Bluegrass superstar Rhiannon Giddens will be a Bluesfest headliner in 2017 after wowing audiences in 2016.
Bluegrass superstar Rhiannon Giddens will be a Bluesfest headliner in 2017 after wowing audiences in 2016. Contributed

Rhiannon Giddens hits the Freedom Highway

BYRON Bay Bluesfest might be a world away from the White House but armed with a banjo and a killer voice, North Carolina native Rhiannon Giddens transfixes fans from any stage she graces.

A co-founder of string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens launched her solo career with 2015 EP Factory Girl, and performed for the Obamas at the White House in 2015 alongside hero Aretha Franklin.

"Michelle Obama knocked me off my feet. I was very grateful for that experience,” Giddens said.

The appearance marked the rise of an artist who was nominated for two Grammy Awards for Factory Girl to go with a Steve Martin Prize win for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

The White House was an appropriate stage for a musician with a voice as active away from the microphone as on it, and there's an air about Giddens, whose interests and beliefs far extend the position of an average artist.

With new release Freedom Highway, Giddens speaks out, exploring slave narratives from the 1800s, African American experiences of the last century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Baltimore riots of today.

"The idea of shut-up and sing doesn't appeal to me.

"It's important to balance where we've come from to where we need to go. Things will keep happening unless we address slavery, the convict system, the war on drugs, and that needs to be addressed by art,” Giddens said.

"I have a better life living in 2016 as a black woman than I would have 50 years ago and certainly 100 years ago.

"That comes with a responsibility and I feel strongly that it's a responsibility as an artist to comment.”

Recorded over a gruelling eight days at Louisiana's Breaux Bridge Studios in rooms built prior to the Civil War, Freedom Highway's nine original songs and three covers release stories from war-torn walls, while capturing Giddens' social voice.

"Thinking about what that room had seen over the years with the voices in the room, the idea was letting the art speak through you,” Giddens said.

"It felt so cool, I just wanted to say what the art wanted to say and not be afraid of that.

"There was a couple of songs I like to say were pulled out of the air and I couldn't have made this in a commercial studio.”

Giddens will return to Bluesfest in 2017 after wowing audiences at the festival this year.

While artists going back-to-back at Bluesfest are rare, Giddens said she was thrilled to return so soon as a headliner.

"I didn't expect to get invited back next year as people usually have to wait. I was surprised to get the offer but I said 'hell yeah',” she said.

"The festival is awesome. We were treated so well last year, so it was a no-brainer.”

Rhiannon Giddens

Where: Byron Bay Bluesfest

When: April 13-17

Tickets: Buy online from www.bluesfest.com.au



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