Rhiannon Giddens Confronts Emotional Whiplash On 'Best Day / Worst Day'

Oct 28, 2020
Originally published on October 28, 2020 8:08 am

The Morning Edition Song Project, in which musicians compose an original song about the COVID-19 era, returns this week with folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens.

Giddens is American, but has spent the pandemic at her home in Limerick, Ireland. When we spoke to her on Monday, Ireland was just a few days into a new six-week lockdown to address the country's growing infection rate. The restrictions are among the toughest in Europe.

Usually, Giddens' work centers on reinterpreting music of the past: She's spent most of her career honoring the African-American folk traditions from slavery onward. For this project, though, she drew from own her life over the past several months. "I kind of wanted to stretch my brain a little bit," the artist says. "It was really hard. [Usually,] if I write about contemporary events, it's through a historical lens. I don't really like trying to think about myself."

For help with the song, Giddens recruited her boyfriend and musical partner, Francesco Turrisi — who happens to own a large and varied collection of instruments. NPR's David Greene spoke with Giddens and Turrisi about the creative and emotional process that led the song they eventually wrote together, "Best Day / Worst Day." Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


David Greene: In the song, you say it's the best day of your life and it's the worst day of your life. What do you mean by that?

Rhiannon Giddens: Well, I was just thinking about my particular window into the pandemic. I have a certain amount of privilege in that I'm in a safe place, I have a bit of money in the bank and I can wait it out. Not everybody's in that position, so it's just kind of a yo-yo. One day I'm like, gosh, you know, this is great — I'm cooking bread, I'm seeing my kids, we played games. And then the next day you're reading the news and just despairing about all the wasted lives.

Francesco, do you connect to that when you listen to Rhiannon singing the lyrics?

Francesco Turrisi: There was definitely positives to it, because for us that have spent life on the road, it was definitely the first time I ever felt like, actually, I'm not going anywhere — for weeks, months, literally — since I was 21. [I was] trying to work with music and practice and spend more time with my daughter. But after a couple of months, I started hitting a bit of a wall of fatigue, and not really feeling inspired by anything. It's just such extreme ups and downs.

I understand that COVID-19 numbers in Ireland are really spiking again, and you've gone into a much more serious lockdown at this point. What has that meant for your for your daily life?

Giddens: It's always hard to do another one. The first time, everybody's kind of like, "Okay, we're going to do this and everything's going to be over!" And now we know we have to live with this for a while, so this lockdown, I think, is a little bit different from the first one but we're still not technically supposed to go from five kilometers of our home.

Turrisi: It was supposed to be only essential services, but like, bookshops are open.

Giddens: Yeah, we don't know how long that's going to continue. I think everybody's just like, let me see what I can get away with during this lockdown — because it's just, fatigue has set in.

Given what you've been thinking about and sing about through the rest of your career, what's it been like to watch the protests in the United States and this whole moment of racial reckoning from abroad?

Giddens: It's difficult. It's another reason why it was really hard to write this song: My head's just been full of the other big thing that's been happening in the States. Because it is what I've spent my whole career talking about, and trying to explain to my kids why I'm crying at odd points in the day. It's been really hard, but I've just done everything that I can from here, and used music to continue that conversation.

I think about traditional songs, and there are many that are about pain and pining for a faraway home, for better times. I'm sure you've sung a lot of those kinds of songs.

Giddens: You're basically describing the stuff that we just recorded. That's all we've been playing — really sad, beautiful traditional songs.

Is it strange to be living through one of those very moments?

Giddens: I've been listening to a bunch of history podcasts. As you listen to the Peloponnesian Wars or the Aztecs or, you know, listen to all these different periods of history, you just go, "You know what? We're not exempt." Nobody is exempt from living through periods like this in history, so this is just what we're doing. If you have a certain level of privilege, this is nothing compared to World War II, with deprivations of this or that, you know? I think being connected to all of the loss and achievements of history, it just makes what we're going through not that special. I think that's important, actually. We're just a part of the human experience, that's it — no more, no less.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project. That is the series where we ask artists to write an original song about the COVID era. Today, our guest is Rhiannon Giddens. She's a folk musician whose usual focus is on reinterpreting the music of the past, often drawing from African American tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON MY WAY")

RHIANNON GIDDENS, BYLINE: (Singing) I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way. Lord, if you love me, keep me, I pray.

GREENE: So that's what she normally does. For this project, we asked Rhiannon to draw from her own life over the past several months.

GIDDENS: I kind of wanted to stretch my brain a little bit. And so I said, OK, let's see if I can do this. And I - it was really hard. If I write about contemporary events, it's through a historical lens. So yeah, I don't like really trying to think about myself.

GREENE: Rhiannon was speaking to us from outside Dublin, Ireland. She's American but lives in nearby Limerick. This day, she was visiting her boyfriend and musical partner, Francesco Turrisi, who she recruited for help with the song.

FRANCESCO TURRISI: And I think it was literally, like, one night after the whole day in the studio, she goes like, yeah, let's try this song. And I'm like, really (laughter) now?

GREENE: Francesco is from Italy, and apparently, he has quite the collection of instruments. He grabbed an Italian guitar.

GIDDENS: And then I started messing around with this lute that he has.

TURRISI: It's kind of similar to the idea of a medieval lute sort of.

GIDDENS: Kind of in between a lute and an oud...

TURRISI: Yeah, it's interesting.

GIDDENS: We call it a lude (ph), (laughter). I just kind of played it like I play my banjo.

GREENE: They call this song "Best Day / Worst Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST DAY / WORST DAY")

GIDDENS: (Singing) This is the best day of my life - didn't know I'd get all this time with my kids. No one is crying. This is the worst day of my life - don't know if I can take all this time with my kids. Thousands are dying.

GREENE: Well - so you say it's the best day of your life and it's the worst day of your life. What do you mean by that?

GIDDENS: Well, I was just thinking about my particular window into the pandemic. You know, I'm - I have a certain amount of privilege in that I'm in a safe place. I have a bit of money in the bank, and I can wait it out. You know, not everybody's in that position. So it's just kind of yo-yo between - you know, one day I'm like, gosh, you know, this is great. I'm, like, cooking bread. I'm seeing my kids. We played games. And then the next day, you're reading the news and just despairing about all the wasted lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST DAY / WORST DAY")

GIDDENS: (Singing) A violently peaceful existence, a relaxed, a stressful persistence. There are highs and lows, and yet all we seem to get is a never-ending path to least resistance.

GREENE: Francesco, do you connect to that when you listen to Rhiannon singing those lyrics?

TURRISI: Yeah. I mean, for me, there was definitely more positives to it because, you know, for us that have spent life on the road, it was definitely, like, the first time that we felt like, actually, I'm not going anywhere for, like, weeks, months, literally, since I was, like, 21. So it was a little bit like trying to work on music and practice and spend more time with my daughter, you know, which, normally, I don't have time for. But then after a couple of months, I started hitting a bit of a wall of just fatigue and not really feeling inspired by anything. You know, it's just such extreme ups and downs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST DAY / WORST DAY")

GIDDENS: (Singing) I'm up on a rope 2 miles off the floor. When I fall, there's no one to catch me. That's the end.

GREENE: When we spoke to them on Monday, Ireland was just a few days into a new six-week lockdown to address that country's growing infection rate. On paper at least, the restrictions are among the toughest in Europe.

TURRISI: This lockdown is - I don't know - I don't want to say a farce. But this is how it felt a couple of days ago.

GIDDENS: Well, I mean, it's always hard to do another one. You know, the first time, everybody's kind of like, OK, we're going to do this, and then it's going to be over. And now we know we have to live with this for a while. So this lockdown is, I think, a little bit different to the first one. But we're still not technically supposed to go from 5 kilometers of our home. And...

TURRISI: It was supposed to be only essential services. But, like, bookshops are open.

GIDDENS: Yeah. We don't know how long that's going to continue. But it's kind of like - I think everybody's just like, let me see what I can get away with (laughter), you know, during this lockdown because - you know, it's just fatigue has set in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST DAY / WORST DAY")

GIDDENS: (Singing) All we seem to get is a never-ending path to least resistance.

GREENE: Rhiannon has been living in Ireland, but she grew up and spent most of her life in the United States. She's devoted much of her music career to honoring the African American folk tradition from slavery onward, and so watching this moment of intense racial reckoning in the U.S. from afar hasn't been easy.

GIDDENS: It is difficult, you know? And another reason why it was really hard to write this song - because my head's just been full of the other big thing that's been happening in the States because it is, you know, what I've spent my whole career talking about and, you know, try to explain to my kids why I'm crying (laughter) at odd points in the day, you know? It's been really hard. But I've just done everything that I can from here and use music to continue that conversation, you know?

GREENE: Rhiannon, I just think about traditional songs, and there are many that are about pain and just pining for a faraway home, for better times. I'm sure you've sung a lot of those kind of songs.

GIDDENS: You're basically describing the stuff that we just recorded 'cause that's all we've been playing are, like, really sad, beautiful traditional songs. And so (laughter)...

GREENE: But, like, is it strange to be living through one of those very moments?

GIDDENS: You know, I've been listening to a bunch of history podcasts. And as you listen to, like, the Peloponnesian Wars or the Aztecs or, you know, listen to all these different periods of history and you just go - you know what? - we're not exempt. Nobody is exempt from living through periods like this in history. So this is just what we're doing. We're just living through this time that isn't even comparative. Like, if you have a certain level of privilege, this is nothing compared to World War II with deprivations of this or that, you know? So I think being connected to all of the loss and the achievements of history, it just kind of makes what we're going through not that special. (Laughter). And I think that's important, actually. You know, we're just a part of the human experience. That's it - no more, no less.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST DAY / WORST DAY")

GIDDENS: (Singing) Joy and the pain, the mind-numbing drain of the same day again and again...

GREENE: Thanks for this song, and thanks for talking about it.

GIDDENS: Thanks. Thanks for the series.

GREENE: Rhiannon Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi. Their song for the MORNING EDITION Song Project is called "Best Day / Worst Day." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.