My Brightest Diamond: Imagining Something Better

Music Features My Brightest Diamond
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“When you’re privileged, you don’t even know you’re privileged / When you’re not, you know / When you’re happy, you don’t even know you’re happy / When you’re not, you know.”

On All Things Will Unwind, the lavish new My Brightest Diamond album, Shara Worden sings those sad-but-true words with the wisdom of a saint. The line comes from “High Low Middle,” a bouncy, late-album indie-rock show tune filled with sawing strings and quivering flute. Swooping just above the preciousness is Worden’s rich, classically-trained voice, alternately mournful and upbeat. All Things Will Unwind is filled with those kinds of dynamic contrasts—a quiet, electronic pulse can explode, moments later, into a swelling symphony. A lyrical metaphor about poverty and greed can be contrasted with joyous musical cacophony.

If All Things Will Unwind is somewhat ambiguous, well, it makes perfect sense once you peek into Worden’s private life. Her last few years—since 2008 sophomore effort, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth—have been filled with extreme joy and overwhelming sadness. Having recently given birth to a son, Worden has spent her days filled with the wonder and excitement of new motherhood, but it’s all been framed within the context of her home in a crime-filled urban Detroit—not exactly an ideal place to raise a child.

“Becoming a parent and trying to see the world through that filter of, ‘Okay, what’s going on? What’s the world my son is going to inherit?’ That, for sure, was a definite concern of this record,” Worden says, from her Detroit home. “I tell you not a word of a lie that two nights ago, there was an AK-47 shoot-off like two blocks away from here, and five boys have been killed in the past couple weeks in my neighborhood, blocks away. These are boys that are dealing with drugs, not to buy fancy cars—but to pay their electric bills and to eat! When I start to get into what the scene is here in Detroit—these kids have no public schools. They are shipped in, and the schools don’t even give them transportation. I was talking tot his kid, and he wakes up at five in the morning to get himself to school. And it’s just unfathomable. So I think being a person of privilege in a way, even thought I grew up poor, I also grew up with a tremendous amount of resources just with information, so I think there’s that dichotomy on the record, looking at opposite realities. And I think just having a son who is such a delight, and it’s such a delight and joy to be in the moment with him. To have a heart that’s joyous one minute and then sorrowful—I think that’s kind of how the record is influenced by that.”

On the minimal, brooding “Be Brave,” Worden calls herself out directly, questioning what her role is in a world pulled apart by war and destruction. “Oh, God, what’s my responsibility?” she asks, desperate for a seemingly unknowable answer. Whether she’s praying or asking a rhetorical question is hardly the point. Her solution? “Sh-Sh-Sh-Shara, now get to work / Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Shara, this is going to hurt.”

“Corporately, we all have to make changes,” she says, “but how do I, as the person behind the microphone? I’m not in politics. I’m a singer, and I’m a musician. So I didn’t feel like…There’s a time for people to stand behind a mic and sings songs about, ‘You need to get your shit together,’ but for me, I didn’t feel like that was where I was at. I feel like, ‘I need to get my shit together just as much as anybody else.’ So I think that’s what made it work for me was to be able to address myself. Nobody really wants to be preached at like that, you know?

“There were so many things in the world that were happening,” she continues. “Antony and the Johnsons sent around a picture of the Adelie penguins standing in the ice water hovering over their eggs. The eggs are drowning because of the ice melt. I have friends who are working to get people out of the sex-slave industry and human trafficking; the Nobel Peace Prize winner wasn’t allowed to go get his prize! And all of these things were happening in November and December when I was working on those tunes, and the composer Gorecki died. So I was looking at all of this environmental injustice and human injustice and trying to gather myself together and say, ‘How do you respond to this?’ The North Koreans are bombing the South Koreans because they have no food! I guess it was just this moment of, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

Ultimately, Worden did what she does best—she made a new album. All Things Will Unwind was a strange (and, yes, winding) journey that originated from a friendly offer: Members of the renowned yMusic chamber ensemble (which includes My Brightest Diamond collaborators Rob Moose and CJ Camerieri) approached Worden with the prospect of writing music for a mixed string-and-woodwind ensemble performance at New York City’s Lincoln Center. She jumped at the opportunity, particularly when she was given the software program Sibelius, which allowed her to write arrangements digitally instead of her archaic pen-and-paper (“and a lot of White Out!”) approach she used on previous albums. It was an inspiring process that came together very quickly for Worden.

“The biggest thing is that you can hear it back,” she says. “The reason that the learning curve on the older stuff took me so long is you’re trying to imagine what a violin would sound like doing a particular line, but with this program, you can put notes on a…computer paper, I guess, and then hear it back immediately. So you can work so much faster than the way that I used to work before. I thought it was more personal and romantic to do things by paper, old-fashioned, but I got to a point where it was so unmanageable that I just quit. I think I learned something—I think it was important to go through it, but I’m glad I’m working on a computer program now! [laughs] It’s a bit addictive.”

Though the material felt fresh and immediate, recording at “the highest fidelity possible” at a New York studio with engineer Pat Dillett (who has recorded vocals for the likes of Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige), Worden was unsure if the new songs even fit under the My Brightest Diamond moniker. Briefly, she considered releasing the album under her own name but retreated after discovering the artistic parallels between her new, more romantic, material and some of the rawer, guitar-based tracks of her earlier work.

Just as Worden’s lyrics address the yin-yang divide between suffering and the sublime, her music has always tight-roped polar-opposite genres, a delicate balance of the indie rock scene and her classical roots. A former student of classical music and opera voice, Worden got her first break as one of Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinoisemaker” players on his acclaimed Illinois tour. She also sang back-up in a funk band called Mingo Fishtrap. The act of coalescing all her disparate influences has been a challenge, and with All Things Will Unwind, she’s arrived at a more confident sound that manages to explore all of those styles without ever sounding forced. Where some of her older material feels like a musical science experiment, piecing together random elements of classical in an indie-rock oeuvre, these new tracks never feel methodical.

“I think it’s sort of funny how it goes,” she says, “because a lot of times, it’s sort of about the relationships that come into your life or the things that happen at that particular moment, and you have to decide whether to take an opportunity or not. And if you say yes, it sort of dictates the path. I think that’s what it’s about—just, I guess because I am in a position where I have done rock music, I can step away from it a little bit and know that I can come back to it. But I think there will always be that dichotomy within myself throughout my life of trying to find ways of using the tools and the powers that we have with electricity and also just loving classical instruments and loving arrangements. I guess I was at a point where I was able to let go of, in a way, wanting to turn up my distortion and play the electric. I could let that go and not be afraid of that.”

Letting go of one’s crutches, wrestling with the world’s horrors, embracing the unknown—There are a lot of weighty ideas circling on All Things Will Unwind. But Worden’s ultimate challenge was to embrace her own imagination: “The brain is the most creative and the most musical—the source of everything, so for me, because I’m not a really strong player, if I can get to the brain through the imagination, then the imagination can be free of the body.” Worden ends our conversation with a charming anecdote of imagination—not an analysis of poverty or war or social injustice. A story about a five-year-old at a birthday party:

“There were all these helium balloons everywhere, and this five-year-old little girl looked right at me, and she said, ‘On my birthday, my balloon flew away. But one day, I’m going to get up in a hot-air balloon, and I’m going to find my balloon.’ And she just stared at me saying it, and I just was like, ‘That’s awesome!’ It was just at this moment where you could see that she was testing me to see if I would believe her. And when you’re five, you still believe those things, but you know you’re playing pretend a little bit. It’s such a fragile thing how the adults treat that. For me, that’s salvation—in the belief of that idea that you absolutely can go up in a balloon and get your balloon back. And that’s a beautiful thing to dream like that—to hope, I guess. So for me, that’s how I find the power of humanity or the beauty of humanity—in those sweet little conversations.”