Shara Worden, the artistic force behind My Brightest Diamond, makes smart music for smart people. But if her descriptions of creating This Is My Hand, her mind-expanding new recording, can seem academic at times (she talks about searching for the album's "thesis statement"), she's hardly anti-populist, as the key inspiration provided by a certain Lady Gaga can attest.
In anticipation of her December 2 appearance at the Larimer Lounge, Worden talks about how Hand evolved from the conceptual stage to the fascinatingly idiosyncratic finished product, with references along the way to her evangelical family background, operatic influences, prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and a future every bit as eclectic as her present.
Michael Roberts: I understand your original goal for the album was to explore the basics of music and sound, yet the melodies and structures aren't necessarily all that simple, and the arrangements can be complex at times. So did the material morph as you worked on it, or are those basic elements still at the core of each song?
Shara Worden: You hit the nail on the head (laughs). I began with these three components, and I think the ideas behind them are more intellectual than the music ended up being. I read Daniel Levitin's book The World in Six Songs and in it, he has these six different themes throughout human history of how we've used songs. Those six themes were the kind of backbone of the lyrical ideas. Then the marching band symbolized many things, but one of them was this place in American culture where people might have experienced playing in a group together -- like if we were all in a tribe and everyone was getting together, I also imagined the corporate experience of music-making. So I made this list of things: clapping and singing along together, line dances, individual dancing. And those were kind of the three starting points: the lyrical, the sonic and this list of audience participation. Then you kind of throw your darts at the dart board and see where they land. But those were the names on the three darts.
One of the things I've found in talking with performers over the years is that many of them are reluctant to talk about an intellectual foundation at the outset of a project, because it might make it seem didactic. And yet it seems to me that almost every project has an intellectual starting point, with the art flowering from that point. Is that your view as well.
I guess it's really different for different people. This record very much started from a more intellectual place. But I know some people don't work that well at all.
Do you work that way sometimes, and other times you don't?
When I first started writing songs, it was more "These are songs about my life and I'm just processing my feelings." But the longer that I do this, I don't have time to just "Well, this is what I'm feeling today." I think I see the steps now from bedroom to performance that in the beginning I didn't see. So now when I'm going into the writing, I'm like, "How do I want to feel when I'm playing these songs every night? How do I want the audience to feel? What do I want the concert experience to feel like?" Maybe some people, they already were doing that at the beginning of their process, so they didn't have to think about it so much. But my journey started in a very sort of personal way, and then getting to the point of finding out what I want to feel has been a longer walk for me.
Does this approach allow you to have more control over the performances in the sense that you can guide the ebbs and flows more than perhaps you did in the beginning?
Absolutely. I'm very much concerned about the pacing of a show and how the show flows. I think being a songwriter, part of it is having the right song for the right moment. That is what I want in my life: In each moment, I have the tune that I need. And I certainly don't have them all yet.
But because you've been at this for a while, you now have a greater wealth of material to draw from.
Continue for more of our interview with My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, including more videos and photos. You mentioned the inspiration of the marching band, and in "Pressure"....
...you use a drum roll of a sort with which we're all so familiar. But instead of having that be your entire musical statement, you hang so many interesting flourishes on it. Did the song start with the drum roll and you decorated it, as it were? Or did the drum roll come later in the process?
The strange way that song came about, I had this idea of what if there was a marching band, and they did it like a parade - so we had a processional to the stage and the audience would be surrounded by this marching band and there would be a marching band onstage with a rock band. I had done a couple of shows in Detroit with a marching band and we just didn't have that moment where the marching band comes to meet the rock band. So I thought, "This album really needs its thesis statement," and it was last minute, two days before the final drum sessions, when I heard Lady Gaga's "Applause."
And I was like, "Oh! I really like this!" So I charted out her measures and started plugging in drumbeats into my computer program, into ProTools. And I did most of the things using Sibelius, which is music-notation software, and then using these very primitive drum machines in ProTools. And within two days, the drummer sends me back these amazing interpretations of my terrible drum programming. And then I do just spend quite a bit of time working on how I want those arrangements fleshed out for the more orchestral sides of things. So it often starts with the backbone of the song and then you do the arrangement on top of it. Most of the time, that's how it happens.
I'm familiar with Lady Gaga's "Applause," and I don't think many people would necessarily say, "She lifted that from her song!"
(Laughs.) But if you listen to the opening (she sounds out a series of notes), it's the same. It may be about all that's the same, but that's the same. The rest of it sounds completely different.
The lyric to "This Is Your Hand"....
...struck me for a sort of bizarrely personal reason. When I was just learning to talk, I'm told that I would point to objects and say "This is....," and then wait for the adults to fill in the blank, as if I knew what it was all along and I just wanted to confirm that they did....
That's so cool!
Your lyrics in the song are do declarative in that same kind of way. Is that a variation on the back-to-basics idea we were talking about earlier: saying something as simply as you can say it?
Yeah. I had this notion that the tribe gets together and dances, but I don't have the slightest idea about writing dance music, because I never have. So how in the world can I facilitate dancing? But I realized that the way I grew up, from my family but also from music, I just figured out that if I was going to be taken seriously as a musician, I'd better not be a dancer, too. So I stopped dancing very early on when I began writing songs. So this song was about "I want to write a dance song, but to do that, I have to reclaim my body for myself." It's a simple ritual -- taking ownership of your body and saying, "It doesn't matter what other people think or have said. This is mine."
Continue for more of our interview with My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, including more videos and photos. You mentioned your family background, and in this context, I thought about the repetitive nature of the structure in the context of sermons, and I know you grew up in a family of evangelicals. Repetition is such a powerful element of sermons: Is that something that occurred to you? Or something you can see a correlation to?
I would probably not have made that connection myself. I would have said it was more like a mantra. Almost a contemplative state. But it's also prayer-like in that way.
And there's such a connection between prayer and dance -- one that's not always acknowledged in this country, although there are plenty of cultures where prayer and dance are almost synonymous.
A song on the third record, "Be Brave"....
...was like that. It was almost like a rain dance. I was doing a lot of research on Cherokee dancing prayers. But that's really interesting. I hadn't thought about what you said in that way for years. I'm going to look into that (laughs).
A lot of the other songs on the album are framed around powerful statements: "I am a lover and a killer"....
...and "I am not the bad guy." Can it be hard at times as an artist to come out and say something as plainly as that? Are there times when you have the inclination to add something, as opposed to just saying it the way it is?
Both of those songs started out as the songs about war, and they were definitely the most difficult. Their lyrics changed up until the very last minute of the album - and yes, it's very hard. (Laughs.) Originally, "Bad Guy"....
...started out as a song about Guantanamo Bay. But I felt like the lyrics weren't sitting right. So at the last minute, I thought, "I'm going to change the perspective. I'm going to think of myself as the person in jail and see where that takes me." And just by changing the perspective...not all of the lyrics changed, but most of them did, and it kind of opened up into a new thing.
The thing about writing is that you have to take a perspective, and I guess that ends up being hard for me, because I love my gray, I love seeing things from multiple angles. And in a pop song, you really have to take an angle and go for it without explaining.
Continue for more of our interview with My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, including more videos and photos. Do you find when you do take an angle that listeners' interpretations wind up being as widely varied as if you'd stayed in the gray?
That's, I guess, you hope with songwriting and metaphor, always. There's this sort of Alanis Morissette philosophy of really explicitly laying things out....
I think what I want is for people to be able to put themselves into the song, so even if you're making a statement, you always want to leave room for the audience to have their own application of what that metaphor means to them. That's always what the hope is...that you're not dictating to people how to feel about anything.
Your approach can be quite theatrical at times....
...and your background in opera is quite unusual in pop music. What kind of a stylistic influence did that background have on this album?
In the beginning, the project was very picture-oriented: Here's the tribe gathering together, and sort of seeing myself as a shamanic facilitator for this gathering. In the end, for the live show, I've really wanted to strip back the bells and whistles and hot-glue-gunned outfits and silly mustaches and hat changes, because I'm already playing guitar, playing foot pedals, playing keyboards: It's just too much. The things that I'm doing playing-wise are really quite intense. So now it's really stripped-down and hopefully a very honest and transparent exchange between us and the audience.
In a performance-context, is it more important to have honesty in the forefront, rather than technical perfection?
Oh, let's split the difference (laughs). I care about details, but at the same time, I would rather push the technical to its limit so that we go somewhere emotionally....
I would rather sacrifice that perfection and finding out where the edge is to go beyond the edge, where you do make mistakes. And that's where you grow. I find that even when you're playing with players who are better than you, you end up making more mistakes, but it's because you're reaching toward their level. So you need to give grace to yourself so that you've stretched.
You've talked about My Brightest Diamond being only one part of your musical and creative persona. Do you feel that this album has been something of a palette-clearer for you, and you'll head in a completely different direction next?
It's possible. I'm kind of waiting to see what bubbles up. But I also have my life as a classical singer for other composers, and this year, there'll be a record by Sarah Kirkland Snider....
...called Unremembered -- an orchestral album that I'm very, very proud of. And I'm doing a collaboration with So Percussion, a percussion quartet out of New York. We'll do some concerts together. And then I'm going to start working on a new record. We'll keep touring on this album throughout the year, but my eyes are waiting to see what comes into focus. I've done so many collaborations with other people that now is really the time for me to focus on writing. I'm looking to that in the immediate future. And I also wrote an opera, and that's going to tour in the fall.
You say that so casually: "Oh, I also wrote an opera...."
(Laughs.) It nearly killed me. But I'm still here.
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