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Shara Worden’s symphonic outfit My Brightest Diamond continues to craft lyrically lush and prolific soundscapes on her latest LP This Is My Hand. The visceral backbeats and percussive pulse of tracks like “Pressure” and “Lover Killer” befittingly compliment Worden’s pristine vocals. In no doubt a result of her operatic training and emotive intuition, This is My Hand leaves listeners captivated from beginning to end.
In advance of My Brightest Diamond’s show at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday, Sept. 25, we spoke with Shara Worden about rhythm, the body, feminism, and why she calls NYC home.
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You come from a long line of musicians and composers. How has your relationship with music during your formative years impacted your current connection to music as a performer? How have your experiences as performer shaped or changed your appreciation of music?
I think that because it was modeled to me, particularly with my father but also my uncle who is a world-class classical pianist — he was doing Van Cliburn competitions and playing very seriously around the world in the ’70s, he’s also an incredible jazz musician — so I think just having that model, those two things embodied in the same person, that certainly effected what I was brought up listening to. And then my parents were doing church music and classical music. Also my dad would go to the library and bring home Michael Jackson records. I very clearly remember him bringing home Thriller and a Joan Jett record when I was in the third grade, so I think that effected me a lot.
In terms of This Is My Hand whether emotional, lyrical, or instrumental, what were your thematic goals for you, what was the genesis point of this album?
Definitely Daniel Levitin The World in 6 Songs. He lists six themes throughout human history. I also read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee in which he talks about how before we were using words we were making sounds. It also talks about how art has always been with human beings and how it’s inextricable with the human experience. I set out these six tunes so that those were the themes that I started out with and I made a list of all the things that I imagined that this tribe of people, like the tribe of the concertgoer, what we could all do together and in my mind we were gathered around the fire, we’re singing together, dancing together, telling stories, we’re hearing from the shaman. One of Daniel’s themes is war, and so I wanted to flip that a little bit so some of the songs still having something to do with looking at the definition in a way of bad and good and embracing the parts of the self that are violent or destructive instead of kind of looking at someone else and saying “I would never do that.” Like looking at the places of violence within one’s own mind, our capacity to love as well as hate. The other point I would make is that as I was thinking about this collective music making, the marching band became this symbol to me of a place in American culture where because of the ubiquity of the marching band in high schools, and Detroit in particular where I live has so many marching bands, and I was also in Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament and the composer Jonathan Bepler uses like 60 horns and drums in that and so as we were filming that over the past couple years, just the experience of being in that film and moving through space with these huge marching bands — I wanted this sense of communal music making and the 3D experience of it so that’s how I ended up choosing that instrumentation.
“Before the Words” posses the lyrical tone of a traditional oral story of origin. How does “Before the Words” explore our instinctive or intrinsic connect to music as pre-language, pre- articulated memory of experiencing musical narratives and songs?
In a way that song is an information song. So you exactly got it. It’s not super explicit I guess. There’s this myth of the owl that talks about the owl being the observer of the world, like as the world was being formed the owl was the one who was watching everything being made, so the chorus for that is like the owl watching, you know? Also it talks about being in the womb, that when we are being formed ourselves, we’re hearing mother’s heartbeats and mother’s rhythms, the rhythms of the body.
On prior releases like A Thousand Shark’s Teeth classical orchestral elements have played a more dominant role from track to track. With This Is My Hand, percussion, electronic orchestration, and visceral rhythms tend to take center stage in terms of the album’s instrumentation. Can you discuss briefly the role rhythm plays on this album?
This album is different in that I started with the rhythm and none of the other albums would I say that, maybe with All Things Will Unwind I was really thinking about tempo but with this record 90% of the songs came from the beats first and that’s never something I’ve done, so that was definitely a goal of mine. I think that the classical elements are still equally there on this album, I just think that because people … associate strings with classical music and less do we associate horns and I think that what I had a lot of fun with and what will continue to be fun with this ensemble is having the wind quintet of flute, clarinet, sax, trombone, and trumpet. You can flip in and out of deemphasizing the flute and the clarinet and then you have like a funk section and if you emphasize the clarinet then you’re going a little more into jazz, which this album does only in a John Barry, James Bond kind of way. For me it’s more about the perception of our culture, how we associate strings with classical music. To me it’s more like, you know, the last record was like a watercolor and this is like slapping up oil paints. In the mind [it’s]a different color palette.
The narrative of “Lover Killer” and “I Am Not the Bad Guy” seem interconnected in the way they comment on the dissonant juxtapositions often present in interpersonal intimacies like romance, lust, or love. In what way are these songs in conversation with each other? How are they resisting each other?
I think they both started out as the war theme. What’s interesting is that because they are about both sides of intimacy, there’s certainly a struggle and certainly “I’m Not the Bad Guy” you see that more clearly. Where as in “Lover Killer” the language of that is much more so about war, whether that’s the war with the self or a war with another person. I don’t know necessarily that they contrast. I guess there is this sort of dualistic thinking that I actually don’t even know that it exists and the device of those two songs is to have this sort of good and evil, but at the end of the day I think that its all much grayer than that and maybe we get a sense of that in “I’m Not the Bad Guy” a little bit more even though there’s this good and bad language that’s being used. I think now on the other side of it I don’t even agree with that anymore, and the same could be said for “Looking at the Sun.” There’s this wrestling with a decision, and whether that’s pessimism or optimism, I think the device of these clean lines between do you stay, do you go, do you love, do you hate … that doesn’t actually exist. I guess both [songs] are also about making decisions.
Your single “Pressure” has been cited as a favorite by many reviewers. What is your current favorite track from This Is My Hand? Which is your current favorite to perform live?
I’m enjoying “Bad Guy” a lot. We do “Pressure” with local marching bands, and that’s super fun. Also “Resonance.” We’re doing that in the live show and it’s a place where, with that outro, I really wanted the album, especially the show, to have this ecstatic experience where it’s like being in a sauna and you push past your resistance and you dig into it. Its like the mind stops thinking in having a certain expectation. I think “Resonance” is really providing that. I just end up screaming and playing the guitar as loud as I can and the drummer is just playing a million notes and its just this real immersive experience for us as the performers to go to a different emotional space by kind of taking off the expectation of ‘here’s the song and here’s where its going to end” to the only part of the set where maybe its going to be six minutes, maybe 10, we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like pushing up against a wall and you claw through the wall and then see what’s on the other side and there is that vulnerability of not knowing what is going to happen. It could fall apart. With the wall of sound hitting your body there are also physical energetic things happening with that much sound. It almost opens up all of your chakras. You end up feeling very open afterwards.
The title track of the album, “This Is My Hand,” really speaks to the importance of self-actualized embodiment and the way bodies, in a way, are structured representations of both concrete and intangible elements. For you, how is embodiment vital to the cultivation or creation of songs? Does this track in any way have feminist Implications?
As I was going through thinking about these rituals of the tribe or what do I want to do with the tribe with me as the facilitator of the activities of the tribe, I thought, well, “I want to dance.” But then I don’t know how to write dance music. From a very early age of being a singer/songwriter, performer, growing up in a Christian culture that says that the body and the embodiment of the body, being in your body and that as a part of the human experience and as being good, let alone being sexual or being in the body, that’s not something that was a value that I grew up with. And then I think as a musician and a composer and perceiving a long time ago that I was not going to be taken seriously as a musician if I was a dancer. I went the road of the intellectual in order to show myself that I was smart, that I was capable, that I could keep up with the boys. It was competitive, and in my mind, with the boys that were saying literally, and I quote, “You’re just a girl, you don’t know nothin'” and me being like, “I’m going to show you.” And finally at this point in life, I’m kind of like, “Why did I throw away my body? Hey I want that back! This is for me. This is part of my joy and my pleasure, this manifestation in this body and I’m not going to deny it any more.” So I think this tune is certainly feminist. Absolutely. The female is just like the male, just like the other expressions of gender. We all should be in possession of our own bodies. That’s what we have.
New York has been part of you in many ways. What aspects of New York do you miss the most? What do you love most about performing in NYC?
The Bowery is one of my favorite rooms in the country. I just love that room. I think what I miss and what I’m thankful to be able to just jump into with this city is the artistic stimulation. There are just so many people making such interesting, daring, brave work and I think that when you leave, the stimulation that you get is more from completely other categories and ways in which you are stimulated as an artist. Part of why I left is because I felt like I wasn’t in contact with enough people outside of the art industry. But the great thing is just how many people are making such challenging and thought provoking work in New York. I mean the saturation level alone, there’s no other city that’s happening in. You miss it. It hurts to go away from it. I feel like New York will always be my artistic home. I feel home here.