Cora Bissett was 17 and growing up in Fife, Scotland, when her band Darlingheart began garnering enough attention to land a five-album deal with Phonagram and begin touring with the likes of Radiohead and Blur. That was 1992. A quarter of a century later, she has immortalized that journey and what it all means in What Girls Are Made Of, a production that will be performed not only at Spoleto this year but also in the U.K., Brazil, and Australia. So, you could say things are even more rock 'n' roll for the 44-year-old singer-actress-director than they were for her as a teen. But for Bissett's personal journey to reach so many people now is a bit of a miracle — several things had to conflate before her story would ever be brought to life.
"I have had no desire to make an autobiographical show before now, like really not in the game plan at all," says Bissett, who's spent the past 10 years directing (Glasgow Girls, Room) rather than acting (though Belle & Sebastian fans may recognize her from 2014 film God Help the Girl).
"But I don't know, I was watching the last production I directed, which was an amazing story about a young transgender boy who had escaped Egypt and landed in Glasgow, and that's where he was able to kind of transition. I was watching that onstage and it was just making me reflect on, 'God, what's my story? What's my journey for me to sort of become what I am now?'"
A year before, Bissett's father had passed away, and as she was cleaning out the family home, she came across all of her old diaries. "Like boxes upon boxes. I was an obsessive. There were about 10 boxes full of diaries, and everything was in there."
While most of us may cringe upon such a discovery, Bissett dug in, fascinated by the depth of detail involved in her daily recollections. She flipped straight to the era of the band forming, recording, touring. "It was all there, like every step of that journey was there, and I'd forgotten just how assiduously I recollected everything," she says. "We got to the hotel room at night and talked about everybody we'd been on tour with, and it was really weird that I was being so attentive — that should have been a kind of mind-blowing, hell-raisin' time as a teenager, but no, I jotted it all down. And all the fliers and everything, it was there just laid on a platter for me."
As she turned the pages, she saw herself growing up, her perspective slightly shifting. She relived breakups and watched herself branch out. For Bissett, it was like being able to go back in time and observe herself gradually turn into a young woman. "And I thought, 'That's what this is about' — this is about those formative moments in your life, whatever those are for anyone," she says. "For me, it was a very dramatic, formative moment, and quite an unusual one."
Less than a year after her father's death, Bissett became a new mother, and her perspective turned to that of her own mother's as she imagined what she'd have gone through when handed a recording contract to co-sign for her underage kid. "And now I'm just thinking about, what am I going to encourage my daughter to do? When do I just have to let her go and make all the mistakes that I made and learn from them?"
So, What Girls Are Made Of isn't just about rising to the charts as a teen and partying with Blur. Certainly, it's all that, set to a soundtrack of the 1990s (think Pixies, PJ Harvey, and, of course, Darlingheart) and performed by a live band, Bissett included. But it's also about the entire rollercoaster of life, the euphoric highs and devastating lows that come at all ages, be it the thrill of hanging out with Thom York or the crash of the band not actually going much further than one single; it's having the child you've always longed for as well as the jarring feeling of losing a parent. It's a coming of age story for both versions of Bissett: then and now.
The now for Bissett is decidedly more assuring.
"It's so lovely to be at a stage in my life where I feel in charge of a thing, I know what I'm doing, I know what I'm trying to do with it, I know who I am — however as much as any of us can know who we are," she says. "Whereas at 17, I'm just getting bundled in a van and I'm like, 'I don't even know what I'm singin' about.' I just didn't have a clue and I didn't really know what I was giving to the world." But here and now, she knows she's offering this story that anyone who's been lost and found themselves again can relate to. "You don't have to have been in a rock band to understand this story," Bissett says. "It's about so many more things — it's about wanting to have a kid and wanting to find a partner and it's about just wanting to land. But the whole journey feels like a rock 'n' roll trip."