Festival darlings the Carolina Chocolate Drops are finally coming into their own. (photo by Julie Roberts).
Durham black string and folk resurrectionists the Carolina Chocolate Drops recently released their third studio album Genuine Negro Jig, their first with a major studio, and are enjoying more than a major regional following, but a burgeoning international following. Fresh from a tour of England, where they also produced a grainy, homemade silent short to announce their plans to play the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, I caught up with members Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons.
YES! Weekly!: Genuine Negro Jig represents your first release on a major label. Has the move to Nonesuch affected how you go about your business?
Justin Robinson: It’s hard to say at this moment with it just coming out, there’s lots of great support with things that we weren’t able to do on our own. Dom Flemons: I wouldn’t say it’s changed it all that much. Nonesuch hasn’t tried to change anything we do as a band and that’s been key to that relationship.
Y!W: How did you get hooked up with producer Joe Henry?
DF: The label helped with that. They suggested a few people and Joe Henry was the one that really connected with the group. We also had a limited amount of time to get it done and that was something that Joe could guarantee.
Y!W: What did you learn from him in that short time?
DF: I learned that you can get a very nice, live sounding and very organic sounding recording and still use all of the modern studio technology that people have used for pop recordings that are kind of frowned upon.
Y!W: Like your other albums, Genuine Negro Jig was by and large a collection of traditional works with two contemporary covers and one original. For future albums, are you leaning toward more original material or are you going to stick primarily with reinterpreting traditional songs?
DF: I think it’s going to be a little bit of both. I don’t see us becoming a band that does all original songs, but it’s still pretty open. We’re working on new songs now, but there’s so much old material that no one would ever need to write another song again if everyone started delving into the old stuff. I think we’re always going to have both. I think it’s going to end up on the reimagining side, not just traditional, but songs we pick out. Original material will spring out of that, but most of that will end up on our offshoot albums.
JR: We’re working out new material right now and we’ll probably road test some this coming spring and summer. The stuff on this album we’ve been playing for quite a while. This is sort of new territory for us.
Y!W: What are you working on for live shows?
JR: Just switching around instruments, adding new instruments, me playing more guitar. The ukulele will probably make an appearance.
Y!W: One song that really jumps out off of the new album is the cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” What made you say, “we should record this?”
DF: Rhiannon really liked the song and she started working on the fiddle part and singing it. She brought it to the group and I had a pretty good idea of where the tune would fit so I made up the banjo rhythm that was reminiscent of funk and rock guitar. Justin added his beatboxing and I think that made the piece flow together in a really good way.
Y!W: Do you think it’s important for traditionalists of old time to hear contemporary music recast in that vein?
DF: Absolutely. People have conquered the music of the time for hundreds of years and adapted it to their styles. A lot of times we see the opposite happen. We see bands playing contemporary styles adopting older styles. I see us kind of unique in that regard, by taking the older stuff and making it accessible.
Y!W: Back to your offshoot albums. Dom has had a couple of great ones in the vein of the Chocolate Drops. What are you and Rhiannon doing?
JR: Rhiannon has a classical CD that just came out. I’ve been working on my solo project for a while called Justin Robinson and the Marionettes. It’s my own personal fancy, just a lot of stuff mixed together. Sort of indie pop with splashes of hip-hop, R&B, and Soul. Basically anything I’ve ever heard and liked. We all write songs, but this is where they go when they don’t fit within the group.