Shara Worden. Photo: Matt Wignall.
Listen to a live recording of Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond performing at Amanda Stern’s Happy Ending Music and Reading Series at Joe’s Pub , on April 2, 2008. Special thanks to Michael Kaufman of Asthmatic Kitty Records .
I have a confession to make. The first time I hung out with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond about two years ago, I was really only there because my brother said we would be flying kites. I figured I could set aside my antisocial tendencies for a day of harnessing the sky. I lucked out: I got to fly a kite, and I now have had the honor of knowing and working and singing and stomping with Shara.
In a world that seems hell-bent on repetition, My Brightest Diamond challenges the cyclical parameters of self containment, continually experimenting with new ways of addressing song structure, instrumentation, and performance. The MBD trapeze swings multi-dimensionally between operatic lungs, guttural guitar chugging, sweeping strings, dark-hearted moans, plucky pigeons dancing, and rock ‘n’ roll sweat on the tom-tom of destiny. Amidst all of these seemingly disparate elements, there is a natural cohesion. What other folks have attempted to force together with varying results, MBD combines effortlessly; hammering sparks and smelting hearts in the magnetic fires of supernatural metallurgy.
If it weren’t already obvious, I think MBD is all kinds of great. So, when it was suggested that I spend some time talking to Shara about what MBD has been up to, I didn’t ask, “Will there be kites?” I just said, “Yes!”
Shara Worden I brought you a present. It’s a thank-you for doing the artwork and the art directing for the video of “From the Top of the World.” (It’s a snow globe with the city of Düsseldorf in the background. Blue, sparkling jack-shapes float inside it.)
Tim Fite Are those people or jacks? It’s from Düsseldorf?
SW Yeah, it’s from Düsseldorf.
TF There are people instead of snow. They look like jacks, kind of flying around.
SW A flying jacks snow globe for a snowy day.
TF I’ll put it on the mantle right now.
TF I’m going to turn on the water for tea. How’s everything going?
SW It’s going well. We just got back from a three-month tour. We were in Europe for five weeks, and then the US for almost two months.
TF Living with your friends in transit … touring is like being in a circus. (drum sound, laughter)
SW It is like being in a circus; you pack up your tent and go to the next town every night. On this tour we played a lot of turn-of-the-century theaters that have been renovated and converted into movie theaters. They’re outside of larger towns, and are being bought by entrepreneurs with a vision for these smaller communities. My favorite one was in Paonia, Colorado, this bizarre little one-horse town. They made us an organic meal, the sound was really great, people came to the show, and there were little kids break-dancing. Descendants of Aspen had settled in this town—sort of fairy/hippie people. After the show the entire town ended up at Lady Linda’s, kind of a mixture between a bar and a bistro and a 1920s brothel. (laughter) Passing around the whiskey. A whole bunch of us girls rummaged through the back closet looking through antique clothes and bizarre Betty Boop dolls. We ended up in feather boas and antique lingerie.
TF Like playing dress-up, but with an entire town. What was it called? Peyotia?
SW Paonia. Apparently it’s not a real word; when they made the town they got a little confused about peyote and peonies and ended up with Paonia.
TF Back to those old, magical theaters … when you play a show, do you feel you have to adapt your costume to the costume of the venue?
SW For this tour, the costuming was a black-and-white-striped mix of punk; Pierrot; the melancholy character in the Commedia Dell’Arte, and a magic show. The vibe of each performance space emphasizes the clothes in a particular way. In an old theater the costumes seem more cabaret-like. In a punk club it feels like we’re coming at it from a hard-core angle—less clownish and circus-influenced. Once, however, a guy came up to me after a show and said that we looked like flight attendants and that he kept expecting us to serve him coffee.
TF You toe a line between eerie mystery in your shows and a classic, fun-loving, good time. I could see how a club could bring out the good time a little bit more. When you get into the seedier places it’s more deep, dark cabaret.
SW Sometimes when you’re playing the fancy places, you can’t stomp on the floor without feeling like you’re making a scene. I find that you physically don’t want to make as much noise, so you’re a little less free with your body than in a punk club, but there it’s not your ideal audio experience.
Shara Worden. Photo: Matt Wignall.
TF Did you ever play in a church?
SW Yes, we did.
TF Did it feel weird?
SW Yeah. I think for me, because my dad was a music pastor and I grew up playing in church, I have a couple different reactions to it. If it’s a modern church I get really twitchy because it brings up the past and who I was as an awkward young person in that environment. But if I’m in an old church, I feel much more relaxed. Nice wood is everywhere, and there’s something more formal about it. I like to be able to work with that sense of confusion, where the audience comes in and they’re like, “Should we not swear?” (The kettle whistles) It’s the tea!
TF Do you curse in church?
SW I don’t really think of church as a building.
TF What is it if not a building?
SW It’s a larger idea than a building. Most people, myself included, have been conditioned to think of faith as related to an architectural structure. I don’t think that’s very useful.
TF If you could choose absolutely any existing setting in which to play your show, what would that place be?
SW There’s a particular old theater in Brooklyn: the BAM Harvey Theater. It feels like it’s falling apart; it’s a very old room, so it has that kind of classic, Fabergé egg feeling when you go inside. When you walk up to the balcony you’re not quite sure if you’re going to fall over or whether your seat is actually going to hold you. So there’s something kind of unstable about it. It feels like a barn but has a more theatrical feeling as well. That seems perfect.
TF I’ve always thought that you’re more likely to encounter a portal to a completely other plane through a hole in a stage. Stages have more holes than anywhere else. You go to a graveyard and they dig holes everywhere; there are manholes all over the city—but they’re purposeful. On stages they’re never on purpose. I would say at least one out of five stages I go on has some kind of hole.
SW Plus, stages have reverberations in them. With a cello, or any kind of wooden instrument, the wood picks up the vibrations, it resonates with the player’s body in a different way. You can hear how the sound is an echo of the person who owned the cello before you, and then over time the cello begins to adapt to the new person’s way of playing. I think that stages are that way, too; there are vibrations of all these different people who have put sound into the place, and there are ghosts in the floor.
TF Along the same lines, I’ve always wanted to sleep on a waterbed. Not every night, but once. I’m wondering if somebody could make a water stage; rubber on top and water inside. I guess this brings us back to circuses?
SW There’s this show, La Veillée des Abysses by James Thiérrée who is a … I don’t know what to call him; he’s kind of mix between a dancer, a comedian, a magician, and a circus performer, and he happens to be the grandson of Charlie Chaplin. But there is one scene from his show that I’ve been obsessed with on YouTube where he’s got huge, very, very long pieces of fabric, and offstage there’s a really big fan, and you see him “swimming.” There’s someone that he lays on, but the person is underneath the fabric so you can’t tell what’s actually going on. And he’s swimming over this blowing fabric that’s very water-like.
TF So he has a water stage.
SW Yes. There’s something about water and flying and wind—that kind of lightness—and also about water that bypasses something in our consciousness. We used shadow puppets recently during the last song in the set. People’s reaction to seeing the shadow of a boat and blue water through a scrim was … it caused an immediate childlike response in them.
TF How do you feel about breaking the rules of rock ‘n’ roll and encouraging childish sentiments instead of neo-childish sentiments? I think, “We are the new children, we are young adults, we’re assholes,” is the attitude that’s encouraged at a lot of rock shows; it’s a very self-conscious, performatively edgy way of behaving. Are you encouraging something like an antidote to rock ‘n’ roll cliché?
SW I relate to the angst of rock. Especially when I was younger, I had so much frustration and not very many ways to express anger. Going to rock shows was really helpful because I could just punch the air and be around that kind of energy. In a way you could say that it’s expressing something negative, but that season in my life was about having a place to exercise these frustrations. So, I went to see Dinosaur Jr., Catherine Wheel, Rubberbullet. Now there’s a bit of that punk spirit in me left, but for me beauty is the antidote to despair, and so is finding hope through stories. Stories can bypass our constant analyzing; our analytical nature is suddenly usurped when a puppet shows up on stage and transports people back to when they were six years old. There’s something lovely and freeing about that. I hope people can access the same thing through music, and they do, but I find that the puppet theatrics allow people to jump into this other world—they experience emotions they usually don’t allow themselves to feel. That’s what puppets can do for me, anyway.
Shara Worden. Photo: Julien Bourgeois.
TF I was just thinking about the difference between “misery loves company” and “mystery loves company.” If you engage everyone in the show you put on, you have that moment of wonderment or curiosity. Mystery is about curiosity. You can have misery in there, like the cathartic punching-the-air thing, but it’s complicated and enhanced by a mystery that’s sometimes even more unifying. I find at shows that the audience gathers around confusion or that one element that’s uncertain. The puppets in your show really add that. Who expects puppets at a rock show? Your music is already special and different from everything else, but then you throw in puppets and it’s like … wasn’t expecting that.
SW With the puppets you suddenly don’t have to be so performative; the puppets show something you might otherwise feel you need to do as a frontperson. The focus and emotional output shifts to what the puppets are illustrating, the images they’re creating. They provide a time to almost hide away; you can be behind the velvet curtain. I have been enjoying the change of focus. There’s this idea that when you get up in front of people you’re performing songs that you wrote, so it’s very personal. But there’s an artifice in that that we never want to talk about because you’ve done the songs so many times. How do you make it fresh for yourself every day? But ultimately, the artist’s job is to serve the audience, so you have an obligation, no matter what you feel like, no matter if the sound is bad, no matter if the song is old to you.
TF It’s like making French toast for hungry children.
SW How do you mean?
TF The best French toast is made from bread that’s a little stale. So you have to dip it in egg, some cinnamon, a little milk, and then cook it. And the children are so excited that you could probably just give them the stale bread, and they’d be happy because Scooby Doo or whatever is on. But because it’s French toast, it’s this magical entity.
SW You put time and love and energy and thought in it.
TF And it’s French.
SW That makes everything better.
TF I drew a circus tent and I want you to draw some things inside of it that you would want inside your circus tent.
SW Okay. Well, first there’s a flying trapeze that might also be a tire swing. I’m not sure.
TF Like it’s used as a trapeze but it’s made out of a tire?
SW Yep. With a pretty big swinging radius. There have got to be some bunny rabbits. I think they’re the audience members.
TF A whole crowd of bunny rabbits?
TF Have you ever had an audience of bunny rabbits?
SW Every day. When I first got my bunny rabbit Pantouffe, his foster family thought he was afraid of the guitar. So I was really afraid that I wasn’t going to able to keep him, but it turns out it’s not true at all. They don’t like microtonal music. It really freaks out their system.
TF How did you find this out? Were you blasting microtonal stuff?
SW I was blasting microtonal music and my bunny rabbits were running all around the house scared out of their minds, which kind of put me in a philosophical quandary, because I think microtonal music is fantastic, but if it’s so unnatural then maybe we shouldn’t be delving into it. But I think that the bunny rabbits might be simpler creatures.
TF Maybe they’re just hypersensitive. Maybe we’re the simple ones, because we’re so dumb we can sit through microtonal music without going berserk.
SW My new favorite microtonal man is Harry Partch. He had these glass balls called cloud chambers, all with had different pitches. He also had these enormous marimbas with seven foot-long bars. So he has very, very low pitches. And he has this other instrument that’s made in the shape of a diamond, and if you move your right-hand mallet diagonally it makes one chord, and if you move your left-hand mallet diagonally it makes a different one.
I’m trying to figure out what else is in my circus. There’s got to be a big fan.
TF Because it gets hot at the circus?
SW Well, it’s really good for blowing things around. It’s dramatic.
TF You’ve got all kinds of colors in the pouch; you’re welcome to them.
SW Yeah, I’m kind of working monochromatically.
TF Circuses are a little monochromatic, in the weirdest way. They’re so colorful, but within a really limited palette. All that dust and dirt and animal feces defuses light.
What’s that? It looks like a tambourine with fringe. Oh, is it a mobile shower?
SW Kind of, but with velvet curtains.
TF Like a quick-change room?
SW Yes. It’s The Wizard of Oz hiding chamber.
TF Who exactly would you be inside this circus you’re drawing?
SW I might be on the flying trapeze. I might be in disguise, behind the fog machine, blowing smoke. I might be hiding with the bunnies in the bleachers. Do you think about three-ring circuses when you’re performing? You have a video element, you perform as the frontperson, and Sexy Leroy’s running around pushing buttons—it definitely creates a three-ring atmosphere.
TF Time and again three has been proven to be the strongest number there is. It’s prime, and pyramids are the sturdiest thing you could make, so I think about triangles a lot—how triangles function in physics and then in the show. There’s this beautiful focusing of energy. In my show, Sexy Leroy is on one side of the stage pushing buttons, I’m on the other side as the open end of the triangle, and then everything focuses back to the screen. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle of rock ‘n’ roll.
SW What’s good about your visuals is that they add a third dimension but never take away from what’s happening. You’ve struck an amazing balance between having technology and using technology. Your show is really personal. I’m using more programming myself and doing my own beats, and there’s got to be an element that’s visual to that. Otherwise people don’t believe it. There’s something I don’t believe when I see a show that’s all on computers. We need to see—exactly what you said about mystery—you want to see how something’s made and you want to believe that it’s being made right then at that moment.
TF Even if it’s not.
SW There’s some element that needs to be shown; there’s something about a gesture that is important. It’s expressive to make a gesture to hit a drum. Not really when you push a button. And I think computer people know that; that’s why they’re building more visual beat-makers for the stage.
TF I think there are all kinds of different ways to address spectacle. I see it in your show, and I see it when I’m messing with my show, and in other friend’s shows—Man Man and The Show Is the Rainbow come to mind. It’s exciting to think about music as something you see and not just something that you hear. It’s invigorating … the cinnamon in the French toast mix. For folks like you and me who really don’t want to eat stale bread all the time, the visual end is unexpected in rock ‘n’ roll these days.
SW People are always telling me that they understand my music so much more when they see me instead of just listening to the record.
TF I hear that all the time, too.
SW There’s something about it that is a mystery to me. Audio recording is 100 years old, you know? It’s like we’re still bound to this medium of a recorded example of our art, but music is an old, performative art form.
TF And I think there’s something that can never be replaced with electronics in the transmission of sound between the sound-maker and the sound-receiver. The speakers can estimate, but it’s simply that: an estimation. I saw this band, The Woes, play the other day; they play sort of sloshy, old-timey drinking songs—a mix of sadness and happiness—but almost entirely unamplified. The only thing that was amplified was the singer. He has a low voice, so he couldn’t contend with a French horn, a piano, a mandolin, and drums. Every fiber of my being was vibrating because of how right there it was.
My Brightest Diamond performing live at the Blender Theatre, New York, 2008. Photo: Courtney Nicolson.
SW Do you think America will ever be able to have community music? Music that everybody participates in?
TF I think it does.
TF Sports … I think dancing, in a very big way, does this. I also heard on the radio about these live jam sites on the Internet. Dudes in Saigon, another dude in Düsseldorf, and a guy in Memphis can all get together on the Internet and just jam. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to be happening with music. It already is with recording. I work with people I don’t see all the time. It’s sad, because so much about music is about doing it together, in the same room, sweatin’ on each other and feelin’ the spit—all that. Maybe there is something about what’s happening technologically that actually is communal, but I feel like there’s a chance that technology could just come crashing down and we’ll have no choice but to sit around on the porch and play banjos all day because nobody’s going to have a job. No money and no food and we’re going to have to sing to drown out the grumbling of our tummies. (Both sing “Food, Glorious Food”) We can’t end on that note—too depressing.
SW I know, we have to fix that. Well, is there room for fun in serious music? That’s a question on our sheet of paper.
TF That’s the last question.
SW Touring for three months during the middle of the election, when the economic crash was beginning to happen, was fascinating. Just to get a pulse on America, and Europe. It felt like music became a little more important. The people who came had to make a bit more of a sacrifice to be there. Art is like a window into another reality; the imagination is a window, a means of escaping our economic situation in a really wonderful way. If you’re completely bound by economics, that’s when you get depressed. Yeah, it’s true that we need to eat and have a warm place to stay. I’m not trying to devalue that reality, but I feel like, as an artist, I’m trying to challenge myself not to be so held by money that it becomes my foremost concern. Art is how you turn into a fish when you’re drowning. It’s how the magic rope ladder from the hole in the heavens drops down and you realize there’s another way to be, or think, or feel. I’m trying to see it more that way. A time of economic struggle makes music feel not just like entertainment; it suddenly has more significance because we need to feel—to feel hope or just let go for a minute.
Download a podcast of My Brightest Diamond performing at Amanda Stern’s Happy Ending Music and Reading Series at Joe’s Pub, on April 2, 2008. Special thanks to Michael Kaufman of Asthmatic Kitty Records.