My Brightest Diamond, on the guitar: “[It's] like someone you’ve been married to for 35 years, and it’s still a great relationship, but the sex isn’t quite the same.”
Story by Courtney Balestier
Photos by Matt Wignal
With her slight frame, sweet voice and luminous eyes, Shara Worden—the main creative force behind My Brightest Diamond—looks the part of the playful sprite she embodies in MBD’s ethereal, seemingly effortless songs. Funny, then, that Worden had a hell of a time learning how to write a proper song. Yes, it helps that she’s classically trained (see a degree in opera studies from the University of North Texas), but the singer/arranger insists songwriting is not an academic exercise.
Ah, but what is it then?
1. Find your style
At the beginning of her career, Worden spent an entire year cranking out a song a week. The ensuing catalog not only didn’t please her; it garnered comparisons to Jewel and Lisa Loeb when she was really shooting for Jeff Buckley. Not for naught, the exercise taught Worden that she thrived writing modal music.
And what is modal music, my dear? “If you’re singing ‘doe, ray, me, fah, so, la, tea, doe,’ you start on ‘ray’ instead of ‘doe,’” explains Worden. “The landing place in tonal music is very resolute, but in modal music, you’re never sure where you’re landing. The scale is more of a circle.”
2. Interact with new sounds
Worden went through a phase of playing with air organs she’d found on the street. When a friend sent her a kalimba (a.k.a. a “thumb piano”) from Africa, she took it out of the package and started toying with it—10 minutes later, she’d written “Apple” for her second Asthmatic Kitty LP, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth. Basically, she’s studied the technique for so long that her body can kick into autopilot, absently strumming or plucking, while her mind creates the music. One might think this feat is easier to accomplish by playing the standard guitar than by, say, experimenting with an African percussion instrument. Not necessarily.
“The guitar is like someone you’ve been married to for 35 years, and it’s still a great relationship, but the sex isn’t quite the same,” says Worden. “You take each other for granted. That’s how I feel about the guitar.”
3. Accept your method
Worden is okay with not being a prolific songwriter. Instead, she “broods.” For a long time. Call it a gestation period: She ponders a would-be song’s energy, tempo—even, on meta occasions, the pondering itself—for months. Then, after a 6-to-10-hour writing session, the song is born. “I have to conceptualize it first,” explains Worden. “I don’t write a lot of songs, but I also don’t have a lot of B-sides to toss out.”
She’s abandoned the song-a-week pace for this arrangement. “It’s scary to accept. I’ll think, ‘I don’t know if I can write anything else.’ But I’m starting to accept it.”
4. Define your “musical language”
Ah, the warm blanket of experience: Worden knows her band, so when she writes their arrangements, she’s well aware of which notes the French hornist can hit and what her drummer will think. For someone whose lyrics are so personal, though, this also means opening up.
“When you’re starting out, you’re thinking, ‘Where’s my space? What’s my sound?’” says Worden. “You’re very closed, very protective. But the only way I can grow is by opening myself up to a little bit of controversy. With my new album, I feel more open. I’ve defined my musical language—I don’t have to protect it.”
5. Know your routine … and when to stop it
Worden has to write alone in her Brooklyn home studio. She has to know that no one will be able to hear her, and she has to have at least five hours. “The first hour is usually shit,” she says, so there’s no pressure about running out of time. To compose a string arrangement, well, for that she requires an entire day. That’s a lot of time for tinkering, but it’s just as crucial to know when that time is up.
“I knew my record was done when I stopped hearing things in it,” adds Worden. “I didn’t want anything else. I’m done when I stop fidgeting.”
“Golden Star (Alias remix)”
“Dragonfly (Murcof remix)”
“Inside a Boy”