NEW YORK — Most people familiar with singer Rhiannon Giddens know her scholarly side.
She won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her work making sure the contributions of Black Americans aren’t ignored in the history of folk and country music. Earlier this year, she earned a Pulitzer Prize for co-writing the opera “Omar,” about an enslaved Muslim man who lived in Charleston, S.C. She’s produced an online series on the history of the banjo — which she plays adeptly — and has lectured at Harvard, Stanford and Yale.
Her saucy side, not so much.
That will change for anyone who hears “Hen in the Foxhouse” or the Nina Simone homage “You Put the Sugar in my Bowl” on her new album, “You’re the One,” out on Friday.
The disc is the most broadly inviting work of Giddens’ career, a potent stew of folk, country, rock, soul and Cajun steered by producer Jack Splash, who has worked with Alicia Keys, Valerie June, Solange Knowles and Kendrick Lamar. A listener can commiserate with some done-me-wrong songs, luxuriate in love or just dance.
To hear Giddens tell it, she needed a change after her work with “Omar.”
“I just needed a break,” she told The Associated Press this week. “I mean, do you want to go onstage and try to entertain, sing correctly, talk about minstrelsy, slavery and American capitalism in ways it’s not going to drive off your audience, while educating them at the same time and having them walk out with a smile on their face? It’s a lot.”
There’s no required study hall on “You’re the One,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful moments.
“Another Wasted Life” is inspired by Kalief Browder, a New York City teenager who spent two years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island — three years in jail total — when he couldn’t make bail on a charge of stealing a backpack. He died by suicide after his release, after charges were dropped without a trial. Giddens, a 46-year-old mother of two who lives in Ireland with partner Francesco Turrisi, talks in detail about her childbirth experience and how the album’s title cut is about how the cloud of postpartum depression lifted for her. Jason Isbell duets with her on a song about a cross-cultural romance.
She spoke about her career with the AP. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve won a MacArthur grant, a Pulitzer Prize and (two) Grammys. Which achievement means the most to you?
They all mean a lot. The Pulitzer is kind of special because of the work that I do, you know? Of course, I am so appreciative of the Grammys. And the MacArthur was something that allowed me to do all the things that I do. But “Omar” was such a labor of love and focus. … To be up there with Barbara Kingsolver and these incredible journalists who are also doing the things I’m doing, but in a different way, it just feels amazing.
Rolling Stone magazine called “You’re the One” your most outward-looking record. Is that a fair assessment?
It’s my most accessible album, and that’s why I did it. It’s so easy to just be in your corner. I know how to make a record that folkies like. … This was something I didn’t know what I was doing, really. And that’s where I like to live. I like to do something I haven’t done.
Does it bother you that some purists may be upset by it?
I know what I’m doing next and they will be very happy, so they can be out of joint for this one because the whole point was I wanted to go bigger, right? … I wanted to see how accessible this could be to people who are outside of my world.
Although you tell the story about how the song “You’re the One” was inspired by your experience coming out of postpartum depression, it could just as easily be read as a simple love song. Did you want to give people freedom to interpret it the way they want to?
That’s the way all songs are. You’re going to interpret it the way you want to, anyway. So I never really thought about it. I knew telling the story (in interviews) was going to disrupt that. But people can still use it as a love song if they want. It is a love song, it’s just I wrote it because of my son. But the emotion is universal.
How did you come to work with Jack Slash, and what was that like?
It was Alex, my manager. He said, “Have you ever heard of Jack Slash?” I was like, who? I didn’t. I’m not really paying attention. So I listened to some stuff and I knew he’d done (work with) Valerie June. Her stuff is far out, further out than I go. But I really appreciate what she’s doing. It sounds very interesting. When we got with him, he had taken detailed notes on every song, and he was really available for an approach of meeting in the middle.
Why did you find Jason Isbell to be the right person to help you tell the story in “Yet to Be”?
I’ve never actually met him in person. We’re Twitter fans. I love what he’s doing with social media. I was like, this dude is the best. And, of course, he’s a great musician and he’s been such a vocal ally for Black women in the industry in Nashville — the historic eight nights at the Ryman with the different Black female musicians opening for him. I mean, that’s putting your money where your mouth is.
So you were attracted to him more as an activist than a musician?
Are you surprised?