As it turns out, the title could not have been more prophetic – Tomorrow is My Turn.
It’s a song penned decades ago by Charles Aznavour and popularized by the incomparable Nina Simone. But this spring it serves as the title tune to the debut solo album of Rhiannon Giddens. That this co-founding member of the Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more recently, the all-star New Basement Tapes, adds a luster to the tune worthy of Simone is almost beside the point. It represents the arrival of an exact, complete and powerfully regal voice.
“All of this has been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest with you, but not necessarily an unwelcome one,” said Giddens, who performs Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House. “I was gearing up to work on the next Chocolate Drops record when all of this happened. It’s taken some time to get used to. But I just feel like after 10 years in the Chocolate Drops and continuing on with that mission as I am, it’s time for this.
“I’m just so much about the music, and the music is getting out there. This album seems to be reaching a wider audience than the Chocolate Drops albums have. That makes me happy because it means that maybe this expansion is working.”
Expansion is the key word. Over the past decade with the Chocolate Drops, Giddens has explored the roots music repertoire of African-American string bands from the 1920s and ‘30s. The band’s recordings featured Giddens’ talents as an instrumentalist as much or more than as a singer. But on Tomorrow is My Turn, her vocal talents are placed front and center on tunes penned or popularized by Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta, Patsy Cline, Elizabeth Cotton and Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie. She also concludes the record with an original work, a gorgeous song of renewal called Angel City.
“I’ve always been a singer who has played instruments, and I am okay with the fact that my singing was secondary to what the Chocolate Drops were trying to do,” Giddens said. “I really feel strongly in that mission. But it has been really neat to let my voice fly a little bit. What I’ve always been is a singer, so it’s good to have a solo record out there representing artists that I respect so much.
“The whole reason I wanted to do this was to honor to these women who had come before me. It just seemed right. Everybody who is on this record with me, I can hear in my head or I could be reading their stories and picking up on what they’re passing on. There is that feel of the knowledge of where I stand with these women. It’s all there.”
Giddens had a strong ally in her corner as she established her solo career – famed Americana producer T Bone Burnett. After inviting Giddens to his curated Another Day, Another Time concert (a 2013 performance at New York’s Town Hall dedicated to the ‘60s folk scene in Greenwich Village that inspired the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis), Burnett signed on to produce Tomorrow is My Turn.
“When T Bone and I started off, he was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I had a list of songs and he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was very empowering, I think, and that is something he is very good at doing – creating the space so you can feel empowered. You may not know exactly that you can do it. He doesn’t make you do it. You have to do it. But he creates the space to let you bring your A-game.”
No sooner was the solo album complete than work on Lost on the River, the resulting recording of the New Basement Tapes project began. The collective teamed Giddens with Elvis Costello, Jim James (of Louisville’s My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to create new music for unpublished 1967 lyrics by Bob Dylan.
‘That was a once in a lifetime opportunity. You take a box full of old Dylan lyrics, put it in one of the nicest studios in the country at Capitol Records with some of the best engineers in the world with four other incredible musicians and then go at it. It was just fantastic. Now, in the middle of it, I was freaking out a little. But I’m really proud of my contribution and feel like I learned so much. I’ll be using for years what I learned from that project.
“I feel like last year was a really important one for me with my first solo record and the New Basement Tapes. Those two projects will loom large in my career for a long time to come. It’s great, you know? But when all is said and done, for me, the most important thing is to feel the music is being treated right and that we’re getting it out to the people I want to get it out to. If that happens, I’m happy no matter what.”
Rhiannon Giddens and Bhi Bhiman perform at 7:30 p.m. March 31 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $25.50, $35.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.