The chamber pop artist explains her choices of names before playing with Death Cab for Cutie Tuesday at the Orpheum.
Shara Nova has made beautiful and haunting music under many names; My Brightest Diamond is the one that stuck. She started making “chamber pop” or “art pop” in the early 2000s under the name AwRY and went on to write music for orchestral productions and collaborated with indie star Sufjan Stevens. In 2006, she started to release music under the name My Brightest Diamond.
In November 2018, she released A Million and One, her fifth full-length album as My Brightest Diamond. It is at once both expansive and tight, its tracks bursting with emotion. As always, her talent and background in classical music shine through. My Brightest Diamond will play in New Orleans at the Orpheum Theater on Tuesday opening for Death Cab for Cutie.
Recently, My Spilt Milk contributor Devorah Levy-Pearlman interviewed Nova by email:
What are your musical roots? Where do you come from?
My grandfather was a Pentecostal evangelist and he played guitar and they had a family band, everyone playing and singing. My dad later became a church choir director and my mother was a pianist / classical organist. Because of dad's job, we moved around the country a lot. Nine states by the time I was 18. Nearly every corner of America. What that meant was that I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music in each place we went and had to adapt every time.
My Brightest Diamond is the outlet for what I call my "pop" music. If I'm in the classical composer role or singing as a collaborator, I call that work by my name. It's a way of framing the writing.
A Million and One is a dense album. There's so much there, for me it plays like an intricate galaxy all on its own. I'm curious, how does being a trained opera singer and a student of classical composition inform this type of production? What about opera makes good pop music, and how do you tiptoe the line between classical and modern?
As a singer, my priority is "ease-fulness." If the body is a car, I'm aiming to be in the sweet spot and be able to do all kinds of singing not limited to just pop. I'm not trying to overdrive my engine or drive 60 miles an hour in second gear. That means writing tunes that don't compromise my instrument. At the same time, I want to be on the edge of my capacity, so that I am challenged and not playing emotionally safe.
In terms of composition, for years I have tried to make a kind of unified theory, bringing winds, brass, strings, etc. into the arrangements, but for this record I didn't want to use any classical instruments and to strictly look at rhythm and song form. There is a lot of math on this record, but hopefully we hid it well enough that the listener isn't aware of it. There are songs like "It's Me On the Dance Floor" which is through-composed rhythmically. The meter changes every few bars. Or "You Wanna See My Teeth," which is in 7/4 most of the time, and both of those are probably the most rhythmically difficult songs. "Rising Star"--we had to redo the drum part three times because of the vocal line put the downbeat in a different place than the original drums, so we finally surrendered to the priority of the melody and redid the drum part.
The band and I have had to practice some of these songs a ridiculous amount of hours to be able to play them, but I don't think until you actually try, can you realize how tricky they are. I think that's a good thing. I don't want the math to be apparent, however I'm trying to communicate something I can't achieve without the irregularity of the rhythm.
You've mentioned that A Million and One is dedicated to Detroit. How has the city pushed you musically?
My dad was a music pastor at a church about an hour west of Detroit when I was a teen, so when we first moved there, I was hearing Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and so many more amazing Detroit artists on the radio. Friday nights, the DJs mixed techno live on the radio. Certainly Stevie's Songs in the Key of Life set a template for this record, where I wanted to write about challenges to the community, question how we relate to our neighbors, and how we challenge the culture. But then, Stevie brilliantly juxtaposes love songs with social change songs. I took note.
I’ve been thinking about music videos and how they fit into the puzzle of a musician’s body of work. How crucial is that visual element to your art?
I'm on a very indie record label, so we do what we can. I've always been an independent artist so my music videos have been very "Love, Coffee & a Croissant" budgets. Derrick Belcham has been a long time collaborator and I love working with just him, a smoke machine and camera and then he can make some magic. Vince Fraser did his wizardry to turn the one me into a million.
When it comes to video vs audio, I'm not DIY about records. The musicians are world class. Earl Harvin on drums, Vincent Taurelle and Thomas Bartlett on keys, Chris Bruce on bass and guitar. The Twilite Tone produced with me. Andrew Scheps mixed the record. So I put all of my resources into making the albums, and it is a lot more than coffee change. I'm old school like that. I do my own vocal recording, but beyond that, I record with pros. Maybe I will use a different process in the future, but that's how all the MBD albums have been made.
A few years back you changed your name from Shara Worden to Shara Nova. What’s the story behind that?
I was married my whole adult life and then I got a divorce, so I went through a certain crisis of the soul, a transformatio,n and so keeping that name didn't feel good anymore. I also didn't want to go back to my family name because I wanted to become something else. I searched for a name for many months and one day my friends said, "Hey, I was looking through a science book and saw the word 'nova' and I think that might be you." It felt good. To be named "new." To be evolving.
What's a tension you deal with in your music? Are there any overarching themes that keep popping up?
In terms of this record, the themes of A Million and One are a lot of questions rather than answers. They are a searching for how we become individually more articulated, clearer in our self-definition in the context of adversity or isolation, but then also how we deal with each other as neighbors, community, the planet.
You're touring with Death Cab for Cutie, who have already carved out something of a legacy in indie rock. What’s it like touring with them?
The guitar and keyboard player, Zac Rae, who is in Death Cab co-produced the last record, This Is My Hand and has played on all the MBD records since 2005!! So it's amazing to have time to spend together on the road. He will always be core to my musical life.