SHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND My Brightest Diamond

 

Eschewing conventionality in her quest for musical freedom.

By MARK GUARINO

 

Shara Worden did not discover her musical moniker while
reading a great work of literature. It was not the secret password of a sorority
in college. She did not come up with it while tripping on a powerful
hallucinogen one night at a party.

 

No, Worden chose to record under the phrase My Brightest
Diamond because that is what people told her they visualized her holding.

 

“People were randomly coming up to me and saying, ‘I see you
holding jewels in your hands and you’re holding them forward’,” she says. After
thinking about it, she decided they were right. “I felt that name was so
multi-dimensional and very visual and feminine but also something that comes
from a great amount of pressure and strain. I read in that Eckhart Tolle book [The Power of Now] that the diamond is a
symbol of enlightenment. It’s all those things… I like that.”

 

As the driving force behind My Brightest Diamond, Worden is
creating a singular sound that draws from many sounds: cabaret, guitar rock,
chamber orchestration, film scores. Worden fits into the growing cluster of
artists, from the Decemberists to Antony & the Johnsons, who connect fairy
tale imagery to pop arrangements with theatrical flourish. Plus, thanks to a
young life schooled in choirs and university training in opera, Worden can
sing. Her music makes her sound like a cousin to Joanna Newsom except with the
vocal ecstasy of Jeff Buckley.

 

A Thousand’s Shark’s
Teeth
(Asthmatic Kitty), her second album, is a mixture of icy cool rock
songs and more string-oriented art suites. On “Inside a Boy,” cool, watery
keyboards provide the bottom for slinging rock guitars cresting to great
heights, capped by her commanding vocals. “To Pluto’s Moon” sprinkles classical
guitar around her voice, stirred by cool strings and a pulsing rhythm section.
“Why did you go like this?/I slam against the wall,” she sings. The intensive
emotions in each song are heightened, not by one decisive moment, but by the
intersecting drama its elements create and the believable vocal tremors in
Worden’s delivery.

 

The interest in unconventional sounds comes from a musical
upbringing in a place associated with anything but: Texas. After a childhood of
choir singing in Ypsilanti, Mich., where her father was the music director at a
local church, Worden became a vocal performance major at the University of
North Texas in Denton, about 30 miles north of Dallas. To music insiders, the
city is regaled for its indie music scene, thanks to the university’s rigorous
jazz program (Norah Jones is a graduate) and a lineage of bands past and
present — Slobberbone, Centro-matic, Midlake — that discovered the connection
between Southern twang and lo-fi experimentation.

 

Worden remembers experiencing Denton and classroom life
primarily while strapped into her inline skates. “I would skate into opera
class with huge baggy jeans and the teacher tolerated me because I cared about
the music,” she says. Despite gushing write-ups in Rolling Stone and the New
York Times
claiming Denton as the next musical hotbed of the Southwest,
Worden was nonplussed. “I feel that’s why I had to move to New York. [In Denton]
you have to be a rock person or you have to play funk and blues. It’s very much
in that zone.”

 

After a year in Moscow studying opera post-graduation, she
ended up in New York, bent on pursuing an opera career. Life had other plans.
While in Russia she started writing songs but lacked the confidence to go fully
in her own direction. “I was confused,” she says. In New York she auditioned
for summer programs but ended up not getting into any of them. “I took that as
a sign. Look, I worked my butt off and I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as I
was enjoying making records. In retrospect, serious opera people don’t give up
after the loss of three auditions,” she adds, laughing.

 

She was already recording as Awry, releasing two albums of
avant pop that would set the precedent for My Brightest Diamond a few years
later. In the meantime she met fellow Michigander Sufjan Stevens who, at that
time, was starting to create a stir with his critically adored states project,
starting with Michigan and then with Illinois. She picked up a set of pom-poms
and joined his touring cavalcade of half-musicians and full-time cheerleaders.

 

“If you’re in Sufjan’s band, he’s utilizing every limb,”
Worden explains. “He’d put a tambourine on your foot, a glockenspiel on your
right toe and a guitar in one hand and tell you to play piano at the same time.
Now that he has money, he has 30 people on stage with him but back in the day
it was every limb.”

 

The association led Worden to Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty
label, on which she released the first My Brightest Diamond album in 2006, but
it also gave her focus as a musician. “I got to think of myself as a player and
tried to get freer on instruments and not feel the pressure of being the front
person. When you’re the front person you’re very much aware of the audience and
wanting to connect with them. You feel responsible if something goes wrong with
the band. For me not to be in that position was kind of liberating. It allowed
me to think about what I was doing onstage.”

 

With My Brightest Diamond, Worden layered large string
sections with punk rock construction, a twisted love affair between two
disparate forces she first became curious about after watching the vanguard of
New York’s downtown experimental scene such as Rebecca Moore and Antony &
the Johnsons. “Those were the first people I saw doing alternative song forms
and using that kind of instrumentation. So for me it was a challenge trying to
reconcile my interests and trying to lean in one direction to see what would
happen.”

 

She notes that her performing style gradually turned
theatrical, using costumes and unusual instrumentation, as a means of finding
her own voice: “I don’t think I was bored. I think I was trying to push myself
to find something new for me.”

 

A Thousand Shark’s
Teeth
represents her dual interests — frontloaded with the band-oriented
rock of Awry with the second half comprising her more recent experimentations
with strings. The songs she found herself writing relied less on the
verse-chorus-verse dynamic and were set in motion more by Worden’s visual intuitions.
“I think of [the songs] as French impressionism,” she says, “where the mood or
atmosphere or colors of the songs are very much a part of it, so when I’m
presenting them I’m more concerned about the feeling.”

 

She sounds less removed and more possessed by the characters
in her songs. Boogying bones, courtesy of vibes, and a snaking oboe set the
creeping undertone of “Bass Player,” a song set in a world Tom Waits would
recognize except for Worden’s ethereal vocals. She sees it as a small film in
which the lonely title character imagines a washerwoman taking flight above her
laundry duties. “I want to see the stars at night,” she sings. And away she
goes.

 

Worden, 34, plans two tours this year to support the new
album. The first will feature her singing and playing guitar alongside a string
quartet and the second may be more conventional with just drums and a bass — “It’ll
be interesting to work the music from both angles” — but with a backbeat or
without, she is likely to draw most upon her vocal power, which she hopes is continually
evolving.

 

 “When I listen to
someone really wonderful, they’re singing from somewhere deep,” Worden says. “Where
it sounds like bones.”

 

[Photo Credit: Matt Wignall]

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