If you were lucky enough to see Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise tour in 2005 then you will almost certainly have had an experience much like this: the incomparable Mr Stevens will have come on stage and personally introduced the opening act as My Brightest Diamond. He will then have left you peering quizzically at a tiny person alone on a huge stage. Said tiny person will have then knocked the breath from your body with the biggest voice you have ever heard outside of an opera house. After the show, you will have been desperate to possess this voice on a compact disc of your very own, only to find out that said disc does not exist. You will then have been very sad. Until now…
Despite having been available in the US for almost a year, and during that year having racked up an enviable array of plaudits and gushing critical swoons, My Brightest Diamond’s debut album, Bring Me The Workhorse had not been officially released on these shores until last week. Having toured relentlessly with Sufjan as herself and as part of his own all-singing, all-dancing band the Illinoisemakers, and then with The Decemberists earlier this year, Shara Worden has more than paid her dues and refined her dramatic live persona into something quite unique and unmissable.
Clare Byrne grabbed a chat with Shara ahead of her latest UK dates, including an appearance at this weekend’s End Of The Road festival.
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You grew up in a family of musicians. Do you think it was inevitable that you would become a musician yourself?
That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I mean, there are a lot of people in my family who are not professional musicians. I think almost everybody has played at some time or other, but whether they decided to do that as a career or not varies. So I don’t think that it was inevitable for me to do it as a career, but music is prioritised in my family; it’s sort of a way that we communicate with each other and a way that we spend time together.
Your parents played religious music. What influence do you think religion has had on your music?
I think the beauty of my parents is that while we did have gospel music at home, and while they were doing church music as their careers, they listened to everything at home. I think in a lot of American families there’s a real separation between what is considered sacred and secular, and thankfully my parents didn’t have those categories. I think even in looking at soul music and rhythm and blues, and the connections between that kind of heritage and gospel. Well, my grandparents are from Atlanta, Georgia, so I have that southern gospel thing, but that’s really connected to the blues. It’s all kind of one big continuum.
You can certainly hear the influence of opera on your music. What’s your favourite opera?
My favourite opera is Debussy’s ‘Pelleus et Melisande’. It’s kind of the anti-opera. It’s just so subtle…without a doubt that’s my favourite.
Do you still sing opera?
I haven’t been able to study in a while, because I’ve been on tour, but when I’m at home I try to have a lesson every week. Because I’m not pursuing it, you know; as your body changes your voice changes, so it’s good to keep checking in and continuing to study, and that kind of work stimulates me so much.
There are so many different sounds on the record. What would you say your other main influences are?
I could name a hundred, but probably really poppy stuff mostly. Radiohead is my favourite band ever [My Brightest Diamond recently contributed a cover of 'Lucky' to Stereogum's tenth anniversary tribute to OK Computer]. Prince is a big influence. Nina Simone, Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits. Jeff Buckley, certainly…Björk, PJ Harvey.
Tori Amos, I never give her enough credit. I never talk about her but she’s definitely there. She’s amazing. People talk about the Kate Bush references and I actually don’t know Kate’s work very well and didn’t grow up listening to it, so I think I get some of what people hear as Kate Bush from Tori. I think Tori has even said that she isn’t so influenced by Kate, but I think her range and the kind of dramatic moments in her music are similar, and I think I got a lot of that from Tori.
On your biography on your website it says that the name My Brightest Diamond came from the idea that music was a precious gift that you could give to the world, and I wondered whether that meant that you saw music as having a social function, and if so, what sort of function?
I think that the way I explained it in the bio is kind of an oversimplification. I feel like in any case, whether we have an experience in life or a relationship, something that’s valuable to us…it’s really about when you begin sharing it with other people. I was feeling like I had something really precious, and the music has become part of that but it started out being about an experience or a relationship and feeling like if I showed this beautiful thing to other people, even if it wasn’t in a public way but with my friends, would they get it, or would they be like, “Oh, that’s glass, that’s not really a diamond.” It’s not as significant to others as it is to you.
So I liked that image of having things that are valuable to us, and the question of what we keep in secret places and when we need to share them. And then when we can connect with people, and when people can share experiences with each other and we can take on each others’ precious things – that’s where intimacy is. So that’s really what was at the heart of it. The emphasis is on beauty and richness, and sharing that with each other.
Most people I know who have been digging your music have gotten into it through Sufjan Stevens, and that’s certainly how I came to it. How has being in his band affected your life and your music, and how do you think it affects the reception of your music for people to find you through him, giving that his music is really quite different?
Well, it’s hard to say musically how he’s influenced me, because the record was already finished by the time I started touring with him, and I think we write music from such a different starting place. So I don’t know musically whether there’s a crossing place between the two of us. But I think the way he is as an artist, and the way he makes decisions, and his integrity with the people he works with and with me, and just his attitude about art – that’s been a major influence on me. And just being able to see how he deals with pressure and for me to be supporting him, and also feeling pressure but as a support person, those experiences have been invaluable to me. I’ve grown in confidence and in my own performance so much from not having the pressure of being the frontperson. So I think that was the greatest gift to me, or one of them, in being in his band.
But I think in terms of how people come to it, I think Sufjan’s audience is pretty wide; it’s not a hardline folky audience. So there are some people who are really not into what I’m doing who are really into his stuff, and I think that’s to be expected, but I think more so his audience is a listening audience and they really dig into things and come with attentive ears.
You worked on a project with rap group Jedi Mind Tricks. How was that? It sounds like that was something completely different for you.
Yeah, it was so fun. They contacted the label looking for a singer, and they heard my stuff and asked me to come in. It turned out that the artists and the producers weren’t there, because with my touring schedule and everything we couldn’t get everyone in the same room at the same time. So I had never the raps; I only had the music and the song title and an engineer. So I went in and recorded for three hours and gave them as many different options as I could come up with in three hours and then they cut and spliced and put everything together. It was so fun for me because I don’t get to sing like that very often. And it’s also nice when it’s not your stuff because in a way you’re less protected and you have less objectives about what you’re trying to create, so in a way it was really a lot easier to do an improvisation and then write a hook based on that improv and not feel like you’re censoring yourself.
There’s a lot of animal imagery in your songs. Is that on purpose or incidental?
You know, strangely, it wasn’t on purpose. You know, like Justin Timberlake’s first record has all that water imagery, like [sings] ‘Cry Me A River’, and then everything about lakes and oceans. I think there’s some way that I understand people through animals or understand myself through encounters that I have with animals.
Did you grow up with a lot of animals around?
I loved them. We had animals around all the time. I was dreaming about having an animal if I didn’t have one. I lived in nine different states growing up. But a lot of that, or some of that – my childhood, my elementary school years – was in the country. There was a lot of being outside. My grandfather was a farmer and we’d go to his place during the summer and you don’t have any toys, you just have a hay barn and rabbits and deer and tomcats.
The next record [a string quartet album that's long been going by the name of A Thousand Shark's Teeth], I don’t think there are any animals on it. Oh, well, there’s the shark [laughs].
When I saw you play live last year you played a great version of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Gunshot Glitter’. What other covers do you like to play?
That’s the only song of his I do, although I do some of the same covers that he did. I love that song and I feel like it was something he didn’t have the chance to realise, so I feel kind of obligated to play it. I don’t know how many people have that recording or whether people can get past the funky production to hear the tune. So I feel a certain amount of responsibility [laughs self-deprecatingly]. I just want people to appreciate him…I mean, I know they already do. As far as other covers…I do a lot of Prince. I do a lot of Edith Piaf. And a couple of Nina Simone songs. Those are the main people.
What’s next for you? Will you be involved with Sufjan’s next project or is it all solo stuff for the moment?
I think that I’m so interested in collaboration and I love finding new people that I really like. I get really excited by meeting artists that are doing something. It’s just so stimulating and fun. I really like supporting and having a lot of different roles in other people’s music. So I think that’s always something that’s open, although I don’t have anything set up right now. I think my focus will be touring and getting this next record out. And trying also to be a person along the way. Being a person means maintaining your relationships and being on tour is the antithesis of that. It feeds your soul in one way, and then in another way it’s not feeding the other part.
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