Long before attending the filming of My Brightest Diamond‘s La Blogotheque video for “Whoever You Are” at this year’s Sundance, we were impressed by her lush vocals, theatricality and mystic lyricism. Detroit-based Shara Worden (the musician behind the moniker) seamlessly integrates influences and inspirations into genre-defying music. At times, rock gives way to the thoughtful inflections of folk, but all the while there’s an experimental edge offered up by her dynamic voice and layered orchestrations. Her new album This is My Hand is set for release by Asthmatic Kitty in September 2014 (her first since 2011’s All Things Will Unwind) and there is excitement brewing.
We had an opportunity to speak with Worden just before her “In Cahoots” collaborative performance with the operatic Migguel Anggelo at this year’s Culture Lab Detroit. She offered her thoughts on marching bands, genre-bending and what makes a healthy musical ecosystem.
What motivated your return to Detroit five years ago?
I had a “get back to the earth” moment so I moved back here to do really intense gardening and have a sustainable life as an artist. Those were the big things. I was also looking for more space.
Were you able to find this sustainable lifestyle?
I think it’s very sustainable to be here. I work all over the world, but what I need at home is a really nice lily pad, and I care very much about this city so I want to be involved.
There needs to be a place where community happens and where people hang out and have a space to be with each other.
What sort of music community exists here, or do people come here to be insular and find their voice?
I think I am still trying to crack that nut. There’s Amp Fiddler who’s here, who’s amazing—I am just getting to know him now. And then of course all these players have played with the DSO and a lot of incredible classical musicians are here, too. I think, obviously Joel Peterson [owner of Trinosophes] is a wealth—as both a curator and producer of shows and facilitating so much culture happening in this space and his previous spaces. He is bringing in so many different acts, which is exciting.
Part of what makes a music scene thrive is having really good small venues, and without these good small and mid-sized venues you really cannot have a healthy ecosystem. It’s really very, very crucial. Spaces like this are important. It’s part of a whole wheel. If you always have this pressure on music making to sell hundreds and hundreds of tickets it’s a challenge. There needs to be a place where community happens and where people hang out and have a space to be with each other.
Has the city impacted the music you produce?
For sure. The music has become much more socially conscious and I think for me being in NY has always represented more the classical side of myself. All of my classical collaborators are there—but I lived as a teenager in Ypsilanti for about five years in the late eighties, early nineties which was really such a rich time in hip-hop and R&B. Dance music and definitely even Tupac and Biggie and Run DMC really had a mass cultural explosion. That was the music I was listening to at that time. I think as I am back here, I’m finding the balance in my music is shifting so that those influences are becoming more apparent.
How did you become involved with “In Cahoots” and the Culture Lab Detroit?
I was invited, by Michael Conjalka who first found me through the Kresge application.
And for this performance you’ve collaborated with Migguel Anggelo. You also both have a background in opera.
It’s a blind date. We are both very theatrical musically.
It was billed as a mashup. How did you settle on the collaborative performance?
Together, it’s two duets. “The Very Thought of You”—we stole this idea from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. And then Marvin Gaye’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.” We bounced back a couple of song ideas, because obviously we wanted to honor the history of Detroit. I think with “You’re All I Need to Get By,” it’s a song about both acknowledging the past and also honoring it, and then looking toward a future that’s based on awareness of challenge and difficulty but rising above it through the power of love. I mean, isn’t that the story we are all trying to live?
What did the Kresge Fellowship allow you to create?
To be honest, I had this dream of working with a marching band and it was all just conceptual. I was in the Matthew Barney film [made in Detroit, called “River of Fundament”] and Matthew and Jonathan Bepler had used horns and drums for that performance. I had been really obsessing about the marching band as a symbol. I also had this really profound experience at the Thanksgiving Day Parade here, two Thanksgivings ago. All of these Detroit marching band experiences that I was having. Then our RF performance allowed me to meet up with the Detroit Party Marching Band and since we’ve collaborated so much. I think that especially in Detroit the marching band symbolizes a kind of music that everybody can participate in, like it is music for everyone and at the same time it bridges this gap between symphonic horn music and folk, music being available to everyone, where we can all participate together. There are so many amazing marching bands in Detroit.
How does classical voice training influence the music you make? How do you draw these worlds together?
I think it’s just—you end up trying to find your own language. What doesn’t work is when someone says they’re trying to bring a little bit of this and a little bit of that and you can see all of those influences. Hopefully you can successfully integrate them. It takes years of thinking about things to achieve this, for me it has been a lot of thinking.
Fourth and fifth photos by David Graver, other photography by Ara Howrani, courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit