Shara Nova is a classically trained vocalist and self-taught multi-instrumentalist who records dazzling shapeshifting music as My Brightest Diamond. Over the course of five groundbreaking albums, including her most recent LP A Million And One, she has resisted the conventions of genre, blending elements of rock, art pop and chamber music into a sound totally her own. During her career, Nova has also collaborated and played with a long list of talented artists and filmmakers including but not limited to Sufjan Stevens, Laurie Anderson, The Decemberists, David Byrne & Fatboy Slim, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Matthew Barney. Last fall she was announced as one of the four Carolina Performing Arts Creative Future Fellows and is a Kresge Fellow, Knights Grant recipient and a United States Artists fellow. She has composed works for yMusic, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, Brooklyn Rider, Nadia Sirota, and Roomful of Teeth and performed at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kennedy Center.
The backstory to Give the People What They Want is that last summer, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with stage-two pancreatic cancer. The album was scheduled for an August release, but because of the diagnosis it was pushed back until now. I highly recommend reading this powerful story about it. Instead, I want to give a reflection on this record, through my ears and my framework, and attempt to express what listening to this record has made me think about, how it challenges me and what I enjoy so much about it.
I look at the list of my upcoming shows and see that every one of them is a concert of different music, a different costume, different players, different orchestration, or a different genre. That’s not to say there isn’t a thread that connects them all in my own mind, but many members of my “band” have never even been in the same room with each other. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings couldn’t be more different. [Full disclosure: My Brightest Diamond shares a publicist with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.—Ed.] The Dap-Kings feel like a real American band, with a specific sound, a specific framework, a specific recording technique, a specific genre, a history, and they certainly spend a lot of time in the same room with each other. Give the People What They Want sounds like all those elements at their best. There is a smells-in-the-van, a love-and-a-hate-lived-on-the-road that you can feel in this recording. It has that mysterious layer of unnameable magic that happens when ideas settle, when a house transforms from looking store-bought to lived-in, when the makeup goes into the skin rather than sitting on top, when the sauce ties all those ingredients together.
Before I first pressed “play” on my early digital copy (incorrectly titled in my iTunes as People Don’t Get What They Deserve — perhaps an earlier title that was changed for a more positive spin?), I already had butterflies of anticipation in my belly and a question in my mind: “OK, what’s their production philosophy? Did they go with that ’60s Motown/Stax retro sound, or is this album going to be something different, sonically?” From the first note of the dark and malleted drum roll, the entrance of that jangling guitar panned hard right, and the bass guitar hard to left, I was sucked into the sonic palette and waving my arms, moving to Sharon’s raspy, overdriven, pitch-perfect command of the chorus “Retreat!!!!!! Yeah!!!!” I didn’t know if I should sing along to some unfortunate soul or if I myself was being sung to and needed to back away slowly. There is power in her voice. That is not to be denied.
There were sounds I didn’t expect — an orchestral chime, a glockenspiel — but mainly there were the familiar sounds of the Dap-Kings that I assumed would be there: the tight rhythm section, those big, beautiful horns and the super reverb-ed backing vocalists the Dapettes. Fans of Al Green’s classic 1972 album I’m Still in Love with You are going to eat this up. (I think Rick Rubin would love it too.) I’m reminded of my high school days spent listening to ’70s Heatwave records. This sound is classic and somehow still fresh, still alive. It’s an artful and tasteful mix that I deeply appreciate, that is somehow then, but with the influence of now. There’s a sense of foreground and background, side views of left and right, and a wide frequency range of highs to lows in the arrangements. Nothing feels muddy or crowded. The compression feels perfect. I’m not complaining like I was about the Katy Perry album’s smashed waveforms. Every instrument has its place and the listener has a sense of people being in a room together. (In the liner notes, there are pictures of the Dapettes singing through one $100 standard SM57 microphone. That makes me happy. A lot of great sounds have been recorded through SM57s. Not everything has to be the most expensive vintage gear to sound good.)
I think timbre is the first thing that most people hear. It’s just a general impression. It’s just like looking at a blurry picture and knowing right away what the colors are before you even register the shapes. On Give the People What They Want, the timbre is a constant, so you can factor it out and focus on the songs and the performances. And the songs and the performances are fantastic. Will they become classics? I can’t say; no one really can. Only time will tell that. But right now I know I enjoy the swing of “Making Up and Breaking Up,” with lyrics that all of us can relate to. It sounds like a summertime anthem. “You’ll Be Lonely” hints at ’70s funk classics like the Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces”; the slower-tempo shuffle of “Get Up and Get Out” gives me a sense memory of those years I drove my grandfather’s tractor in a Kansas field, listening to cassette tapes of ’60s Motown hits. (No, I am not making that up.) I put on this album first thing in the morning while I’m making coffee. I can imagine this music in movies, malls or being spun by a DJ with a historical mustache, in a hole-in-the-wall bar in Brooklyn. This is an album for any room, any vibe, any situation and that is a fairly miraculous thing to achieve. They gave us what we wanted. There is an embrace of history, of style, that is so unabashedly there, so indulged in, and done so very, very well, that nothing gets in the way of me loving this music, loving it without judgement. Sharon is doing what Sharon does best and she doesn’t sound like she’s TRYING to do or be anyone other than herself, doing what she loves, and what she lives for. And THAT is refreshing to hear in a human voice.
In recent years, I’ve been recording and touring with the Blind Boys of Alabama, and I get struck by listening to them sing night after night in these traditional gospel forms and watching the crowd go wild, and every time feeling the hair on my arms stand up when Jimmy sings a long, high note. Here are these older artists who lived and recorded the very genres that, basically all of American pop and rock music springs out of, and is there anything wrong with living, breathing and recreating inside this framework of music, even if it is from another century? I think the better skilled you are at your craft, the more restrictions you can put onto it and become even more articulate. It seems like a paradox to say that there is freedom within boundaries, but boundaries create an environment within which to thrive. You choose your perimeters and then explore the potential.
My next questions to myself are: Why am I so obsessed with change? Why does it feel like embodying a style that started many years ago is anything to be ashamed of? Somehow when Sharon and the Dap-Kings do it, I believe them. Somewhere in my mind, there is also something that says that nostalgia is anti-progress or anti-evolution or anti-present-moment. And I should add the words, “for me.” There are a lot of forces around us that, for example, are more interested in talking about the Beatles then, as opposed to what Paul is writing now. Just check out the covers of some of those rock magazines and you’ll see how much we are addicted to nostalgia. I want to understand history, and I sing old songs sometimes too, but as a writer, I want to try to find out what living in this time, this now means to me. I grew up around a religious culture and a classical music environment that wanted what they knew already, and weren’t looking to be challenged by music. They just wanted music to tell them what they already knew. At some unknown point I realized that music has a life of its own, a will even, and that there are times when music comes to the audience and other times, the audience must go to the music. It doesn’t always placate. Being a musician means something different for everyone. To me it means that I want to make new things, good or bad, but to work to make something new.
I love this record, and it also subtly confronts me. I’m totally sucked into the songs, into the sound of old recording gear and classic record-making, and chin-to-wind, tits-out kind of singing, as though all of life depended on giving everything at every moment. That’s how this record feels. Give the People What They Want is not a record I could ever make and yet I am so inspired by it. For all the talk of then vs. now, it’s becoming part of my life experience NOW, in this month in my life, when I’ve been obsessed with this Sharon Jones record, will always have these sense memories of my new apartment, of morning coffees, of Christmas alone, of the two feet of snow that fell, of running in circles with my son playing “fire chief”… This music that harks back to another time is winding its way into my own history in the now.