Sufjan Stevens: indie rock success 

Plus, My Brightest Diamond

Indie-rock’s greatest success story of the new millennium has been Sufjan Stevens. The incredibly popular singer-songwriter from Holland, Michigan began his career in 2000, crafting successive albums (one completely instrumental) of difficult chamber pop music mixed with world folk elements. These were released on the obscure Asthmatic Kitty label he partly owned with his step-father. He seemed, at the time, to be a hard sell to the world at large.

After an internship of sorts as a member of the Danielson family and the release of the 2003 album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, the world really started to pay attention to Stevens. The record was announced as the first in an ambitious project in which Stevens would compose an album about all 50 states of the union. It was a kitschy idea, but the indie-rock crowd reacted to the music.

Michigan was an extremely fine-crafted album, applying deft lyricism with elegant musicianship and complex dynamics. Stevens created Sherwood Anderson like glimpses into fictional characters from his home state, and despite any impenetrability of form or subject matter, people responded to his art in large numbers. It came as no surprise when Stevens revealed that his original intention in life was to be a writer.

Lines like, “I live in America with a pair of Payless shoes.../ I’ve seen my wife at the K-mart/ In strange ideas, we live apart,” from “Upper Peninsula,” gives a view of the dark matter Stevens dabbles in. Delivered in a fragile, cherubic voice, these kinds of brutal lines sit in between places of reverence and reality or sadness and beauty.

The release of Illinois last year, the second state Stevens has covered, reached a new plateau of success. With a new following amongst the NPR crowd and even a turn on the Billboard charts, Stevens’ fan base is still building.

Outtake compilations were released following both Illinois and Michigan, and a box set of Christmas tunes is due out soon. It seems Stevens’ art is combusting in parallel to his popularity.

My Brightest Diamond

Touring with Stevens is another Michigan native taking her own run at success, Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond, from Ypsilanti. The story goes that Worden is the daughter of a National Accordion champion father and a Pentecostal church organist mother, who grew up singing in the church choir. In more recent times, she began a pop career singing in a band called Awry, who put out two records in 2000 and 2001, and then became a member of Sufjan Stevens’ band, Illinoisemakers.

Worden may have followed a different path. She went to college at the University of North Texas to study opera, but moonlighting on the guitar and a lifelong love of rock and jazz led her in a contrasting direction. The music on her My Brightest Diamond debut that came out this year, Bring Me the Workhorse (also on Asthmatic Kitty), is a blend of Worden’s operatic vocal techniques, jagged-edged rock and modern avant-garde classical composition. In a way, she’s an updated version of another North Texas alum, Roy Orbison.

Despite being a new name amongst the recorded music canon, Worden’s experience makes her seem anything but green. “I’m 32, I know myself,” she said in a NUVO interview. “I’m able to make choices that are artistic. The way that [Stevens] is with his business has influenced me a lot. He puts art before commerce.”

Drawing comparisons to Bjork, Kate Bush or Jeff Buckley in the scope of her artistic eye, My Brightest Diamond’s music is quite a different beast from her mentor’s. Stray bursts of emotion pop out at unlikely moments, and her lyrics are much more abstract. The production is lush, but spastic, slightly claustrophobic, constantly moving and often rocks with the familiar sound of electric guitars. Ever present are the vocal gymnastics that Worden displays, sometimes in a husky PJ Harvey like voice and other times so high it sounds like it could float away.

“They’ve changed a lot,” Worden says of her compositions. “I have about three different versions of this record, one a string quartet version. It started a lot more ethereal and chamber influenced.” The end result of the released version of Bring Me the Workhorse is an often disquieting and engaging listening experience.

The two are sharing a string quartet, drummer and bassist on tour. Worden is also still appearing in Stevens’ band. “It’s a crazy amount of work,” she admits, but the key to the working arrangement is making both sets distinct from one another. “I think because my songs are so different it works. Sufjan is much more delicate, and his string arrangements have so many more notes.”

There’s more to come from Worden in the near future. In the can already is a remix version of Bring Me the Workhorse and another album of My Brightest Diamond material she describes as, “a string focused record, with a more classical, orchestral chamber feel.”

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