On the Record: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Rhiannon Giddens, OC ’00, is a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that borrows heavily from traditions of African music. Their album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Giddens spoke with the Review over the phone about the Grammy’s, CCD recording sessions and what’s next for the group.

Ian Seeley, Managing Editor

What was your most memorable experience at the Grammys, other than winning?

[Laughs] I was really sick, so it was all kind of a blur. I mean, it all was memorable. I have to say probably seeing Bobby McFerrin and Esperanza Spalding — who later won the Best New Artist — seeing them do a duet at the beginning of the non-telecast portion. It was amazing.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have a live show with a lot going on, such as dancing and the group giving the historical backgrounds of songs. When you record, do you take any special approaches in addressing the recording studio’s limitations?

It’s hard to capture a live feel in the studio. We know what we’re doing this next time, we are recording an album this year, and we’ve been happy with our albums, but we’re continuing to want to keep pushing and try to capture that live feel, and so this next time we are going to try all being in one room, which I think is going to be really cool. Instead of being isolated, we’re going to record all live together. … All of our albums we’ve always played together, we’re just in separate rooms. We don’t do a whole lot of overlaying in the tracking — there’s a little bit of that in the CD [Genuine Negro Jig] — but not very much at all.

How did your Oberlin experience influence your music career?

It was a great foundation. Of course, there were a lot of art songs and stuff that I’ve not really been able to use all that much. … I think my Oberlin career was really good in teaching discipline, learning how to practice. I taught myself, basically. I definitely had some help, but in terms of setting my own pace and figuring out the music and just kind of keeping at it, I really sort of worked on my own on fiddle and banjo after I graduated Oberlin. I don’t think I’d have had the success with those instruments that I have without my Oberlin experience, because I really learned how to have discipline and how to practice — how to keep at something, even through that time when you think you’re going to be bad forever. That was really helpful.

What’s next for the Carolina Chocolate Drops?

We’ve got an album this year to record, we have a vaudeville show that we are putting up in Chicago in November, we have shows all year, we’ve got a new line-up. One of the founding members decided to go back to school, so we’ve got two new members now, so that’s really exciting. It’s going to be a really busy year.

Any advice for Oberlin students looking to get into a career in music performance?

One is find something that you really and truly believe in. I think that’s really important because that’s what’s going to keep you going, even when you think that maybe you should stop. That passion for whatever the music is going to keep you going. First of all, you should find what your passion is. And it may not be what you learned at Oberlin, if you’re a music student at Oberlin, and it may be what you learned at Oberlin, and it may be something that you were exposed to at Oberlin, or not. But you should find what really speaks to you and then just be really patient and … keep going for it. … Be patient and persistent and work on your craft and eventually something is going to happen. … I know another Oberlin alum is doing really well, Josh Ritter [OC ’99]. He is so passionate about his music and really worked for it, and is doing really well.

Anything else?

For anyone who wants to make it in music, … you have to learn how the music industry is a business. That’s something we don’t get really taught much at Oberlin, and it’s something I’ve really learned a lot about in the last six years. Even though it is your passion, if you want to make a living doing it, it has to be a business, so basically you go into business for yourself. If you look at it that way, I think you will have an easier time. We learn a lot of really amazing skills at Oberlin, but you have to do something with them, and learning how to go into business for yourself is a really great thing.