Although My Brightest Diamond’s fourth studio album This Is My Hand expands Shara Worden‘s delirious hybrid of sounds, the starting point was born from the most elemental of musical forces: rhythm. It’s obvious from the get-go on opening track “Pressure,” which begins with the booming, ecstatic sound of a marching band. For Worden, a trained classical vocalist at the prestigious music school at the University of North Texas, inspiration is everywhere. It’s in the 140 BPM addictiveness of a Skrillex song as much as a five-note series from minimalist composer Philip Glass. Weaving those disparate influences together has made for the most challenging and rewarding My Brightest Diamond album to date.
Worden really doesn’t mind where she fits in — she performed composer David Lang’s Death Speaks and collaborates with the likes of Nico Muhly, but her view of music is relentlessly populist: it’s a way to connect us all.
Let’s talk starting points. Can you think back to a kernel that sparked the direction the new album would take?
There were a lot of little kernels, but the beginning was a question about the value of music. The industry has changed in the last five years, and as I started to work on the record, I was questioning a lot. If records no longer have value in a certain way of thinking, what am I doing making a record? How can I be really hopeful about making an album? I started getting back to basics of our relationship to music throughout history. I started by reading the book The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond and another book by Daniel Levitin called The World in Six Songs. In that book, he talks about these six different themes in songwriting throughout human history. And so I thought, “OK, well I’m going to take these six themes — friendship, war, religion, information songs, love and sad songs — and I’m going to write something on those themes.” Musically, I had these different itches to scratch. I wanted to start the music from the rhythm first, which is something I’ve never done. My music’s been largely lyrically and harmonically driven. So I mapped out all these different rhythms I wanted to use and that’s kind of how it started.
So you mapped out these rhythms — can you talk a little more specifically about that process?
For one of the songs, “Lover Killer,” I was at a festival with the percussionist Trilok Gurtu. He has an amazing reputation and is an amazing player. I saw him at this festival, and he did this rhythm which was in 7/4 and it was getting the audience to clap like this [claps in 7] two single claps and then a double — and I thought, “Oh, this is rhythmic genius.” It’s this different way of getting the audience to participate so that it becomes a communal experience, but it’s a different kind of rhythm than just beating quarter notes. That was one of the rhythmical itches that I had — I really, really wanted the audience to clap in 7/4.
For another one of the songs, I was working with an incredible chamber ensemble group called Eighth Blackbird out of Chicago. I did a concert with them last year and was singing David Lang’s Death Speaks, and we did a couple of those songs with them. On the same program they played a Philip Glass piece called “Two Pages” and basically everyone in the ensemble is playing in complete unison and it begins on a cell of five notes [hums a series of five notes]. And I thought, “OK this is brilliant” — I loved the unisons and I loved the five. Then he adds notes or takes them away as the piece goes on, so every addition and every subtraction of a note feels like a really dramatic change. So for the song “This is My Hand,” which is the title track, I took that cell of the five and then just riffed on it myself. I didn’t end up staying as mathematical as the Philip Glass piece, but the basic beginning of that song was completely stolen.
As soon as you hummed that, I knew what song you were talking about.
Yeah, that’s from Philip Glass!
You spoke of how this album started out rhythmically, so now I’m wondering how that changed the way you create songs.
It’s a very, very, very different writing process for this album. I did several things. I knew I wanted to use marching bands as a symbol of something in American culture that everybody can participate in. That’s still a place where music education is happening for everybody — pretty much all kids can have access in public schools to a marching band. So I thought, “OK, the marching band symbolizes folk music to me, a kind of American folk music, something that’s accessible to everybody.” At the same time, we have a very deep tradition in classical music — which I consider to be about specialization. And in wanting to kind of bridge this gap between folk and symphonic wind music, I just really started studying marching bands.
In the beginning I just asked my drummer, “Can you play me some awesome snare? Just send me a recording of you playing snare for 33 minutes.” And in other cases, he would be playing something during a sound check, and I would just record him while he was testing the drum. Then I would take a cell of that and loop it. The song “Resonance” was taken from that — just from him playing the sound check and me taking one little tiny piece from that and writing a song from it.
In other cases, I would study songs I like — what’s the BPM on this, and how is this working? And so I ended up starting maybe 25 different songs from the rhythm first and then would throw some harmonic stuff on top of it and see if I could take something and develop it in such a way that I liked it. And there were a lot of things that fell flat on the floor.
I was also studying Skrillex, and a lot of his music was around 140 BPM. I was like, “OK I’m going to check out this dance music thing. How does dance music work and why?” I just arbitrarily did a whole bunch of songs at 140. So it was just a lot of play.
Tell me a little bit about putting the song “Pressure” together. It’s one of the places on the record where the marching band feeling is most obvious.
“Pressure,” very strangely, came from listening to a Lady Gaga song. I really like her song “Applause,” so I whipped out a little drum machine pattern and just started writing the song. I’d never been so formulaic about songwriting ever. What’s funny about that song is I did start with a pretty rigid formula of eight measures for the verse, knew there was going to be a pre-chorus that has all these mapped out measures, but then what I end up with is something that doesn’t sound anything like “Applause.” If you listen to them back to back you’ll see that there’s some borrowing.
In terms of the marching band, part of the idea of this album was that — I love this belief — the composer Kodaly had this belief that everyone can sing, that music is part of our heritage. It’s part of our DNA as human beings that we are all inherently musical. I think that’s the ethos of punk as well. Punk, at the core, is this value that says it doesn’t matter how much you study. You can pick up a guitar, you can play a drum, you don’t need to have an education in order for you to be able to express something. Whereas classical music is all about specialization — it’s about really, really studying and devoting yourself to one very specific thing — like playing a violin or being really, really, really good at an instrument. And I feel like as an artist, I live between these two ethoses.
You built these songs from rhythm, but there’s still a lot of careful lyricism in This Is My Hand. I’m really fascinated by the connection between the two and how they build off of each other.
The lyrics started from a more conceptual basis. From Daniel Levitin’s book for example, I was looking at Shamanism and looking at the unseen world and the whole, “musician as John the Baptist character” who goes out into the world and seeks some kind of revelation and comes back to the tribe and says, “This is what I’ve learned, this is what I’ve experienced in the wilderness.” So I’d just start with that kind of idea and what I found was that I liked the songs, but I wasn’t really convinced of them.
At the very last minute I started to panic, rewriting the lyrics, and “I Am Not the Bad Guy” is an example of that. “I Am Not the Bad Guy” was originally about a Buster Keaton film that I scored, and Buster keeps getting in trouble with this lady. And I was thinking about the innocent person, and how you’re accused of something you didn’t really do — I was thinking about Guantanamo Bay as well. So I kind of wrote it from this prisoner-to-the-government perspective — “I’m not the bad guy” — and I just didn’t like the song for whatever reason. I liked the beat, but something was missing. So I thought I’d change perspective and put myself in prison — it’s me — and so by doing that, a new chorus came, and I liked the song better, even though I’d say 60 percent of the lyrics stayed the same. Suddenly the song felt more alive for me. So it was a sort of a meandering process.
When we think of rhythm, we think of this really elemental force. What are your thoughts about where rhythm comes from, about its elemental nature?
The song “Before the Words” is really about that exactly. It’s my version of an information song — how we used to teach each other ["The Alphabet Song"], the kinds of things we use computers and books for. In “Before the Words” I was thinking about these really basic things: your mother’s heartbeat, you being in the womb listening to the blood pulsing through your mother’s body, and maybe your mother sang to you. Maybe you’re hearing her speech or her singing.
In The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond, he talks about how the older part of the brain is the sound-making part of the brain — it’s even older than language. So I guess I was [thinking], “Let’s get back to the basics of music.” What does it mean to us? How is it that we experience it from the very moment that we are conceived? How fundamental is music to the human experience? It’s inextricable. You can’t separate our relationship to music ever. There’s not a culture that we know of that didn’t have music.
It’s getting back to the question, “What is the value of music?” If we download recordings for free now — even if recordings are NOT free to make — we consume music without much thought to the fact that it costs money to make it. But does money actually give value? The fact is that, on the one hand it does, and on the other it doesn’t quantify the significance of something. In this country, art programs are being cut — we have a very strong tendency in capitalism to think that if something is not immediately measurable monetarily, it doesn’t have value. When we look at art organizations or arts in our culture, or the making of new work — are we supporting the making of new work in our culture? How can we say that the culture of our art-making is extremely important, because it reflects the human soul, it reflects what we care about? I wanted to remind myself of the value of music to me, and all the many, many unfolding ways it will continue to reveal itself throughout my life. It’s always changing. I think I needed to remember that in a time when the thing that I live to do can feel undervalued.
With so much turmoil happening around the world, some people ask, “Well, what is the value in this art? It’s extraneous.” And I’m like “No, it’s more vital than ever right now!”
It’s really true. It’s the thing that can open a heart. Music has this funny way of sneaking inside of you and opening you up. It can change your mood in one measure. You can be very, very angry, and then music can transform your mood immediately — it’s incredibly powerful.
You were rewriting lyrics way late into the making of the record. How did you know when this album was finished?
I think you know it’s finished — there’s a switch that flips. I don’t know how this switch flips, but I think putting timelines on things is really important. So I give myself very hard timelines. And there’s something strange that happens with deadlines — the brain fights against the deadline and then at the last minute, it will resolve something. Sometimes, if it’s going on for too long and dragging, you’ll lose fire. And I also think there’s a balance — this is the fourth My Brightest Diamond album, but I’ve made many, many other records besides these four. I think the longer I’m making records, the less careful I am, and I can be a little more playful about the way that things happen, and not have to micromanage. I’m not an endless tinkerer. I’d rather just go make a new thing.