Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Shara Worden possesses one of the most iconic voices in contemporary indie music. As mighty as a howitzer or as delicate as a Fabergé egg, she’s used her operatic chops to power collaborations with acts ranging from The Decemberists to Sufjan Stevens to Fatboy Slim and David Byrne. Her own project, My Brightest Diamond, has just released its third studio album, All Things Will Unwind. During a whirlwind promo tour prior to its release, Worden took a few minutes to chat about her elaborate arrangements, Ozzy Osbourne, the death of the universe and why ‘I Will Always Love You’ is the ultimate karaoke song.
Some stricter rules governed the recording of My Brightest Diamond’s latest album. The first was that you wanted all the sounds on the album to be acoustic. Why was this a goal?
On the previous albums I mixed in big rock drums and electric guitars. It’s really difficult, acoustically, for a little violin to compete with a big floor tom or a plugged-in guitar. I thought I would remove that challenge and see what would happen. We did introduce some electronics at the last minute, and part of the reason for that was, when I’m thinking of an arrangement, it’s very easy for me to think vertically and horizontally. You’ve got high frequencies and low frequencies and you want all of them to have some presence. I hadn’t accommodated for a depth of field and how big of a room everyone was playing in. So the electronics on the record ended up filling up the background area… to give a sense that the room was more than just a flat surface.
Another of the rules: you wanted to limit the number of instruments you, yourself, played on the album. The ones that you did use had to fit inside a suitcase. Why did you decide to add this one?
As impractical as this record is, with so many people on it, I was trying, desperately, to be practical in some way. If only to help us fly and play concerts. I thought that if all of my equipment could fit inside a suitcase it would be a little more practical. On the other side, the players I worked with are world class. I’m an instrumentalist only as far it helps me to write songs. I don’t consider myself a player, so as much as possible, I tried to give away the rhythmic parts to people who are really good at that.
When you write your arrangements do you use a computer?
On my first two records I did everything with pencil and paper and it was excruciating. I did learn a lot and I’m glad that I went through that process. By the end of A Thousand Shark’s Teeth I decided that I wasn’t going to arrange that way anymore. It became too difficult once I needed to make revisions. I really didn’t want to rewrite everything, so I use Sibelius, which is a notation program. It’s very, very simple and easy to use and it’s kind of changed my life. All of the arrangements on All Things Unwind were made using Sibelius. I also use Pro Tools as well.
When you sit down with musicians, do you go over the arrangements with each of them individually or do you just hand over the sheet music?
This album actually began as a project to create 30 minutes of new music for a concert called The American Songbook Series. I had about two-and-a-half months to prepare. To make it happen, I had to write a song each day and I thought the arrangements would take me about two days. So, after a couple of weeks of working at home, I went to New York and we had a rehearsal where I played everything, heard the stuff, made sort of a Garage Band recording, and then I went back home. In those months, I think we only had three rehearsals. There was a lot of time pressure. I was really quite stressed the whole time, working 14 hours a day.
Were you working those kind of hours when you got everyone together to record the album?
By the time we went in to record in April, we had already played all the music in concert three times. The recording process was actually really simple and we kept to almost-office hours. There wasn’t a whole lot of experimenting going on. The whole album was recorded in only 14 days.
The title, All Things Will Unwind, reminded me of a book I read in high school: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It’s a sombre novel about an African village falling prey to the influence of Europeans. I took it as a political statement, but what would you say the title is all about?
That’s the beautiful thing about metaphors, right? They can mean so many things so that’s why it’s nice to use them. [laughs] The song that it came from is contemplating the death of the sun. I was having a conversation with a scientist friend and she was telling me about how the sun is going to burn out. So I was thinking a lot about the beginning, middle and end of stories, and that song is a conversation between me and another character. You could call the character ‘Faith and Doubt’ or call it ‘Hope and Despair’ or ‘Belief and Dreams’ or ‘Discouragement’. In the end, it’s wrestling with chaos theory… that things do have endings and how to find a way to have peace with that. It’s not an album of answers so much as ponderings. [laughs]
You’re living in Detroit these days. I’ve heard it’s getting better but I’ve also heard stories from friends that have gone there for auto conventions – that it’s like a ghost town with deer wandering through the streets. Is it still like that? A bit post-apocalyptic?
Yeah. Getting better is… subjective. In our neighbourhood another coffee shop just came in. I think that now makes five espresso machines in the whole city. It is post-apocalyptic. It’s strange. Detroit’s a city built for millions. Now there’s 713,000 people in this really, really big area. It’s ghostly, in a way. There’s life that’s going on there. There is vibrancy, but it’s not what you’re used to seeing. It’s all grassroots and underground. You’ve got to seek it out.
You’ve performed with a lot of artists over the years, like Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists and David Byrne. How do these collaborations come about?
A lot of them come from friendship. Sometimes they’re more random. Other times it’s from a random phone call or email.
Is that what happened with The Decemberists? Did you get a phone call from Colin Meloy? ‘Hey, it’s Colin. We need someone to be the Tree Queen on our next album. Are you available?’
How that happened… they asked My Brightest Diamond to open for them. We played with them for several weeks for The Crane Wife. We were all singing an Ozzy Osbourne song backstage one evening and that gave Colin the idea for the queen. We were singing karaoke-style heavy metal. [laughs] The song…. it was ‘War Pigs’. So that’s how I got the part.
You’ve done some interesting covers over the years. During The Hazards of Love tour with The Decemberists, you guys performed a great rendition of Heart’s ‘Crazy on You’. There’s also a clip on YouTube of you singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ at a bar in Brazil. You completely nailed it. Have you given any thought to a covers album?
I have thought of doing a compilation featuring a bunch of them that we’ve done. I was toying with that idea a few years ago. But now I really want to write my own songs. Doing all of those covers has filled an emotional gap in my own sets. It’s another collaboration, in a way, where you’re able to able to dive into someone else’s songwriting brain and understand the architecture. For example, ‘I Will Always Love You’ is sort of centred around a ‘G’, and I would never write a song in that way. The way that song fits into a voice though is really interesting. Also… I may have been a little drunk in that YouTube video. [laughs]
I used to make some money in college as a waitress and I even donated plasma a few times. There was also a sports bar in town that held karaoke competitions. ‘I Will Always Love You’… if you could pull that out of your pocket, you would win a hundred bucks. I couldn’t use it too often though, so I rotated my songs.
So would you go in as a ringer? Would you hide the full power of your singing skills until just the right moment, when you could unleash hell on the competition?
Well… I needed money. [laughs] I needed that hundred dollars, so I went and staked out the joint. I definitely picked my moment.
My Brightest Diamond will perform in Utrecht, at Le Guess Who? Festival on 27 November.Tweet