his own flavor. But that’s what Ireland is now! There are people coming in and then having kids and then those kids have a foot in both worlds and they bring all this diversity to what Ireland is in 2021. It felt so right on so many levels and then all the music, the way it worked out was better than what we even thought (laughs) when we decided to bring them on! What we walked away with was amazing!
You’ve made an album that reaches across time. It reaches across continents, due to the individuals involved with it. And I think that it also embodies the spirit of Silkroad, Rhiannon, and that mission statement there in music and universality with your new role as the Artistic Director there.
RG- I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably keep saying it, that my ability to step into Silkroad was really made possible by having connected with Francesco and making music with him because we were already a couple of years into me learning so much about all of the worlds that Silkroad inhabits. I had started learning through him. And so when I was approached with that job, I was like, “Okay, I think I have the confidence to at least know what I need to ask. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I feel like I at least can ask the right questions now that Francesco has really shown me so much.” That’s a well-noted thing, and I think it’s a very important piece of why I’m even able to do Silkroad.
I want to ask about a couple of the songs on the album. “Waterbound”, Rhiannon, I think just about says it all for you, right? Is that a song that you had done before?
RG- I learned it years ago. It’s so funny ’cause the head of the label, Nonesuch, David Bither, who’s fantastic, he’s been on my team for a very long time and has been so generous in allowing me artistic freedom in what I was gonna make– he thought I wrote it! ‘Cause it’s just so appropriate to right now! Yeah, I learned it years and years ago. I did it for a project I can’t remember, and it’s just not something I would have ever thought… Like that and “Black as Crow” and some of these things are not something I would’ve ever thought about doing– these early songs from my old-time past! But it makes it even better because it just made me feel so North Carolinian (laughs) doin’ those songs! They just really connected me in such a strong way, which is the whole point of this record!
Francesco, you included “Nenna, Nenna”, and I love it. We sing lullabies in the dark to comfort our children. And I can honestly say that when I do that with my own daughter, it’s as much for my own benefit as it is hers. Is that the way you felt about including that on this album?
FT- I’m not sure. ‘Cause the song, I used to sing it for a while and then it has been away for a very long time. I don’t know how we started talking about it. We just started messing with this idea because I just really loved that melody. I love this whole strand of lullabies that are not necessarily obviously just comforting, but there is also sometimes a bit of a dark side (laughs)! It’s almost ominous, right? We started messing with this idea, I think last year, and we started also messing with the idea of singing the two voices. And then Rhiannon tried to convince me to sing! And I was like, “There’s no way! Over my dead body! I’m not gonna sing on this record!!” And then I did (laughs)!
Well, that’s a new horizon! You’ll have to broaden that with the next project!
FT- Yeah… Jesus, yeah (laughs)! I mean, I’m glad I did it. Even if it was the only thing I’m ever gonna put on record singing (laughs), I’m happy! I think it’s an interesting sound, you know?
The interpretation of “Amazing Grace” on the record… It feels extremely cinematic wrapping up the album and kind of encompassing the whole thing. What was the idea of recording it in that fashion? Just basically as an instrumental?
RG- That’s a very interesting observation. Now I’m sittin’ here goin’, “Gosh, I hope somebody picks it up and puts it in their movie!” (Laughs) That would be awesome!
It feels like that!
RG- It came out of one of our conversations where Francesco had this idea. You notice that the rhythm is this floating beat that’s not consistent in one way. It’s kind of consistent in another, but it doesn’t have a constant…
FT- It’s not like a groove. It’s basically more of a pulse.
RG- Yeah, yeah, exactly! And it shifts and changes as it flows through him. He wanted to know did I have any kind of chanty-type things to sing over over it or any sort of Irish, like a sean-nos thing, which I don’t know any Irish sean-nos. So I just started humming “Amazing Grace”. ‘Cause it’s just one of those melodies, you know? And we loved the way it sounded so much that when we started thinking about this project, that came back as an idea. I’ve listened to so many bagpipe renditions of “Amazing Grace” at funerals that it kind of definitely went into how I approached the melody as a wordless melody. And so the idea of having Emer playing actual pipes– ’cause she plays small uilleann pipes– and then putting it all together, we recorded it all in one room at the same [time] live. There’s no tracking or overdubbing or anything in isolation, it’s just all in one room. We just knew we wanted to have that feeling of all of those air molecules vibrating together and not have it be separated. And it was just amazing! We actually have video of it. It’s really, really cool. I could hardly hear myself when she started playing (laughs)! With the experience of trying to slide my voice into the timbre of the pipes, I mean, I couldn’t have done that in isolation or over top, you know? So, yeah, it’s very cool.
FT- For me, it was the idea of using the drum, a large kind of Middle Eastern frame drum not as a rhythm instrument necessarily, but as a melodic drone. That was what I was looking for. I wanted to create a melodic drone with a rhythmical instrument. That was the idea.
What comes next for you two as artists? Rhiannon, I believe you’ve got an opera on the way. Is that still in the works? And Francesco? What have you got planned?
RG- Yeah, hopefully, the opera goes up next year. We hope! It was supposed to be last year. And then it was this year and now hopefully it’s next year! So we’ll see how that goes. I got a lot of busy-ness with Silkroad coming up and other things.
FT- I work with almost everything that Rhiannon does these days– apart from the opera (laughs)! So there’s always stuff to be making. The last record I made was a piano record. I’ve been writing some music as well. Some new music, probably piano solo music again, maybe? I don’t know? There is no major plan for it yet. But at the moment I think we’re busy with other stuff.
RG- Yeah. We got some like radio podcast-y kind of things in the works. We’re doin’ what we can from home, basically, until we can get out on the road again. We will tour the music from the record for sure. ‘Cause we know how to do things just the two of us now (laughs)! But when that starts up again, we’re still kind of waiting to see.
That was my next question. When do you anticipate takin’ They’re Calling Me Home on the road to perform that live?
RG- We’ve got a few things maybe, hopefully in September? But it’s just so hard to know! The vaccination process here is very slow. Francesco can’t even get into the U.S. at the moment! So it’s just hard to know when these things will change, when quarantines will change, all that kind of stuff. We’re just gonna wait and see. But we’re makin’ plans!