Shara Worden with yMusic at MusicNOW

Shara Worden and yMusic

For those of you who like a bit of snarkiness in your gig reviews, I’m sorry, but you’re likely to be disappointed by this one. I’ve been lost in thought over this particular set for nearly two months now. I couldn’t even speak about it for a week after, and even then, I was barely coherent.


For someone who hasn’t released an album of her own in three years, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) has been remarkably busy, performing all over the world with everyone from Clogs to the Decemberists, and making guest appearances on just about every album released in the last 18 months (Penelope, anyone?). Somehow, in there, she even managed to spend an hour talking to me, which is a remarkable feat for anyone. Then there’s the matter of the album’s-worth of material she’s written in that time, which is what concerns us here.

When a friend with connections to MusicNOW told me in March that I had to get down to Cincinnati for the festival, if only to hear Shara’s new stuff, I didn’t exactly put up much of a fight. I’ve been hearing second hand accounts of it for a while and everyone seemed to be in agreement that it was really something, but, in retrospect, nothing they could have told me could ever have prepared me for the real thing. Because something has happened here – something big – but I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

Maybe it’s her teaming up with yMusic. I’ve been witness to a number of incredible performances in the last few months and, more often than not, yMusic (or members thereof) have been involved. Whether they’re backing Owen Pallett or playing their own rep, there is just something revelatory about the way they play – a sort of purposefulness that is all too rare. (It’s worth noting here that Shara Worden and yMusic violinist Rob Moose have recently collaborated on a multimedia/poetry album, Letters to Distant Cities, for New Amsterdam Records, which I have reviewed for another publication.)

That could be it. Yes, I know that we all love the way My Brightest Diamond can turn it up and blow the roof off a club, but this was different. Here was power derived through intricacy – a fabric so finely woven it’s hardly noticeable until it’s swept your feet out from under you and carried you away. On only one occasion, I managed momentarily to tear my gaze from the stage and scan the room. And in that moment, I witnessed something I have never seen before: an entire audience transfixed – jaws scraping the floor and people pulling at their hair in rapt amazement – hundreds awash in power and intimacy, under a blanket of music and dance, punctuated by squeals of a baby in the back at the sound of his mother onstage.

So maybe it was he who threw that switch, because in those final moments – a lullaby – the great sweeping wind that left bodies slumped in their chairs under the sheer power of it all came to rest a gentle breeze that stole our breath and drew tears from more than one witness. (Even now, it’s difficult to think back on it without becoming choked up.)

I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog talking about reconciling pop and classical music. I discussed it with Shara a couple of years ago, and have done with several other artists since then (some of which I haven’t even published here yet). But I’m starting to think that maybe reconciliation isn’t what we’re looking for here. “Reconciliation” still seems to imply, at least to some extent, pandering to what one (or both) side(s) think of the other. But what we really want – I think – is a complete dismantling of all previously-formed opinions. And I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve just seen. And the fact that this same material can be performed at Lincoln Center one month and in front of a theaterful of Midwestern indie rock kids the next speaks volumes about the music – and that both audiences can find it equally ravishing and devastating gives me a little hope for humanity.


Penelope: A Labor of Love

…I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence
Oed’ und leer das meer.

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land


Artwork by DM Stith

Among the Tarot deck, a man hangs by his feet from a living tree. He is not dead, but entranced—poised in perfect self suspension—having lost sight of the world and his place in it, but on the verge of a great awakening. Throughout history, the hanged man has been associated with figures spanning many mythological traditions, but in Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s Penelope (namely in the texts by playwright Ellen McLaughlin), he is called Odysseus, returned home from an unnamed war with no recollection of himself or the life he had.

By all expectations, a song cycle derived from a hero story like Homer’s Odyssey ought to be reasonably straightforward. But Penelope (New Amsterdam Records) is more than just a hero story. Our Odysseus is not simply meandering home following a successful campaign against the Trojans. He is a stranger returned home from half a lifetime spent in an unnamed war. He has left himself and his memories on the battlefield. He is Odysseus not by nature, but because he is no one. And it has fallen to Penelope to lead him back to the man he was and rediscover that ineffable self lost in half a lifetime at war.

And there to guide us through a sea of undulating strings and a landscape littered with shards of Glass and the ghosts of myriad musical touchstones are Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman. From the very opening of “The Stranger With the Face of a Man I Loved”, waves of strings lap upon the shore below as the return of her husband forces Penelope to recall the good along with bad (In this house / Where the best of our times / I try to remember / And the rest of the time / I try to forget) until coming to the conclusion in “This Is What You’re Like”—a track that would be equally at home on a My Brightest Diamond record as it is here—that I’d give a lot to hear him / Tell me lies like that again. Settling once and for all her resolve to bring him back over hints of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt in “Nausicaa”:

You look so lost, Stranger. / But you’re not lost / ‘Cause I’ve just found you, Penelope sings. Just take my hand, Stranger. /…And I will lead you home.

Our Odysseus never speaks but through his Penelope, his first utterance dangling among the trip hop imagery of “Circe and the Hanged Man”: a metaphor made all the more sensual by Shara Worden’s innate sense of innuendo (before Penelope, I never realized the word “luxuriating” tastes like chocolate covered strawberries). As Penelope continues to read to her husband, bits of his past emerge and retreat into the fog of his psyche until it all comes to a head in “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets”, when Odysseus is made to gaze upon himself through the window of Penelope’s stories. For Odysseus, the trauma of being known—the sight of himself as he is—is overwhelming. Save me from you, we hear him say (through Penelope). Sweep me some place you can’t see / (Hide me some place) / I am known here. And with that, the Hanged Man Odysseus’ eyes are opened onto a vision of himself.

A.E. Waite, designer of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, wrote of The Hanged Man: “He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded [sic] in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection”. While for Penelope’s Odysseus the truth of his past and journey home haunts him, the journey through Penelope—achingly stark, sparse, swaying, and soaring—begs repeated listening with an attentive ear. The way hints of Radiohead and David Lang materialize and mingle with St. Vincent and Chopin only to be reabsorbed into an aural landscape that is uniquely—ineffably—the voice of Sarah Kirkland Snider, results in what is easily the most beautiful album of the year. And that, my friends, is a great awakening.

Listen to Penelope on the New Amsterdam website and on Bandcamp.

Sarah Kirkland Snider, “This Is What You’re Like” mp3

Watch my twinterview with Sarah Kirkland Snider below.

Interview: Shara Worden, part 4

This is my favorite part of the interview, not only because I finally get to ask Shara about her performance of one of my absolute favorite pieces of classical music, but this was definitely the most philosophically interesting part of the evening. Hopefully, you will be as struck with her ideas as I was.

TIH: Do you keep up with contemporary classical music at all: Golijov maybe, or others?

SW: I haven’t seen his opera, but I have seen Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind the string octet, and then I’ve seen Dawn Upshaw perform of few of his songs.

TIH: A lot of these composers now are drawing on pop music with increasing frequency, do you see that line between art music and popular music beginning to blur?

SW: I used to be really concerned with that and that was where I was wrestling for those years of Shark’s Teeth. I think I just got tired of thinking about that, because I was so concerned with it that at the end of the day it wasn’t so much a philosophical question for me as it was “what have I chosen to do with my life?”. And as I’ve gotten to be really ok with what I have chosen to do and really surrendered to the songwriting, this year I have sort of bizarrely gotten more classical jobs.

TIH: Really? Like what?

SW: I’m going to do a song cycle called Penelope Songs and that’s like classical, written music that’s sort of like Samuel Barber, but with drum kit. So I am recording that this year. And then I am working on something with Bryce Dessner for BAM in October and that’s more of a classical kind of thing and then the Clogs record.

TIH: To me, that seems like another sign of that sort of convergence, like pop is our folk music being adapted to classical forms.

SW: If you’re listening to Ligeti or Boulez – there is that idea of music as a science. Or the Second Viennese School, they really did create a new musical language. And we are employing some of that language now, it’s just normal for some new chord to show or for some atonal moment to happen, or Sonic Youth, you could say was developing a new language in a way that was echoing that. So there is that interesting thing where Aphex Twin or Chris Clark and all those warp records guys are doing things that are very progressive rhythmically and that sort of echoing things that were happening in IRCAM and there’s that dialog now. But I still think that Itzhak Perlman needs to be Itzhak Perlman and I still firmly believe in the science of music. Whether or not I am a part of it, I still really think that that music needs to exist; that it’s a worthy pursuit of your life.

TIH: You put together a performance of Pierrot Lunaire. Why? There are not a lot of people who really want to do that.

SW: Yeah. That was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The Sprechstimme part itself isn’t hard. Rhythmically, that piece is incredibly challenging and you have so many technical things to think of like, really how close am I going to try to get to those pitches. And it’s something that I, since I don’t have perfect pitch, would have to do a lot in order to get closer. So, because the technical world is so challenging, if you can get through it, it’s this really beautiful piece of music that’s really beautiful and really moving and just incredible. But just to learn it and get it integrated into your body where you’re not having to think about what you’re doing is really hard.

TIH: I’d love to do something like that, but that would be pushing my abilities a little bit.

SW: Well have you heard those recording of these guys doing Mahler with string quartet and accordion? Or doing Wagner, excerpts from his operas in that way, not with a singer, but it’s so awesome! And that was part of what I was thinking with “Black and Costaud”. These songs are public property. You can cover this song just like you can cover a Bob Dylan song. Do it your own way. There’s no reason why, just because it was written on paper that it has to be exactly this way. If you want to do it, do it.

TIH: Did you record your performance?

SW: I was so sick that week. That the recording was such a disappointment, because I was having to do it just the way that my voice would do it that day rather than how I had prepared it.  I wanted to do “Der kränke Mond” again, which is the one with just flute. I wanted to record that, and I still might do that, but it will take a little time.

TIH: You can put that on the new album.

SW: Yeah, as a B-side

Interview: Shara Worden, part 3

Sorry, no #faibw post this week. Instead I have even more Shara Worden for you. (I wonder if you can guess what’s coming tomorrow.)

The Indie Handbook: When you conceive of an album, does it emerge as a sort of cohesive unit, or each song separately? What sort of emphasis do you put on song order?

Shara Worden: My criticism of A Thousand Shark’s Teeth is that it was very separate and because it was recorded over such a long period of time, there was kind of ideas behind it: I was really trying to work on strings and orchestration, that was really a priority, but the kinds of songs are really all over the place. So I did spend a lot of time thinking about the song order. And the songs that I sort of injected into the album were “Inside a Boy” “From the Top of the World” and “Ice and the Storm”. So those are all the more poppy, rocky ones and then I also really manipulated “Pluto’s Moon” from its original form. Originally, it had just been a string quartet then I made it into a guitar song. So I had to sort of reconcile myself to doing something over a long period of time and not really conceiving it as a unit. It was really more of a “here are these ideas that I am going to play around with and see what happens”. This is the fruit of many years of meanderings. The whole time, when you’re in the process of committing to an older idea, and presenting it in the present moment, you’re like, “should I really be doing this, or should I just move on?

TIH: You seem to use a lot of those sorts of unconventional rhythms and meters, a lot of 3+3+2 and those things. Do you find yourself drawn to those types of things? Clearly, you’ll get a lot more radio airplay with a straight 4/4 and three chords.

SW: Yes, I am going to live, apparently, in the experimental avant garde world.

TIH: That wouldn’t be so bad. As far as I’m concerned, you can go full-on microtonal, if you want.

SW: But then I’d go insane! That’s what’s so great about the Portishead record or M.I.A. With her singing and multi-layering, she’s kind of doing this microtonal, I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but the effect of it is really, really cool.

TIH: Well, the opening of “Freak Out” also has that sort of shimmery, gamelan quality.

SW: Hey, that one has repeated notes, too “I think we should jump on the piano”. Hey, you were right.

TIH: Yeah, and the sort of percussive singing style propels it forward.

SW: Well, that’s the sort of direction I am going. The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

TIH: These days, it seems like more and more artists are taking a sort of chamber music approach to song writing. Are you noticing similar trends?

SW: Yeah, definitely. It seems like something that has been culminating for a long time: Andrew Bird, Joanna Newsom, and obviously the Decemberists. I don’t know. It’s fascinating. There’s a certain resistance, maybe to the immediacy or the quickness with which we are consuming music and I wonder a little bit if it is a bit of a rebellious reaction to that three minute, you can download this and you’re gonna want to download five other records today and your gonna want to download five more records tomorrow. And eff that, you know. Who was the jazz guy that just released a 74 minute song so you would have to listen to the whole thing? So I think there’s some desire for a longer narrative. You know, Antony’s record, I feel like is sort of like, completely the opposite of what you might expect for right now, that need for distraction away from what is happening in our society and he just says “cool, let me break your heart even more”. Of course, who knows, really, why things are happening, but I think it’s a little bit punk. I think it’s a sort of bizarre expression of the punk spirit, like “Yes! I’m going to write a narrative based on fairy tales!” And I’m thinking Awesome! Can I play the bad lady?

Interview: Shara Worden, part 2

Critics like to talk about a band’s literary influences as if they (the critics) have actually read more than 12 words together that anyone other than they themselves has written. Read these 485 words and you will at least be able to talk about Shara Worden’s literary influences without making stuff up.

The Indie Handbook: I know the last time I saw you, about two years ago, you had made mention of At the Back of the North Wind, during your concert. I forget what song you were introducing.

Shara Worden: Well, it was definitely the impetus for writing “From the Top of the World”. I guess it was more the pictures and this ideal. Sort of like, um…which Chronicle of Narnia is it where they’re on the boat and Reepicheep dives into the water?

TIH: Was it Voyage of the Dawn Treader?

SW: Is that it? And they get to the end of the world. And so it was kind of this melding of that. And I had also been looking at a lot of Anselm Kiefer paintings and a lot of things that have ladders in them. Anselm, his whole life in many ways has been dedicated to sort of examining our desire to ascend to the heavens, but the irony being that Heaven, [un]like the way we understand space to be, is not “out there”, but it is actually here, and there is no up or down, there is no East or West, which also plays into Alice in Wonderland. So, I feel like fairy tales and these kinds of children’s stories have actually known things for a hundred years and writing things for a hundred years that science is only proving now.

TIH: I’m curious about Alice in Wonderland.

SW: I did some singing and instrumental-izing for a puppet production of Alice in Wonderland in New York, I think right before Workhorse came out, so that would have been 2006. So I did that production of Alice in Wonderland and the people that did the video for “From the Top of the World”, those were the folks that I worked with.

TIH: So Lake Simons…

SW: Yeah, Lake Simons. I had already written the song “Magic Rabbit”, but that show came up and it was really special for me. So Alice just keeps coming up. I mean, it’s sort of ubiquitous.

TIH: Would you like to do more involving different media?

SW: Yeah. We did a puppet show for one song in the fall when we were touring and it was so fun and so special. I really loved it. So we’ll see, hopefully.

TIH: You worked with Tim Fite on that video as well. Do you have any plans to do more work together in the future?

SW: It’s just kind of when it happens. He’s definitely one of my favorite artists and a dear friend. The last sort of thing we did together was a Paul Robeson tribute album. I sang a song for him, but I don’t know what’s going to happen or any details about that.

Interview: Shara Worden, part 1

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.

I’ve got some bad news and some good news

Some sad news from Los Campesinos! It was announced today that Aleks will be leaving the band at the end of the summer. They will be releasing one last album with her as a member and playing several shows in the States before she returns to her studies full time. But, no worries, Los Campesinos! have every intention of carrying on as a band. And we wish them both all the best. You can read the band’s announcement here and Aleks’s own here.

Good news, now. As Kristin mentioned in her last post, I did indeed go to a show last night and I did arrive a couple of hours early so I could talk to someone for a bit before the show. (If you’ve been keeping up with us on Facebook, you already know what I am getting at.) That’s because the Decemberists were in Columbus last night. No, I did not spend the evening hanging out with Colin Meloy. Even better. I spent about an hour talking with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Once I’ve had a chance to transcribe it, maybe I’ll let you read a bit.

On to the show. Blind Pilot is opening on this tour, and it pains me to say this because I like their music, but it was one of the more profoundly boring performances I have ever seen (this is includes a number of my own performances, which I would prefer to pretend never happened, thank you so much for bringing it up…). But let’s not dwell on the negative. The show that followed more than made up for a lackluster opening (as well as about half a dozen others).

I am now of the mind that the Decemberists may well be the most polished band I have ever seen. The first of their two sets was material from Hazards of Love, more specifically all of it. For their first hour on stage, the band played their new album in its entirety, complete with guest appearances (including Shara Worden). The staging was imposing, the transitions were seamless, and their performance engaging. But I was reminded of something last night, namely what an electrifying performer Shara Worden is. As part of an evening that featured one of the most impressive performances I have seen recently, the special guest blew the main attraction clean out of the water. It will be difficult waiting for my next opportunity to see My Brightest Diamond (still the best show I have ever, ever witnessed). It has been far too long.

Until then, here is a video of Shara in performance with the Decemberists. The sound quality is crap, I know, and it can be difficult to hear over all of those screaming indie kids, but you will have to make due. Watch some MBD videos to see Shara at her best.