Singled Out: Jess Turner's Shakespeare

07/12/2012
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Today Jess Turner tells us about the song "Shakespeare" which comes from her self-titled debut album. Here is the story:

Two of the most popular questions I get when people want to understand more about my songwriting are these: 1) "What inspires you?" and 2) "Why didn't you study music at school?" And, frankly, I don't have a real answer to either. But I know that the first title off my debut album has something to do with both.

I was an English major at Princeton, and a self-professed literature nerd. However, here I was my freshman year, toying with the idea of becoming some kind of trendy pop singer, attempting to write bluesy, Sara Bareilles-esque songs. But my songs at that point were still too nice. Luckily, I experienced my first real romantic letdown for the first time between my freshman and sophomore years, and the sass just came spilling out onto the keys. Thank god for jerks.

I wrote the music to "Shakespeare" first. I knew I wanted to write something poppy and bluesy and sassy, but I just didn't really know what I wanted it to be about. Except for him, of course. My heart was stinging but my mouth was singing, and I when I sat down to process everything, I realized that my least favorite thing about the whole thing was the mixed signals. So, naturally, I decided to write a song about it.

The tune took a while to evolve. I was in school full-time, going to literature and music and sociology classes every day, and my head was bulging with new ideas. But I would only have time to write music for maybe 20 minutes a day. However, there was a ton of what I like to call musical daydreaming going on during class. I'd sit in lecture, get bored after 10 minutes, and start painting songs in cursive in my notebook. Despite the internal distractions, I managed to learn a lot during those lectures, and interesting ideas and themes from my literature classes slowly began infiltrating my artistic consciousness. They would pop up later in my songs, and I like to think that my literary-influenced lyrics have become a part of my musical signature.

I was working one night on this new song I had been dreaming up, and I had most of my lyrics for the chorus. They captured my extreme dislike of mixed signals, like I had planned. And then I got to the hook, and I came across a common songwriting roadblock I wasn't sure how to end the chorus. I wanted to sum up my frustration with this guy with something edgy and witty, so I sat there at the piano for about an hour, layering different lines of muttered gibberish on top of the catchy ending melodic phrase I had hummed into existence an hour earlier. In a moment of impatience, I sighed and let my mind and eyes wander over to my desk. I glanced over the towering stack of books and, in a crucial moment for the song, I realized how much my situation and my literature class had in common.

Many of Shakespeare's plays deal with mixed messages someone doesn't get an imperative message in time, people are mistaken for one another. And somebody always dies. While my situation was not quite as tragic as those in the plays I had been reading for ENG385, I got excited by the possibility of combining my two favorite things music and literature. But, in the process, I also wrote into the tune a kind of inside joke with myself, the preppy, intellectual Princetonian trying to be a trendy, grungy songwriter.

I decided to end my chorus with the line, "Feel like I'm reading Shakespeare in the dark." On the surface, it was supposed to imply that the speaker (me, I won't deny it) doesn't understand the story that she's trying to read. She's completely in the dark, attempting to understand what seems like another language. Students everywhere struggle with Shakespeare, even at Princeton. But I was a budding Shakespeare enthusiast. Not coincidentally, I declared myself an English major around the same time that I finished the song. So, on one level, I was trying to convey the idea of being completely lost and confused, with no direction. But on another level, I was convincing myself that I knew exactly what was going on, as a competent reader, and I wasn't going to stand for it. Traditionally, the audience in Shakespeare understands the plethora of mixed messages in the story, while the players tragically don't. In "Shakespeare," I was trying to split myself into the Jess of the song and of that time when I was in the grips of an unproductive relationship, and the idealized version of myself who understood the tragedy of the relationship and could see through the ambiguity and mixed signals. I still like to think that Jess the songwriter is wiser than Jess the girl and can read into confusing situations and people.

Of course, I couldn't be too nerdy with the song. My engineer suggested adding some hip-hop influenced backbeats into the song, and I was thrilled at the idea. The electronic accents underneath the bluesy piano bass are, in my opinion, what make the song. I learned a great deal from writing "Shakespeare," and I aim to continue writing music that is hip and new, yet still pays tribute to all of the writers and thinkers I've been inspired by throughout my life and studies. Maybe nerds can be cool.

Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen for yourself and learn more about the album right here!

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