Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, Rissi Palmer
August 13, 2020
This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.
Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer — and this week, DP intern Caroline Waring — “sit down” over email to chat with each artist.
We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.
You’ve said before that you’re “at home in R&B but made [your] mark in country.” What does a musical home, or a creative home, look like and mean to you these days?
Spaces where I can be completely and unapologetically myself are home. I love country music and soul music equally and always have. Having been a part of a record label, I appreciate the freedom I have now as an independent artist to move wherever the creative spirit takes me. I relish not having to characterize myself and instead just let whatever inspire me.
It’s been several months since the fall 2019 release of Revival, an album that powerfully insists on the connection between the political and the personal. How would you describe your orientation toward those songs now?
James Baldwin said, “The role of the artist is exactly the same role as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” That has always stuck with me and was at the forefront of my mind when I began assembling this album. I didn’t set out for it to be political but everything I write is always personal. I began writing that album in 2014 with the murder of Michael Brown and the uprisings in Ferguson. The subsequent years brought several more murders, the dumpster fire that was the 2016 election, the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and Me Too. It was hard not to be influenced, inspired, and repulsed by so much of it.
We’re living through a historic moment of mass protest against police brutality and white supremacy — topics you’ve spoken to on Revival and elsewhere. Are there any albums or songs you’re listening to right now that you’d advocate for accompanying us in the streets?
I actually made a playlist on Spotify for such a time as this. It’s called Songs of Resistance and there’s songs like “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr., “Fruitflies” by Gabriel Garzon-Montano, “Good Luck America” by Kamara Thomas, lots of Nina Simone, James Brown, that kind of stuff.
Your 2011 album Best Day Ever is written from the perspective of a child; its eagerness and profundity remind me of the affection and admiration I have for current justice movements being led by young people, particularly Black youth and youth of color. How do you channel your artistic approach across intergenerational audiences — whether in your songwriting and performing or in your music education work?
I think children are amazing and I really hate that they are concerned with marching and protesting for the right to exist. Childhood really is a luxury and I feel like we (the adults) have failed them. In my work with kids and with my own kids, I try really hard to make sure that they are allowed to be kids. I emphasize that it’s okay to mess up, to be silly, to be curious, to be scared, all of that. The songs I write for children reflect that.
Living through a pandemic, protest, and uprising knits together the micro and the macro, especially in the daily experience of space and intimacy: people move, either in person or in distanced observation, between massive togetherness in the streets and close confinement at home. Has this new navigation of space affected how you think about performing — especially as you gear up for a virtual performance?
I’m someone who enjoys the “adventure” of touring. I love hotels, planes, being in a different city, meeting new people, singing for an audience. This season has definitely made me appreciate performing for a live audience more than ever before. I miss the energy! It makes an already vulnerable position even more so. I think I will form a line at the end of the first in-person show and hug everyone afterwards. I will never take any of it for granted again.
An intentionally open-ended question I’m asking of all the artists participating in this series: What’s next?
One blessing of this time at home is that I was able to start or finish projects I had been putting off until I had “time.” I wrote and recorded a song with Pierce Freelon for his new children’s album D.a.D. called “My Body (Body Autonomy),” [which was released] on July 31, and I’m really excited about it.
I’m also really excited about my podcast called Color Me Country, named affectionately after Linda Martell’s (the first black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry in 1969) landmark album. I came up with the idea in 2018, after reading several incomplete lists of Black or women of color in country music in magazines and blogs. I decided to create a complete list and post it on my Twitter account. The more I researched, the more I knew these stories had to be told. The podcast is a conversation between myself and various Black and brown women in country/Americana/roots music, all considered to be “white” genres. It is my hope to tell and preserve our unique stories and show that not only do we exist, but we are thriving outside of the mainstream and are very much a part of the fabric and history. You can learn more and hear the show on my website, rissipalmermusic.com.
Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.