By Jim Schutze
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Speaking from a tour stop in the remote town of Poema, Colorado, Shara Worden, leader of the neoclassical pop ensemble My Brightest Diamond, comes across like the cool big sister who's seen it all. The daughter of a National Accordion Champion father and a classical organist mother, Shara Worden is the proverbial chip off the old block, a prodigy with a few pretensions but not a lot of ego.
"Nothing really bothers me too much anymore," Worden says. "I might be too old to be bothered."
Worden will later admit that she is, in fact, a bit annoyed by two things: soundmen with little experience using microphones on stringed instruments and the term "arty" being used to describe her music.
"We've figured it out and now bring our own microphones with us these days," Worden says. "And as far as the 'arty' thing goes, it's just easier for me to talk about individual records rather than an overall sound."
Those individual records, 2006's Bring Me the Workhorse and the recently issued A Thousand Shark's Teeth, are linked only by the otherworldliness of Worden's vocals and her compositional flair. Workhorse was a rock/pop record infused with the neo-classicisms inherent in an artist who got her degree in opera from the University of North Texas. Shark's Teeth is another matter altogether, a subtle collection of songs written entirely for string quartet, a record (much) more analogous to Samuel Barber than Jeff Buckley.
"The drums are there on the new record," Worden says. "They are just obscured and muted. I wanted to see how far I was comfortable taking things in a more classical direction."
That comfort is extremely apparent on compositions such as "If I Were Queen," "Black & Coustaud" and "Inside a Boy," tracks that exude polish and richness. With her Bjork-influenced vocals and well-trained arrangement skills, Worden has taken her music into an arena that is well known to her, but one that may bewilder her fans.
"I'm very interested in developing a relationship with my fans," Worden says, "but I don't care if my style of music is marketable."
Luckily, sales of both albums have been steady, and each tour seems to bring out more admirers as well as folks just curious to see what stage props Worden might employ on any given night.
"Right now, I'm big into puppets because they add to the theatrical element of my songs," Worden says. "I might have a future with puppets."
Throughout the development of her music and stage show, Worden has often compared her own journey with that of some prominent, alt-rock heavyweights.
"When you listen to people like Kate Bush or Tom Waits, that's a huge tradition of taking chances musically," Worden explains. "If one is too concerned with how one's music is perceived or where you fit in some catalog, it makes you more fearful than excited about making something new."
Intriguingly, that something had its genesis in Dallas.
It was in 1998, when Worden was finishing her degree, that she got the opportunity to develop her unique style at several local clubs and coffee shops.
"When I was in Dallas, I was able to play 4 or 5 times a week," Worden says. "There were many clubs like Dada, venues that provided a rare and creative environment for growth."
Worden believes she would not be the same artist if she had lived in any other city.
"In New York, there is so much competition and you can't play that often," she says. "If you can't play, you can't grow. When I was in Dallas, I was just trying to figure out how to organize myself."
Songs from both of My Brightest Diamond's albums were written while Worden lived in Dallas. She even toyed with string arrangements on her earliest pop compositions, beginning the musical evolution that would lead to the cabaret/performance art of A Thousand Shark's Teeth.
"I wanted this record not to be poppy, not like 'Here is the chorus,'" she says. "I wanted it to be related to the lineage of Debussy and Samuel Barber."
Pretty high expectations indeed, but Worden doesn't seem to be too lacking in confidence. Tours with like-minded folks such as St. Vincent, Devotchka and The Decemberists have exposed My Brightest Diamond to a wider audience, one that doesn't mind subtle intricacies or sweeping grandeur, occurrences that are sometimes within the same My Brightest Diamond song.
"I don't think I sound like anyone I've played with or anyone I'm compared to," Worden says.
Although there certainly is an academic quality to the type of artists Worden is often associated with, she is at ease with the high-minded direction of her band's music—although she does recognize the pitfalls of appearing too pretentious. My Brightest Diamond's Web site describes its sound as "crepuscular" (for those without a dictionary handy, that term means "relating to twilight"). In her playful manner, Worden describes the use of the term as an aberration rather than the norm.
"That might be the only word that comes from me that anyone will have to look up in the dictionary," Worden says.
With or without any five-star words, Worden relishes coming back to North Texas, feeling a special kinship with the audiences here.
"I've always found the audiences in Dallas to be so warm," she says. "People have come up after the show and told me that it was like a sanctuary for them."
Such has not always been the case in other cities. With a sound that depends on the interaction between violin, viola and cello, talkative fans provide a constant dilemma for neo-classicists like Worden.
"Sometimes you can attack audience misbehavior head on," she says. "Sometimes you ignore it, and sometimes you just have to laugh at the situation and laugh at yourself."
But unlike an artist like Ryan Adams who verbally assaults audience members for chatting, Worden understands the role of a performer. In fact, she relishes it.
"What you're there to do is provide a service for people," she says. "It's a gift when people give you their attention."
As such, Worden does not believe being a virtuoso limits her ability to connect with the audience.
"I believe that some people are more gifted than others in some areas," Worden says, "but music is something inherently human, something that's part of being alive."
No need to talk over that.