Shara Worden took a year off from her own music to tour with Sufjan Stevens as his chief cheerleading Illinoisemaker, but the New Yorker's solo career returned in earnest this year with a new project, My Brightest Diamond. Coming off just as poppy, orchestrated, and plain weird as Worden's former patron, My Brightest Diamond makes hauntingly beautiful music about horrific hospital stays, dead animals, and lots of other creepy stuff on its 2006 debut, Bring Me The Workhorse. The album's arch sense of drama and sweepingly cinematic string parts make plain Worden's debt to art-school queens like Kate Bush and Tori Amos, as well as her background as a classically trained opera singer. Worden spoke with The A.V. Club about the power of a string quartet, whether she worries about people finding her pretentious, and the genius of Mozart versus Dolly Parton.
The A.V. Club: Is Bring Me The Workhorse a difficult record to recreate live?
Shara Worden: It is a little bit difficult. With the Sufjan show it was nice to be able to have the string quartet and the rock band. On this tour it will be much more of a rock focus just because I'm not able to bring nine people on stage. I can't afford it. It's a pragmatic issue, fortunately or unfortunately. I think it's nice to have the different aspects, because when you have the strings, unless you have eight players or 16 players, the rock aspect has to be diminished, because a string quartet, even miked, can't compete with a Marshall amp. I think there can be an energy about it, where with the quartet you have to keep protecting them so they can be heard.
AVC: Coming from a classical music background, is it relatively easy for you to write and perform pop music?
SW: I think it's true that classical music is more sophisticated and it certainly requires a technical level that is something very different than what is required for pop music. That said, a tune like "Wild Is The Wind" or anything Tom Waits has ever written, or even records by Prince or Michael Jackson or anything that you would say is a really poppy record, it's still equally as brilliant in my mind as Mozart. It's different. I've gotten myself in a lot of trouble for placing value on Mozart versus Dolly Parton. They both have really big hair. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you mean trouble?
SW: As a pop musician, it's something I've wrestled with a lot: How is it that I've chosen a lesser art? Why would I dedicate my life to something that is in some ways a lesser form? How can I justify that to myself? But that's because I felt judged. Rednecks love Dolly Parton and gay people love Dolly Parton, and the fact that both of those groups of people will go to a Dolly Parton show and just totally love her and sit next to each other and be in harmony for one night for a few hours, that's a really powerful thing—to be able to communicate something that's universal. You can't really measure that against Mozart's genius. They're both important.
AVC: Coming at the other side of that question, do you ever worry about people calling you pretentious because you're a pop singer with an operatic vocal style backed up by a string quartet?
SW: I don't think about it in terms of pretentiousness, I worry about it in terms of over-singing. Like, "Oh geez, is that too opera-y sounding?" Because I don't want to sound like that. I'm an analytical person, but I'm also really emotional. Some people really want rock 'n' roll to be this very non-intellectual thing, and that's totally cool and I think that's important too. I have that aspect of my personality. You can't be in control of how people perceive you.
AVC: From classical to pop, is there anything that unifies the music you like?
SW: I think at the end of the day it's about beats and singing. That's what is fundamental to everything. Like a-ha, for example. All the pop people I love, I really like their voices. You can get Tool or Nine Inch Nails and then put that next to Lauryn Hill, and there's something really base about the rhythms. I see all those things as being lumped together.