Interviews: Blood Harmony, Ode to Joy and Burn

Sounding it Out: Jess Williams, Kate Marlais, DJ Simonotron and Anna Meredith chat about the role of music in theatre productions

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Blood Harmony
Photo by Blood Harmony
Published 06 Aug 2022

Of all the ways to look for inspiration for your next show, listening to your favourite band is rather a nice one. Sister trio The Staves provide the soundtrack to ThickSkin’s Blood Harmony, which, mirroring the band’s own loss in 2018, explores the emotional fallout for three sisters after their mother’s death. 

When asked why they chose The Staves, co-director Jess Williams shares that, well, she and Jonnie Riordan just really love their music. But the group’s harmonies also evoke the evolving relationship between the three sisters onstage. 

“We wanted to look into blood harmony – when siblings sing together, the sound that they make,” says Williams. “We thought it would be a great way of showing how siblings are connected in an unspoken way.”

Part of the appeal of using a band’s existing lyrics, rather than working with a traditional composer, is the emotional punch they lend to the action. Music director Kate Marlais differentiates between what she calls “room songs” and “corridor songs” in musicals, where “corridor songs” exist solely to drive the story forward. “I think we're sitting more in ‘room songs’ here,” she says. “It frees you up to get to the depths of how a lyric is supposed to feel.”

“We talk about the show having two worlds: the real world and the emotional world,” adds Williams. “The songs are everything that's unsaid, everything that they're feeling, and their sisterly connection as well.”

Music’s capacity to say the unsayable emerges in the tracks that DJ Simonotron selected for Ode To Joy, a queer clubbing chronicle set in Berlin’s Berghain. “For me, the music in this show, and the way the performers interact with it, demonstrates the transformative nature of people dancing together,” he says. “There's something inherently silly about flinging your arms and legs about and smiling with strangers in a room. There's a joy and freedom that can be conveyed onstage.”

Ode to Joy. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Writer and director James Ley frequents Hot Mess, the queer club night that Simonotron DJs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Simonotron believes that its euphoric atmosphere is what inspired Ley to recruit him to Ode to Joy, which presents a uniquely optimistic picture of hedonism. 

“Within popular culture, you often get stories about people losing themselves in the joys of drugs, sex, and dancing, but there's always a dark side,” he says. “Someone will end up dead or diseased or life in pieces. This is not that story. This is a story of men enjoying that hedonism and falling in love, and there's no apology.”

Another story getting a refresh this August is that of Robert Burns, whose struggles with poverty and mental health will complicate his tartan and shortbread brand. Music by Anna Meredith backs Burns' choreography, though she says it was the lack of any obvious national identity in her compositions that got her the gig. “They said they wanted something that didn't necessarily sound Scottish,” she says of director Alan Cumming and choreographer Steven Hoggett. “Stuff that didn't just romanticise, and showed the human struggle stuff that he had.”

Uniquely for a production about Scotland’s national bard, his linguistic prowess takes a backseat while music and movement reveal new facets of his character. “It shows his journey rather than his output,” says Meredith. “It’s more about why he was writing like that, or what was going on for him.”

For musicians involved in a production like this, there is intrigue in seeing how their music will be interpreted. Meredith says she feels in safe hands with Cummings, while The Staves have praised the Blood Harmony script in a private letter.

"It's quite a fresh approach that is having a surgence," says Marlais. "There's so many artists clamouring to put their music into a theatrical context. As a music writer myself, to reframe your songs in a new way is really exciting."