Few artists in recent memory have cut as original a figure in the indie world as Brooklyn-based Shara Worden, who records under the moniker My Brightest Diamond. Armed with a degree in vocal performance from the University of North Texas and several years of opera study, Worden emerged in 2006 with a startling original sound that mixed elements of pop, progressive rock, classical and opera.
Worden had been recording and performing long before the release of her 2006 breakthrough, Bring Me the Workhorse, of course. Besides some early solo efforts, she had a high-profile gig as a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. But it was only after Stevens signed her to his Asthmatic Kitty label and she developed the Diamond name that she really emerged as an artist.
Bring Me the Workhorse was recorded for the most part in tandem with the album Worden released early in 2008, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth. It was arguably the multi-instrumentalist’s best effort to date. Six months later, Worden further pushed the boundaries of her music by tapping three remix artists — Alfred Brown, DM Stith and Son Lux — to come up with EPs of material culled from the new album.
Can you tell me about your touring band?
It changes. But this tour is a string trio: violin, viola and cello. Then I have all my toys, which include guitar and ukulele, and I have an African thumb piano. And do puppets count? They don’t really play anything, but I consider them part of the band now. They’ve been touring with us for two and a half months, and they’ve asked to be in the band. I told them they could be. I told them not to let fame get to their heads. But there are puppets in the show, and I think they should be counted!
When you first started to blend pop and classical in a live setting, did audiences get what you were doing?
I’m not sure if I got what I was doing. I think in the beginning because I was learning how to arrange for strings there was just so much frustration with the learning process. Even something as small as the string players getting the right kind of microphones — it took probably nearly two years, if not more — for us to figure out what kind of mics for us to use. How do we make these instruments sound good? [When they’re] pitted against twenty-inch drums, how are these tiny things gonna carry? For a long time we were just playing in New York and trying to refine things. People were supportive and really positive. I didn’t feel too much confusion from the audience’s perspective.
Since your background seems to be strictly musical, did you find it difficult when you started to write lyrics?
Well, I was writing really crappy lyrics in high school, a lot of “blue eyes” and “flames and fires burning.” I’m still kind of writing on those matters; maybe I haven’t grown very much.
But the lyrics from (the new album’s) songs — at least four of them — are influenced by children’s stories, whether it was Alice in Wonderland or George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. So that seems to be kind of a theme. “Black and Costaud” is from a children’s opera, and those are the lyrics of the black teapot.
Another influence is the paintings of [German painter and sculptor] Anselm Kiefer. There’s an interview in the back of this book called “Heaven and Earth.” He talks a lot about man’s desire to ascend to the heavens. His is kind of an investigation about man’s desire to reach the untouchable — or the heavens and the stars. So for several songs — “Inside a Boy,” “From the Top of the World” and “The Ice & the Storm” — there was something of his that I think influenced the way those lyrics ended up being.
Since you mentioned puppets earlier, I wanted to ask how exactly they figure into the show.
There’s a song by Edith Piaf I recorded and I’m putting it as the last song in the set. We have these puppets in the video for “From the Top of the World,” and they’re these beautiful puppets that a friend of mine made. I thought it was such a shame that these guys are just gonna end up in a shoebox. So I asked them if they wanted to come out on the road and they said yes. We figured out a new kind of enactment of the lyrics of this one song. The string players go over to a puppet table and puppeteer, and then I sing them in to motion. It’s really special — probably the favorite thing I’ve ever done in a show.
I think it was sort of like “I don’t know if this can work.” But it’s really lovely and it’s really sweet, and there’s something magical about being able to see the puppeteers. By revealing the mechanics of the puppeteering, that makes it more magical in a way. And it allows you to almost jump into your imagination and these things become real. They take on their own life in the story in the puppet show. People have been responding so much to it as well so I feel like it’s been really nice.
Did you find it hard to adjust to singing pop music after studying opera?
Pop music is more related to speech than opera. So operatic singing is based on resonance in a way, that in order to not use a microphone and fill a 2000-seat auditorium you have to create a chamber — a huge chamber — inside your head. And that’s what a lot of the training is about: How do you get those overtones, and how do you develop the sound that is gonna carry that far? Pop singing is the exact opposite of that in a lot of ways, because you have this technology with the microphone. It’s just much more speech-oriented, so you’re not gonna have that resonating chamber. In some cases, you’re almost whispering in a way and using a kind of minimal resonance. And I think for me that’s one of the biggest differences. It’s sort of a little bit technical.
But you’re clearly not the only singer in the pop field who has had some professional training.
I can totally hear over the years that Madonna’s had lessons and that P.J. Harvey’s had lessons. Especially with Madonna, if you listen to her early records. And there’s so many people in rock as well. There’s this one guy in L.A. that charges an astronomical fee for teaching. A friend of mine studied with this guy and it’s unbelievable the clients he has in rock music. It’s like, “What? That screamer takes lessons? Oh, no wonder he doesn’t lose his voice!” It’s sort of this untalked about thing. It’s like “Well nobody gets lessons in rock!” But it’s really not true.
Why all the remix EPs?
I think remixes are really fun for me for several different reasons. When you’re producing and arranging and writing and engineering your own project, it’s a lot of involvement. So having a remix is a different perspective on your material. It forces a kind of objectivity. Also, it’s been a huge learning experience for me to hear how someone else would treat the material: “Oh, that was an option that I wouldn’t have seen.” And so that has been a really fun thing, to see how someone else is gonna deal with certain issues that arise in music. And it’s also been a way for me to almost test collaborations. So with Son Lux, he did the “Inside a Boy” remix and we also collaborated on the song “I Had a Pearl.” I kind of arranged it and he added some beats. I’ve done the same thing with Alfred Brown on the Radiohead cover that I did (“Lucky”). Alfred added some bleeps and blips and sirens. It’s been a way we can try to investigate what a collaboration would look like without a super huge commitment for either party involved.
Who do you count as influences?
Tom Waits is a huge influence. Peter Gabriel, Bjork, Antony and the Johnsons. From the classical side of things certainly Samuel Barber, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.