Jenn Wasner is a songwriter, musician, producer and human being. She has released solo music as Flock of Dimes and collaborates with others as a member of Wye Oak and Dungeonesse. She is alive, at work and at play in the city of Durham, NC. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about performance.
The first time I saw Shara Worden perform as My Brightest Diamond was at a festival held in the back courtyard of the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin. The audience was small but completely rapt — as was I, watching from the window of my hotel room above. Certain performers just have it — the ability to electrify the space around them, to suggest with even the slightest motion some powerful significance. She had it; and what I had was the unfortunate task of performing immediately after her.
Creating music and performing it are two very different acts, requiring wholly distinct skill sets. Often, these unique gifts overlap in one person, but occasionally they don’t. For me, performing has always been a struggle. When it goes well, I can enjoy it. But it’s always been secondary — never, for me, the thing itself. I remember describing to a fellow singer and performer the process of “teaching” myself to sing my own songs — the fact that I didn’t naturally write to my own strengths, bouncing around outside of my range in an attempt to bring a song into existence. It seemed unthinkable to her. Often a song will come to me that is all too clearly made for someone else. I imagine that those who love to perform, who are truly gifted at it, always (even if unconsciously) write for their own voices.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Shara Worden’s voice is that it is particularly extraordinary — dynamic, emotive and powerful. It becomes the focus of any space she breathes it into. And there’s obviously been an effort with this record to create that space — a kind of sparseness that always leaves room for Shara the performer to inhabit. But still, there can be no substitute for watching it pour from her physical body in real time and real space, for the magic that that particular act conjures. Perhaps this explains why, outside of a physical space, the intense theatricality of some of the material here rubs me the wrong way — then again, does it always? Ask me on one of my stormiest days and I’ll answer differently.
As a collection of sounds, This is My Hand is clean and warm, with a nice balance between organic and synthetic tones. Horns and woodwinds are present and deftly arranged throughout, and occasionally you’ll catch the hint of a xylophone or kalimba. A burst of industrial noise or a slight crackle of static signal abrupt, unexpected transitions. Considering how much is going on here, it’s impressive that Shara and producer Zac Rae have managed to suggest the presence of so much empty space. Her voice is always firmly in the forefront, but these aren’t stock pop mixes — they’re inventive, yet subtle, revealing much with repeat listens.
Strangely, all of my favorite songs are on the back end of the record. I first heard one of them, “So Easy,” back at that hotel in Berlin. And I recognized it — could even sing along with parts of it — upon second listen, several years later. A mark of a great song, certainly, if ever there was one. There’s also “Looking at the Sun,” propelled to unexpected places by precise, drumline-style snare rolls. And there’s the strange lilting pop-prog of “Shape,” the highlight of the record for me — inventive yet subtle, with Laurie Anderson-esque Vocoded backing vocals and a perfect opening line: “You’ll never know how I may appear.”
It’s a line that, conveniently enough, reminds me to continue my original train of thought….
Above all, I think the gift of a truly brilliant performer is to simultaneously remind us of their humanity and transcend it, in one moment. I can’t help but wonder if Shara thinks of herself as having this particular skill? Often when I admit to having difficult, conflicting feelings about my own experience as a performer, people react with surprise — “You’d never know it to look at you!” Maybe Shara is truly in control and in her element on stage — or maybe she just seems to be. Similarly, there is power in her recordings, but also vulnerability and even terror. On record and on stage, it’s impossible to predict what shape she’ll take in any given moment.
So I always wonder what’s going on inside of a performer’s head — whether, in order to convince us, they must also be convinced of themselves. It’s different for everybody, I’m sure. But it’s one of the many mysteries that keep me in love with the act of creating music, sharing it, and bearing witness to the music that others make.
(Editor’s note: Jenn Wasner is managed by one of the publishers of the Talkhouse.)