Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music: We talk to Drew and Naomi Livingston

One of the delights of the later half of 2014 was So Long Lives This, an album of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music, by performers Drew and Naomi Livingston. The album, a pleasant folky blend, manages to capture the beauty of the sonnets and make them new.

We spoke to Naomi (who is currently in the cast of Les Miserables) shortly after their album launch party – an intimate party in Surry Hills where actors recited and the band played through the album’s sonnets.

So Long Lives This - a new, exciting album
So Long Lives This – a new, exciting album

How did the idea for the album come about – what inspired it?
Probably the first thing we could say is the album is a response to a few events that have occurred in our lives over the last 4-5 years, from the passing of my mum to the birth of our first child.

Drew and I have both grown up writing music and had already been writing music for theatre productions, particularly Shakespearean plays before So Long Lives This had even begun in our minds. However, it was during an afternoon spent with our friend and colleague Damien Ryan (Managing Director and Managing Artistic Director of Sport for Jove Theatre Company) discussing and breaking down sonnets (not long after the passing of my mum) that it dawned on us. We realised that Shakespeare’s words were the perfect conduit for what we wanted to express.

Hearing Damien talk about Sonnet 30 in particular moved us both deeply and for us, the poetry we were hearing immediately felt like music. It was an important sonnet to us during that time and I guess, in a way, an important way of grieving our loss. In that week we turned 5 or so sonnets into draft pieces of music.

We weren’t quite sure what we were creating but we felt they (the sonnets) were such profound parcels of shared human experience that we couldn’t let them go and we knew we wanted to do something with them.

Naomi Livingston.
Naomi Livingston.

How did you find your musicians – and the album has such a beautiful sound. How did you settle on that?

Our plan in the long run is to have So Long Lives This to be basically a soundtrack to a theatrical production and so we began the tentative step towards that with a workshop and showing as part of Sport for Jove’s Summer Shakespeare Festival. So we gathered, essentially, friends and colleagues with whom we had either worked with before or who we had always wanted to snag for such an occasion, knowing they were multi-talented masterminds who were actors/ singers/ musicians/ dancers/ directors …you name it… they could do it all! And so with that we ended up with string players, pianists, guitarists, percussionists and vocalists which gave us an amazing palette of sounds to work from.

Saying that, when we started writing the sonnets, in our spare room at home, our main ambition was to let the text guide us and see what grew from there. And also, on occasion, we would go out on a limb and try a genre of music not usually in our repertoire as an experiment. Some of those sonnets turned out to be the dark horses of the bunch which we got a real kick out of.

What’s next for you both – more poetry into music, or something original, or something entirely different? 

Drew Livingston.
Drew Livingston.

Well Drew has just finished Henry V with Bell Shakespeare (as actor and composer) and I’m currently performing in Les Miserables but our first goal is to work towards the next step of the So Long Lives This project, which is to create a show around it.

So Long Lives This is currently available on iTunes for $16.90, and it’s going to be a great addition to any music collection.

And if you’re in Perth, check out Naomi in the cast of Les Miserables!

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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