Last year, singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson released American Siren, her third record and first for the late John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, whose nuanced and plainspoken narratives earned her widespread acclaim. All the while, she’d been working on music for a production of Shakespeare’s iconic and eerie tragedy Macbeth in her home state of Colorado. Her musical task, as she explains it, was to “write magic for the witches,” the play’s trio of seers.
The project allowed Robinson to pay respect to the host of women whose power has historically been limited or controlled by men who are afraid of it. And the resulting songs were excellent. With help from fellow singer-songwriters Lizzy Ross and Alisa Amador, producer Brandy Zdan and an ace band featuring lots of Nashville players, she recorded the tunes as Built on Bones, which is out on Friday. We got on the phone with Robinson to learn more about this boundary-expanding work.
What inspired you to take on such an intense and iconic work as Macbeth?
I never would've done this if the director of the show, Colin Sullivan, had not asked me. I've known him for like a decade and I've worked with him on projects before. So he came to me and said: “I’m really interested in doing Macbeth, but this show has a curse on it. So what I would love to do is counterbalance that curse with some really good magic, and I'm really interested in having you write some music for the show because music is magical. I want you to write magic for the witches.”
So I was so interested in the proposition. I went and watched an old version of Macbeth on YouTube … . I’ve always loved the show, I've just never really dived into it. And of course, Colin had certain scenes where he knew he wanted songs, but he left me a lot of room to explore. And the more I delved into the text, I got more and more excited, because I realized there was so much to work with archetypally. There's lust, love, passion, darkness. And there’s so many questions of “Who is actually spurring who on? Is it Macbeth? Is it the witches? Lady Macbeth? Is it all three? Is the witches making this happen, or is it a self-fulling prophecy?” It’s just so interesting.
Would you mind giving us a quick rundown of how each song fits into the show?
The songs go through chronologically on the record. The prophecy is delivered through “Built on Bones,” which is the title track. "Old Gods" is a love song, it’s a song of both love and loss. So when it’s sung in the major key, the witches are singing it around Lady Macbeth and Macbeth when they’re reunited at the top of the show. Because our theory of the show was, “it started with love” — everyone wasn’t this stone-cold murderer from the beginning. It started with humans just like us who descended into madness. So “Old Gods” is then reprised later in the minor key when Lady Macbeth dies.
And then "Double Double," which was so much fun to play with, is the pinnacle scene around the witches when, ya know, they’re making their brew. And the first line from that song is taken from the text and then the rest is our own incantation of sorts. "Sleep No More" is a song sung around Lady Macbeth as she’s about to die. So it’s the pathway between the human world and the spirit realm — they’re basically preparing her for her death. I call it a reverse lullaby, it’s got this lullaby rhythm to it, but it’s more like a nightmare.
And then the very last song is an epilogue. So the [play] ends, and we decided to answer the ending. Which is an interesting ending, because after all this death and murder, they crown a new king and they’re like “OK, we’re good now.” But the women in the show know better than that. So the witches come out and sing this song which is basically about the cycles of life, and it’s a prayer and a blessing. And what we really wanted to do is incorporate the magic of women that’s been so demonized through all the years, and bring it back to life. And in doing so we hoped to heal the lineage of women who were persecuted and tortured and murdered for being witches when really they were women who were healers and held power. So that was our intention with the show. And the audience loved the music so much, we made an album.
“Old Gods” is also the opener of your last project American Siren. What about this tune made you bring it back?
I actually wrote “Old Gods” for this show, but I loved it so much that I put it on American Siren. It was the first song I wrote [for the production]; I had just finished writing American Siren and I was starting to write for Macbeth and I wrote it and I thought “Oh my gosh, I love this.” And now I have, like, three different versions of this song.
You wrote the music for the witches and served as music director for the production, but you also played the role of Hecate on stage. How has your recent theater experience informed your musical career?
Well, they got me to play that role by twisting my arm. Usually, a lot of productions cut that scene. But Colin said, “You wrote all the music so we gotta get you on stage somehow!” Hecate is like the “mother witch” or “queen witch,” and I guess in that sense I am [too]! So, I pushed through.
But I guess what’s informing my music the most is that [theater] is this really dynamic co-creative experience. You’re working with so many people’s energies on stage, and as a songwriter I do so many things on my own. It’s such a cool, fun, and regenerative experience to be working with people, and performing with them in this live experience really inspired me. It gave me a ton of energy, and it just made me realize, anything that happens on stage, you can work with. Because it’s all energy. Even if something messes up, it’s all energy to be transmuted into the performance. But I have no aspirations of being an actress. I love my job as a songwriter.
You mentioned in an interview with American Songwriter that American Siren was written almost entirely in isolation during COVID quarantine. What was it like being able to work on Macbeth and Built on Bones collaboratively from the start?
It was exactly what I needed. It was so joyful and fun and creative. Writing American Siren was fine, but it was a hard record to write. Some of those songs I think I could’ve only written by myself, and needed to be by myself. But it’s more fun when you’re working with other people, and it’s also so fun to draw from old stories. This story tells us about humans and holds up a mirror to everything humans are capable of — all the great stuff and all the terrifying stuff. And that’s just so fun to work with as a songwriter. There’s just a lightness to working with other people.
But it’s gotta be the right people. It’s gotta be people who are facilitating creative experiences. So for me it was about people with people who go, “Yes — yes to that idea.” Everyone was willing to experiment and improvise, and just be creative. Something that was really important to me was that everyone playing one of the witches felt really empowered, and if they had ideas for what they wanted to do we went, “yes, let’s try that.” And so it was really fun.
Two other singer-songwriters, Lizzy Ross from the duo Violet Bell and Alisa Amador, help you fill your trio of witches on the album. You could've easily stacked your own vocals when recording the adaptations. What made you reach out to those two artists?
They were both good friends of mine. Lizzy and I have known each other since we were in college, which has actually been kind of a long time now. I’ve always loved her and followed her career, and I’ve spent some time playing with her and her partner Omar, and she recorded some harmonies for American Siren and it was absolutely magical, so I just knew. Then, I met Alisa at a songwriting camp in October of 2021 and we became just best friends. I heard her play and I said, “Hi, I’m gonna be friends with you.” And then at another point in time, Lizzy and Alisa had become friends at some other music camp.
Something that was really important to me was finding people who had played together, because we only had four full days booked in the studio. So while there might have been some people I could’ve asked that would’ve brought some cool energy or great press to the project, I just couldn’t take the chance of bringing someone into the group who had never sung with everyone else before. I wanted everybody to kind of know each other. And to be completely honest, I wanted a Black woman to be one of our other witches. It was really important to me that this project not be so white.
But all the people I asked were very busy and very booked — which is amazing for them! So Lizzy and I sat down and I told Lizzy: “I do not want this to be a group of white women. I want to draw from deeper lineages, and it’s just really important to me that this project isn’t whitewashed. Is there anybody you can think of?" So we racked our brains for a while and Alisa came up. And you know, she’s part Puerto Rican, part Argentinian, she’s bilingual, and an amazing singer. So we called her up and I was thrilled when she said yes. And it ended up being the exactly right group of people. We ended up having mostly women in the studio! The band, and we had Brandy Zdan produce it — it was my first time working with Brandy as a producer and she killed it. And it was such a lovely experience. Going into the studio and making the record was just as magical as producing it on stage. I was just constantly floored by their magic.
Is it any easier or harder to build an album around a concept rather than collecting songs as you go?
For me this was actually easier. I didn't have to sit there and draw from my own life experiences or come out with something from nothing. I knew exactly what story needed to be told, and so that gave me a really good structure to plug things into and to create within. And for me, I’ve found structure really helps me creatively. It makes me feel safer. If I sit down to a blank piece of paper [and say], “OK, time to start my next album” —
There's nothing scarier than the blank page.
Exactly! But with some framework it feels so much more accessible to have some kind of prompt or theme, and so for my own records I sometimes have to create that structure. And for this project it was just like: “Well, OK, here’s the things I need. And here are the holes we need to fill in the show. And here’s what the witches are doing in that moment, so how can we create that feeling musically?” “Double Double,” for example — they’re in their coven and they’re celebrating and they know Macbeth is watching them but they’re not doing anything for Macbeth. They’re summoning their power but they’re doing it for themselves, not anyone else. So I knew that song had to be sexy and fun! So for me it was worlds easier to have this to work with.
In the past, you’ve worked mainly in the country-Americana space. You may have worked yourself into a blues record here. How did you find yourself in that lane?
I’m honored for you to say that to me. But I think it’s what the songs demanded, to be honest. We got in [the studio] and I had some general ideas, but I think a lot of that is Brandy’s influence as a producer. And I think some of it was: “What are some songs we can stomp our feet to? What are some songs that get into our bodies?” And to me, the rhythms within the blues world are dancier — they are more physical, they feel like a groove, in a way that other genres don’t have that same rhythmic power. So I think we went in, asked, “What is this song really asking for?” And I think the songs guided us in that direction. We just had way too much fun, honestly.
What song do you think y’all had the most fun working on in the studio?
Definitely “Double Double.” By that point, we had all warmed up and were kinda feeling each other in the studio — we had found our groove. And there’s this part at the end that I love so much where Lizzy just howls. She does this epic diva howl. She was a bit self-conscious about it, and I was like: “Listen, go crazy. And if it’s bad we'll cut it. Don’t worry about it.” And she was like, “OK, but I can only do it if it’s not too prominent in the mix.” And I agreed. But then I heard it recorded, Brandy sent me the mix, and I was immediately like: “That’s amazing. You need to turn. That. Up.” And so I sent it to Lizzy and I told her: “I know you asked for me to keep this in the background, but it’s too good to bury it. We gotta put it in the front.” So that one was the most fun.
It was so cool hearing Lizzy and Alisa’s interpretation of the verses. I hear mine and I’m like, “Yeah that’s my voice.” When I listen to theirs I’m like [gasps]. It was such a blast. And I guess my theory is, “When you have fun making something, people have fun listening to it.” And that sounds simple, but it’s so important. We’re living our dreams so we should have fun with that. When you’re in your community, when you’re with your people — in the music world, the artistic world, the creative realms — it rejuvenates you in a way. So much of our work is solitary that when you get with your people it completely fills you back up and reminds you why you do that thing. And that’s what this was like, recording this. So my prayer is that these songs go out in the universe and that people have fun with them. I hope they meet people where they need to be.