In 2014, Shoshana Bean was on the "Runaway Train" that she sings about in her new EP "Shadows to Light." She released a few new covers (including one of Sia's viral "Chandelier," which clocks in at over 60,000 views on YouTube), put the finishing touches on "Shadows to Light" (released Dec. 4, 2014) and created full-length, story-driven music videos with the help of friend, collaborator and Broadway buddy Todrick Hall.
On New Year's Eve, she looked back on 2014 by phone with Playbill (Bean was miles from New York City in sunny Los Angeles, where she is currently based).
"So much goes into each process with each album, and I always feel like, 'Well, once I complete this next one, I'll be able to relax a little bit or just coast on that one for a bit,' but I just feel like the way that the music industry — the way that any industry — is right now, the access to content is so quick and instantaneous and available," she said. "I feel like every time I put something out, people are like, 'This is awesome! What's next? Give us more!' … You just continually pump out content."
She added, "I'm flattered, and I love that. It's just trying to make the machine keep moving, so right now on my brief vacation, I'm trying to think of what parts need to be put into place to work on my fourth album, which would be my third full-length album." In the early 2000s, Bean's Broadway career was thriving. She originated one of the Nicest Kids in Town in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray (also understudying Marissa Jaret Winokur) and was the first to replace Idina Menzel in the hit musical Wicked. But, by 2008, Broadway was behind her (temporarily), and she was focusing her efforts on the pop front. "Superhero" was released in 2008 followed by "O' Farrell Street" in 2013.
Bean, 37, is back with "Shadows of Light," and again she's getting personal and pouring her heart and soul into original tunes that hit close to home.
"I just love the process of writing, recording, performing and the freedom of it being my own business, my own form of expression," she explained. "This is a really hard thing for people to understand, it seems like — there is nothing like live theatre and someone else's material and being able to transform every night, [but] there's also nothing like the freedom of being able to express yourself in your own words with your own product, living in your very own dream.
"I really feel like I came to New York with a goal. When I left, and I was done with Wicked, I felt like I accomplished what I came there to do at that point in my life. Does that mean I'll never come back or don't ever want to do theatre again? No. I guess my appetite was insatiable. I don't think that I've gotten to the point of where I'm comfortable taking my eyes off of it yet… I don't feel satisfied yet with what I've done on my own. I feel like there's more to do."
One of the reasons for transferring from the East to West Coast was to channel her energies, thoughts and emotions into her songs. Family, friends and — most strongly — love and relationships serve as sources of inspiration.
"For me," she explained, "writing requires my attention, and some people love the movement and the pace of New York and the constant input of information. It inspires them. I know Scott Alan, my friend, he's one of those people. He needs that pace to keep his creative pulse pounding. For me, I needed L.A. and quiet and space. So, having quiet and space, and getting away… I write a lot when I go away [to] Joshua Tree, Palm Desert, Catalina… Whenever I'm away and shut down is when the most comes out of me it seems."
In fact, the singer took a trip to Catalina Island and came back with "Avalon," the bluesy second track off "Shadows of Light" in which she sings, "I drove 500 miles to get away," as she ventures into the abyss in search of healing after a breakup.
When asked about the track, she first noted, "I'm obsessed with John Mayer, that should be the first thing. I think I read somewhere that he never likes to give the absolute specifics or answers about songs [to allow] people [to] interpret for themselves, so I always get scared answering those questions, but I'll give you the gist of it.
"Avalon is the city of Catalina Island out here in California, which is like an hour-long boat ride off of the coast of Long Beach. Catalina Islands are like the most extraordinary little getaway…and it was some place I went not long after the breakup. I just went by myself, and I had no cell service and no Internet, and I just went with the intention of writing for three days. It's a really interesting thing to deprive yourself of the outside world and communication, and 'Avalon' came out of that, gratefully. The other interesting part about that is that there is a book called 'The Mists of Avalon,' and I guess the whole concept is that you don't see the island Avalon — the ships would try to find it — and you don't see it unless you believe it's there, so it only exists if you believe it's there, so that's kind of another interesting factor about titling it 'Avalon.' The ideal places only exist once you believe first. You have to believe to see, as opposed to see to believe. That's the other part of that. It was just a post-breakup song of going away to try and escape that pain, but there's really no getting away from the process of dealing with a breakup! You can drive as far away as you want, and that shit is still there."
Another track off the EP that Bean finds extremely personal is "This War," which she admits is hard to discuss during interviews or revisit its accompanying music video, which plainly displays the performer — stripped of all smoke and mirrors — in front of a black background.
"The making of the video was so intensely personal," she explained. "The song is so personal, and it's also so expository and vulnerable, and that's why the video is that because the song tells the story itself."
Bean contemplated a more creative approach for the video, such as a paux de deux, but was convinced to let the story speak for itself. After almost 20 takes, and feeling uninspired, her director had "a conversation with me about the song and why I wrote it," she said, "and then I was totally exposed and vulnerable. He left the room, and that's when that happened."
But not all of Bean's music is melancholy. With "Runaway Train" (and its accompanying music video), "there were elements that I was really key on expressing — individuality and not defining yourself on whether someone accepts you or not or loves you or not," she said. "I think that's an epidemic. We all just really crave — not just in our relationships, but in our social media and anything — this acceptance and acknowledgement. [We think], 'If that person doesn't love me or if they don't like this picture or if…,' there's something wrong, and I just really needed some way to express that."
In the music video (created with Todrick Hall, whose videos, such as "Beauty in the Beat," tend to go viral from the moment they hit the interwebs), a young gay boy is rejected on the playground, so he laces up his high heels, puts on his favorite studded jewelry and dances away his troubles. "What better way to do that than with a kid and the innocence before it's all tainted — him having an outlet for his creativity and him being accepted by his family," explained Bean. "That's the ideal situation. Not everyone gets to go home and get a hug from their dad, especially when they're in their high heels and jewelry. It's obviously a storybook ending, but more of [my] intention of what I would like to put out into the world — that acceptance and that love. That is where 'Runaway Train' came from."
Although she admits that movie making can be scary, she pushes through. Why? "Because I know it's important," she said. "I read an article that was like, 'You can't look back. Once you've made something and done it, then you just keep moving forward. You can't look back and judge it for how many downloads or how many views or how much money you made off of it.'
"You have to just create what you're called to create and what your heart moves you to do and keep moving forward and keep creating. That's my job as an artist, as a performer, as a writer — not to stand there and judge my work. It's to then just keep [turning out] more."
As for getting back to the stage, Bean was back in the city this summer, starring in an industry reading of Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould's Lempicka, about the tumultuous life of art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka.
"I did the most glorious piece I'd ever been lucky enough to do this summer," she said, "and it was such an extraordinary experience. If that moves forward, that would be something I would love to be involved in… It's just a tremendous piece, and I haven't seen anything like that for a woman in I don't even know how long, so that would be something where I'd be on the first plane [back]!"
As for the future, her motto: "I just feel like if it's meant to be, it'll happen."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)