Emily Scott Robinson Reimagines Shakespeare’s Witches
Emily Scott Robinson (photo by Neighborhoods Apart Productions)
On the morning Emily Scott Robinson’s coven was to convene in Nashville to record her new EP, Built on Bones — a cycle of songs inspired by the witches of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth — she got a sign.
Alisa Amador, a collaborator on the project, was strolling through Boston Logan airport when she heard Robinson’s song “Old Gods” on the loudspeaker. It was one of the tracks they were set to record that Robinson had also included on her acclaimed 2021 album American Siren (ND story). Maybe it was just the coincidental shuffle of an airport soundtrack playlist, but it’s a lot more fun to imagine it might have been a little black magic. Amador sent a video capturing that moment to Robinson, who still gets chills when she recalls it.
“It was just such a wink!” Robinson says with wide-eyed glee. “I feel like I’m getting all these little nods from the ancestors.”
Some spiritual intervention wouldn’t be out of the question in a project so directly inspired by the occult and Shakespeare’s famously cursed play, a murderous tale of a Scottish war general undone by greed and an insatiable thirst for power who eventually descends into madness before meeting a bloody end.
Built on Bones was born from a collaboration with the Telluride Theatre last year, when Robinson’s friend, theater director Colin Sullivan, tasked her with composing music for the witches in his adaptation of Macbeth. With no theater background or deep familiarity with the play, Robinson immersed herself in everything from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1974 production to Joel Coen’s 2021 film adaption. What she found was a common trope: The trio of witches who prophesize Macbeth’s doomed future are typically played as sinister old hags. But, she wondered, what if they didn’t have to be? In Sullivan’s new “sexy, violent” version, there was an opportunity to rewrite history, to right a wrong.
“They’re women who sort of have no master, have no husbands, they might be prostitutes, they might be fortune tellers, it’s just unclear,” says Robinson of Sullivan’s adaptation. “But they’re young and they’re hot.” They’re also smartly woven throughout the play, showing up in unexpected roles from Lady Macbeth’s handmaids to servants at a banquet. In the production, Robinson played Hecate, the goddess queen of the witches.
The six songs of the Built on Bones EP, sung in Robinson’s crystalline tone, follow the same chronology they do in Sullivan’s play. The eerie title track serves as a kind of prologue for when the witches first appear on a battlefield littered with corpses of fallen soldiers, eventually having a fateful confrontation with Macbeth. Blood was spilt along this road / You cannot wash it clean with snow, Robinson sings, hauntingly.
Next, the witches in handmaid garb surround Lady Macbeth and sing “Old Gods” as she awaits her husband’s return from battle and reads his letter outlining their prophecy that he will become king. Are you a trick of the memory / That the old gods are playing on me, Robinson harmonizes with Amador and Ross. Carry my prayers on the ocean / Carry my prayers on the sea.
The particularly fun and witchy tune “Double Double” reimagines the instantly recognizable incantation as the witches stir nasty things into a cauldron. Though the original text offers plenty of sordid ingredients, Robinson conducted a writing exercise with her castmates in the stage production in which they came up with their own ideas for the creepiest components for the brew, like “children’s teeth” and an “arrow ripped from lover’s heart.” (Robinson recently released a spooky music video for the song, shot in Western Colorado on a stark landscape scorched by wildfires.)
A reprise of “Built on Bones” represents the second prophecy delivered to Macbeth, followed by “Sleep No More,” sung again by the witches as Lady Macbeth’s handmaids facilitate her wild hallucinations. “As she’s washing her hands, they are bathing her and preparing her for death, and they are also pouring blood over her hands,” explains Robinson of the iconic “out, damned spot” scene, one of the play’s most memorable.
After the infamous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, spoken by Macbeth upon learning of his wife’s demise, “Old Gods” is reprised in a bone-chilling minor key as the witches carry candles across the stage. And finally, the enchanting “Men and Moons” serves as the play’s epilogue.
“It’s a very masculine ending,” Robinson says of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “It’s not quite an erasure of the violence … but it doesn’t question where the violence begins, and it doesn’t recognize where the violence will continue because of the nature of power and greed in humans. It’s meant to be this prayer and blessing.”
Recording and Ritual
After an overwhelmingly positive response to the production in Telluride, Robinson’s label, Oh Boy Records, agreed these songs should live on as an EP, and from there, she assembled Amador, Lizzy Ross (of Violet Bell), and producer Brandy Zdan. “Brandy was the perfect person to do this,” says Robinson. “She immediately understood what it was we were trying to do. All her instincts were amazing.”
Robinson also made it a point to bring in a band of mostly women and nonbinary musicians — including Ellen Angelico, Vanessa McGowan, Kaitlyn Raitz, and Kristin Weber — knowing the kind of alchemy she wanted to create in the studio for a project so rooted in reclaiming the narrative of the witches from the power structures meant to contain them.
For Robinson, it started with understanding the context.
“The overarching thing that we wanted to do with the witches was to recognize why the witches were portrayed the way they were when Macbeth was originally written. To understand that history around King James and the witch trials and … being aware of how Shakespeare was writing specifically for the court and the king. Also recognizing that Shakespeare himself, having grown up poor and working class, was very likely someone who went to women healers and did not personally have this take, knowing that many women who were labeled witches in those early days were just folk healers and midwives and women with some amount of power,” Robinson says. “We wanted to reinterpret the witches in a way where we were healing that lineage and restoring the fullness of power, sexuality, and ability to create both life and death, and magic and beauty, from the very two-dimensional portrayal of the witches through history.”
Of course, rituals were a crucial part of the recording process. Robinson, Amador, and Ross would gather before their studio sessions to set the mood. “We did some really beautiful practices of asking for help and protection, and being together in a circle, the three of us, establishing our space, sending prayers up and setting the intention for this to be a project that was both empowering and healing for our ancestors, and to send that energy down the line for freedom, beauty, power, and fullness,” Robinson says.
Reconsidering the Witch
Though the songs don’t pull much directly from Shakespeare, in writing them Robinson found herself referencing Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 tome Carmina Gadelica, after she attended a workshop about Celtic wisdom traditions, including pagan and Wiccan practices. A kind of pre-Alan Lomax figure, Carmichael was a folklorist who gathered prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, poems, songs, proverbs, and more across the Scottish Highlands in the late 1800s. In Robinson’s words, “[He] created this sort of ethnography … where pre-Christian, pagan, and Celtic wisdom traditions were still preserved because of their isolated nature and being so far from the seat of power. So it captures this really interesting transition where there’s a whole mix. There are prayers to [Saint] Brigid and the Virgin Mary right next to each other … It’s very rooted in the land, in the cycles of life.”
Of all the tracks on Built on Bones, “Men and Moons” feels closest to something the Bard himself might have written. Though not in iambic pentameter, Robinson’s lyrics have their own signature rhythm:
Through lying oaths and hollow speech
And steel that pierces, each to each
Protect the faeries, shield the crown
And plant our hearts in sacred ground
“The songs themselves can stand alone … You don’t really have to know Macbeth to enjoy them,” Robinson says. “I grew up in the South, in the Bible Belt, so I probably have some relatives who are praying for my soul right now cause I’m putting out a witch record. I was like, ‘How can we invite people into this story and this history, talk about the history of violence against women, the oppression of women’s power, the limitation of women to the virgin-whore dichotomy? How can we bust women back out of that, especially through the archetype of the witches in the show?’”
In addition to taking Built on Bones on the road with Amador and Ross for shows in which they’ll do a triple bill of their own songs followed by a performance of the EP, Robinson and Sullivan are pitching this adaptation of Macbeth to Shakespeare festivals and theaters around the country, hoping to perform it again. “My intention, always, for my projects is for them to go out into the universe, meet people, and be of service to them in whatever way they need to be. I’m so excited to see where these songs land,” Robinson says.
She credits Anaïs Mitchell’s award-winning Broadway musical Hadestown for inspiring her to try something new and challenging. “It was really meaningful to me to have the example of someone to look up to like Anaïs. To go, ‘Look at what [she] gave herself permission to create,’” Robinson says. “I’ve always dreamed of doing something that expansive and co-creative. Not only did Anaïs show it was possible to do music for the theater in this way, but also retelling the oldest archetypal songs and stories. And there’s so much to work with in these old stories that we tell — in Macbeth — that’s so relevant now. To me it was the tip of the iceberg, I could do this forever. I loved writing for Shakespeare.”
Built On Bones is more than a gateway for the Shakespeare-curious. It also ushers in a crucial reexamination of the idea of the “witch,” with its long history of misunderstanding and oppression. Robinson may not be able to rewrite this history, but her reframing of it feels like its own kind of healing potion for this current moment in which women continue to be oppressed and must battle for such basic freedoms as reproductive rights. A fitting mantra can be found in the words of the apparition conjured by Macbeth’s witches: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute.”
“Whenever these kinds of things come under attack, they’re ultimately about women’s power and their sexuality, and their generative power. You have a lot of men in power who are afraid of that. So, this is so very much about that. Yes, women are scary. Be afraid! Behold our power! Work with us, not against us,” Robinson says. “The real message I wanted to send through these songs is that these women, this power, you cannot hold it and you cannot keep it from coming. We will just move right around that shit. Try to set a fire and we will put it out. We cannot be controlled or dominated or kept small or shrunk. That’s really what the witches are doing.”