Emily Scott Robinson (Photo by Cal & Aly)
With the EP Built on Bones, Emily Scott Robinson told the audience at Jammin’ Java on Sunday evening, she, along with the duo Violet Bell and Alisa Amador wanted to “rewrite the history” surrounding the Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth to emphasize a tradition of “strong women and healers.” Written by Robinson and sung in three-part harmony, the record is a suite of six songs written for the Witches, created at the behest of Robinson’s partner, a theater director in Colorado.
The history and context surrounding the witches — the Weird Sisters — in Macbeth is fascinating. As Emily explained, their depiction owes much to King James I’s obsession with witches that led to many women being executed. James was obsessed with magic all-around, and the sorcerer Prospero also owes something to this. For some reason, and I’m not sure why, men weren’t executed for dabbling in the dark arts, at least not in comparable numbers to women. I really wonder why that is!
Scholars debate whether Shakespeare even wrote this scene (Act IV, Scene 1); some suggest it was adapted and inserted from Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch. (With Shakespeare, we don’t have any original documents in the author’s hand, and all of his plays have edited numerous times over the centuries, so we don’t know what the original text said.) The writing style of this scene is, they argue, noticeably different from the rest of the play. This is by no means agreed upon; in A Dagger of the Mind, the noted literary critic Harold Bloom maintains Shakespeare wrote the scene, and he argues that the style is different because Shakespeare in writing in the voice of the witches.
At Jammin’ Java on March 12, the set featured three songs from Built on Bones. Robinson originally released “Old Gods” on her most recent LP, 2021’s American Siren, but it was always intended for this project. “Double, Double” builds most closely on the witches’ dialogue from the play, the speech that begins with the famous line, “Double, double, toil and trouble,” going on to list the many fantastical ingredients mixed in their cauldron. For their encore, they played the closing track from the album, “Men and Moons.”
Watch Emily Scott Robinson perform “Men and Moons” with Violet Bell and Alisa Amador in a performance video on YouTube:
Emily displayed her fine sense of humor in introducing the project to the audience, saying that some explanation was required as “we’re getting close to the Bible Belt.” “I’m from North Carolina,” she continued, “and my relatives are praying for me.” (I suppose that’s a step above my relatives just shaking their heads about me, likely considering me beyond help.)
In a brief exchange with Robinson on Twitter, I remarked on how rude Macbeth is to the witches, a point she agreed with, saying “Macbeth IS the ‘something wicked'” in the line “Something wicked this way comes.” This line is often misremembered as being spoken about the witches, when it spoken by them about Macbeth. It is a testament to the Bard’s continuing influence that this line has lent its title to a song by Lucinda Williams and a novel by Ray Bradbury. In offering their take on this scene, Robinson, Amador, and Violet Bell are participating in a long, continuing conversation.
(I would like to repeat, at this point, my ongoing pitch for a Macbeth adaptation in the Star Wars universe, set on Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk, called Something Wookie This Way Comes.)
Magic and folklore was a strong theme running throughout the performance. Violet Bell’s album Shapeshifter is based on the myth of the selkie, a creature that can shed its seal skin and walk the land in human form. An old myth, one seen in a number of cultures, tells of a selkie whose skin, after she slips it off, is found by a fisherman, who promises to return it after a number of years. Not wanting to be alone, the fisherman casts the skin in the sea. The pair have a daughter who, as her mother grows sicker and sicker after several years, finds the skin and returns it to her. The selkie faces a dilemma: if she remains on land, she will die, and if she returns to the sea, she must abandon her daughter. The selkie chooses to go back to the sea, but her daughter learns to understand the selkies, and sometimes see her mother in the ocean — this is the the story told in Violet Bell’s “Fisherman’s Daughter.”
Shapechanger covers a territory similar to the Decembrists’ The Crane Wife, adapting a similar folk tale of shape changers and sacrifice. It’s also reminiscent of the excellent 2014 Irish animated film, The Song of the Sea.
Many of the evening’s songs addressed the challenges of a career in music. Robinson wrote “Cheap Seats” after seeing two of her heroes, John Prine and Bonnie Raitt, play the Ryman in 2019. It’s about, she said, “something that looks and feels impossible, making it as an artist.”
Watch the official music video for “Cheap Seats” by Emily Scott Robinson on YouTube:
“White Hot Country Mess,” Robinson said, looks at the “less glamorous” side of a musician’s life. Introducing the song, she mentioned the use, on the road, of dry shampoo, a product that “makes it look like you’ve showered when you haven’t.” (Needless to say, I didn’t approach any of the musicians after the show to give them the smell test. I’ll take their word for it.)
Alisa Amador won the NPR Tiny Desk Concest last year with her song “Milonga accidental,” which she said is about “embracing contradictions.” The news she had won came to Alisa when she was considering leaving her career in music. The Spanish lyrics reflect Amador’s heritage as the daughter of Latin folkies; her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is from New Mexico. Later in the set, she sang “Extraño,” which translates literary to “strange,” but also has connection of “to miss.”
The pandemic lockdown presented special challenges for musicians, who make their living almost entirely throw touring. Amador wrote still life during those first few months in 2020, when she was forced to spend more time in one place — and with more opportunity for reflection — than she had in a long time. Her music often explores mental health and identity; another of her songs was dedicated to “anyone who’s had a mean internal narrator.”
Robinson wrote “Time For Flowers” at roughly the same time, May 2020, to convey a message about “keeping hope in dark times.” Mental health also played a role in Violet Bill’s one songs, like “Junkie,” about addiction, while they opened set with “Fly Away,” described as “a song from our North Carolina skies, which are pretty much the same as yours.”
I’ve known of Robinson for a few years, and this show certainly met Robinson’s stated goal of the audience leaving as fans of all three artists. With excellent songs and first-class three-part harmonies, I definitely left Jammin’ Java wanting to see what the artists will do in the future, and with the hope that I will catch them again live many times in the years to come.