Arts interview

My Brightest Diamond

The Tech talks to the renowned singer-songwriter and composer before her show

My Brightest Diamond

Stave Sessions

The Celebrity Series of Boston

March 17, 2016

Berklee College of Music

Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden), the acclaimed multi-instrumentalist known for her versatile musical repertoire and artistic moniker My Brightest Diamond, visited Boston on March 17 as part of Stave Sessions, a set of chamber music concerts organized by The Celebrity Series of Boston and featuring innovative and eclectic musicians and performers. The Tech took the opportunity to talk to Nova about her latest album, inspirations, and live performances before attending her intimate, two-hour concert at Berklee College of Music.

Nova, who has been involved with music since childhood, was significantly influenced by her family and nomadic upbringing. “I lived in nine different states before I was eighteen,” she told The Tech. “Having to adapt as much as I had to in order to make friends and to be wherever I was gave me exposure to different types of culture.”

“All of my family is deeply musical. My most influential family member was my uncle, who is Trinidadian, and he is a phenomenal world-class classical pianist and also a wonderful jazz player. Looking back on that now, I see how much my life was modeled after his.”

Her musical project My Brightest Diamond came to life a decade ago, when Nova released her first album, Bring Me the Workhorse, in 2006. Describing the beginnings of the project, Nova said: “Initially, it was a concept of bringing classical instrumentation with a quartet – drums, bass, keyboard, and a guitar.” As time passed, however, her goals changed, and subsequent albums gave My Brightest Diamond a more experimental flavor by incorporating art songs, wooden instrumentations, electronic sounds, concert music, and even marching band elements. While the initial rock character of her first album faded over time, it was nonetheless present during her performance in Boston, where Nova and her band successfully displayed the wide musical range of My Brightest Diamond, switching from experimental dance music and easy-listening ballads to rock and ecstatic punk.

The latest album, This is My Hand, released in 2014, showcases a more philosophical aspect of Nova. “I started reading a book ‘The World in Six Songs’ by Daniel Levitin, and in the book, he talks about these six different themes throughout human history of what functions music has had in humanity. So I used that book as a template to lay out the six themes on the album,” she said, noting that she wanted to make a marching band album that would give the listeners a tribal and an all-inclusive experience. “Part of that is, when you think about where marching bands happen, they happen where everybody is standing up,” she added. “Marching band still represents that communal music-making experience.”

Even though she was not supported by a marching band during the concert in Boston, her performance was most certainly communal and completely engaging. Whether it was teaching the audience her self-directed hand choreography to the song “High Low Middle” or giving an accompanying theatrical act to the highly-entertaining rendition of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” Nova undoubtedly knows how to be a member of the audience while, at the same time, leading the performance.

The focus on greater community in her latest work was also inspired by her son, who was born in 2010. “I definitely see in my work a concern with the collective that I did not have before I had him. You suddenly go from being a single entity to having this enormous responsibility and love that you can’t even imagine before having a child,” she said “It’s so profound.”

The theatrical character of her live performances is bolstered by Nova’s unique visual appearance, which, as she described, changes regularly. “Those [visual] choices are always intentional. I think the way you look gives a tremendous amount of information about how people can respond to music. In different points of time, I wanted to be very playful and childlike, and in recent times, I am more so taking away the costume elements and focusing on direct approach where maybe … for those shows that I am going to wear a suit, my hair is going to be super big and crazy,” she added “For me, it’s finding that balance between wildness and rebellion and then also being classy and having a statement of control and lack of control in the same image.”

Despite having an impressive and long-standing record of performing live, Nova admits that each performance brings a dose of anxiety. “Every single time I’m on stage, I’m exhilarated and also petrified. Coming on stage is the most vulnerable thing you can do … But the greatest part of doing live music is that it’s reflective of your life. You are risking everything in that moment.”

She describes herself as a perfectionist who doesn’t like making mistakes, but it would be very difficult to notice this trait in her live performances. During the set at Berklee College of Music, her casual chatter with the audience and playful, down-to-earth character created an entertaining atmosphere of apparent spontaneity, which confirmed Nova’s mastery of performing space.

Perhaps even more impressive was her unabashed courage to perform a solo dance at Boston’s small-scale seated concert before running into the audience and making the attendees stand up and dance. It would be hard to believe that a performer like Nova could feel vulnerable and nervous – just as she got back on stage to finish the live performance of her song “Apple,” she looked back at the people in the audience who were initiated into her improvised dance choreography, and concluded laughingly:

“We’re getting warm now, y’all!”

This interview has been edited for clarity.