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My Brightest Diamond

Shara Worden’s band My Brightest Diamond has released two albums – 2006’s Bring Me the Workhorse and the follow up _A Thousand Shark’s Teeth – combining opera, cabaret, chamber music, and indie rock sounds.

As a solo artist Worden has recorded with The Decemberists, sung with St. Vincent on David Letterman, and contributed a duet with David Byrne to his Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love.

Ahead of the band’s shows at Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s Vivid LIVE festival, FasterLouder spoke to Worden about high profile collaborations, playing 200 shows a year and crying during performances.

How does it feel to be chosen by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson to play Vivid LVE?
Great! Like winning a big prize! Like baking a pumpkin pie and your pie being given a ribbon at the State Fair! Like winning the lottery! Like getting to go to the Big Top and meeting the top elephant and ringmaster!

Is there any particular work from Reed or Anderson that you particularly admire?
I was able to sing background vocals with Laurie and Lou a few years ago in New York during her show Homeland and during the performances, I was moved to tears several times. It was a little awkward to be in the band and crying, but I couldn’t help but be affected by her show as an audience member as well as a performer with her.

I’ve seen her speak a few times in New York also and have been really impacted by her thoughts, how she lives as an artist, how she and Lou work together, her storytelling, her poetry, how she can look sideways at something and make you see it differently.

If you were to curate a festival who would you choose to play?
I curated a festival this last March, bringing together many of my favourite New York artists. It was a lot of work, but really satisfying. The festival was called Diamond, Teeth and Yarn and showcased musicians as well as visual artists. Photographer Sarah Small presented a Tableau Vivant, Tim Fite had a book making table, while other friends sewed and knitted, painted henna tattoos and did acrobatics.

Lake Simons and John Dyer gave an amazing experimental puppet performance. Stella Padnos-Shea read her poetry and musicians like Dayna Kurtz and Mamie Minch, yMusic and Edison Woods performed. I set text from my letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother back in 1948 before they were married and performed those songs with yMusic.

Who are you looking forward to collaborating with or seeing perform at the festival?
I am ecstatic about performing with the Blind Boys of Alabama. I think we will do several songs together and wow, that is going to be fun. Also saxophonist Colin Stetson and I are going to collaborate and I don’t know if you have experienced what he does or not, but it is otherworldly and transformative. He turns that instrument on its head, like nothing I have ever heard before.

Does the fact that you’re playing at an Arts festival like Vivid affect your approach to the performance in any way? Does it feel like a licence to be more experimental?
I wouldn’t say it is influencing me in a more experimental way, but I think that what is inspiring to me about Laurie is that she thinks so big, so much beyond just getting up and playing some tunes and going home. She makes performances a larger experience and certainly that is something I aspire to, but feel very far from having achieved. I did write a new song for the “Slow Music” performance night, where we will all be playing together in the Opera House, just because none of my songs felt appropriate. I don’t know if I will get to play it, but just imagining what being in the space was going to feel like, made me want to write something new.

Why did you choose to cover Feeling Good for the Dark Was the Night charity compilation? Did you listen to recent covers (such as George Michael, Michael Bublé, Adam Lambert, Pussycat Dolls, Muse, Alice Russell) as a comparison?
That’s funny that you mentioned all those artists. I feel slightly embarrassed to have covered something so many people have already done. I haven’t heard any of those versions actually, but I am a huge Nina Simone fan and she is the one that made me fall in love with the song.

You have been involved in several high profile collaborations – Sufjan, Fat Boy Slim/David Byrne, The Decemberists and even a hip-hop track with Jedi Mind Tricks – what draws you to collaborate and have there been any potential collaborations you’ve knocked back?
I enjoy writing songs and creating, but I also enjoy getting pulled out of my musical habits and experiencing something new by working with other people. It’s like self-enforced discomfort or something, to explore and be pushed to do something you wouldn’t normally do in your own art. I find that process to be a great learning tool and a nice way to make friends – supporting other people’s art can be rewarding in a different way than making your own. As for part two – yes there have been some. Often based on time restraints, but I think someone once said that they choose projects based on three things and at least two out of three have to be there to say yes to something: good people, good art, or good money.

Your work with My Brightest Diamond is often classified as indie rock or folk though reviewers seem to latch onto your training as an opera singer. Do you think that’s partly from the supposed ‘novelty’ of the opera background?
In my mind, those categories are business ones, not categories of music itself; where to put something on a shelf in a store, what a certain website or magazine deems appropriate music to review or what venue to perform in. I think the business of music is often about developing stories that we can attach to because stories are more tangible than sound can be.

We can try to explain how or why something sounds the way it does, but in the end, all the words and categories don’t help us understand music much more I think. It’s just how we each experience it as related to our own lives. How others perceive that musical experience is really outside the control of the artist and also outside the artists’ own experience.

When you write your songs how conscious are you of working in a particular genre?
I have stylistic parameters that I work within for My Brightest Diamond, a certain musical vocabulary that feels appropriate there. But for example, the song cycle I wrote based on my grandfather’s letters, is not an MBD project, so I think in the future, it might be nice to have different names for things sometimes. John Zorn has all his different groups that have different people and different names for them, and that makes a lot of sense to me. I’m trying to find my path with that at the moment, rather than trying to cram every idea into one place.

You’ve also released many remixed versions of your songs. Is there an element of remixed classical composition in your approach to songwriting? Using classical techniques to create indie rock music.
I am unfortunately or fortunately not technically skilled enough to employ much technique in songwriting. The writing is the more intuitive side. The arranging and orchestrating is a little more intellectual, but that is all relative I guess. Both sides of the brain are working at the same time. Maybe we are all equal parts analytical snobs and punks.

I got B’s and C’s in theory class and sometimes I feel like I could express myself better if I was more aware of the names of things and had paid a little more attention before I needed the information in real life. I have studied voice for nearly 20 years now though, and I think the training has come in handy more in a kind of way that helps me stay healthy in doing a variety of styles and singing 200 shows a year and not losing my voice. The training has helped me know what feels good for my instrument, how to sing what I imagine, and how to take care of it, more than I think it has affected the writing.

My Brightest Diamond at Vivid LIVE:

Sunday 6th June – The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Monday 7th June – The Studio, Sydney Opera House

Shara Worden will also play at the festival’s ‘Slow Music’ night on Friday 4th June and as a guest at the Blind Boys of Alabama show on Saturday 5th June.

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