Remixing My Brightest Diamond
By Ryan Hamm
August 17, 2009
My Brightest Diamond has always traveled in musical circles that stretch them, while bringing together numerous creative strains to inform and strengthen their music. On either of their albums, Bring Me the Workhorse and A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, you can hear influences from baroque-pop, opera, electronica, jazz, Tom Waits-esque stomping and growling, and minimalism.
My Brightest Diamond is headed by Shara Worden, whose bio is as diverse as her music. Granddaughter of a traveling musical evangelist and daughter of two transient musicians, perhaps it was inevitable that Worden would play music with such a seemingly random pedigree: Worden has a degree in opera, has appeared on a hip-hop album by the Jedi Mind Tricks and first came into national prominence as a member of the Illinoisemakers, Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. People who saw Stevens’ Illinois tour may remember the person at the keyboard whose voice mixed so well with Stevens’, and who would occasionally rip off her own intense solos.
So it wasn’t surprising when Worden signed to Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, to release Bring Me the Workhorse, her debut album as My Brightest Diamond. Well-received by critics and audiences, it also gave her an outlet to showcase her hard-to-label music. “I think my music has roots in soul music, and not so much in rock,” she says. “I think that soul music or even R&B is basically a voice and rhythm. I don’t identify with rock and folk. I’ve come to rock music, but I didn’t grow up with it—I started listening to the Led Zeppelin catalog two years ago. I feel very young in the knowledge of rock.”
That might explain why, at any given My Brightest Diamond show, Worden covers everything from Nina Simone to, yes, Led Zeppelin. My Brightest Diamond has built a reputation for ably bringing all of its disparate influences into a coherent sound. And they’ve continued a heavy touring schedule, from headlining tours to supporting slots with The Decemberists. Worden even appears on The Decemberists’ latest album, the love-it-or-hate-it Hazards of Love (that’s her as The Queen). And her second album with My Brightest Diamond, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, made the band’s genre-bending impulses more obvious as the record traipsed from skewed chamber pop to trip-hop and back again.
Truly, Worden’s output as My Brightest Diamond and her work on others’ albums or tours have made her difficult to pin down—and she seems to like it that way. “I’m not very concerned with staying anywhere stylistically,” she says. “And I think you have to prepare people for that.”
Further complicating the effort to figuring out just what “kind” of music My Brightest Diamond makes are the remix projects. The first of these efforts was Tear It Down, remixes of Workhorse. While an overall solid album and a good showcase of Worden’s voice, the album felt uneven and incoherent. So when it came time to remix Shark’s Teeth, Worden and her label decided to approach things differently—instead of one album, they decided to release four EPs over a longer period of time. “I loved Tear it Down, but it was kind of all over the spectrum since it was more of a compilation,” Worden says. “The idea behind these EPs is to develop an idea over a 20-minute period—to set tone and mood.”
Each of the EPs is helmed by a different remixer—Alfred Brown, DM Stith, Son Lux, and Roberto Carlos Lange. The first EP (from Alfred Brown) was released in October; the second, from Son Lux, came out in January. The third EP, helmed by Roberto Carlos Lange, was released in March, and DM Stith’s will be released later this year.
“The Shark remixers are all my friends,” Worden says. “I guess I’m a very relational person. DM Stith does all my artwork, and he sings on Thousand Shark’s Teeth. I’ve worked with him really extensively through a lot of different things.”
It’s obvious from the get-go that the hopes for more coherent projects has paid off. Since each remixer has been given full conceptual reign over a complete EP, each of them is able to leave their unique stamp on their mini-album.
Of course, tying all of these EPs together is the voice. Worden’s opera-trained voice lends itself remarkably well to remixes—maybe it’s those roots in soul music. For such a powerful instrument, its ability to be transformed and sculpted by other artists is remarkable. It’s strange (though admirable) that even taken out of context, Worden’s vocals hold up as strong, soothing, threatening, powerful or searching—and sometimes all of these at the same time. Her vocals are always the highlight of her own records, and they remain the highlight of the remixes. One of the most unique voices in indie-pop is made even more unique by hearing her in someone else’s context and thoughts.
In fact, being pulled out of her own context is one of the things Worden appreciates most about having her music remixed. “When you give your stuff over to someone, it’s a complete surrendering of an outcome. The only control is who you choose,” Worden says. “I enjoy that, because, especially with Shark’s Teeth, I’m engrossed on a microscopic level—so it’s really freeing to let it go and see how other people have treated this material. What did they keep and what did they change, and what might I have changed about how I might have handled something differently? It’s a stimulating process because you’re allowing someone to come into your world and rearrange the furniture and you’re like, ‘Oh, I never would have thought of that.’ A way to grow is to open yourself up to collaboration in a lot of different ways.”
Worden says she didn’t have a hard time with other people making such drastic choices about songs she’d created. “I think I would have felt that way if someone would’ve walked in during the recording of Shark’s Teeth, and gone, ‘You should do this or that.’ I would have felt more protective over the initial recording, but once it’s done, you can let go. There’s definitely an interaction with the musicians; if it goes somewhere you didn’t expect it to go, that’s exciting. The remixes are a way of being able to say, ‘What else can be done?’ Letting go is good. And it ties you less to genre.”
Worden seems to have been successful in opening her work up to outside collaborators. It’s obvious each of these artists has taken to heart the idea of the remix—to take something already great and to make it their own—and that Worden has given her blessing. “In terms of direct collaboration, there was very little—on Tear It Down I re-sang some things, and I was more involved, but I didn’t do that on these EPs,” Worden says. “Most of my comments were about the ways the songs were mastered. Things are mastered in electronic music with a lot of compression and lot more high-end sound.
“The forms in which we listen to music—iPod headphones or in the car—don’t allow for the dynamics that are possible. It’s annoying from a musical standpoint—dynamics are a really important part of expression. I mastered Shark’s Teeth at a 1992 volume level, and it was a real debate. It was like, ‘Wow, it’s not going to be as loud,’ and the impression you get is, ‘Oh, it’s not as good.’ But I was going to have to sacrifice too much to get it up to competitive volume.”
Worden also sees a real advantage in the new models of remixing being touted by artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. “Back in the day, I bought all these singles, and there would be different remixes or a b-side included with a remix,” Worden says. “It was an extra fan thing. But now, we’ve gone away from looking at a recording as a final product. Our relationship to the recording has changed, because it’s no longer an object—it’s malleable. We’re no longer quite as attached to recordings as objects. This thing we [as artists] have invested years of our lives in isn’t what we can hold on to anymore. We have to figure out a way to establish a connection with the people who listen to our music and build that relationship. Music is about connection and finding ways to facilitate that is really cool.”