Musical and theatrical story-teller Shara Worden, of the band My Brightest Diamond (and many other collaborations), is a master of her voice and her stage presence. Combining acoustic with electronic sounds, classical chamber groups with rock musicians, and mythical fictions with autobiographical narratives, Worden is prolific as a songwriter, vocalist, performer, and producer. Since 2009, Worden has been lead vocalist for composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s song cycle Penelope. Joined by ensemble yMusic, Worden will perform the Walker co-commission and Midwest debut of Penelope (along with new My Brightest Diamond compositions) at St. Paul’s SPCO Center on February 26 and 27. We’ve invited her to share her thoughts on her approach to performance and her role in the piece Penelope, and to take part in our 8-Ball series, in which artists answer some of life’s most (and possibly least) pressing issues.
Last winter, I had the pleasure of experiencing your performance here in Minneapolis. What moved me most was your dynamic and intimate ability to engage. I remember being brought to a totally emotional, joyful, and cathartic place! How do you, as the performer, usually feel during your shows?
Well ideally, when you are singing or playing anything, you are in the present moment and experiencing the music in a way that has a new meaning for that day, and not going into auto-pilot mode. I could be wrong about this, and it would be interesting to me to do some scientific study on the relationship between intention or thought and how people perceive a performance, but my hypothesis is that if I’m checked out emotionally, then that communicates. If I’m present then I think that probably communicates too.
When I was at your show, you mentioned your love of another storyteller, Laurie Anderson. She just recently performed Dirtday! here at the Walker this fall. Has Laurie changed or influenced how you now approach your work?
I once heard Laurie say that you can’t sit around waiting for someone to give you the opportunity that you are dreaming up in your head. You have to create that opportunity for yourself. And one of the examples that she gave is when she was asked to do a concert for an expo in Japan and instead of just saying, “yeah, sure I’ll come do a concert,” she sent them some 30 or so, different ideas for multimedia sculptures that could be created for the gardens. They didn’t use all of them, but they did use some of them. That story has left a deep impression on me, to dream big and then to be proactive rather than passive about your artistic life.
In your recent material, you’ve explored the idea that the world is held together by opposites and contradictions (in particles, for lovers, and for politicians). Has your thinking changed at all? Has this philosophy maintained a relevance during this last year?
I was one of those little kids who annoyed their parents asking philosophical questions about the universe that they didn’t have answers for, and I think I’m still that kid with lots of questions. I’ve been always been fascinated by physics, and also by human nature. I admit that I’m more into the metaphor of science than actually doing the math. I doubt the world is as dualistic as I proposed in “We Added It Up,” but I think when faced with a political dialogue that often seems so polarized, or with nations being at war with one another, the song was my way, even if singing “love binds the world” was somewhat childlike or overly simplified, of finding an alternative response to conflict in our world.
Drawing inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope seems to ask questions about identity, memory, and returning home. Can you relate to this version of Penelope in any way? How has it felt to move back to your home state of Michigan?
In the play, Penelope’s husband comes back after having been gone away to war for more than twenty years and he doesn’t remember her or who he is, or what happened to him, and slowly she begins to put the puzzle pieces together. While she recalls a deep love that they had for one another, she also can’t forget the lies that he told her, so their’s wasn’t an idealized relationship. However, as an actor/singer, what astounds me is the sheer force of will in these characters, to persevere in circumstances that feel like I personally might crumble under. I mean, because of his amnesia, it takes this man ten years to get back to his house. His longing for home is pretty remarkable I think, and her patience in caring for him, trying to help him heal is really astounding.
As it relates to me, I lived in nine different states by the time I was 18 years old, and Michigan was one of them, so I have never really identified with any location more than another. However, I do have a really strong relationship to family and to “home”, wherever that is, as my nest and my lily pad, where I feel at rest. Detroit is really fascinating and complicated and in many ways feels like uncharted territory for me, because I lived about an hour west of Detroit when I was a teenager in a city with a different social environment. When I moved back to Michigan, I was so happy to discover that the radio stations are the same after 20 years! So more than anything, that does feel like coming “home” to a culture, at least a music culture, that had a big impact on me.
8-BALL: SHARA WORDEN
How would you spend your ideal day?
Reading books to my son and writing songs in my studio at home.
What is your favorite scent and favorite sound?
gotta go with the mom answer on this one too, cause there is nothing better than that baby smell and then hearing them call your name.
Which animal do you identify most with?
Lately it’s been cats. I’m obsessed with wearing huge cat tee shirts. I’m feeling fierce as a tiger.
If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite and what would you serve?
1st of all, I am a horrible cook, so I’d definitely get my neighbors- who are all amazing cooks- to cater us some fantastic Detroit garden delicacies. I’d invite Dr. Lonnie Smith (because he is hilarious and a revolutionary and I wouldn’t have a hard time convincing him to play organ all night), Richard Serra (because, well, you said “anyone in the world”), the amazing singer Mary Margaret O’Hara as well as Meredith Monk because I think those two women have a lot to talk about, then I’d invite some writers like Muriel Barbery (who wrote one of my favorite books The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and David Mitchell (who wrote another one of my favorite books, Cloud Atlas). Hopefully some of those people are extroverts, or we will all be staring at each other in thoughtful silence.
What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?
Prince–and I’m not just saying that cause this is Minneapolis. It is the truth!
Describe a recent dream you had in 15 words or less.
Which performers have been most meaningful or enchanting in your experience as an audience member?
Does YouTube count me being an experience as an audience member? Yes, I think so. Tom Waits, Bjork, puppet director Lake Simons, Paul Giamatti, Tim Fite.
Do you have any advice for young people?
Work hard. Believe in your ideas. Collaborate. Dream bigger. Work with what ya got.