My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden on Concept Albums and Marching Bands

Music Features My Brightest Diamond
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Shara Worden is an artist. A real artist. She approaches My Brightest Diamond with more concept than just a musician with a song. From onstage theatrics to well-thought-out lyrical themes, you get much more than the usual experience while listening to one of her records. On her fifth LP, This Is My Hand, Worden incorporates bigger sounds and bigger choruses into plenty of moments that can be justified as avant garde. A marching band gives opening number “Pressure” a near hip-hop feel, all while our frontwoman soars over it in near operatic fashion. “Love/Killer” builds with unease for the majority of the song, breaking free just in time for it to somehow recall Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” at the same time. It’s an amazing talent, which we were able to talk with her all about recently.

Paste : With a record like this, do you have to go into it thinking about concept, lyrically speaking?
Shara Worden: For this album, for sure there was. I started out reading, just kind of asking what the value of music is. The industry has changed so much and when you go to make a record these days you really have to think, “What am I doing? What is this for? Why am I doing this in the first place?” But I love it. Then the next question was, “What does music mean to me and what do I want to say and why do I want to say it?” So I started reading and researching and gathering and listening and taking in lots of information like Daniel Levitin’s book, The World In Six Songs, in which he talks about the six themes throughout human history in songwriting. So I thought, “Okay, there’s my six themes.” And then I was thinking, “Alright. Here we are. We’re all gathered together in this concert. How can I facilitate community? If we were this imaginary tribe gathering around in a concert, let’s sing, let’s dance, let’s hear ghost stories from the shaman. Let’s engage with one another.” So I made a little list of what the audience could do. And then I had my little themes. And then I coincidentally became obsessed with marching bands.

Paste: It kind of reminds me of what Pete Townsend was trying to accomplish in the ‘70s with his Lifehouse project. Thinking of it in terms of “what can music mean and how it can relate to an audience.” Of course, he wasn’t able to realize that back then. It’s also a thing of like, only artists will think of it like this. For us fans it can be as simple as pick up the record and hit play and hopefully have that instant connection. There is so much more pressure on your end.
Worden: It’s fun!

Paste : The album ends with uncertainty in the song “Apparition.” Why?
Worden: That’s the ghost story. That song, I studied opera in college and there was this song by Claude Debussy called “Apparition” and the text is by Mallarme. I always loved the beautiful image of this person who sees a kind of ghost and the ghost has a kind of halo, a “hat of light.” And they drop these flowers and he says, “You are a spoiled child.” But he’s also kind of enraptured by this ghost. So I translated the text and that’s the last song.

Paste : And like an apparition, the album builds up to just…disappear. There is a strong uncertainty feeling of, “Where does this go now? Where can she take this after this?”
Worden: It’s like in yoga practice when you have the corpse pose at the end. You’ve come on this journey and you need a little bit of transition time before you go into the next thing. And that last song on the record, I often think of it in that way.

Paste : There was a bit of a religious background with you, right?
Worden: Oh, a bit. [laughs]

Paste : Right. I’m trying to undersell it because we’re not going all the way in that direction. But when I listen to your music, it’s evident that it’s still in there. Does it still play a big part of your life with your lyrics?
Worden: My grandfather was a traveling evangelist for 50 or 60 years. My father was doing music in church for much of my life. So I definitely think that the idea of seeing your family care about community and seeing my family facilitate people making music together is very much a part of this album. One of the six themes in Daniel Levitin’s book is religion. I thought, “What in the world am I going to do for this theme? Daniel, why are you giving me this task?” So the song “Shape” talks about the nameless one. That this nameless thing is at one moment in a whisper and in another moment it’s in a storm and in another moment it’s in all these different forms. And in the end, I imagined everyone vogueing and everybody take a different shape. Like this nameless manifesting in all of the people in the audience making their own unique expressions.

Paste : You say “imagining this,” I get this meditation feel from you. Do you have to concentrate to decide what it’s going to be?
Worden: Everything comes from the imagination. I think it’s the difference between being on, this is the fourth My Brightest Diamond album, but it’s the seventh album that I’ve written and I’ve made lots and lots of other records with other people. So I think at this point, music making isn’t just, “Well, how do I feel today?” It’s like something that I go to, like Leonard Cohen said, he presented himself to the work. He put on a suit and went to the office. It doesn’t mean that discipline or thoughtfulness negates fun or spontaneity at all.

Paste : Did the move back to Detroit help? I know you left New York. You don’t hear of people moving to Detroit as much these days, and to hear of an artist saying “I moved to Detroit for a reason.” Did that help with the art?
Worden: Yeah, I needed a change for sure. Detroit’s a really interesting place because it’s still, while the house music from the ‘90s is not happening as consistently as it was back then, dance culture is still very much a part of Detroit. And the gather around in the backyard by the fire is happening there. There’s going to be flour thrown down in the kitchen on the wooden floor, Stevie Wonder is going to get thrown on, or Michael Jackson, and there’s going to be a spontaneous dance party. So I think Detroit influenced that thinking. There’s also tons of marching bands in town.

Paste : Why is that? From the schools? People starting marching bands for fun?
Worden: Both. There’s the Detroit Party Marching Band, and they are awesome.

Paste : I remember Mucca Pazza, but I didn’t know it was catching on.
Worden: Yeah, it’s so cool. There’s this whole phenomenon around the country. All these marching bands know each other, and they all are going to these festivals. There’s Honk in Austin and there’s a Honk in Boston. So as I’m meeting these different sort of cabaret/punk marching band people, they’re like, “Oh, you should call so and so in Portland. And you should call so and so in Austin.”

Paste : It’s hard enough to keep a three-piece band together.
Worden: Yeah, these are like 30-piece bands. They’re really intimate communities, really very democratic. It’s been really fascinating getting to know the marching band circuit.

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