Shara Worden just can’t get enough of Champaign-Urbana, it seems. After taking part in The Long Count during last weekend’s Ellnora Guitar Festival, the Detroit-based singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist is back in town for a free performance at the Krannert Art Museum Thursday night as part of Pygmalion Music Festival. She’s part of quite an interesting lineup, which starts at 6:40 p.m. with Liz Janes, followed by Brooke Waggoner and Denison Witmer before Shara takes the stage at 8:45 as My Brightest Diamond. William Fitzsimmons follows, and Bob Nanna closes out the show. And it’s free, so you should go, since it doesn’t, like, cost anything.
And, as it turns out, it’s her only show of the year as My Brightest Diamond. Shara, you see, is touring with the Decemberists this fall and playing the role of “The Queen” in their folk-rock road show, so she’s looking forward to a chance to “break out the old jams.”
I spoke with Worden on the phone late in August, before she embarked on this whirlwind tour.
Smile Politely: Have you had a busy summer?
Shara Worden: Yes, I’ve been on tour with the Decemberists all summer, so that’s kept me quite busy.
SP: Has it been a good tour, or how has that gone?
SW: Yes, it’s been blissful, I daresay. It’s been really, really fun, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond, she’s in the band as well – we’re sort of add-ons. We’re playing these characters that they made as sort of a folk-rock opera, so it’s really been fun to get to know Becky, and also to step into these roles, and step into a band that’s been established for such a long time. It’s been kind of a unique experience for me.
SP: Now, you say folk-rock opera. Are there costumes and set changes and that kind of thing? How does that play out in practice?
SW: There are fancy costumes with sequins, but there aren’t set changes. Yes, I would say there are some pop tunes and some rock anthems on the record.
SP: Did you have any role in producing that, or are you just performing? How does your role work?
SW: I think it sort of began that — Becky opened up for them on a different tour — but I opened up for them, and we were joking around, singing along to Black Sabbath. I think Colin [Meloy] got it in his mind that he needed to write some sort of Aussie character for me. So I play the queen, who is like this fairy queen tree woman mother. So, I have two songs that I sang on the record.
SP: At what point do you start touring on your own [without the Decemberists]?
SW: It’s going to be my one solo show for the rest of the year. It’s going to really nice for me, because I haven’t been playing my own music for many months now. It’s going to be a nice gig, play some of our old jams.
SP: Are you in the process of recording any new material? Where does My Brightest Diamond stand, since you’re so wrapped up in the Decemberists stuff.
SW: I am, I guess the other projects that I have this year, I’m working with the Dessner twins on… I don’t know how to describe it…
SP: The Long Count?
SW: The Long Count, yeah. I’m doing quite a lot with that. I’ll be in Illinois again, a sort of one-off, pre-BAM show, let me look up the date on that.
SP: Yeah, Kim and Kelley Deal are involved in that too, right? We’re really pumped about that. I didn’t realize you were involved in that, too.
SW: Yes, the Krannert.
SP: I think it’s the weekend before you’re in town for Pygmalion, right?
SP: So, you’re going to have a little mini-residency in Central Illinois.
SW: [Laughs] I guess so. So, that should be fun. It should be really interesting. I’m going to be in New York rehearsing all next week for that.
SP: Can you talk about that a little bit? I was reading about it, and I know it has something to do with the Mayan calendar, but I have to admit I was a little confused.
SW: Well, it’s very confusing [laughs]. I look at it more like an abstract painting more than a literal kind of narrative. Basically, it’s taking – if I understand it correctly – the year 2012, the Mayan prophecies, and in that year, there are twin gods, and they took that idea of the twins and applied it to the Dessners’ lives. They were born in 1976 and that year, the Cincinnati Reds beat the New York Yankees. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it at Krannert, but the way that the stage is going to be designed is in the shape of a diamond. It will be like an abstract painting, multimedia experience. And I get to wear costumes again. More sequins for me.
SP: Can’t get enough of the sequins, huh?
SW: Can’t get enough of them.
My Brightest Diamond – From The Top Of The World from LaundroMatinee on Vimeo.
SP: So, are you going to just perform in sequins out of habit when you do the My Brightest Diamond show, then?
SW: [Laughs] I have to, I’m getting so accustomed to them. We’ll see. It’s always something different.
SP: That will be an interesting weekend for you, then. How do you know the Dessners and the Deals, then? Are these folks you’ve worked with before?
SW: I’ve known the Dessners for a very long time. I’ve never met the Deals, so it will be cool to get to know those ladies of rock.
SP: They’re kind of like godmothers of indie rock or something, it’s exciting.
SW: Yeah, they totally are.
SP: Let’s see, how did you end up at the University of North Texas [she studied there for undergrad]?
SW: The short of it is, my parents moved there, so I could only get in-state [tuition] there. It would have been my senior year, but I didn’t live with them. I kind of had to go wherever my parents went to get cheap schooling. It has a fantastic music school, a huge program. So I could sort of weave in and out of jazz, and funk, and then go to opera class. It was a good mix for me.
SP: You’ve continued to weave those elements in and out of your own music, right?
SW: Yeah, it’s been kind of an interesting year in doing all these collaborations. In June, I sang on David Byrne’s new record, which is also a narrative. So, this idea of a narrative in the operatic tradition, even though I thought I had kind of walked away from that part of my past, it keeps coming back.
SP: Do you think this is some sort of new trend in music, or are these just the types of projects you’re seeking out, to have a narrative theme?
SW: I don’t know, there just must be something in the air right now. I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be something sort of happening. People have always been making longer albums, concept albums, with some sort of narrative, but it’s definitely been sort of a year for that for me.
SP: Do you think it will have an impact on your future work? Does it have you itching to make a concept album of your own?
SW: No, not at all [laughs]. I have other objectives.
SP: You’ll be here about a week apart from Sufjan Stevens. Do you still have a working relationship with him? I know you were in the Illinoisemakers.
SW: I do still see him. I couldn’t do that tour because I have all this other stuff going on, but I wish I could see that show, I think it’s going to be great.
SP: I guess I should ask, since you’re going to be in town two weekends in a row, have you ever been to this area of the state before?
SW: Yes, when I was touring with Sufjan, we played a show there. And I feel like I might have done a My Brightest Diamond show in Champaign as well.