I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, one of my favorite songwriters of all time, in hopes of getting some answers to a few questions I have always wanted to ask her, and maybe (hopefully) convince a few single ladies that I am considerably cooler than I actually am (as World’s Sexiest Vegetarian finalist Gareth Campesinos! would say: “I am nothing if not a pragmatist”). So, here is part one. I will post the rest of it for you as the week progresses.
Oh, also, I’ve never actually interviewed anyone before, so I’m sorry if I suck at it. (Like I said, I am not for real cool.) Anyway, there it is.
The Indie Handbook: You studied voice at the University of North Texas. What was that experience like?
Shara Worden: In school the only role, the only kind of complete role that I had was in L’enfant et les sortilèges, so playing the child was a turning point for me. Where I was able to find pleasure in singing again…so because I got to play a kid …I was able to be playful and explore so I think that piece in particular has had a really special place for me because it’s a fairy tale in its own way.
TIH: So, is that why you did “Black and Costaud”, your own personal connection to the song?
SW: I think that I, for many years was trying to reconcile myself with the idea that I had chosen songwriting because, in classical music, you dedicate an enormous amount of time to doing one very, very specific thing, which [is] to sing this really difficult music, well, and beautifully, and with feelings, and connection. [And] to compare that with writing songs, which is very internally motivated – If you hear someone like Itzhak Perlman play or Yo Yo Ma or really amazing classical players – Renée Fleming or Barbara Bonney – and you just think Wow, you’ve devoted your life to doing this one thing really beautifully…. That’s really profound to me and I feel like there is something really honorable – there is so much energy in life put toward destruction and put toward negativity and I really admire people who dedicate themselves so fully to something that is so beautiful – I’d rather explore lots of different kinds of things, and I found myself more excited about songwriting and more enthusiastic about spending hours and hours. It’s the same amount of time spent on making music, but the sort of form results in a different thing.
TIH: How would you say your classical training has influenced your songwriting?
SW: Honestly, the singing, I don’t think about it at all. But at the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs, more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the texts was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”
TIH: The thing I love about your music is, at least on Workhorse, that your melodies are really unconventional, at least they seem to me to differ from a lot of pop music – you use a lot of repeated notes…
SW: I’m curious which ones you mean, where you are thinking that, because I was conscious of it only for Workhorse.
TIH: Now that you’ve put me on the spot, I can’t remember titles of them, “Workhorse”, for instance.
SW: Well, on that one for sure I was thinking about it, because it was right after “Today” had come out and there was “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon, Yesterday…” and I thought Hey, you can use rhythm rather than using melody, so that was my experiment in that. It’s actually very atypical for me.
TIH: I thought I noticed it on five or six tracks.
SW: Yeah, for Workhorse, for sure. Though what is more natural for me is to do the octaves, big intervallic jumps, like on “Disappear”, for instance.
TIH: Your work with Padma Newsome: what sort of things did you work with him on?
SW: Well, to keep it specific to the record, I would bring him an idea for a string quartet, an accompaniment or arrangement for a song and he would give me suggestions on it. Say, “I think if you invert this, it will sound like this and this is why,” or “bring the bass note up here or you need to spread out” just how you should voice things, helping me learn about the ranges of the instruments. We would listen to different classical pieces, and look at the scores and figure out how things were working. Or I’d bring in something I liked, Rebecca Moore or a Björk track, and he would listen to it and give his feedback on what he thought was cool, what he didn’t think was cool. So it was a lot of [that]. He played me Ligeti for the first time.
TIH: I do love Ligeti.
SW: Yeah, so he was trying to bring in a bunch of different things that he thought I would like, and things that I, as a vocalist, was maybe not familiar with.
TIH: There is so much we miss out on. Did you look at any of his music in particular?
SW: Yeah, we did. We looked at Clogs music a lot and trying to figure out different ways of writing things. Like if you want something to be freer, what information do you give a player? Like in jazz, is there a head, is there a melodic theme, and when does that return? Clogs is actually pretty improvisational, but highly organized improv, so we would study how the organization but also looseness and lack of organization works….It was funny that we started out and he was sort of my mentor, but now we are like collaborators. I sang on their new record. It’s not out yet, but sometime this year.