Shara Worden: Conspiring in Song

Shara Worden is arguably one of the most prolific collaborators working in music today. While that statement may seem hyperbolic, her résumé doesn’t lie: Since early 2009, Worden has been featured in The Decemberists’ rock opera The Hazards of Love, performances of the multimedia song cycle The Long Count (written by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of indie rock band The National), The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton by chamber band Clogs, composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s highly acclaimed song cycle Penelope, Sufjan Stevens’s resurgent The Age of Adz album, saxophonist Colin Stetson’s avant-garde New History Warfare 2: Judges, Letters to Distant Cities (a poetry album featuring the work of Mustafa Ziyalan), and myriad pop song partnerships with the varied likes of David Byrne, Owen Pallett, Guillermo Scott Herren (a.k.a. Prefuse 73), and others—and that’s not counting her involvement in performance art projects such as artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney’s “Khu” (the second act of his opera Ancient Evenings) and photographer Sarah Small’s 120-model Tableau Vivant performances.

In the midst of this torrent of recent activity, Worden has additionally written and recorded a new set of her own original songs, All Things Will Unwind, released by Asthmatic Kitty Records under the moniker of her chief creative vehicle, the band My Brightest Diamond. But unlike the group’s previous two full-length albums, here Worden eschews the former prominence of the guitar-bass-drums configuration, and instead substitutes overtly rock sonorities with the instrumental colors of indie chamber sextet yMusic.

All Things Will Unwind also finds the virtuosic frontwoman, a classically trained mezzo-soprano, scaling back on the operatic attacks and melismatic phrasing of her previous work in favor of experimentation with timbre and a more active dialogue with the instrumentation. With regard to form, she rejects the notion that this latest collection qualifies as “art song,” citing the presence of repeating choruses and the lack of through-composed structures. “In the first album [Bring Me the Workhorse], I’m committing to rock music and I’m committing to doing a band thing, and then adding strings—that was there,” says Worden. “But [A Thousand] Shark’s Teeth was more like, ‘What does art song look like for me? And do I want to do that?’ And I think the answer for this album was ‘No.’ ”

The great paradox behind All Things Will Unwind is that the composer credits art song with its creation. In March of 2010, Worden and yMusic performed Letters from Charles, a collection of songs which derives its text from letters written by Worden’s grandfather to her grandmother. “Without that song cycle, which I would describe more as an ‘art song-song cycle,’ I don’t think that this record would exist at all, in a way,” she says, “because that was the place where I got to work out a whole lot of kinks and bugs and get the squeaks out of the door. And I think it’s really important to have places in your life where you can make a mistake, not have it be too big of a deal, and just be experimental.”

Like other singer-songwriters whose music is characterized in part by being more than “just pop music,” Shara Worden is hesitant to call herself a composer. Her reluctance is a reaction to a bygone era in which compositional genius was glorified. “What we see now is people doing a lot more things collaboratively. That old archetype of the composer as the be-all, end-all—I think that that period is over,” Worden explains. “We’re not looking for the Schoenbergs…. It’s an incredibly fertile time in art, and also I don’t know that we see those big figures in the same way that we did in the past.”

As for her seemingly countless collaborations, Worden’s motivation is rather philosophical. “I like to say “yes” to the universe, and I figure that it will say “yes” back to you. I think you learn so much from supporting someone else’s work,” she says. “And it always stretches you, makes you uncomfortable because it forces you out of yourself and out of your natural tendencies. For me it’s a really rich artistic life to have.” One such collaboration, in May 2011, found Worden singing in Sarah Small’s large-scale Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions, a multidisciplinary performance art piece combining elements of theater, choreography, chamber music, and visual art in what amounted to a kind of experimental opera. Of working with Small, the singer says:

She demands a kind of emotional presence out of the people that she works with, and in a way she asks you to go so far—which is similar to what Matthew Barney does—by kind of finding the edge, finding a limit of an emotional space. You would think that you would go into melodrama, but in fact you find that the extreme side of an emotion can reveal something very authentic, and I needed to be drawn out of my shell. And I think that that’s what Sarah does—she’s always challenging me to come out and to be generous and to try and to not protect myself so much. You can be brave and be open and have fun.

Along with this openness comes Worden’s willing acknowledgement that while her songs are her creations, they aren’t hers alone. “I think music is a way that I process my life. It’s the way that I make monuments of things that are important to me,” says Worden. “There is a relationship to the music in that it’s important whether or not I’m going to share it. I think if I wasn’t sharing it, a lot of the songs wouldn’t exist, so there’s always a consciousness that the music is also for other people.”

Shara Worden’s conspiring spirit isn’t diminishing anytime soon. On January 17, 2012, she will premiere her original score for Buster Keaton’s silent film Balloonatic as part of the New York Guitar Festival at Merkin Concert Hall. Ten days later, she will perform in the world premiere of a David Lang composition about the death of classical music at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall alongside fellow musicians Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and Owen Pallett.

It’s impossible to predict exactly what other creative endeavors Worden will pursue next, yet there’s little doubt that songs will be central.

The thing that I love to do more than anything is start with nothing and then in a couple hours you end up with a song. There’s nothing more thrilling for me than that creation, and so I think there are a lot of different things that I’d like to do. But at the end of the day, I just want to write songs that are good.

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