Speaking to PopMatters from Lyon halfway through a European tour, the woman behind the genre-defying project My Brightest Diamond, Shara Nova, gives a little insight into the hard work that goes into a My Brightest Diamond tour. “I’m the standard keeper so when you’re the standard keeper you have to make sure that your ship shape, you know, I’m checking the boiler, I’m making sure the gas tank is filled. I make sure that the service in the restaurant is done at a high standard. I’m out here working!”
Despite the efforts, Nova is as enthusiastic about touring as she ever has been. Clearly, she gets the same buzz of excitement that it always has, both on a musical and an anthropological level. “It’s amazing to engage with people all over the world who you hope feel something from your music. That is absolutely incredible and very humbling and never ceases to amaze me. And the personality of a collective group of people and how that varies in every room is also fascinating,” she enthuses.
The aforementioned tour is in support of the new My Brightest Diamond album A Million and One. An album that marks a big change in direction for Nova. Although the baroque, chamber pop elements are still evident, the music embraces the more artful, electronic direction she began to explore on 2014’s This Is My Hand. The chugging, disco-funk guitar line that underpins “That’s Me on the Dancefloor”, the buzzing squelchy synths on the dancefloor ready, “Champagne”, and the twitchy industrial beats of “You Wanna See My Teeth” point to a more dance floor ready direction. Something that has certainly surprised a few people, if the reactions of the audience on the tour are anything to go by.
“I think people are surprised in a way. It’s much dancier than anything I’ve ever done. People are dancing even if they are not used to it. I say everyone can dance; it’s a human right!”
Initial reactions aside, Nova acknowledges that not everyone is going to appreciate the shift to a darker electronic direction, but it was imperative that she didn’t compromise her artistic vision. “You have to just trust that there are some bold decisions on the record, and that can split the crowd and just to trust that I’m going to make some bold decisions and that means that not everyone’s going to like it, but hopefully we can live with ourselves and be convinced of our choices.” She explains, before concluding, “You don’t really have a choice as an artist because if you water yourself down too much, you’re gonna be in trouble, so you kind of have to take a radical approach to be a lifelong artist.”
Naturally, this commitment to one’s art necessities making brave decisions but on A Million and One this also meant challenging her own beliefs and perceptions. To do that she surrendered part of the process to an outsider, in the form of producer Anthony “The Twilight Tone” Kahn, something she has never done before. “I had the Twilight Tone come in, who had just finished recording the Gorillaz record Humanz, at the very end and we’d recorded pretty much the whole record. However, I knew that there frankly wasn’t enough pop because I knew I really wanted sub-bass, I knew I wanted kick drums that had a whole lot of ummph and here’s an artist who’s worked with everyone from Kanye and Common and a lot of house music and he’s also worked with bands. So he came in at the end of the record which was sort of hard but necessary and great.”
The Twilight Tone brought a whole new perspective, bringing an uncomplicated, simplicity to songs that Nova was maybe a little too close to. “For example, on the song “Champagne” there were songs going through the entire song, there was guitar going through the entire song, and he just pressed the mute button on the drums, and I was in shock because I loved the drum part. And then he did the same thing on ‘You Wanna See My Teeth’. He just pressed mute in a lot of different places and then would say, “OK Shara I want you to play that guitar part on a keyboard instead.” And so I think that felt radical to me. I maybe didn’t have the objectivity to see some of that. He really challenged me in a way that was really necessary, and I learned a lot from that.”
When you consider that Nova had been working on some of these songs for four years, you would expect there to be some level of resistance to an outsider coming into the process at such a late stage, but Nova did her level best to stay focused on the bigger picture. To that end, Nova has the perfect metaphor.
“There were some moments where I was literally fetal on the couch, but you don’t invite someone to come into your house to redecorate your house and not take their suggestions. So, I found that it’s really like ‘I want to know what you think I should do with my couch.’ You have to give someone the freedom to play around and move the couch in several different places instead of jumping on them before they’ve had time to fiddle. So, in the end, I think it was hard working in a time restriction, but I’m just so so so grateful in the end for what he contributed to this record. I liked where he put the couch although sometimes I did push back and say, ‘no that bookshelf has got to stay’.”
The makeover worked as songs such as “Champagne”, “White Noise”, and “It’s Me on the Dancefloor” are some of her most catchy and danceable to date. Full of bright synths and big house beats, they’re songs designed to get the hips swaying. Immediate as they may sound, however, some took far longer than others to come together.
“‘It’s Me on the Dancefloor’: I think I wrote that poor song about seven times so, while “Teeth” came out exactly the same as the day I wrote it, a song like “It’s Me on the Dancefloor” I rewrote that one, I really think it was at least seven times if not more. I had the chorus from the beginning but the rest, oh man it was such a beast. I took comfort in Paul Simon that he took like three months to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Just the fact that he obsesses over words and that he writes and rewrites and rewrites, so I took a lot of courage from Paul that not every song is just going to fall out. Some of them are hard to craft. Oh, the verses and the bridge were just a beast because I couldn’t figure out the time signature. That’s a time signature that never really repeats. Again, Tone took the drums out, so you’re not even able to hear how complicated that time signature is.”
Mixed in with the more immediate material are intricate, rawly personal songs. Over four years, Nova’s life changed a lot, with vulnerable moments and emotions captured in the amber of a song, to be sung and experienced over and over again. A process that you would expect to be incredibly challenging on a personal and emotional level. However, Nova is an artist who has grown used to singing about challenging topics. “I think I learned those lessons from earlier records because I talk about death a lot and I would walk off stage, and I would just sob. And I got a divorce after being married my whole adult life, and so I just wanted to treat the divorce in a kind of way of acknowledging it and treating it kind of like a death. It obviously felt like the death of a star and the coming of a supernova.”
It’s that bravery in accepting the seismic effect of personal upheaval and embracing the scars that they leave behind that mark A Million and One out as a special album. Additionally, there is an overriding sense that the protagonist in these songs may fall to pieces at any moment but, for now, they are coping. Pain may endure, and consequences have to be lived with, but it’s alright to make mistakes, to have regrets. Nevertheless, there’s also a fundamental awareness on the album that it’s equally as important to focus on the future. A feeling she makes clear when asked to reflect on what she’d learned about herself in the making of the record.
“I think that vulnerability is imperfection is not something to be hidden. Certainly, you want to be wise with what you share but this expectation that you kind of have it all together. I think this record is about being in a middle space. I mean a song like “Champagne” the person doesn’t have it together, and, in fact, they’re fighting for it. “Teeth” is kind of stuck in the middle of it. There is a kind of humility in knowing that you broke promises, in knowing that, I would say, being less feeling like I have to have everything together. I wanted to build into the future not writing about the present moment about my pain and my challenges that way.”
Overall, there is a thematic and musical simplicity to the album. Something that is only possible after such a long time making the music Nova has always wanted to make. By embracing a more streamlined approach to her art, she is now able just to enjoy it. “I think that’s the luxury of being on a fifth record, we’ve done all the bells and records and the marching bands and symphonies. I’ve tried to show how much I can do with orchestration. We know that you can do that, we don’t need you to prove that you are smart. Just writing something simple can be really powerful. I think it’s taken me a long time to do something simple and feel it is enough. I’ve done a lot, so I can do a lot less and feel confident in that.”