[Cover photo credit to Aimee Rentmeester]
Actress, singer/songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Pidgeon is readying the release of her tenth full length studio album, Parts of Speech Pieces of Sound, which arrives on September 24th from Toy Canteen Records. So far, the single and video for “Silent Sound” have been released, with more to follow. Parts of Speech Pieces of Sound is Rebecca Pidgeon’s first “concept album” and also the first in which she wrote the music for her songs by starting with drum elements. The reason for both things arose from life-circumstances and a special dream that she had which invited her in new directions.
A lifelong student of Yoga, Pidgeon became more serious about studying the esoteric and meditative aspects of Yoga in recent years, and during the pandemic period was surprised to find that welcoming online classes featured a teacher whose work she knew well, Prashant Iyengar. Enrolling in the course, she later had a special dream made her wonder if she ought to write music related to her studies. Over time, the collection of songs came to represent the different chakras and their governing deities as expressions of elemental forms. This concept and approach drew Pidgeon into new forms of composition, but she still sees strong Folk elements in her modes of expression and thinking that tie this new album with the enduring qualities of her previous work.
I spoke with Rebecca Pidgeon about this remarkable development in her work and she gave me an insightful window onto some of the tracks coming up on Parts of Speech Pieces of Sound.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that opportunities for online learning really impacted your study of Yoga during the pandemic period, and I noticed that wider phenomenon, too, that I was able to take advantage of educational programs and music programs due to more online access. I think it had a positive impact for many reasons, not least overcoming distance issues for people.
Rebecca Pidgeon: Yes, I was even able to join a Mumbai local class, which I’m still a part of. I do it remotely and recorded, but it’s extraordinary.
HMS: What had your path been regarding Yoga before the pandemic? Were you already interested and reading about it?
RP: Both my mother and my father have been powerful influences on both me and my brother, and my father is a physicist, and my mother is a Yoga teacher. She first started studying with B.K.S. Iyengar in 1980. She would go to India to study with him and his daughter Geeta, and his son Prashant. She’d go every year and became a senior teacher of the Iyengar method in Scotland. She was my first teacher, so I grew up in the house with my mother going to India every year and bringing back stories. Iyengar changed her life, and in changing her life, he changed our lives. He’s since become known as a great guru, but he was not as well known then.
My mother introduced me to Yoga, and I started doing it casually for many years, but then I started doing it more seriously in Los Angeles with brilliant Iyengar Yoga teachers there. I went on my first trip to India with my mother and was introduced to an aspect of the practice which is more about meditative strains and esoteric aspects. I didn’t really decide during covid to start studying, it’s just that I noticed that Prashant Iyengar was teaching online, on Youtube! I casually tuned in and then just got really hooked.
I was studying with them for a while and then I had a dream about a person playing a drumbeat and me singing over the top of it. Sometimes you have dreams of music and when you wake up, you realize it’s no good, but with this one, when I woke up the next day, I realized, “No, this is actually good. I’m going to write a song, I think.” I wondered what the words would be, and since I was studying Yoga sutras, and the drumbeat seemed Indian, that’s how it started.
I sent this little piece of music to my mother and another teacher and they said, “It’s lovely!” Then another song came to me. Prashant was talking about the different chakras and how each chakra has its own deity, and also talking about the aspects of the deities. He described the deities within our own embodiment as doing a kind of dance with each other, and that was such a fascinating and lovely idea. That really inspired me. Then I found that I was writing these songs. After three or four I thought, “Maybe I’m writing an album now!”
HMS: Thanks for sharing this story and so much about this process with us. After writing that first song, do you think that if you hadn’t shared it, you wouldn’t have continued? Or did that response encourage you to keep going?
RP: I think it did encourage me that these two women whom I profoundly respect, my mother and my other teacher, appreciated it.
HMS: Out of curiosity, how did you capture that first version of the song, “Now Begins”? There’s a lot of advice about writing dreams down quickly if you want to really catch them.
RP: I just put it on a voice memo. [Laughs] It is true, you have to catch them in a semi-sleepy state because they just vanish so fast, don’t they? Yogis say that in a wakeful state, we cannot have pure knowledge. We can only have pure knowledge, not in a sleepy state, since that’s dull, but in a sort of twilight trance-like state.
HMS: I find the structure of the album really interesting, following the different chakras and their deities. I think that’s something that would help audiences who approach the album to think about it. Also, your lyrics are pretty clear and direct about associations for each song. Were you consciously trying to be extra clear for audiences, or do you just prefer to write that way?
RP: I think I was trying to live in the element of each chakra, since they are associated with the elements. The Root chakra is associated with the earth element, for instance. I also wanted to live in the personality of the governing deity of each chakra. So I’d go up through them all, from the Root chakra upwards, starting with “Svayambhu”.
The next chakra is associated with the water element, and that’s the song “The Blue Lagoon.” That one is actually based on another dream that I had when I was a very small girl about lying in a glade next to a deep, deep, deep blue lagoon and I was suffused with a sense of bliss. I was always trying to re-dream that dream because it was such a complete joy. It’s hard to put into words. But I thought that went perfectly with the water element, whose governing deity is Vishnu.
The idea of Vishnu in that song is that Vishnu is going to show me who I am. That chakra is about self-study, and they teach in the Yoga sutras that ultimate self-knowledge is when the association of the elements prakriti, which is nature, and purusha, which is soul or God, is broken. Then purusha, the seer, dwells in the seer’s own state, as the true meaning of self.
HMS: Is the song “The Blue Lagoon” about reaching that state or coming closer to it?
RP: It’s about the soothing quality of meditation. You’re soothed by your higher intelligence. We have mind, which is darting about constantly, and fugitive, and untamed. It’s chaos and confusion, governed by tendencies, desires, anger, greed, lust. It’s a forest of chaos. But when you can quiet that by using your higher faculties, you can touch on a state of quiet where you can approach a meditative state. That’s the idea, to me, of Vishnu in that song. In the song, I’m trying to follow this path, but I can’t see where I’m going. I’m going in circles, and I’m in a panic, like being lost in a forest. Then the Vishnu element comes in and says, “Just lie down. I’ll show you who you are.” That’s a soothing element.
HMS: That reminds me of the cover art of the album, which is green grass, and you’re lying down, and the sun’s there. It’s a very calm image.
RP: Yes, I was trying to recreate that image of me lying by the pool in the dream. The pose is a gateway pose into more esoteric practices of Yoga. It’s a pose for beginners, like me, and it was brought to us beginners by B.K.S. Iyengar.
HMS: I’m sure that fact that the album has been created from a beginner’s perspective makes it more accessible for general audiences.
RP: That’s one of the reasons that I do Yoga, because I can’t deal with the chaos of my mind and the chaos of the world. I need to calm all of those things down which are so active within me.
HMS: It’s definitely true that many, many people can relate to that. When it comes to composing music for these songs, like for “The Blue Lagoon”, how did you approach it? I notice that song includes seabirds, and an echoing feeling.
RP: I was thinking about that and asking myself how I composed these songs today. I composed them, really, in a way that I’ve never composed before. I started with drum loops and I started with keyboards using sampled sounds. It’s a MIDI instrument. I also used Logic Pro at a digital-audio workstation, which I know a lot of people use for songwriting. I was making tunes in my head, then I was translating them onto different loops or chord progressions. For the song “Clouds Are Clearing”, I made a little harpsichord fugue at the beginning.
HMS: I loved that fugue and was going to ask you about it.
RP: That originally came from a string part in my head, and it was inspired by an old movie called Ossessione, which has a beautiful score. It has almost a Folk tune part to the score. In my head, I thought this was what it would sound like, but I couldn’t find anything that would work, so I changed into a more Bach-like sound and feeling. Things occur to you in your mind, and then when you come to realize them, they often change quite a bit.
Another song that I wrote, called “Tiny Room” was built around me just singing a mantra. Other things that are associated with chakras are mantras. There’s a mantra called “Bija”, which means “seed”, and each chakra has a specific Bija mantra. I built “Tiny Room” around the mantra for the heart chakra. A lot of the songs were also built around the sound of the Tanpura, which is an Indian instrument that’s stringed and makes a drone. I resonated with it because I was brought up in Scotland and Scottish folk music is based around a drone from pipes with a melody on top of it. I find that Indian ragas really remind me, in a way, of Scottish music. They really speak to each other. Something in me said, “That’s my music.” So I used it on the record.
HMS: I rarely hear someone say that songs were written with the drums first, so it’s really fascinating to hear that. When I listened to this music, I noticed that cadence to it, though differing between songs. There’s an underlying element which ties into the drone you were mentioning.
RP: I think that’s definitely true. They are all versions of raga.
HMS: The song “Rudradeva” is a great contrast to some of the other songs that we’ve been talking about because it has this driving beat and high-energy percussion and movement. I think there are some real-world sounds in there, too, right?
RP: Yes, I put traffic noises, morse code, and a war-time helicopter in there with someone speaking on the loud speaker. There’s thunder!
HMS: So this song is based on certain elements, too?
RP: Rudradeva is the destructive element of Shiva and is a destroyer, often depicted with arrows. Rudradeva is often associated with thunder and lightning and is sent to destroy evil and the equivalent of the seven deadly sins like lust, greed, envy, and malice. At first, when I did that song, I had a quite set vocal that was much more tame. I kept playing it to my husband and he kept saying, “It doesn’t work.” He finally said, “You have to be insane to sing this song. You have to be like a banshee.” So I did that banshee-esque kind of vocal and that’s the one that we went with, finally. It was very freeing and liberating to be wild, as wild as I could be vocally.
HMS: I was thinking, when listening to this album, that you must have had to develop new vocal approaches.
RP: Yes, especially with that one. Usually I’ve been quite controlled and don’t have the confidence to really let myself go. In fact, it took me years to even say to myself, let alone anyone else that I was a singer. I’m a writer and I’m singing my songs, but I’m not Aretha Franklin. I don’t really have a trained voice, though I have been taking singing lessons from a wonderful teacher of late which has broadened my range and made me much more confident. It made me realize that I am a singer.
But in “Rudradeva”, I actually felt like an actress. In acting, I seem to be able to have the freedom to project and do things with my voice that I haven’t been able to do before. I just tried to express pure emotion, without caring what it sounded like, in that song. That was a lot of fun.
HMS: That’s very positive that it broke so much new ground for you. I wondered how you saw this record in the context of the other music that you’ve created. Do you see it as continuity therefore very much your next record, or do you see it as another type of thing entirely?
RP: When I think about it, ostensibly, it looks like something that might be left of field for me or veering off from my normal pattern, but as I think about, I also realize that it’s quite true to my Scottish Folk roots even though it has world instruments, particularly Indian instruments. I feel that it definitely is born out of Folk music.