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Why the Bard Changed My Songwriting Life

11/07/2016 14:16 | Updated 11 July 2016

I was born into a musical family in North Carolina. Music ushered me into life quite literally because my dad was playing the Irish fiddle in the delivery room when I was born. I began singing in our family band The Tune Mammals at the age of 2. When my dad gave me my first guitar lesson at the age of 12, I immediately started making up my own songs. I never took to the piano, but when I picked up the guitar, I found a vehicle to express my inner voice as a songwriter.

I kept all my ideas, lyrics, and scribblings in notebooks from the age of 12 right up to college. I recently counted around 50 notebooks and I still keep them all.

My parents raised us on great music and theatre. I was watching and participating in Shakespeare productions from as early as 5. I grew up with Shakespeare and the rhythmic flow and lulling sounds he created in his verse. The context didn't make much sense at that age, but I was still fascinated and soaked the sounds in like a sponge. It became a constant in my life growing up. I couldn't know then how much more deeply The Bard would resonate with me later in life.

I read some Shakespeare in my teens, both on my own and in school and I went deepest into it around six years ago when an old friend called out of the blue saying his leading lady had backed out and he needed a Rosalind for his Adirondack Shakespeare production of 'As You Like It' (Shakespeare's largest role for a woman!). I ended up learning my part and rushing in to play Rosalind at the last minute. It was terrifying and utterly thrilling as I hadn't done that kind of thing for a while, but incredibly inspiring to realise what I was still capable of, and definitely a pivotal moment in my life.

Rosalind speaks mostly in prose rather than verse. I recorded my lines to a metronome and found my own hidden meter in her prose. I was able to break it down in bizarre ways and would practice walking in time on a treadmill, speaking aloud like a crazy lady at the gym. I found myself falling in love with Shakespeare even more deeply than ever before. A year later I wrote the music for the Adirondack Shakespeare company's "Twelfth Night", setting texts like 'Come Away Death' and 'Oh Mistress Mine'.

'Be Still' was another song I wrote around that time. The words "Be still my heart" popped into my head when I was searching for words for my chorus. They were familiar enough to me to know I didn't write them. I did a little research and remembered it was none other than our guy Shakespeare. I must have retained the lines from my childhood... or maybe it was that time I played Hamlet at my high school production of Dogg's Hamlet, reciting Shakespeare backwards!

I hear music in all of Shakespeare's works. It is some of the most beautiful text on the planet and it begs to be sung! It's amazing how much music is crammed into any given Shakespeare play. It's written like song lyrics. His female roles were ahead of their time. For example Rosalind, who spends most of the play disguised as a man is a forward thinking, free speaking, strong female role. Lady Macbeth was another female character who many would argue is pulling all the strings in Macbeth. Shakespeare's strong female characters and Queen Elizabeth I were empowering women in a time when that wasn't commonplace.

When beginning to write the music for my upcoming album 'Regina', my inspiration was sparked by my fascination for Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, and the Elizabethan era.

Queen Elizabeth I is someone I've been fascinated with for a while; the mysteries surrounding her life, her virginity, and her supposed love affair with Robert Dudley. She and Shakespeare lived at the same time, and I've always wondered if his female roles were at all inspired by her, and her strength. I wrote a song called 'The Letter', inspired by Queen Elizabeth I and the love between her and Robert Dudley. This letter from Dudley was an actual thing that was found after she died in her most prized possessions.

This "Liz 1" theme quickly broadened to being a "queen theme", which over time became Regina, who has developed into my songwriting alter ego, muse, and imaginary friend. Regina is a divine queen, and a strong feminine force. When I write with her, I can get my ego out the way and get into a more productive and connected creative zone.

She is someone who helps guide the way, and a voice I can trust, like an anchor, or an extension of my truest self.

I am about 16 songs deep in my writing collaboration with this new writing platform, and going strong! I wrote a song called 'Ophelia', inspired by Shakespeare's Ophelia from Hamlet, mixed with the Brazilian queen Moema, and aspects of Irish damsels from traditional Irish folk music. I also did a setting of Mercutio's 'Queen Mab' speech from Shakespeare's 'Romeo & Juliet'.

There is something about the female perspective in music that has always resonated with me. I feel full female self-expression has been rather controlled over the years, not just in music but also the arts. Men can express themselves freely, but often women are encouraged and expected to play up their sexuality in order to sell their art. Thankfully, women like Björk, Joni Mitchell, and many of my heroes have made careers for themselves drawing from sexuality as a choice rather than a necessity for success. These women are respected firstly because of their art. They are queens, and that's a really important inspiration to have not just as a little girl, but as a woman.

Becca Stevens plays the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Monday 18th July as part of Lauren Laverne's 'Wonder Women' series of summer gigs with The Globe.

'Regina' will be released in early 2017.

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