My Brightest Diamond

Posted by Nick Laugher on 1 July 2013

Operatic, cinematic and just plain electrifying, it’s hard to believe that Shara Worden, better known as the ephemeral frontwoman and driving force behind the brooding, orchestral deluge that is My Brightest Diamond, has largely been composing and working on music without the aid of any wires or outlets for quite some time.

Worden has mostly been focused honing her skills directing and composing with chamber music ensembles and channelling the creaking, groaning beauty of wooden instruments and wailing voices. “I have left electricity behind for a few years and I am returning to it,” she says, half joking about her exile.

Known for her riotous, nearly outlandishly electric performances, Worden knows it might come as a shock to realize that much of her work is created in the realm of traditional, acoustic setting. Though, it’s not as cut-and-dry as it may seem.

“I think I will always be toggling between my inner skate punk and the classical music lover,” she admits. “But marching bands & choirs seem to be bridging the gap for me these days.”

She is currently deeply entrenched in strings and studios, working on completing the first My Brightest Diamond album since 2011, and taking a much more languid and contemplative approach this time. “For the last album, [2011’s All Things Will Unwind,] I wrote a song a day and, in total, there were maybe 15 or 16 songs and then I quickly arranged them. We spent three weeks in total recording and mixing that album, so it was an experiment in not over-thinking a project and going for live performances as much as possible. This time, I’m not rushing. I’ve started with the rhythm first, which is something I’ve never done. It is very awkward for me, so I think that is why I have so many unfinished beat ideas.”

Although she’s deeply immersed in the process, Worden says that the album is still very much fighting for its shape.

“I’ve recorded basic tracks for about 16 songs and have at least 30 other song fragments. In the last few days, I just started writing again, because I’m still searching for a particular feeling for this record and don’t think it is there yet.”

The songs that make up the record take a lot of inspiration from the way that music functions socially, how it binds us together and what influence it has on our collective minds and interactions.

“I started thinking about the basics, how humanity is so intrinsically bound to music, so I was reading books, like The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin. Levitin has this idea that there are six song themes throughout history: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religious songs and love songs. I wrote songs based on all of those themes, but the song list for this record keeps changing by the day, so I’m not sure which ones are going to make the cut.”

Known for her beautiful moroseness and wild, brooding darkness, Worden believes that there has always been a tinge of sorrow that has followed her around.

“I had one of my very closest people to me in the whole world die in a really tragic way, ten years ago now, and it was so shocking and it really turned my world upside down. Everything became vulnerable, what I believed in and what I thought my life was going to be like, it was all rocked to the core, so I think the darkness on the earlier records was a result of that grief,” she says, explaining the stark beauty for which she’s renown.

“Even now, I find it very difficult to write in major keys,” she says, half-joking. “I always feel like with a major key I know where it is going harmonically, but maybe that is just that I don’t have a wide enough harmonic vocabulary to take a D major chord somewhere unexpected.”

Though Worden grew up being a formally trained opera singer, she says that she believes the training has only made her that much more vulnerable and naïve musically.

“I am most acutely aware in music of what I cannot do, not what I can do. Music is infinite. You can never truly master it. It always keeps showing you something new. Sometimes, that aspect of being a music maker feels really overwhelming, like I’ve failed before I started, but I try and stick to the idea that I simply need to do it. Whether I’m actually good or not good at any given moment is beside the point.” But there’s no doubt that Worden is incredibly talented. She’s not only released several critically acclaimed albums, but worked with indie-folk heavyweights Sufjan Stevens and the Decemberists in towering, cinematic concept albums, such as The Hazards of Love and The Age of Adz. These were experiences that led her to invoking the aesthetics of cinema and theatre into her music and getting her out of her comfort zone.

“I’ve been experimenting in the last two years by writing music for a play, being in an operatic film, working with pop artists telling stories and then working on new stories for My Brightest Diamond. My life is currently being taken over by this baroque chamber opera that I’m writing and am in. It premieres in August and it is a massive project. But it looks like I’m definitely going to rebound into rock and roll after it,” she says. She can’t help but gush at the wonderful times and experiences in the projects, though, recalling a particularly hilarious anecdote in the early days of touring with the Decemberists for their Hazards of Love tour. “One of the first gigs we all did together was to play on Jay Leno,” she says.

“So, we show up to Jay Leno and I pull out this vintage ’80s dress that I had brought and Becky Stark [of Lavender Diamond], who was also touring with us, looks at me a little sideways. I take the dress to the seamstress to have it shortened and Becky is even more confused. I was getting really strange vibes from her. Then after a little while, she goes to her suitcase and pulls out the exact same dress. She had thought I had actually gone into her suitcase and taken out her dress and was shortening it without asking her. Thankfully, that was not what happened and we just realized that we are cut from the same cloth. We are sister souls.”

Currently holed up in Detroit, Worden says that the city has helped shape not only her musical identity but also her awareness of social divides and the plethora of problems and challenges that come along with them.

“Moving to Detroit has made me see in a really tangible way how one’s life experience can be so very different, being black or white and then having money or not. The dividing line here is pretty deep. There’s always been a social aspect to my work (see the song ‘Bring Me the Workhorse’ as exhibit A), but, even more so now, I’m interested in music that’s about community in a whole new way.”

Though faced with an almost insurmountable pile of semi-finished music to wade through, Worden is revelling in slowly getting her affairs in order and absolutely adoring watching all of her creative outlets take on tangible shapes. “Today, I am working on some new My Brightest Diamond tunes and then, in a few days, I will have to face the mountain of work for this baroque chamber opera so that I can get the scores out to the musicians by mid-July. Then, after the opera is premiered, I’m going to have to sit down and make some final decisions about these My Brightest Diamond songs,” she says.