Rhiannon Giddens might not seem the first choice to record a song from a shoot 'em up game like Red Dead Redemption 2, but she was happy to pull the trigger on the chance to do a rustic rendition of "Cruel World." The in-studio video performance of the song is premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Sept. 26), and is out now on Amazon Music as part of its Amazon Original series.
Composed by Daniel Lanois, "Cruel World" was recorded for the original game soundtrack, separately, by Willie Nelson and Josh Homme. Lanois recruited Giddens to perform it with him and his band at the 2018 Game Awards, where Red Dead Redemption 2 took home the most overall awards with four. The idea was then hatched for Giddens to record a reimagined trio version of the track with her replica 1858 banjo.
"[Lanois] had me sing it even though I didn't sing it in the game," Giddens tells Billboard. "That banjo has an unusual sound. There's a lot of history to it, and it's a sound I love. So I said 'Let me try ['Cruel World'] on this banjo,' and we really liked the sound of it. It's a great song, anyway, so [Lanois] said, 'Could you record a version of it?' and that's what we did."
Giddens, who was a gamer as a child, is well aware of Red Dead Redemption and the saga of its protagonist, outlaw Arthur Morgan.
"Arthur's heartbreaking story has touched so many in the gaming world," she says, "and this tune really represents so much of what the Rockstar team has put into Red Dead Redemption 2. It had a really important message they wanted to convey about Arthur with it. It's a great song. I absolutely loved getting a chance to record it and I think it's great to have a banjo piece as part of the furniture of the whole thing."
In addition to Giddens' "Cruel World," Amazon is also releasing a new rendition of "That's the Way It Is" recorded by Lanois. Giddens, who's still touring to promote her latest album, the politically charged There Is No Other, says the Red Dead Redemption 2 connection gave her a cool cache with her 21-year-old nephew, and she's up for more in the gaming world as well.
"If another video game came to me, I would totally do it," she says. "It was a lot of fun. The people who do these games are into making the music very high quality, and I think that was really nice. I don't know if that's always the way it is with video games, but this particular team was great to work with so, yeah, I'd love to do more."