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Built on Bones changes the narrative on Macbeth's witches

 Built on Bones is the new album from Colorado singer Emily Scott Robinson
courtesy of Emily Scott Robinson
Built on Bones is the new album from Colorado singer Emily Scott Robinson

Built on Bones is the new album from Colorado musician Emily Scott Robinson.

She tells Julia Caulfield that the music is inspired by the witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Emily Scott Robinson: We did this Shakespeare in the Park production last summer, so summer of 2021, and Colin Sullivan, the director, asked if I would write songs for the witches in the show.

And what we really wanted to do was counteract the sort of infamous curse on the Scottish play with some good magic.

And I have always wanted to write for theater, so I was really excited about the idea.

It was just such a magical experience.

And the audience has responded so powerfully to that music.

And so at the time, I was pretty busy releasing my last album, which came out about a year ago, and I was touring, so I didn't really have the bandwidth to conceptualize, putting out another record.

And so I got through all the touring for the year, and these songs were just still kind of pulling at me, I was singing them, people were still talking to me about them, and so I went to my label, and they were really intrigued and excited about the project, and they immediately said yes.

And it's six songs for the witches of Macbeth, and it's in three-part harmony. And it sort of takes you through the show.

The first song that you'll hear, and also the title track of the record, is Built on Bones, which is the famous prophecy that the witches deliver. And so you're listening to them foretell what's happening.

Julia Caulfield: These are the songs from Macbeth, when you think of this show (it’s) very much a tragedy. The witches are not really the good characters, and so when you're thinking of this album, are you thinking in the lens of evil darkness, or as you said, trying to flip that narrative a little bit, or a little bit of a mix of both?

Emily Scott Robinson: It was a little bit of a mix of both.

If you look at the traditional way in which the witches are interpreted in Macbeth, they're constantly referred to in the text as being ugly, and sinister, and gross, and old and hags, and so we decided to have a different portrayal of them.

We made them younger, we made them more powerful, and mysterious, and a little sexier.

And we do traditionally attribute some of the darker magic of the play to the witches.

There's this question looming over that play. Who is driving who? Is it Lady Macbeth? Is it Macbeth? Is it the witches? Are they delivering this prophecy that becomes self fulfilling? Are they just foretelling the future? And I love that question.

So we really leaned into that question, and we involve them even more in the magic of the play.

It was actually about reflecting that the women in those roles had the same capacity as the men, as the humans, in their roles in Macbeth, the same capacity for light and dark, for good and evil.

And it was actually about pulling the witches out of that sort of superstitious realm and back more into the human realm, but still creating and maintaining space for the magical elements that they bring to the play.

Julia Caulfield: What was it like writing music that, at some points, directly draws on the text, incorporates the text, but is always influenced and guided by the story in the text? What was that process of writing like for you?

Emily Scott Robinson: It was really fun and really generative and pretty easy actually, for me.

I just had a lot of fun playing with what was already there.

There's so much to work with in Shakespeare.

There is ambition and greed, there's love, there's loyalty, there's questions about alliances and loyalty and power, lust, desire, grief, despair, and revenge.

There's so much in that show already, there was such a rich text to draw from.

And really, most of the songs are not very Shakespearean sounding, so we use the text as a jumping off point.

And I wrote more modern sounding songs, or just really just like modern English but that still feels a little bit ancient in some ways.

Track three is probably my favorite.

It's called Double Double, and there are a lot of pretty famous lines from this show double, double toil in trouble is one of them, that's the witch's brew, it's their recipe for the potion they're making.

The first verse is taken from the text, and then the rest of it actually, all the witches and I sat in a little workshop, and we all came up with ideas of things that felt magical or spooky or witchy to us. So it was a group effort to write that song.

Julia Caulfield: The songs were built for a production that was actually happening, it was built for the play of Macbeth. But if you listened through, as you said, without knowing the story, necessarily, you still hear this, you can hear an arc and a hero's story, just throughout it. As an artist, is there anything that you hope listeners take from or maybe that you see as kind of this through line for this collection of six songs themselves, having them exist outside of the space that they were created in?

Emily Scott Robinson: You know, our biggest intention with this was to create a body of work to give the witches voice that they did not have in the time at which they were being written about.

So this play was written under King James I who quite famously was very fascinated by and also terrified by witchcraft and the occult.

He wrote demonology and he was really involved in the witch trials.

And those were really about arresting, imprisoning, torturing and murdering women who did not fit into the Christian patriarchy.

So women who were healers and seers and teachers, women who held power, and so we wanted to create something that was healing and to give voice to those women who didn't have it then.

I'm going to give a shout out to the two women who I featured on this project, they're both amazing artists.

One is Lizzy Ross, she's in the duo Violet Bell.

And the other is Alisa Amador, who just won the NPR Tiny Desk contest.

So they're both good friends of mine.

They were my two witches who recorded the project with me.

When we gathered together in Nashville, we shared an Airbnb.

And before we would go into the studio everyday, we would light a candle and we'd sit in a circle and we would set our intention for this work to be empowering to be freeing to send healing up through the lineage of women that we come from who are not free as we are, and also to send healing down through the line and out into the world.

This story from KOTO was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

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