The perfect Halloween album has arrived in Rob Rokicki’s Monstersongs, which combines spookily creative new music with a graphic novel featuring illustrations by David O’Neill. Each track tells a different creature’s story as the graphic novel provides visual accompaniment. It’s a fun, surprising and multi-layered endeavor that can be enjoyed by both kids and kids at heart.
Ahead of the holiday—and just after the release of the latest single, “Silver Bullet” featuring Samantha Williams—I spoke to Rob about the process of writing toward younger audiences, his previous experience in the space composing for Broadway’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief musical, and the journey of marrying music to illustrations.
Brittany Frederick: Many people who hear about this album will associate you with your work on the Percy Jackson musical. Is composing for young listeners something that particularly appeals to you, or is that part of your career that’s simply developed on its own?
Rob Rokicki: I think it’s just, you go where the work is. What I like to write about are things that scare me. I’m working on a musical now about an oceanic cult, and indoctrination and tribalism. Lightning Thief was really a story about parents and children, and are we doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes—which is also something that comes up a little bit in Monstersongs, too. I think I write a lot about the things that keep me up at night.
Young adult fiction is really ripe, because everyone feels like they’re at a bit of arrested development…I feel like Harry Potter is timeless because of those things. The idea of finding out who you are, taking agency in the world for the first time, the power and importance of friendship are things that we’re always struggling with or trying to be reminded of. The dreams and goals and hopes and fears that we had when we were younger are still in us.
BF: How did you land on the idea of Monstersongs specifically, especially incorporating the graphic novel? Was that something you had wanted to expand into or did it just make sense for this album?
RR: I had a real clear idea of what I wanted to do. Initially it was going to be a song cycle, but now it’s turned into a much more cohesive piece that has a narrative and the new song helps definitely flesh out that narrative a little bit more. I was very much interested in the multimedia aspect—doing a graphic novel that [was] a rock album, but also a stage show. And now it’s being developed as a virtual reality video game.
Anybody can feel like they’re a monster or feel like they have seen someone else as a monster. And this piece tries to dismantle some of those notions like, what is a monster? Why do we have these archetypes? The goal here was to look at love and how that’s twisted in different ways to create monsters, whether that’s societal or unrequited love, all those things, and mix it with a visual art form.
BF: Is there a particular track that you’d highlight to potential listeners?
RR: If you can listen to it in one go, I think you’ll have a lot of fun. There’s some new material; it’s been re-uploaded, so the fidelity of that recording sounds better than ever. But hearing it all in sequence is really exciting—especially if you can download a digital version of David O’Neill’s beautiful artwork, because that’s a really wonderful way of getting that synergistic experience of seeing the visuals as well as hearing the album. Each song is done in a different style, and the artwork that goes with each monster is done in a different style. So you can pick which one you like the most; that’s kind of fun, too.
BF: How did you connect with David and get him involved in the project? What was it like to work with him?
RR: Joe iconis has been a collaborator and a dear friend for over a decade…and I proposed doing this together with him. And he was like well, why don’t we just do one song? That’s how “Footprints” came, the song about the yeti and the sasquatch. It’s kind of a song about the testament of our friendship. These misunderstood creatures can find each other in their own way. And I was like, you want to write more and he’s like no, you should keep going on your own. You don’t need to work with other writers necessarily.
And when I was looking at an illustrator…A friend of mine named Melissa Bass is an incredible singer [who] married this wonderful illustrator named Dave O’Neill. I’d seen his work and because he does children’s books, I wondered if he [could] do something really grotesque. Then I saw some of his sketches for Game of Thrones or something he had done, and they were really dark and messed up. I was like “Oh, this is the guy.” I asked him to do just one of the songs to see how it worked. And it was amazing.
Every one of his drawings was more specific and more totally different than the next. It was such a beautiful relationship to work on the show that way. We talked about the monster, the history of the monster, what we wanted to get out of it. And then what’s the visual language of this thing? Medusa we had done in [the style of] those Grecian urns. It’s kind of a classic vibe, and the song has kind of an Adele vibe to it. Whereas the Dragon song is done as a Little Golden Book. It’s really fun like that.
BF: Monstersongs is something that you’ve worked on for literally years. What does that mean to you and how can listeners support it if they discover the album now and share your passion for it?
RR: Little things like liking it, or writing a review if they like it, that can help the algorithms on stuff in Spotify or on Amazon and all those things. But also checking out the other work I’ve done and giving that a chance. Telling your friends; that word of mouth really goes a long way to help support the artists that you like. When I love someone’s music, I try to shout it from the rooftops, as I really do believe a rising tide lifts all boats.
A lot of times you create these projects in a vacuum. You don’t know who’s out there. So it’s really exciting when someone is like, that really connected with me. Monstersongs, the show has been done in London and in Japan. And there’s a production in Amsterdam happening right now. To know that those songs are going to be done by all kinds of different people from different backgrounds—how absolutely thrilling that is as a creator, to know that it’s resonating in different ways.
BF: Accessibility in theatre is something else that you’re passionate about. Is there anything else you’d want to leave readers with?
RR: Accessibility is the thing that’s on my mind, first and foremost. I’m not sure that I really am so enamored anymore with the big Broadway. I’m much more excited about just the work itself and telling stories in unconventional places, and finding an audience that can reach that and really working on that kind of advocacy. I love how new media and technology and all of those things are also making theater more accessible and hope we can continue doing that.
The only other thing I’d give lip service to is the phenomenal Samantha Williams, who is the singer on the new track “Silver Bullet.” She’s incredible. She’s in Caroline, or Change, this last revival on Broadway. I think she’s really special, so I’m excited for more folks to get to hear her voice. That’s the other thing that I love doing, that I feel very fortunate to be able to do, is to help introduce singers that I adore to the rest of the world. Sometimes that’s students, sometimes that’s colleagues, sometimes it’s just people I admire.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.