Sxip Shirey says his upcoming album A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees is “about searching for home and being placeless.” And that’s certainly true of “Woman Of Constant Sorrow,” a rework of the early 20th century folk classic featuring Rhiannon Giddens.
Like the album’s other 17 tracks, the song was recorded (and its video was filmed) in several cities around the world, partly during the two years Shirey was on tour with the LIMBO circus show. “I was making this album at the same time, so a lot of this song was composed in London,” Shirey tells Billboard. “I was just working on this beat and there was this African coffee shop I would go to. I was sitting with this really great beat thinking, ‘What am I gonna do wtih this song?’ I suddenly realized you could sing ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ over the beat, so I started doing that and then thought, ‘What If I wrote from the woman’s perspective — not a woman done wrong and hurt but a woman’s who’s done wrong and thinks, ‘Fuck it. I’m gonna go out and have a good time!'” That attitude led Shirey to recruit Giddens, with whom he’s worked in the past — most notably as Sxip and Rhi.
“Women feel empowered when they hear Rhiannon sing,” explains Shirey, who wrote all the lyrics for the song and directed its video, which was also filmed in several cities around the world. “So I wrote it for her, thinking about where she comes from as a singer and also where she comes from as a social being, as an artist. She happened to be in London at the same time and I played her just the beat. She said, ‘Who is that for?’ I said, ‘It’s for you,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, I want to sing this one…'” Watch the premiere of the “Woman of Constant Sorrow” video on Billboard today.
Giddens confirms she was instantly on board with the tune, saying that, “I think it’s a super cool addition to the ‘Constant Sorrow’ canon. Sxip is one of those few people who, when they ask me to do something, I just go, ‘when, where and then what?’…’cause I know it’ll be great.”
A Bottle Of Whiskey…, a typically genre-splicing exercise from Shirey, is due out Jan. 13. His goal, as noted, was to convey the emotions of a nomadic, touring life through the songs, using both electronic and acoustic instrumentation along with other guests Xavier and Puddles.
“I’m very interested in how cities sound,” Shirey explains. “I didn’t get Berlin until a friend of mine said the sound of Berlin is the murmur, the way everyone murmurs in the cafes. In Adelaide the sound of the city is what happens before the city wakes up, these crazy bird sounds and then you realize you’re in a jungle. So I think you’ll hear that on the album, especially if you listen to it on headphones. The songs are very three-dimensional. Each one is a mini movie and puts you in a situation. And that’s what it’s like to tour — ‘Oh, I’m in New York.’ ‘Oh, I’m hanging out with a gypsy guy in Transylvania.’ ‘Now I’m playing a party in another place.’ Being a traveling musician is like that, the constant whirl. You never have time to catch up with yourself.”
Two years in the making and funded partly via Kickstarter, A Bottle of Whiskey… is Shirey’s first new album in six years, which he considers “an embarrassingly long time.” The good news is that he has two more ready to go; Next year’s Goodnight Little Machine features “lullabies for technology,” while Shirey’s 2018 release will be “straight-up dance music.” He also composed music for feminist porn star Stoya’s directorial debut. “I’m at a point where I have such a backlog of music,” Shirey notes. “I realize I’m kind of a perfectionist, but I’m learning to let it go a bit. And I want to tour my solo stuff, which I haven’t done in awhile. I was burnt out after two years with LIMBO, but now I’m missing playing every night, just playing — no more buildup and play one show. I’m ready to be busy out there.”