There's no mistaking the protagonist of "Be Brave," a song from the new My Brightest Diamond album, All Things Will Unwind. Shara Worden, the group's classically trained singer, songwriter, and main creative force, makes it clear in the refrain: "Shara, now get to work/Shara, this is going to hurt."
"I was writing this in the fall of 2009," Worden tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "That year, there were so many things happening environmentally, and also so many things concerning social justice. So all of these really intense concerns were hitting me at the same time, and I started thinking about my roots as an American Indian — I have a very small percentage of American Indian in my bloodline. I started thinking about doing a rain dance of sorts, to make things better."
Worden studied opera and classical composition before founding My Brightest Diamond, but her musical roots go back even further. She grew up in Ypsilanti, Mich., a small city outside Detroit, where her mother played organ at a pentecostal church and her father was a musical evangelist, a trade he'd inherited from his own father.
"My father has such an eclectic musical taste," Worden says. "We were quite poor a lot of my life, but he always had a really great stereo system. Unlike what you would imagine [from an] evangelical music minister, he was actually really very open when it came to music."
New York has been the base of operations for My Brightest Diamond for most of its history, but Worden recently decided to move back to the Detroit area.
"I have a friend from high school who lives on this block, and the block is doing amazing urban farming and gardening, and just full of a lot of creative people," she says. "My friend said to me one day, 'I want to show you your house.' And I was like, 'What?' And we walked down the street, and I walked into this abandoned home. And I really could see my life there. It kind of creates a sustainable place for me to be making the music that I want to make."
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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE BRAVE")
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Time now for music, and a sound blending alternative pop with chamber music and a visual style straight out of kabuki theater. This is My Brightest Diamond.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE BRAVE")
MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND: (Singing) I am a bird in water, a whale on sand. I am the flood, the fire, the oil spill.
LYDEN: That's the classically trained voice of Shara Worden. Once a student of opera, Worden shifted toward this more modern sound after school. She took on the stage name My Brightest Diamond with her 2006 debut. And now, she's back with this record called "All Things Will Unwind." Shara Worden joins me from member station WDET in Detroit. Hi. It's great to meet you.
SHARA WORDEN: Hi. Nice to meet you, Jacki.
LYDEN: So there's no mistaking the protagonist in this song. It's called "Be Brave." And you're singing, Shara, now, get to work, Shara. This is going to hurt. And I thought we have to get to the story behind this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WORDEN: There's a lot of stories in this song, actually. I was writing this in the fall of 2009. And that year, there were so many things happening environmentally and also so many things just concerning social justice. And so all of these really kind of intense concerns were hitting me at the same time, and I started thinking about my roots as an American Indian. I have a very small percentage of American Indian in my bloodline, and so I started thinking about, like, doing a rain dance of sorts to, you know, make things better.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE BRAVE")
MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND: (Singing) Sh-sh-sh-Shara, now get to work. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara, this is going to hurt. Be brave, dear one. Be-ye changed or be-ye undone. Be brave dear one Be-ye changed or be-ye undone, undone. It's so hard, it's so heavy to be hungry, to be happy. It's so hard, it's so easy just to be
LYDEN: You know, I know that you begin a European tour in a few days, and I would love it if you could describe what it's like to be watching you because on top of everything else, visual elements play a really, really strong part in your performances. And we were kicking around how to describe it, and I came up with European adjetprop and our producer came up with kabuki theater.
WORDEN: I first came to this kind of theater via bunraku, Japanese puppetry. I like the use of puppetry because I think it's sort of disarming, and it allows us to thinking metaphorically and playfully about a subject. And so I sometimes wear a mask and sometimes do silly dances and tell stories and wear funny costumes.
LYDEN: Do you wear the mask we see you holding inside your CD cover?
WORDEN: Yes, sometimes. I asked my friend, Lake Simons, to make a puppet head of me as an old woman, sort of as the wise woman that I hope to be when I grow older.
LYDEN: My guest is singer and composer Shara Worden. Her new album with My Brightest Diamond is called "All Things Will Unwind." It's a bit of a political album. Let's listen to this particular moment that starts off with a rat in the kitchen eating up all your cheese. Let's hear some of that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A RAT")
MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND: (Singing) Well, I ain't gonna let you keep on eating and eating and eating. Ain't gonna let you keep on taking and taking and taking. I'm gonna treat you like the mouse that you are, creeping in and eating up my house, you are. I ain't gonna stand it. I am gonna turn you. I'll crack that trap. This is my home. Step back.
LYDEN: So obviously, Shara, you wrote this before the Occupy Wall Street movement got started, but it seems to fit with that sentiment.
WORDEN: Strange how that happens. That story came actually from a lecture that a friend gave to me on the history of Detroit. And one of the stories was about a man, Dr. Sweet, who was an African-American living in Detroit. And he moved into a white neighborhood in 1925, and about four, 500 hundred of his neighborhoods showed up on his lawn with ill intent. And the story is quite tragic. And I was really moved by that story and thinking a lot about what it means to have a home, and especially in Michigan where there are so many foreclosures. And so I created this metaphor as a way of drawing a picture of a woman on her front porch defending her home against the forces that be.
LYDEN: I'm curious, your band is largely still in the New York area, where you lived for a long time. Why did you return to Michigan and to Detroit?
WORDEN: I have a friend from high school who lives on this block. And the block is doing amazing urban farming and gardening and just full of a lot of creative people. And my friend said to me, one day, I want to show you your house. And I was like, what? And we walked down the street, and I walked into this abandoned home, and I really could see my life there. So I thought that it kind of creates a sustainable place for me to be making the music that I want to make.
LYDEN: The song "High Low Middle" seems like it might be the sort of song by moving back to the block you just described. When you're privileged, you don't even know you're privileged. When you're not, you know. When you're happy, you don't even know you're happy. When you're not, you know.
WORDEN: I see my neighbors who worked so very hard for so little. I have a neighbor John, who has taken imitation perfume and he walks several miles to set up a table in front of a grocery store. And you see someone like that who you know doesn't have electricity and you're just wondering how in the world are they surviving and you realize how privileged your own life has been. And you also feel some - I felt - some need to speak to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH LOW MIDDLE")
MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND: (Singing) Lord help you when you're (unintelligible). Lord help you when you're tired and cold. Lord help you when you're feeling stuck. Lord help you when you're getting scorned. High, low, middle, high, low, middle, middle.
LYDEN: I would say that Detroit is very lucky to have you, and we're very fortunate to have your new CD.
WORDEN: Thank you, Jacki.
LYDEN: That's Shara Worden. She's the front woman for the band My Brightest Diamond, and her new album is called "All Things Will Unwind." And you can check out a few tracks on our website, nprmusic.org. Shara Worden, it's been a real pleasure. And wishing you all good luck on this tour.
WORDEN: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH LOW MIDDLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.