Shara Nova was born in Arkansas. But by the time she was a teen, she had moved with her family to the obscure factory town of Ypsilanti, Michigan, just outside Detroit. Those were particularly difficult years – late ’80s into early ’90s – for the once great Motor City, which is only now beginning to find a new way forward…in part thanks to local believers like Shinola.
Ms. Nova would eventually land in the loving embrace of New York City, from where she launched a music career as her alter-ego My Brightest Diamond. An extremely well received 2006 debut album, Bring MeThe Workhorse, then set her on path that would ultimately wend her creatively back to Michigan.
To be sure, her fifth album, the remarkably visceral and adventurous A Million and One – released this past November – found her reaching back to her hometown for inspiration. And from the languid anxieties of “A Million Pearls” (shades of Annie Lennox) to the jittery synth grooves of “Champagne” (there’s also a track called “Supernova” – haha) to the artful funk of “It’s Me On the Dance Floor,” these are some of the most laid-bare jewels she’s ever turned out.
She and her band will be picking up their 2018 North American tour this February, with dates from Vancouver to LA, Detroit (of course) to Brooklyn. In the meantime, we caught up with her to (mostly) reflect back on what “America’s Comeback City” really means to her.
A Million and One is about Detroit. What inspired you to at last create a musical tribute to the city?
At the core the album explores the quest of the individual to be more clearly articulated, to have the strength to express yourself – and asking at the same time, how do we belong to one another, not only as our most unique selves, but as a society that must hear one another, and connect to each other. Is the world shifted by the internal state of the individual or is it changed through external action in the public sphere? Certainly living in Detroit and being confronted daily with extreme poverty makes you ask how you must change things about yourself and then how you can help other people. As a white person moving to Detroit, I also have to ask why the brown people around me have so much more of a struggle than I do. As an artist, I owe a great debt to the music of Motown, and this record was a way for me to reflect my adoration and to feel connected to the lineage I feel a part of – but without the intention of imitating a particular style.
What was Detroit like, when you were young?
I lived an hour west of the city in a car factory town and Detroit radio reached us. I’d moved to Michigan from Oklahoma in 7th grade and my first ride on the school bus I heard Run DMC’s “Tricky” – and my mind went on record mode; I was awestruck. Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross…there were so many amazing singers on the radio and I couldn’t get enough. In school choir, we competed internationally singing Bach and Samuel Barber, and then after school I was on a hearty diet of R&B and rap, with Tupac, Biggie and LL Cool J being on air every day. Nighttime Friday radio shows had the DJs mixing on air, blending techno from one song to the next. I consider myself very lucky to have lived with those radio stations shaping my ears.
Could you perhaps say the sort of baroque flourishes in your music are a response to growing up in such “industrial” surrounds?
I have baroque influences in my music and wrote a baroque opera, “You Us We All,” a couple years ago – but I didn’t intentionally use any baroque influence on A Million And One. I like that there are so many songs in the baroque era, the pop tunes for the time, [that have} a melancholy and a connectedness to nature. As a composer, I like that one can apply a contemporary context with the baroque-isms and get to a new space, an “I-Don’t-Know-When-This-Music-Was-Composed” zone, hopefully a sense of timelessness that is disorienting.
Detroit seems to have recently been infused with a new creative energy. Do you feel that when you’re there?
I’ve been in the city for almost ten years now, and have had to confront many of my assumptions – one of which being that I believed in trickle down economics. I thought that when the waters rise, all the boats would go up together – and that is simply not true. The old boats get moved out of sight into the stinky canal. Of course, one wants to have a certain economic flow, but what is emphasized by the situation in Detroit is that poor black folks who have been here forever are not benefitted in the way that white folks are by gentrification.
You seem to have gone a little more electronic on this record – was that an homage to Detroit’s history as an incubator of that style?
Yes, definitely went more electronic. Every album has had a guideline for the arranging: the first album band and string quartet; second album expanded to woodwinds; third album I was sick and tired of asking the drummer to play quieter and strings to play louder, so I went acoustic and put my electric guitar away. After that I wanted to do the loudest thing I could think of, and that was marching bands. Then I thought, hey, I’ve never forced myself to just look at the band, to look at song form without all the bells and whistles, so I didn’t allow myself any classical instruments. I also knew I wanted to explore sub frequencies and that meant looking at kick drums. Certainly Detroit techno was an influence there, but it also was because of my sonic curiosity.
Would it be safe to say that MBD is essentially the creative alter ego of Shara Nova?
MBD is a way for me to frame my pop music. I’m a composer and I knew that I’d be the kind of person who did lots of different kinds of music, and I needed some way to categorize the work and for people to be able to have a certain expectation associated with that name.
Even still, how much influence did [producer] The Twilite Tone have on the album?
My long time drummer Earl Harvin co-wrote many of the songs with me, and I wanted to blend live drums with those sub frequencies from electronic drums. We recorded everything that I had in my head, but the record didn’t feel finished. It didn’t feel pop. I called on several electronic producers, but nothing really stuck. Finally at the 11th hour I was introduced to The Twilite Tone, and the first thing he did was mute a lot of the drums, which really freaked me out, but I wanted to give him space to work and push around the playdough. We reached a compromise in the end that we are both happy with, but it was a challenge. I produced all my albums before so it was a big trust fall. But it’s good to be uncomfortable and go somewhere new.
You have a song, “You Wanna See My Teeth,” about the death of Trayvon Martin – and Detroit has been no stranger to racial strife. Do you feel like we may be going backwards in regards to race relations in America?
I come from a southern, conservative, Evangelical, NRA-card-carrying family; let me just say that upfront. I used to go to the corner store as a teenager – sneaking, because my parents didn’t let us eat much candy – and when Trayvon died, I thought about how many times I went for candy and got home safely. Why him? Why not me? What about my own son? Trayvon could be my son, too; and it makes one ask why the stories of white and brown people have such different narratives. In looking at the history we have as a country, we can’t escape addressing our economics.
As a white person it also makes me ask a bunch of questions about my own identity. What do white folks identify as our culture? What makes up the story of my family? We have to name and disentangle ourselves from the part of our history that was dehumanizing and oppressive, to own our history and the damage it did to us – and then figure out how to create and align ourselves with a new identity. We keep denying that we have a disease, and justifying oppression.
What will be new about your upcoming live performances?
I finally can dance!! I have been an octopus musician for all these years, playing instruments with every limb, and I finally made the leap to playing to tracks for some songs – so that I can be free to jump, to move, to interact. Also the amazing Deborah Johnson of Candy Stations has done visuals for the show, and they are yummy good candy.