Prickling All Over: An Interview with My Brightest Diamond

My Brightest Diamond

This June, Shara Worden releases her second album as My Brightest Diamond, A Thousand Shark's Teeth, working with a more classical palette that magically complements her dynamic voice. Drawing inspiration from the full spectrum of the arts--children's books, painters, photographers, trip-hop, French films--the album's eleven compositions (arranged by Worden) are epic and accomplished.

Can you talk a little about the relationship in your mind
between A Thousand Shark's Teeth and Bring Me the Workhorse,
as you started to work on the two albums at the same time? Were
you composing for both albums simultaneously, separating the ones
you wanted to record with the string quartet and those you wanted
to give a more rock treatment?

Yes, I was working on most of the songs at the same time. Because
I wasn’t sure where I was going, or in the beginning was just
learning to arrange, there were sometimes two versions of each song
being worked on simultaneously, one more like chamber music and
the other more band-oriented. I tried to avoid drums on the songs
for Shark’s Teeth for a long time by working with
a beat boxer, Adam Matta, because I thought that beat boxing lacked
the dynamic issue that drums have, but in the end I rerecorded almost
everything for Shark’s and used drums a lot.

Having been involved as one of the performers touring with
Sufjan Stevens, and being entirely at the helm of My Brightest Diamond,
do you feel there is something about the collaborative experience,
as well as working solo, that is necessary for your expression?

Yeah, definitely. Someone else is always going to approach something
differently than you would and that’s always interesting and
stimulating. Even if there is tension in a collaboration, that frustration
allows you to further define your own musical ideas, why you disagree
or what it is that is important to you, and/or it gives you new
ideas of how you might relate to other people in your own band.
There is a certain unwritten set of rules that I have for My Brightest
Diamond and what that sound should be, so it’s nice to do
something in the rap world, or with Sufjan, or with Clogs...more
chamber music, whatever the case may be, and be able to express
something that might not fit in the MBD framework.

Can you talk a little about growing up with so many musicians
in the family? Do you hear any elements of your parents' or
grandmother's musical styles in My Brightest Diamond? Do you feel
that you have rebelled in any way against the music you were brought
up amidst?

I think because everyone in the family is fairly loose on style--they
could get into most anything--style wasn’t really a topic
of conversation or something to rebel against. I rebelled in many,
many other ways than in music. Music wasn’t where the rules
were in our house. But certainly I think that their eclecticism
has had a big effect on me, and I still owe a lot to their idea
that music was work and that it was something you did as a normal
part of life and that everyone can do it.

The titles of both of your releases have referenced animals.
Can you discuss the images or stories behind those two titles?

"Workhorse" is a song about an old plug that is no longer
able to do his job and thus the society wants to ship him to the
glue factory. I wrote the song when I was a frustrated waitress
and I was meeting all these old actor/waitresses who weren’t
getting theater work and at the same time my dad was getting the
squeeze at his computer job because the company was reducing the
size of his team but demanding that he do the job of two people.
All of this added up to me thinking a lot about youth, work, unfulfilled
dreams, and the faithfulness of the middle-class worker who plods
along his whole life. In a way the idea of the Workhorse is about
reestablishing value to something we have thrown away, whereas the
idea of the Shark is about purging oneself of things we hold onto
that we need to let go of in order to have a clear path of giving
and receiving love. In the song “Goodbye Forever” off
of A Thousand Shark's Teeth, the lyrics talk about
losing insecurities and fear so that we could feel the warmth of
the sun, the light, like love, prickling all over us like a thousand
shark’s teeth. The Shark has the power to destroy us, but
its power is restrained out of love.

Is the concept of "the album" important, or are
you more invested in songs as individual experiences?

Neither of these albums were conceived as concept albums. Generally
I think the subconscious, aesthetics, and the events of life are
my theme builders, and only after the fact do I understand that
there are threads running through the work. In the case of Shark’s,
I did write a couple songs late in the game, in order to draw out
this idea of the larger perspective, Alice of Wonderland growing
seven miles high, the flexibility of our perception of ourselves
being large or small, at the bottom of the world or at the top.
There also seems to be a thread of the desire to escape the mundane,
or the thought that our worlds run parallel with others.

Based on comments you've made in previous interviews, you
seem to have great concern for the environment and animals. Are
you pleased with the direction that music duplication has taken,
with downloads and mp3s replacing jewel cases and other packaging?
Is there anything about this recent shift in the physical form of
music that you are unhappy with?

Holy cow! That’s a layered question. Yeah, I am very concerned
about the earth. I think we are all so worried about our rent, our
jobs, our survival, and that’s reflected in that our politicians
aren’t talking much about the earth. This is a season of great
change in many ways--economically, environmentally, technologically.
Because I live four avenues from the coast, a rise in the water
level will have a great effect on my neighborhood. And I’d
be sorry as all hell if those arctic white furry guys became extinct,
so yeah, it’s concerning to say the least.

As far as CD and LP production, it’s great environmentally
speaking that we are going digital. I confess that I still like
holding records and scouring over liner notes and artwork. Maybe
that’s hypocritical. Music never used to be defined by holding
something; the live performance or the music on paper was the defining
work. A recording is still a thing unto itself to me, but maybe
our relationship to it or our expectation of it will change a lot
in the future. It’s hard to say. Unhappy? Um... nervous, hopeful,
scared, thrilled. I am excited about new music. I am concerned with
my survival as an artist. I try not to worry about it and just keep
plotting something new to make and hope that the resources will
be there for me to make it when the time comes.

Your vocal performances are clearly the powerhouse of your
recordings. I'm curious how crafted these performances are or how
often you improvise. Some singers, like Jeff Buckley, have claimed
to sing a song as many as 100 times to perfect it, and then Thom
Yorke has said that he likes to capture a first take that hasn't
been labored over.

I did a lot of the vocal takes at the same time as the bassoon
or harp sessions were recorded because it allowed me to vibe off
of their energy, didn’t give me time to be too careful with
the performances and also saved money! In some cases, though, like
with “To Pluto’s Moon," “Inside a Boy,”
or “From the Top of the World,” the songs were really
hard for me to sing, so I had to do more takes of those. On my first
Awry record (my old band), I did that sing-a-million-takes thing
and I think I killed the songs, so I try to just keep it to less
than three takes as much as possible.

What is your approach to translating your recorded songs
for a live setting?

For the CD-release show in June we’ll have the whole shebang--band,
strings, horns and marimba. That will be my first time trying the
music out with everyone playing live, so I am really, really excited
about it. It’s not a very movable outfit, though, so the tour
will be with string quartet or with drums n bass. Each formation
brings out a different aspect of the music and it keeps it alive
and challenging.

What are your earliest memories of making music? What instruments
were you first drawn to?

I was in musicals as a child and absolutely loved it. I think because
as a young person I never thought of myself as a songwriter or composer,
I didn’t take other instruments seriously and pursued the
theater aspect so heavily. I wrote some bad songs on piano early
on and didn’t play guitar until I was 19. I still don’t
see myself as an instrumentalist, but I wish I could express myself
better on guitar. Prince, Dave Longstreth, and Tom Verlaine make
me drool.

What part of your musical education and experience do you
consider the most important and shaping for you?

Listening and self-criticism.

You said in an interview two years ago that whatever you
worked on after A Thousand Shark's Teeth would most likely
be dramatically different, as you tend to "work in opposites."
Now that you have completed that album, do you have a clear idea
of where you want to be taken next by your music?

I am thinking a lot about rhythm and about music as a corporate
activity. Neither of those aspects of music have been particularly
important to me before, but they are right now.

What are three things that you love?

Carousels, a slight breeze, and crepes with strawberries.

What makes you unhappy?

My lack of acceptance of what IS.

What recent albums or artists are you enjoying?

Portishead, Tim Fite, Dirty Projectors, Clare and The Reasons,
There Will Be Blood soundtrack…

Visit My Brightest Diamond on MySpace.

Identity Theory's recommended listening: "The Gentlest
Gentleman " and "Goodbye Forever" by My Brightest
Diamond

Image courtesy of Matt Wignall

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