Listening Lately: Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

On the way down to my VCCA residency last month, I caught this interview with Rhiannon Giddens and have been listening to her new album Tomorrow Is My Turn ever since.

She’s so open in talking about her own creative growth and the development of this latest project.

The album is potent: comprised of a diverse range of songs, it feels cohesive, and therefore radical in its multifaceted, holistic rendering of women’s voices.  And beyond that there is the pleasure of Giddens’ singing and the album’s deft arrangements, the coherence of her various influences.  We can hear on this album her passion for old American music and folk songs, her classical training and the years she’s spent developing and honing her particular talent, the imprint of spirituals and country and swinging downbeat grooves, and the occasional Celtic lilt of her part-time life in Ireland.

Giddens’ choices create an album at once intriguing and provocative, wideranging and empathetic and profoundly evocative.  In honoring this particular assemblage of women and their songs, she crafts what feels like a contemporary mandate.  This album insists on a certain, far-expanded and complicated understanding of where we’ve come from; it makes demands of us now.

(“Waterboy” feels like a particularly apt song to listen to this week as we all struggle to listen better and more empathetically.)

I’ve been particularly loving her renderings of “Black is the Color” and “Last Kind Words,” which sent me into a spiral of research the other night.  This recent piece of long-form journalism from the New York Times Magazine offers particularly valuable insight into this staggering song and the fascinating story behind the two women singers and guitarists who made it.


Listening Lately: Seu Jorge

The past few months, I’ve been listening a lot to Seu Jorge’s The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions.  For the album, Jorge recorded new versions of David Bowie songs, all in Portuguese.  These songs, while unmistakably born from Bowie’s originals, become also unfamiliar; beautiful and new and strange.  They are lower-key than David Bowie’s versions; Bowie’s songs, expressive and anthemic, often held us at arm’s length.  But relaxed into Jorge’s new acoustic interpretations, the music becomes contemplative.  Inviting.  This is music Jorge asks us to inhabit, to live alongside, sit with.

I love the way Jorge’s album fills my space, his rich Portuguese intonation, the relaxed guitar strums and meandering voice.

In the months since my cousin moved to Brazil, I’ve also liked this sense of connection to Brazilian music.  As we all spend more time in the televised spaces of Brazilian life and in its soccer arenas, perhaps this is a good moment to visit Jorge’s cross-cultural collaboration, which belongs a little bit to a broader world, and also is so intimate, so much his.

Listening Lately: Tom Waits

The other night, I felt like listening to something with a little bit of gravel to it, something a little bit hard.  A friend suggested Tom Waits, and I’ve been listening to “All the World Is Green” since.  The lyrics are fantastic, too.  “The face forgives the mirror,” Waits rumbles, “the worms forgive the plow.”  The song has the feel of early Parisian jazz, but with a distinct Waits edge.

Listening Lately: Eureka Birds

When he’s not in our shared office giving out artist grants, my colleague Dan is a drummer.  His band Eureka Birds released their new album last week, and I have to say, it’s incredible.  If you don’t already know Eureka Birds, just wait: you will.  And trust me, you’ll be glad to get ahead of the curve on this one.

Eureka Birds - Strangers

{Album cover art by Bridget Cimino; Image courtesy of Eureka Birds}

For those of you fortunate enough to live near Baltimore, the record release show is this Saturday at Metro Gallery.  Meanwhile, you can listen to the album on their website, and then go buy your copy here.  I think my favorite songs from Strangers at the moment are “Not Coming Home” and “Come On.”  But the whole album is so great that I’ve actually changed my mind several times since starting this post.

Which tracks do you like?  Any great new albums you’ve been listening to?

Listening Lately: Janis Joplin

For years now, when I’m getting ready to host a dinner party, Janis’s is the music I listen to as I sweep the floors.  This connection between Janis and domesticity feels dissonant in a productive way.  I might be chopping vegetables and making bread and wiping counters, but just listen to that scratching, full-bodied rock howl.

This fall, I put a Janis CD on in my car.  In recent months, life has leveled me.  But here is Janis.  Honest and complex and full of raw, defiant jubilance.  And here I am in my car, holding somewhere inside a glimmer of renaissance — of possibility — listening to Janis wail.

Listening Lately: Edith Piaf

Music has been challenging for me recently.  As I go through some significant life changes, I find that a lot of music cuts too close.

I’ve been listening to Edith Piaf a lot though.  There are other singers of her ilk whom I love (Ella Fitzgerald, most notably), but Edith Piaf is the one I’ve been listening to now.  I think it helps that because she sings in French, I can focus just on the movement of her voice — the rich throaty force of it.

Listening to Piaf in my father’s kitchen a couple weeks ago, he mused that it would have been amazing to hear her sing in person.  What a lovely thought.  I imagine her in a nightclub in the 1930s.  That’s where I’d want to hear her.

There, or right here, in the kitchen with my father.

Listening Lately – Writer’s Almanac

Anytime I happen to be in the car by 6:45 in the morning, I tune in to The Writer’s Almanac .  It’s a short radio segment with portraits of different writers and daily poems.  There’s nothing quite like a poem read out loud, and it’s a particularly wonderful way to start a weekday morning.

But because my local NPR station broadcasts the segment so early, I seldom catch it on time.  A few weeks ago I liked The Writer’s Almanac’s page on Facebook, and now a link to each day’s program shows up in my daily newsfeed.  I’m hoping this will be a good alternative way to listen.

I do still prefer to listen to the program in the car, to be honest.  I find I focus and absorb the poem better when I’m on the road.  But I’m trying to get in the habit of listening online, too.  We’ll see how it goes.

What are you all listening to these days?

Listening Lately – Favorite Poems

In celebration of National Poetry Month, I couldn’t resist sharing this amazing series of short videos made for former-poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project.  I’ve known about Pinsky’s project for years now (he’s a fellow Rutgers alum!), but I didn’t know about the videos until my friend Joan mentioned them last month.  I’ve been slowly making my through the archives ever since.

These short videos feature a range of people reading and talking about poems they love.

Their stories about the poems are often deeply moving.  And just listening to them read, I frequently find a new appreciation for the poems.  I especially like listening to Alexander Scherr’s reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”  (But then again, I’m likely to be drawn to anything by Bishop.)

Which Favorite Poem video is your favorite?

Listening Lately – Jimi Hendrix

I really like the ‘new’ Jimi Hendrix album released earlier this month.  There are a lot of good, previously-unreleased recordings on People, Hell and Angels.  Even after a lifetime of admiration, Hendrix’s work still blows me away.  I especially like “Somewhere.”

Shortly before People, Hell and Angels was released, I went searching online for video of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock.  I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism as I write my book, and something about that performance — the force of its innovation, its venue and context in time — seems particularly complex and loaded.

(Note: One family story I’ve always loved is that after Hendrix’s performance that summer, my aunts and their classmates petitioned to change out the stock “Star Spangled Banner” recording their school played during morning announcements.  All that next year they started their mornings listening to Hendrix’s version over the P.A.)

Listening Lately

Until this summer I had never discovered the full extent of the “This I Believe” radio essay series.  (Though I think I’d caught a few of the  essays on the radio over the years.)  The series features famous and everyday people talking about the personal philosophies and core beliefs that have informed their lives.  It first aired in the 1950s, and has since been revived as a regular series on NPR, so there is quite an extensive and impressive archive of these programs to listen to.

Click Photo to Listen to “This I Believe”

I finally stumbled on this gem thanks to my friend Jen, who suggested it as a teaching resource.  Since then, I’ve been keeping a “This I Believe” CD in my car, and listening to other essays online.  In the middle of such a busy summer, the essays have been a godsend: keeping my eye above the horizon of the day-to-day.  They’re like five-minute respites.