Interview: Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops)

CCD1_medres.jpgOpera singer to string band fiddler is not, as best I can tell, a common musical path, but that's exactly the path that Rhiannon Giddens has taken. The North Carolina native trained to sing opera, but also found herself drawn to learning the fiddle. One thing led to another, and by 2005, she was one of three musicians founding the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The band, now a quartet, has brought the centuries-old African-American string band tradition to a new century and new audiences.

Including kids, as can be shown by their performance at the Green River Festival's Meltdown Stage earlier this month. I was intrigued as to what motivated Giddens and her bandmates to play for kids in addition to adults, as well as finding out more about the challenges (and benefits) of playing for a family audience. Giddens kindly agreed to take a few minutes out of her busy schedule (the band plays the Newport Folk Festival this weekend) to talk about just that...

Zooglobble: What are some of your musical memories growing up?
Rhiannon Giddens: Singing with my dad, mom, and sister (all the time!) and seeing amazing people like Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sapphire the Uppity Blues Women, and the North Carolina Symphony.

What do you think your daughter will remember musically from her childhood?
That's a big question, I'm eager to know myself! I hope she takes away the variety that she's being exposed to, and that music is a necessary part of life, even if she doesn't go into music professionally.

What made you interested in playing the Meltdown (family) stage at the Green River Festival?
We are super-committed to getting in front of children whenever we can - it's so important to expose them to live music like ours especially in this age of the iPod.

What did you do differently during that set as opposed to the main stage set later in the day? (It appeared perhaps that maybe you had more introductions to instruments, for example?)
Definitely more introductions to instruments, more interaction and participation with the audience - kids remember more when they are doing something as opposed to just listening.

CCD2_medres.jpgWhen you were constructing the setlist, were you thinking that there were a number of songs of yours that were off-limit for content reasons?
Not really - so many kids love "Cornbread and Butterbeans," for example, and most of it goes over their heads; we chose stuff that would best demonstrate the musical things we were trying to show.

What was the best part about performing specifically for kids and families? Anything that was hard getting used to?
We have done a lot of educational shows so we are pretty used to the challenges and rewards - keep it moving, keep it interesting, and don't talk down to kids. And it's great to see them getting into it - they are usually more uninhibited when their parents aren't there!

Do you want to do more of those types of shows?

What else is coming up for the band?
A new recording, a vaudeville show in Chicago, and lots and lots of shows!!!

Photo credits: Julie Roberts