Throughout history, the arts have existed as a constant source of reflection to the world around us. The long traditions of music and performance have played a vital role in the understanding and contemplation of, quite literally, who we are.
The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic is no exception, with artists worldwide working in the face of political adversity and industry collapse to continue making creative responses, helping people both consider and navigate the emotional complexities of our time. One example of these responses is theatre company RashDash’s verbatim concept album, Don’t Go Back to Sleep: The Lockdown Album, described by the company as ‘a time to reflect on the past six months and our place in the world, to a banging musical soundtrack.’
RashDash, composed of Helen Goalen, Abbi Greenland and Becky Wilkie, describe themselves as a ‘company of performers, musicians and makers.’ The group has been a vital part of the UK theatre ecology for the past decade, their varied original productions receiving acclaim at the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the National Theatre, and Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Reflection is the lifeblood of RashDash, stating their aim that their art is ‘about culture and theatre and how culture and theatre reflect and affect the world.’
Don’t Go Back to Sleep: The Lockdown Album is a musical account that takes the words, verbatim, of people’s unique experiences of lockdown around the world – examples including a mother in Milan, a professor in Britain, a student in China and more. The piece samples interviews taken by Greenland and Goalen, and sets their exact words and intonations (‘y’know’s’ and ‘likes’ included) to a genre-bending original musical score written by Wilkie.
Released last month and culminating in a series of socially distanced live shows at Manchester’s HOME in October, I spoke to RashDash’s Becky Wilkie about the conception, creation and release of the album – a timely musical document of life in lockdown.
RashDash was set to begin rehearsals for their new play Oh Mother (due for its world premiere at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre this summer) the week lockdown went into effect. Theatre around the world was immediately closed.
RashDash, however, still felt the need to “come up with an idea of something we could do to respond to the situation we all found ourselves in.” Wilkie elaborates: “as a company we’re often looking to explore and express things that feel current and difficult for ourselves – this was a situation that was very personal but one that also literally everyone was going through.”
Wilkie shares how the lockdown brought the sudden existential uncertainty of how RashDash, and the wider theatre industry its a part of, would stay alive: “We, like most arts companies, felt pretty marooned at the beginning of lockdown.” A blog post on their website in May described how they were refused application for Arts Council emergency funding, writing with fevered frustration how ‘it feels like being told “it doesn’t matter if you don’t exist when we all come out and theatre tries to find its way again.”’
In the wake of the blog post, Wilkie discusses how the company received “a lot of support” from their audiences, garnering donations from those who felt the need to help the company survive the pandemic, and further inclining RashDash to create a project “for all those who supported us in that time.” Thus, work began on their lockdown album.
Greenland and Goalen kickstarted work in the spring, reaching out to people across eighteen countries to interview and give voice to their unique lockdown experiences. Conducting the interviews, Wilkie describes how “Abbi and Helen would have zoom calls that were an hour or so long with the same set of questions asked to each person.”
Transforming these zoom interviews into creative voice, the next step was for “Abbi or Helen to arrange some of the verbatim answers into lyrics – I would then record a rough demo of a melody and a loose idea for the track and kind of style and pop it in a shared Dropbox we all had.”
Of course, in the midst of lockdown and social distancing, RashDash were forced to work creatively and tactfully in producing the album – the process involving transforming their bedrooms into recording booths in the absence of studios. Wilkie discusses how the group also involved her husband Matt Randall in the project: “he usually tours but was at home looking to hone his recording skills whilst that was on hold, very conveniently for us.”
Then it was on to physically recording the album: “I’d make a guide for Abbi and Helen to sing to, they would each in turn record their vocals in their homes, send them back to me, I’d add mine in, and then Matt and I would fill in the rest of the track musically.” Wilkie gives loving mention to how Randall “would really fly with orchestration, mixing, producing and mastering” in putting together the record.
Creative collaboration is part of the RashDash ethos and naturally played a part in the making of this project. One particular song bound to get listeners talking is the politically-charged rap track ‘Good Solid British Common Sense.’ Written and performed by Salford-based performer Rueben Johnson, the tune (shared below) is a scathing subversive takedown of the government, using only their own words against them. Wilkie shares that Johnson contacted the group “out of the blue one morning with this rap he’d made as he thought we could do something great with the choruses – it was total chance that it completely aligned with the album we were making.” Reuben’s track fits snugly into the RashDash style – cheeky, witty, and a little bit revolutionary.
Wilkie shares memories of how part of the project creatively came together. One song from the album, ‘I Have to Keep Going’ draws from an interview with a deaf woman and her particular experiences in lockdown. Wilkie discusses how the song “was really interesting to write as the BSL video [performed by actress Nadia Nadarajah below] was made before the song – so I was writing the music to the BSL.” She stresses how it felt vital for the writing process to happen in that way: “I think it’s a really powerful portrayal of one woman’s experience of the pandemic.”
Wilkie considers her favourite musical moment from the record, concluding with the rousing ‘26 Days.’ Situated in the middle of the album, the soul-stirring, folk-infused anthem serves as the human centre of piece, the lyrics recounting the contributors small moments of happiness shared from lockdown. Wilkie admits feeling something “special and emotional” in the breakdown of the song: “when you hear voices from all around the world talking about their moments of joy during the pandemic.”
Wilkie contemplates how there’s “so much to be sad and anxious about, and that song is really the flipside of that… It’s so happy, it’s sad.”
As the government eased lockdown restrictions over the summer, it was announced in August that RashDash would perform a live concert version of the album in October, being among the first in a season of socially distanced shows reopening the Manchester art venue HOME.
In the weeks prior to the company’s long-awaited live return, talk and rumour of Manchester going into local lockdown as a result of surging COVID cases once again brought massive uncertainty for the city’s performance venues; emphasised by a total lack of clarity on exactly what businesses and venues would be affected by the yet unknown ramifications of tier three.
“I don’t think there was any solid time when we all thought it would actually happen.”
RashDash was in technical rehearsals at HOME when, after a well-documented political struggle between leaders in Manchester and Westminster, tier three finally arrived. Thankfully however, the show was allowed to go on. Wilkie applauds how “HOME was incredibly good at communicating with us and at creating a safe working environment.” Furthermore, she elaborates how the performers “additional factors of pregnancies [both Greenland and Goalen are currently pregnant] and childcare were taken into account too” for the concert’s week-long run.
“I’m amazed and so proud that we all managed to pull it off, and in what felt like a safe way for us, those around us, and the public who came to see the show.” Being back on stage after such a long hiatus, Wilkie sums up the experience of performing again in one simple word: “awesome.”
In a sobering return to reality, exactly one week after the curtain went down on RashDash’s live return, it was announced that the UK will enter a second national lockdown, and theatre’s once more will be forced to close. The reality is that the arts are at the best of times a fragile beast; and the unknowing of whether they can literally perform to live audiences, leaves the arts in a dangerous, precarious position.
And yet, they are still vital to us as an area of contemplation and expression of the world around us; RashDash’s Don’t Go Back to Sleep in particular captures the many complex feelings of people in this sombre moment of human history, even existing as a form of catharsis for listeners.
Wilkie hopes the record “gives people a chance to reflect on the past year, and to realise they’re not alone in feeling weird, sad, happy, anxious, frustrated, or anything else.” As we once again return to lockdown, maybe these emotions will again come to the forefront of you mind. Take my advice and give the album a listen. It’s a necessary reminder of what art can do.
Featured Photo © RashDash
Don’t Go Back to Sleep: The Lockdown Album is available to listen to on RashDash’s website here; or on various streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play and Bandcamp. You can listen to previews of the album below.