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March 26, 2015

Author Chris Tarry Interviews Musician Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Chris Tarry is is an author and musician, his short story collection How To Carry Bigfoot Home was published last week.

Shara Worden is the frontwoman for the band My Brightest Diamond. Her most recent album is This Is My Hand.

Author Chris Tarry interviews Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond:

Chris: Full disclosure, Shara and I have spent time in a van. And by van I mean the long-haul touring-type with guitar amps and suitcases crammed behind three rows of bench seating. When you spend time in vans of this type, you become family, and quick. I've filled the bass chair for My Brightest Diamond a half-dozen times over the past five years, and every time I do, there's no other bandleader that makes me feel at home quicker than Shara Worden.

The van is a place of peaceful reflection, of democratic music choices, and foreheads resting on cold windows late into the night. There is conversation on direction (both the van's and the existential one), plus how far to the next gig, and do you think we'll have time for a roadside sandwich before sound check? The answer to last is most always no.

Sometimes though, especially in a van occupied by the supremely artful and devastatingly talented Shara Worden, the conversation turns to music. And these are often my favorite moments, the inner thoughts of your band mates, how they think about music, how they relate to their instrument, their voice. Moments where influence becomes a communal head-nod and personal playlists are celebrated with hours of headphones stretched across uncomfortable seats.

I've always wished Shara and I might one day have the chance to sit down, parse out her thoughts on music, her lyrics, her immense artistic bravery—and capture one of those elusive van talks for posterity. And so, we did:

Chris: I just picked up the new album (This Is My Hand), and it was great to listen through the finished version. I think what I've heard up to this point were rough mixes handed down for tune-learning purposes. The finished album sounds terrific. I've had the pleasure of playing a wide cross-section of your music and this one feels like a wonderful push forward in all the directions that make you such a distinctive voice. I read that you approached the sound of this record with the image of "imaginary tribe of people, gathering around a fire, making music together, telling stories, hearing from the shaman." Can you expand on this story telling image?

Shara: When I first started thinking about this album, it was beginning from a rather depressing analysis of the music industry. I was feeling rather dismal about the prospects of thriving as a recording artist in this day and age, and so I thought, hey, I've got to get a different point of view! I love making records! I love music and so does everyone else. So, I sought out a bunch of experiences that really make me happy and inspired. One was the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit, which is great because everyone from the community dresses up and there are marching bands from every corner of the city, and I'm a sucker for pageantry. There was also a notable summer solstice DJ event in Berlin with everyone dancing in the streets, and then another biggie was that I was in a Matthew Barney film in which story and music converged in nearly equal proportion. All of these events took place outside, and that ended up playing a big part in thinking about what setting I imagined the music to exist in from the beginning.

Chris: So in a sense, the album started from a connection with place (being outside). I find that interesting, especially when it comes to writing. Place is such an important aspect of any story. Literature has to engage with the physical world in a very direct way. Some writers choose to take it head on, creating these amazing vistas that stick with us sometimes even more than plot or character, while others have trouble describing the color of a room. But either way, place must be dealt with, and must be dealt with on a very base level. I think music considers place as well, though perhaps a little more ethereally. It often has place thrust upon it, where we listen to music can often be as important as how we experience it. Maybe all art is similar in that way. Where we are when reading a certain book, who we're with when hearing a song for the first time. But those experiences seem to serve the listener, or, when it comes to books, the reader. What I find interesting here, is that you took a somewhat more writerly approach by considering place from the beginning of the musical process, in the creation and inspiration behind the album. Has the experience of making the album in this way, imagining the setting in which you wanted the music to exist, changed the way you look at composition, or your process as a whole?

Shara: Absolutely. The album before this one, I knew I wanted in a concert hall setting, so the instrumentation is much more acoustic, more like classical chamber music. The instrument choices were completely affected by place, and the same can be said for this new album. I imagined Prospect Park and how the band shell is lower than the audience lawn, and I thought, "Well, what if there was a marching band approaching everyone from the top of the hill, behind the audience and then walking down to the stage? How can I write something to satisfy that type of moment?" I'd written a bunch of instrumental music, but didn't have that one song where the marching band could approach the band on stage. I wanted a micro horn quintet on stage with the band, so that there could be a dialogue between the larger ensemble with the audience, and the amplified horn section on stage. The song "Pressure" was the last on the album, because I really needed that thesis statement, that culminating moment where the marching band joins the rock band. We've only been able to do this full-blown show ten or so times around the world, but when it happens, it really feels like a dream come true. Acoustics have everything to do with what gets made. So place must be considered.

Chris: Story, lyrics, the shape of narrative throughout a song. How do you approach these things? Are they a concern when sitting down to write lyrics? Does the listener need to be taken on a journey sonically and lyrically? Your songs feel very much to me like little journeys, pieces with a beginning middle and end that often dispose with more traditional pop song forms. In "Before The Words" (the second song on the album) you seem to confront this idea of story head on: "Before the words there was the voice. Before the verse there was the sound. Before the form there was the music. Before the pen and paper there was the…"

Shara: I am actually quite often inspired by books. I had a teacher once who said he didn't believe in writer's block, that if you can't write, just cram your "hole" full of information, and things that inspire you until you start brimming over. And a lot of times, I "fill up" by reading.  For This Is My Hand I based the lyric themes on three books, the foremost being The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitan, in which he gives six different themes of songs throughout human history: war, religion, love, sad songs, information songs, and friendship.  (I added ghost stories to my own list!). Then, Robert Graves The White Goddess, which is a history of the bards in England. And finally, The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. His chapter on the creation of art being inseparable to the human experience, even from our earliest history, was the inspiration for the song "Before the Words".  That became my "information song", as it were. I wanted to write about how music is older than language, how fundamental it is, when we are in our mother's womb, how our heart beats and the frequencies of our mothers' songs are deeply ingrained in each of us. That to me is the definition of "folk" --- that to be human is to be musical.

So as an overview I had these three lists of high values, for lyrics, I wanted to hit on these six themes. For the sounds, I knew I wanted to use a marching band for the whole album and give the audience a surround-sound experience, creating my own parade experience. And lastly, I wanted the audience to participate more than I had ever facilitated them to before, so I made a list of general things like, singing along, clapping, organized dances, voguing opportunities, etc, and attempted (I should say) to include the audience in at least one of those aspects on every song. Some targets you hit when you set objectives, and some you don't, but the play of a game is the fun part You don't get everything in the bull's-eye every time.

Chris: That music is the first true language. These things are connected on such a fundamental level, and you're so right, to be human is to be musical. I sometimes feel sad when a person tells me they're not musical. I feel like someone has sold them a bill of goods, that being musical means you have to be able to sing, or keep time by tapping your foot, or know how many albums The Who have released and in what chronological order. For some reason, feeling connected to music through enjoyment has become not enough—that loving a Katy Perry song and splashing around to it in the shower is somehow the antithesis of musicianship. I tend to disagree. There's a reason we all listen to music, and I think it's because we're all musicians from time eternal. That the ability to process music is hard-wired into our DNA, that it's the language we enter the world with. I read this poem the other day by a poet named Bryan Doyle called "What do Poems Do?" In it, there are these few lines:

...You have poetry slots
Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother.
If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle.
Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you'll see.

So if we take all music to be meaningful, even Kenny G on a bad day, or Katy Perry dancing with sharks, is every part of it relevant?

Shara: I had a teacher who once told me that the drawing of every child is valid, but that Rodin had the ability and discipline to articulate himself, and therefore his work is so much more expressive. He was truly a master of expression. And it's the same with music. I believe that everyone is inherently musical, and being artistic is part of being human, but culture has so much influence in the development of our abilities. Apprenticeship is so important. Having mentors, having financial resources to pursue inherent giftedness… there is so much that is necessary to mature these gifts.

If we want to talk about Kenny G, or Katy Perry or any other pop artist and their relevancy, I think pop music has to do with social conversation, and entertainment, not with pushing the art form itself or dealing with the structure of the alphabet or challenging the listener or viewer. So for example, an artist like the classical composer Pierre Boulez was examining the very fundamental components, the building blocks of music with his own compositions. He was rewriting grammar. That's not what Katy Perry is putting forward in the musical conversation. I think Katy's music is about joy, and hope, and there is a playfulness and sexuality in her music, but if I perceive her intention, I think she just really wants people to feel happy, and that is not about music itself. It isn't about challenging the boundaries of sound making.

So what makes something relevant?  Depends on your basis for evaluating. There are different and simultaneous conversations that we are having as human beings. There is room for every expression. We as human beings came to this planet to create and to express. It doesn't mean that everything is equal, but art can be evaluated with respect to its intention. Whether great art is measured by social impact, or sales, or longevity or pushing the art form, or whatever else you want to have as an evaluator, is in the eye of the beholder. If I speak to one of my friends who is a visual artist, they are going to be able to expound so much more clearly than me, on the reasons why from a technical standpoint, they can perceive Rodin as a master, when I might look at his work, and say, "Wow, that's beautiful" but not really understand the other layers of mastery. And music is the same. There are layers and layers to everything and at the end of the day, I want to become more and more articulate myself in music, that I can imagine something in my mind, and say it with a deftness, with a sharper, clearer form or to sing with greater transparency, to continue to be more and more skilled so that I can get to that pure raw expression in the most direct way possible. I have been doing music since I was a child, and I am still thrilled by the infinite nature of music. We will never master it. We just keep exploring it. And we do this, no matter what the industry is doing. Of course I want to live as an artist. I have to take into consideration the time in which I live, and the context my music will be heard, but at the end of the day, I have to stay in touch with desire to express. To do so as only I am able, because there is only one me, and there is only one you.

Chris: You mention setting objectives for yourself, hitting some targets, not hitting others. This seems like the plight of all artistic pursuits. I know for me, when I sit down to write a tune, or work on a story, the end result is often vastly different from what I originally intended, and this, I think, is where the magic lies, the mystery of the "final product" as it were. Are you able to sit back and listen to your albums objectively? I have a few musician friends who say that after they take time away from one of their albums, that they're able to hear it as others do. That is not the case for me. Albums I did ten years ago I still listen to and remember certain choices and why I made them (rightly or wrongly). For some reason, I don't feel that way with writing. I just received the first official copies of my book in the mail today, quite a glorious day. I held it in my hands for the first time and had this strange feeling. I couldn't remember writing any of the words. It felt like someone else's book. Do you ever feel this lyrically? Musically?

Shara: I learned a while ago that I would never really be satisfied with the records from the past, and that is because in the process of making them, you learn, and so you would never do things the same way again. That said, I value the experience, and I honor the journey from one place to the next, so I don't spend nights drinking with regret over anything I've made. You just determine yourself to make something new. There are some songs that feel like they came from another place and you were just the medium, and they come so easily and quickly, and other work you labor over and nearly kills you as it comes forth. Writing my opera, You Us We All, was like that. It took everything I had as a human being to produce it. I was exhausted, tried, tested, stretched to my outer most limits, but I am so grateful. We are here to manifest, to bring forth, to create and sometimes it is painful to expand in the art making process and at other times, it is complete bliss.

Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond links:

My Brightest Diamond's website
Shara Worden's Wikipedia entry

Chris Tarry links:

Chris Tarry's website
Chris Tarry's Wikipedia entry

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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