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the sidebar » Blog Archive » Q & A with My Brightest Diamond
Q & A with My Brightest Diamond
By My Brightest Diamond
Friday, March 9th, 2007

Photo by David Garland (WNYC)

Sufjan: I wanted to ask you some questions for the website about the remix album. Answer them only if you have the time and the predilection. I know you are busy as a bee. First, what does it feel like (personally, emotionally, in terms of your relationship to the song) to turn over your music for complete strangers to remix? Unnerving, exciting, dangerous, illegal? Is it akin to sending correspondence to an unknown pen pal? Or asking a stranger to cat sit for the weekend?

Shara: The word was most often elation! Some of the remixers were not complete strangers at all. Many are my friends! And it’s never scary to turn something over to a friend. Woo hoo! However, for those that were not my friends, the process seemed a little more like an online dating service, where you go check out their profile to see if they will be a good fit for you and hope the first date isn’t a disaster.

Sufjan: You’ve collaborated with remixers before, successfully. How does your music lend itself to this kind enterprise? Or, more generally, what makes a song remixable? I’ve never embarked on this before, and I have the feeling my songs don’t lend themselves to remixing. Do you agree?

Shara: Often the first level of remix-ability in a song is the beat. However, songs like "Magic Rabbit", "We Were Sparkling" and "Gone Away" were more spacially oriented than beat oriented. In most cases, if there are too many chord changes in a song, electronic music doesn’t really deal with that well, so the fewer harmonic changes the better. Another interesting thing is that the dramatic sections in songs like "Workhorse" or "Something of an End", got smoothed over, to create a less jarring emotional world. Genre is a bit overrated, so I like the concept of taking these tunes out of the indie rock world and letting them breathe in a different context. I think your songs would be very remixable, but the emotional content that your music and arrangements supply, would be really affected. In the case of "Robin’s Jar", that wasn’t something I wanted to lose control over. I think it’s all a matter of choice and what you are comfortable with.

Sufjan: My friend Mike Atkinson recently arranged some of the songs from my Zodiac album for string quartet for this performance at the Music Now Festival next month. I wonder if this is as close as I get to the remix? I’ve sat in on some of the rehearsals, and it feels weird taking the back seat, listening in. I feel a little more emotionally detached from the song, in a good way. Is that true for your relationship to these remixes?

Shara: I can’t wait to hear those string arrangements!!! I’m sure they are great! And yes, in remix land, I often feel more detached from the material. We are so gritty and involved in our arranging, with number two pencils, erasers and calligraphy pens, that I think detachment is a natural feeling when handed a remix. All of the tracks on Tear It Down were sent across oceans, mountains and time zones through the use of zip files, dvd files, yousendit files, ftps or instant messaging services. What a strange world we live in! Maybe if I would have collaborated more closely with the djs, I might have felt less disconnected.

Sufjan: To my ears, the remix often changes the song by disrupting context, scrambling form, pushing vocals here, editing out entire passages. It creates a new environment. I find this exciting. How has the remix experience changed your understanding of your own work?

Shara: This process made me aware of other solutions to problems I experienced in integrating strings with drums on "Bring Me The Workhorse". The remixes offer not necessarily definitive solutions, but simply other possibilities. It made me realize how much more stylistically flexible I could become and still feel like me. It also clarified my values by showing me solutions that I wouldn’t use in my own arranging. At times, the emotion is smoothed over with the electronic beds and the feeling becomes prettier, slicker, less aggressive, or raw than it feels to me. On the flip side, in a remix context, I could let go of detailed storytelling, my desire for extended harmony, textural changes or beat orientation. For example by removing the beats, I think David Stith’s "Gone Away" is so haunting, wintery and free. I feel a chill in my bones. By scrambling the lyrics of "Disappear", the meaning wasn’t lost. It’s not that I don’t have intention in the way that every lyric or phrase was recorded on "Bring Me The Workhorse", but the rigidity of what makes a song a song or how we understand meaning, might be broader than we expect. From a classical perspective, the song form is more important than the recording. In the pop world, it is the record, a single performance that has defined a song’s significance. All of these issues are in flux in the context of a remix! How exciting!! Of course, I won’t always want to let go of my musical values, because they largely define me as an artist, but it’s nice to look at alternatives, to extend one’s artistic arms to a larger embrace. Sometimes in surrendering, an opportunity is created for something good or unexpected, unbridled or uncontrolled to present itself to us.

Sufjan: Speaking of context, I hear some of these remixes as club songs, or dance songs. Your record demands a listener’s attention, but a dance song inspires people to move. What do you think of your music as dance floor material?

Shara: Mostly I love it! Songs like "Freak Out" or "Golden Star" work well in that context. Beats are sometimes like grease. They smooth the entry way for the lyrics and melody to go inside of the listener. People learn and feel kinesthetically or visually or aurally. Sometimes your body can understand things that your mind can’t process. That’s the beauty of movement! Some basic elements of song are Rhythm, Melody and Words. Ah the power of the three hand in hand! On one occasion however, I didn’t like the power of rhythm. I once submitted a random collection of music for a short film. Upon viewing the first edits in which my music underscored a violent scene, I had the shocking revelation that the catchy beat of the music made the violence seem cool or acceptable. The lyric or subject was communicating something awful, but the listener would have been bopping along unwittingly to the happy beat. Rather than feeling ironic, it felt manipulative. I think you are right in that the arrangements on BMTWH require a certain attention (meaning, it’s not an easy record to talk over at a dinner party), whereas the remix is more dinner party friendly because of the minimized dynamics and rolling beats. It’s really a question of the relationship between those basic elements, isn’t it? Does the music or arrangement serve the subject? Of course music is about expression, which includes pain or anger and sometimes violent feelings, but in the instance of this short film, the relationship between beats and subject matter didn’t feel right to me. So while I wouldn’t say there are morals in music, the artist must respect the power of art to magnify it’s subject matter. Then it is the delight of the artist to determine the best vehicle for expressing that subject with beats, melody, harmony, textures and whatever else.

Sufjan: Do you have any experience with a dance scene? Did you ever go clubbing? Is there a big club scene in New York?

Shara: Actually one of my best clubbing experiences was after we played together at the Paradiso in Amsterdam a few years ago. Remember that night? DJ Justice and Soulwax were performing after our sets and I stayed up dancing til 5 a.m. Back in the day, at Ypsi High in Michigan, the best dancing happened at car parties, cranking up our stereos in parking lots and raising our hands high. Nowadays, I occasionally go to clubs in New York or LA to see friends spin or to cut diamond shapes in the floor with my high heels. But maybe I just go to the wrong places, because I sometimes feel more like prey than person on a dance floor, so it’s less fun then. I like it best when there’s a safe enviroment with your friends where you can really let go and work out your anxiety or anger or pain or joy or express freedom or sensuality in dance without feeling observed. That’s a rarer experience for me than I wish.

Sufjan: I’m also struck by some of the darker, more ambient remixes. There is no song left, just an emotional gesture. What do you think of these minimal remixes? I love some of those earlier more minimal Mouse on Mars records. And Murcof. And Oval.

Shara: Absolutely. I wanted some minimalists represented on Tear It Down, and I was stunned by what returned to me. As I said earlier, it’s almost like by losing the pop trappings, the songs took new emotional directions or revealed another layer. Certainly that is evident in songs like "Magic Rabbit" and "Gone Away" and even "Something of an End" took a new turn. Sometimes the isolation of the voice felt unsettling to me, like looking in a slanted mirror and seeing a different view of yourself than maybe you wanted to see or like listening to your own heartbeat from someone else’s stethoscope. It was just as much a process of embracing those other sides of my voice, and losing what might have been a protection in my own arrangements.

Sufjan: What do you think of Madonna’s dance remixes?

Shara: Her remixes are always great and I like to watch Madonna dance. She is a queen with a iron fist and honey for hips.

Sufjan: What song makes you dance more than any other?

Shara: Michael Jackson’s "Wanna Be Startin’ Something"

Sufjan: I’ve heard you play a lot of covers. Nina Simone, Prince, Jeff Buckley, Purcell. Would you ever consider a covers record?

Shara: I am thinking of sneaking out some covers by way of compilation records, 7 inches or other back alleys later this year. I don’t think I’m ready to record a full length cover album yet. Isn’t it tradition for people to make a cover album for their 7th record so as to get out of their major label record deals? Well, that doesn’t apply to us now does it? In the words of Nina, "We are wild as the wind."

Sufjan: Awesome! Thanks!

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