On first listen, My Brightest Diamond's recent release, A Million and One, sounds like a departure from frontwoman Shara Nova's catalog. Where in years past her crystalline voice danced through lush and heady orchestral arrangements, sometimes accompanied by marching bands, here they embody danceability, synthesizers, and a palpitating beat. But the album retains Nova's trademark poetry and high art feel, with long arcs of melodic emotion and definite stories not often found in EDM or pop music. In this way, Nova has defied simple categorization.
Since 2006, Nova has released six full-length albums, seven EPs, and a handful of remixes and singles as My Brightest Diamond — to say nothing of the dozens of contributions she has made to the work of others, including Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, David Byrne & Fatboy Slim, and composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, to name a few. It's there in the earliest work, and in the musical company she's kept that this recent evolution is revealed more as a homecoming.
"It's very related to (Bring Me The) Work Horse, in my mind," Nova says, referring to the band's first album in 2006. "It has to do with relationship to the drums. Because the first record was really centered around writing for my drummer Earl Harvin. [And] for this album, because I was determined not to include any of the orchestral instrumentation and just focus on the song form, you hear the relationship to the drum."
Nova says the album was created essentially by four people. "It might be a lot of keyboards," she jokes, "but it's still all played by one person." Harvin, Nova's longest standing collaborator and college mate at the University of North Texas, was joined by Chris Bruce on bass, who also played on most of the band's records. For the keyboards, Nova flew to Paris to record with Vincent Taurelle on Harvin's recommendation. (Harvin and Taurelle had previously played in the French band Air together.) Nova makes four.
After their work together, the album was close to finished, but lacked the pop feeling Nova sought, as well as the distinct low frequencies that define dance music. Thus began the search for an electronic producer. "It's an awkward situation for a producer to come in on a record when you've already finished 80 percent of it," she says, but she found one who was excited about the project: Chicago's The Twilight Tone. Tone has worked with Kanye West, Common, and most interestingly to Nova, he'd produced the then-most-recent Gorillaz record, Humanz.
Tone made tweaks here and there: having Nova re-record a guitar part on a keyboard, replacing an acoustic kick drum sound with an electronic one, or creating drama by muting before the chorus. In the midst of their work together, Nova wrote two of the album's strongest songs, "Million Pearls" and "White Noise," to lean into the new textures they were creating together. The record, previously skewed toward rock, was now a legitimately danceable work of pop.
The record is a homecoming for Nova in another sense, too. Before the age of 18, Nova lived in nine different states, including Michigan, where her family settled in Ypsilanti for a number of years. Nova, who had just come from a significant stay in Oklahoma, had a musical awakening.
"I was starting seventh grade. You can imagine the shock that I'd never heard rap before," she says. "I remember the first day on the school bus somebody had a boombox and played Run DMC's "Tricky," and it was like my head went into memorize-record mode. I was completely blown away by the sound of it."
The radio waves brought Motown, slow jams, R&B, and hip-hop into her life. Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, and Smokey Robinson became staples in her listening. After graduation, Nova followed her family to Texas, but returned to Detroit 10 years ago. "The strongest sense of home I had was from Michigan because of the music," she says.
Nova isn't naive about what it means for her, a white artist, to move to Detroit, the American city with the largest African-American population. Like a handful of other white artists, (see tUnE-yArDs' latest I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life), she's been wrestling publicly and personally with her role in changing culture, "whether I wanted to be an agent of gentrification or not," she says. Seeing how opportunities and resources often arise in town for white newcomers but not for Black teenagers born and raised here has been frustrating. Her song "White Noise" is an effort to acknowledge that disparity.
Nova's advice to artists flocking to Detroit is sharp: "I would say shut up for a while and study who is here," she says. "You know, Detroit has never been a blank canvas. It's never been 'the new frontier of creativity.'" Instead, Nova suggests, look around and take cues from the art and music that has been created here for decades, and what's happening now. She drops names: jessica Care moore, Bryce Detroit, Mic Write and Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe, ill Weaver/Invincible, Waajeed, Moodymann. "Who are these communities that have been here before you?" she asks. "Find out what they're about, and I can say unequivocally, all the artists are concerned about the community," she says. "It's not just about self-expansion."
The other important thing she suggests, and has been practicing herself, is to deepen her understanding of the Black experience in America. "We come up in this country without ever being educated on the Black experience," she says. "It doesn't take just ruminating, it takes reading. (We) have to actively deconstruct the racism that one has, whether we're aware of it or not."
The killing in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, the young unarmed Black teenager in Florida, resonated deeply with Nova. "When I lived in Ypsi, I would go down to the corner store to get candy," she says. "My parents wouldn't let us have much candy, so we would sneak, and that's all Trayvon was doing was being a teenager just going to get some Skittles. I remember so clearly those trips to the corner store, and deeply feeling the contrast of my experience with Trayvon's killing."
For Nova, empathy begins when we stop making excuses about why a stranger in the news couldn't be us or our family. Having a young son herself, Nova takes the challenge of empathy seriously and has set about in her art to address some of the matters more frankly.
"Hey kid where ya going?" Nova chants in "You Wanna See My Teeth," a telling of Trayvon's story in Nova's fashion. Hood is up, headphones blaring. Snare drums attack as synthesizers bully the ear toward dissonance, but then the big guns interrupt in a dreamscape that feels sung from inside the time-twisted moment of death. The song takes your breath with it when it ends.
Nova explores multiple themes of loss on A Million and One. Since her last record, she and her husband of 10 years divorced. Having spent most of her adult life with this person, Nova says the divorce left a shocking vacuum. "That kind of transformation moment does feel like death," she says. "I prefer thinking about it like the death of a star and the coming into a new place. There was a violence about it. An explosiveness." During this time she changed her last name from Worden to Nova, a nod to the supernova sudden-death of a star, which radiates brilliant light and energy as it sheds most of its mass.
The ability to transform such a personal loss into something universally resonant is part of what makes Nova such a gifted musician. It's not just a divorce, but disillusionment — the sense that life was headed in a particular direction but didn't end up there. "I think it's important to talk about (these feelings)," she says, the feeling of being at your lowest point and having nowhere to go but up.
"Like bubbles in champagne / No one can stop what's coming up / I cannot go half way / no I cannot stop going up" she sings on "Champagne" over a persistent beat, determined to keep the bodies on the dance floor in motion.
My Brightest Diamond is currently touring in support of the album, having opened for Death Cab for Cutie, played Noise Pop in San Francisco and Live from Here with Chris Thile in Kansas City, and checked one of every musician's ultimate dream venues off her list: the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. She's excited to return to Detroit. The album is loaded with references to Motor City musicians and the legendary records made here: Anita Baker, Carl Craig, the White Stripes, Chaka Khan.
"People in Detroit sense those records even if they're not explicit, in a way that feels like a coming home," she says. "So it does feel really great to play in Detroit. (The music) is written for them. It's written as a love letter."
My Brightest Diamond performs with Napoleon Maddox on Friday, May 10 at El Club; 4114 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17-$20.
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