My Brightest Diamond is the brainchild of Shara Worden, who brings formal opera training to her ethereal pop. Following Bring Me the Workhorse, MBD’s enthralling 2006 debut, the charismatic Worden has returned with A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, which reflects her classical roots through extensive use of strings.
Paste: You started working on the tracks for A Thousand Shark’s Teeth while you were still recording Bring Me the Workhorse, which would confuse anyone trying to chart your artistic progression. How did that simultaneous activity come about?
Worden: Early on, I was working on a bunch of songs that seemed to separate themselves into two groups. Before I even went to record Workhorse, I held some string quartet sessions - I was trying to learn how to arrange for strings and also experimenting with songwriting to make strings the foundation of the songs, rather than have the guitar be the basis. I did an initial recording session of about seven songs on Shark’s Teeth, but I ended up not liking the fact that there were no other sounds on there besides strings, so I added more and more instruments. Eventually those sessions ended up being released as the Shark Demos, which went with pre-orders of the new album, and we ended up rerecording everything except “Goodbye Forever,” which comes from the original string quartet session from 2004.
Paste: Would you say your original intent for A Thousand Shark’s Teeth was “purer”?
Worden: In the beginning, I had specific parameters, and then I realized I didn’t like those parameters! [laughs] I’m a very eclectic person, and when I’ve produced myself in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to cram too many ideas on one record. The first record was all over the place stylistically, so restricting myself initially was a way of trying to maintain some objectivity. But this one is really out of control. There are something like 20 different players!
Paste: Fortunately, you seem to have the kind of audience that is open to you trying different things.
Worden: One of the reasons I released a remix album was to vary expectations of who I am as an artist - I’m excited about tons of different things. Also, being on an indie label gives you more flexibility. You don’t have to make the same record over and over again, whereas on a major label you have to deliver a consistent product. Asthmatic Kitty isn’t about that.
Paste: Which songs were the hardest to get right?
Worden: Both “The Diamond” and “Pluto’s Moon” were very difficult. It’s like walking through clouds and trying to find where the clear open space is. You can’t see where you’re going, and you can’t exactly hear it in your mind. A lot of times you can imagine what you want and you get somewhere pretty close, but sometimes you imagine one place and land far away. The rest of the record was more straightforward. When you encounter problems, though, you’re in a place of growth. Even though it’s frustrating, that’s when you’re learning the most.
Paste: It’s hard to tell how many players there are on the album just by listening.
Worden: That’s good! It’s like designing clothes or making pottery - you want to have a light hand. To me it seems very full, but lightness in the arrangements and a lack of heaviness in the sound is something I hope for. I think that’s due in part to the way Husky Hoskulds mixed it. He didn’t have everything up in the mix at the same time; some sounds are very pushed back and you have to listen for them.
Paste: How much did you direct him?
Worden: I used Blood Money as a guide to what I wanted, because he knew I was a huge Tom Waits fan. And once I got into Husky’s stuff, I realized I had five or six albums he’d mixed. When he sent me his mix of “Black & Costaud,” I wrote him back that it sounds like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film The City of Lost Children. He told me, “No way! You love Jeunet? I’m going to mix the rest of the record while I’m watching Jeunet’s Delicatessen.” That’s a huge movie for me. So we were on the same page. I got very lucky.
Paste: Different pieces of the songs have different engineers and come from different studios. That seems like a very challenging way to work.
Worden: It was very ambitious to have that many people on the record, but you have to work within the budget you have. The drums were recorded in Berlin; much of the string quartet and voice was recorded in a small New York studio. When I felt comfortable I’d record at home. Now, the idea of cutting an album with just four people in one room is extremely appealing to me!
Paste: Has your sense of how you want to use your voice changed over the years? The degree of vocal restraint on the album is surprising.
Worden: I was whispering for half the record [laughs]. It’s really, really hard to sing that quietly, but I wanted that intimate feeling you get on “From the Top of the World.” I want to be more transparent and flexible as a vocalist and allow myself to go to different places. You listen to singers like Nina Simone and Kate Bush, who I’m just now getting into, and it’s about how far they push things, how many different colors they have and how many different sounds they allow to happen. You have to keep encouraging yourself gently, “It’s ok to make different sounds.” It’s about valuing the emotional gamut. Prince is someone I love as a vocalist, and he’s over the top, but for me I think restraint is a good thing.
Paste: You’ve mentioned a few artists you admire. Who are some others?
Worden: I tend to obsessively listen to one album for a month and then move on. I'm in a Sonic Youth phase right now. I listened to Daydream Nation for the first time yesterday. Obviously I knew about them before, but I never sat down and listened to their whole catalogue. Other important artists for me have been Talk Talk, Portishead, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Clogs, Bjork. Lately I've been listening to more rhythmic music like M.I.A. and old Peter Gabriel that use samples or field recordings from Africa, music that engages and requires the active participation of the collective society. That's interesting to me. I want my next music to have much more of an emphasis on rhythm. That’s never been a priority for me before.
Paste: Who are your literary influences? The Romantic poets seem to be a source.
Worden: I read loads of fantasy sci-fi books, with horses, swords, magic and the like. I just joined a book club of more traditional fiction to try and break me out of reading only fantasy. For Shark's, the song "Like a Sieve" was based on the scene in “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice grows large and cries for being stuck inside the rabbit’s house, then when she shrinks she is swimming in a pool of her tears. I wrote it considering what it would be like if we could go through our own pool of tears and clean out the mess, the shipwrecks, the drift wood, the sludge, until the water was pure. The song "From the Top of the World" was inspired by Lewis Carroll's idol, George MacDonald, who wrote “At the Back of the North Wind.” In that story, there is a little boy named Diamond, to whom North Wind appears. Sometimes North Wind is as small as a fairy and she whispers to him in flower beds, and at other times, when she is huge, she blows his windows open and he climbs into her hair and they roam about the earth doing what North Wind does - causing shipwrecks and moving the sea. But I really consider myself more of a visual person than a word person. That’s why I love the Impressionist painters so much - they loved mood, color and atmosphere. They implied things rather than being overt.
Paste: You produced yourself this time. Are there any producers you’d like to work with?
Worden: I’d love to work with Flood, who did some of the P.J. Harvey and Nine Inch Nails stuff, but that takes a lot of money. There’s a million to learn and grow, and one of the ways is to get someone who really understands the studio, who knows how to turn the knobs and get the effect you’re trying for without having to experiment.
Paste: In addition to your own music, you’ve performed covers of everyone from Radiohead (“Lucky”) to Huey Lewis (“Naturally”) to Roy Orbison’s (“It’s Over”). Have you ever thought about doing an album of covers?
Worden: I have thought about it, but it’d be weird to put out a covers record as your third album; maybe it should be your fifth or sixth album. I’ve got other covers coming out on compilations this year - Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” It’s been really fun to do them without having to think about how they’d all fit together on one album. I enjoy doing covers as a way of experimenting. For the Beatles cover, I recorded the drums myself, which I’d never done before, and used a little bit of drum programming, which I’ve never done before. So for me covers are a way of trying new stuff.