The Diva Next Door

Arkansas-born Shara Nova is an alt-pop icon, acclaimed operatic singer, and prolific composer. She defies category. In a biz that wants women to fit in boxes, that's a problem.

diva: (DEE·vuh) a highly distinguished female singer
(19th century: via Italian from Latin, literally "goddess")

Let’s just start with the most important thing you need to know about Shara Nova: Her voice transcends accents. It transcends genre. Her light lyric soprano is simply a miraculous instrument. Listen.

Covering nearly three octaves and embroidered by a rich and expressive vibrato, Nova’s singing is both technically stunning and emotionally penetrating. Whether singing a lullaby she wrote for her son, belting a dance hall anthem, or delivering the lyrics of Schubert in the guise of Death herself, she belongs in any discussion of the great voices of the past 50 years: Joni Mitchell. Dawn Upshaw. Whitney Houston. Anita Baker. Kate Bush.

Shara Nova.

The quality of that voice pegs her as a diva in that word’s original meaning. (Using the word as sexist weapon came later, originating with industry gatekeepers frustrated by women artists who demanded due respect.) To witness Shara Nova perform is to share the presence of a rare artist, one equally at home delivering her own material as she is interpreting the music of other writers.

Nova is also a composer and a songwriter, though in her case this might be a distinction with very little difference. Her classical compositions are primarily centered around choral work but are by no means limited to that; they encompass everything from string quartets to orchestras and marching bands. Her “pop” songs - a label that is both accurate and utterly insufficient - share the distinctive sense of structure, harmony, and imaginative orchestrations of her classical work.

Nova’s recent role as the voice and co-composer of a 40-song cycle called The Blue Hour — named in the top ten albums of 2022 by the likes of NPR, The Nation, New Sounds, The Boston Globe, and yours truly — has dramatically boosted her visibility. Based on Carolyn Forché’s acclaimed epic poem “On Earth” and composed by a powerhouse quintet of contemporary composers — Nova, Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negron, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider — this song cycle presents the thoughts of a woman in her dying hour. Commissioned by the chamber orchestra A Far Cry, The Blue Hour is a deeply moving and beautiful piece that I expect will enjoy a long life in the concert hall, though I am hard pressed to imagine it sung by anyone other than Nova.

“I should probably have more diva in my attitude. I would have made other demands for my own needs if I felt I had the space to do so.”

With the release of Nova’s new album-length song cycle Titration (commissioned and performed by Grammy-winning choral group The Crossing) and “Black Sheep” (a soon-to-be-released single under her alt-pop persona My Brightest Diamond), Nova seems poised to enjoy the recognition and respect due an authentic diva who has mastered the crafts of classical voice, pop chanteuse, songwriting, and classical composition. And while her technical mastery is impressive indeed, it is Nova’s mixture of wit, intelligence, and emotional depth that make her expansive body of work — pop to classical and all points between — a treasure trove that rewards a deep dive.

Shara Nova performing at the 2022 Long Play Festival, presented by Brooklyn's longstanding performing arts organization, Bang on a Can (photograph by Peter Serling)
Shara Nova performing at the 2022 Long Play Festival, presented by Brooklyn's longstanding performing arts organization, Bang on a Can (photograph by Peter Serling)

I first experienced Shara Nova in her classical guise at the 2022 Long Play Festival in Brooklyn. Intending to catch a few minutes then dash to another program, I stood near the door for an easy getaway. Foolish man: I could barely breathe once she opened her mouth. In David Lang’s Death Speaks, Nova’s shimmering soprano inhabits the role of Death as she coaxed the listeners to slip gentle into that good night.

After that performance, I fell into the rabbit hole, spending countless hours tracking down as many recordings and videos of Nova as possible. When I discovered she is a daughter of the South, born in Arkansas to generations of evangelical pastors, I determined to add her story to our Salvation South mission of extending our conception of Southern music. She agreed to one Zoom interview for this article, bless her heart. That expanded to include three Zoom calls and several dozen emails, texts, and Facebook DMs over a period of several months, an extraordinary grant of time and energy for someone with her demanding schedule. Near the end of our exchanges, I thanked her for making herself so available.

“I'm invested in this conversation because you have created a mirror for me to try to understand myself better,” she explains. “And because I'm at a pivotal point in my life and career, your interest in my work is helping me ask questions and take stock. Because, you know, in order to eat, I just have to keep producing and producing, and there's very little time for reflecting. So I'm very thankful to you for creating a space for reflection, and for trying to understand. Because it's generative.”

I am your rest,
I am your peace
I am what you long for,
and what makes the longing go away
I am full of joy for you,
and I am full of grief
come in and close the door behind you
I will drive your sadnesses away

— “Mist Is Rising” by David Lang (c. 2013)

The qualities that make her such a captivating artist — intelligence, honesty, humor, empathy, kindheartedness — prove themselves abundant in conversation, too. If Shara Nova is a diva (“I should probably have more diva in my attitude,” she says. “I would have made other demands for my own needs if I felt I had the space to do so.”), then she is the diva next door, tending her flower garden, worrying about the bills, and shuttling her almost teenaged kid back and forth like any single mom.

Many of us have — or know someone with — a similar story. Well, all except the luminous voice/brilliant composer thing. That part? Not so common at all.

Pressure Creates Diamonds

The second most important thing you need to know about Shara Nova: This five-foot-two force of nature is a skater punk at heart who really loves to hit the dance floor.

Whether you see Nova as an alt-pop icon or a classical soprano is something of a musical Rorschach test. From her perspective, the two sides are not in conflict: they simply add up to the sum of who she is — and what she and her music might become in the future.

“I will argue about me being a unified field all day long,” she tells me, laughing.

If you are not familiar with her work, genre blur is perhaps to blame. While musicians are growing increasingly comfortable ignoring genre ghettoization in their work, audiences and the music industry are less amenable to people who refuse to “stay in their lane.”

“I’m in a line of people who have made their own realities,” Nova tells me. “I’m just trying to carve space for me to exist without having to contort myself into a form that doesn’t fit. So if I can keep fighting to exist, then maybe there’s space in a world not to make replicas of me, but to make space for other ways of being.”

“I’m in a line of people who have made their own realities. I’m just trying to carve space for me to exist without having to contort myself into a form that doesn’t fit."

Trained in operatic performance at North Texas State University, Nova spent much of her spare time at college singing in punk and funk bands, busking at folkie joints, hustling prize money at karaoke clubs, and comporting herself not quite how you might imagine an operatic prodigy behaving.

So it has gone in her professional career where she keeps one foot planted in the “serious” music world, another in her alt-pop persona of My Brightest Diamond, or as collaborator or band member with such diverse characters as Sufjan Stevens, Decembrists, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Jedi Mind Tricks, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

After graduation, she and her husband spent a year in Russia, settling in Brooklyn in 1999 because “the musician connection thing got me.” Brooklyn at the millennium’s turn was a fertile convergence of time and place that allowed Nova to develop an extensive network of talented and diverse collaborators. She studied opera and hung out with folks like the “anti-folk” singer/songwriter Regina Spektor and connected with a bunch of classical musicians, forming a string quartet that she later bequeathed to the Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated songwriter Sufjan Stevens. She learned about the classical violinist Padma Newsome and commuted out to New Haven to study composition with him; Newsome introduced her to his Clogs bandmate Bryce Dessner of The National. Her network expanded to include several modern composers who would play significant roles in her career, most notably David Lang and Sarah Kirkland Snider. And she released her first two albums as My Brightest Diamond (MBD).

When Brooklyn became onerously expensive, the opportunity to buy an abandoned house in Detroit (“a whole house for $14,000! I mean…”) in 2008 took her back to Michigan, where she gave birth to a son, renovated that house, took a stab at urban farming, recorded a few more MBD albums, went on tour (a lot), and eventually became a single mom.

Shara Nova with her son, Constantine Jamesson Worden (photograph by Corine Vermeulen)
Shara Nova with her son, Constantine Jamesson Worden (photograph by Corine Vermeulen)

As if genre blur is not enough, her very name marks another schism. For seventeen years, Shara went by her married name, Worden; much of her online presence still wears that tag. After her marriage ended in 2016, she became Shara Nova.

“I had been married my entire adult life,” she says. “I just wanted to name myself for the new era.”

It’s a name that signifies, she says, “light and rebirth. I like the Hebrew interpretation of my first name, meaning ‘song.’ And, in Latin, Nova meaning ‘new.’”

Notable: The astronomic term “nova” refers to “bright stars that appear suddenly in the sky and release powerful energy.” I’m just sayin’.

Along with the new name came a new look. “My instructions to the hair stylist were somewhere between Run Lola Run Orange and Superhero Red.”

“I'm doing that all the time when I'm writing songs. I close my eyes. I put my hands up. I'm listening. I'm going into a liminal state. A state of prayer, a state of listening, just kind of hoping to catch a lightning bolt."

"Somewhere between 'Run Lola Run' Orange and Superhero Red." (Photograph by Shervin Lainez)
"Somewhere between 'Run Lola Run' Orange and Superhero Red." (Photograph by Shervin Lainez)

More substantially, Nova also began to distance herself from the faith of her family. As anyone who has taken that step knows, the transition can be every bit as earth-shaking as divorce. When I ask her about her current relationship to faith, she says, “I got a lot of questions to wrestle through. Maybe I'm evading your question. You know, my mom keeps trying to figure out whether I'm saved or not. And I don't want the reader to know the answer to that either. That's for me.”

But deep imprints are not so easily shed. Nova recalls the Pentecostal practices that still resonate, like “going into trance or going into states of meditation in church where you would stay in a zone and then just listen.”

“I'm doing that all the time when I'm writing songs,” she says. “I close my eyes. I put my hands up. I'm listening. I'm going into a liminal state. A state of prayer, a state of listening, just kind of hoping to catch a lightning bolt. I can't say that I'm separate from the practices. I'm uninterested in talking about what I believe and aligning myself with belief. But when I look at the practices, I could talk about that all day. Because that's where I learned how to listen. And that's the place my songs come from.”

Running Away From Being From the South

Nova was born Shara Wright on April 22, 1974, in El Dorado (pronounced dor-Ā-doh), Arkansas, to a line of Assembly of God preachers. Her paternal grandfather, Kenneth Evan Wright, was born in Mt. Vernon, Tennessee. He later moved to Atlanta where he met his wife, Theda, who gave birth to Shara’s father. He headed west when he got the calling to preach the Word, spending the better part of 50 years as a traveling evangelist.

Shara Nova's grandfather, Kenneth Evan Wright, in the Pentecostal pulpit (photograph courtesy of Shara Nova)
Shara Nova's grandfather, Kenneth Evan Wright, in the Pentecostal pulpit (photograph courtesy of Shara Nova)

It's a complicated legacy. “I have a lot of trauma. I'm a pastor's child and the granddaughter of a pastor,” Nova says. “I got a lot of stories. And there are reasons why I have never spoken about these things publicly.”

But her childhood was also filled with the support a budding musician needs. Her father, Keith, is a retired choral director whom Nova credits as being her first mentor. Her mother Karin played organ for church services. Her uncle, pianist Donald Ryan, is a world-respected musician/educator. Nova counts Ryan, a native Trinidadian, as one of her earliest and most enduring role models.

Shara Nova in the lap of her uncle, Donald Ryan, in the mid-1970s (photograph courtesy of Shara Nova)
Shara Nova in the lap of her uncle, Donald Ryan, in the mid-1970s (photograph courtesy of Shara Nova)

The house was always filled with music, and Nova says she always knew she wanted to be a musician. Her pursuit got plenty of support on the home front. She grew up singing in church and in school choirs and musicals, taking piano lessons from her uncle, and traveling to Europe for choir recitals. Her music-loving grandfather — a traveling evangelist for close to 60 years —gave her some stern advice during an especially trying time when her son was very young: “Don’t quit.” And as a recent Facebook post indicates, she had support from her father in all kinds of important ways.

A social media post from Shara Nova with a photo of her father, Keith Wright
A social media post from Shara Nova with a photo of her father, Keith Wright

Her father, despite his church’s official stance on such devilment, brought all kinds of records home, from Ray Coniff and Burt Bacharach to Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Prince, and Joni Mitchell. Shara grew up immersed in the popular music of the 1970s and ’80s, influences that are clear in her songwriting.

“I don't know how in the world they got the escape clause that Michael Jackson and Joan Jett were okay,” she remembers, “but when kids in our churches were burning their records, we wouldn’t bring in ours.”

Shara Wright (on right) during a 1992 production in which she played Chava in “Fiddler on the Roof” (photo courtesy of Shara Nova)
Shara Wright (on right) during a 1992 production in which she played Chava in “Fiddler on the Roof” (photo courtesy of Shara Nova)

But growing up a Pentecostal pastor’s daughter was a rough ride for this self-described “weirdo.” The constraints of being a pastor’s kid still chafe.

“Yeah, my family. They love me. Do they understand me? It's a different question,” she explains. “I don't know how to talk about the amount of isolation that I felt in that family. We love each other very deeply, and … I don't know how to put words to it. What do I want to say publicly? There's just simply been a lot of distance and not really understanding one another.”

"I see my Southernism in the hymns and the choir and collective singing and that deep love of sitting on the porch writing a tune. I mean, those things are foundational.”

The Wrights moved constantly, across eight states in Shara’s first 18 years. She finished high school in Ypsilanti, Michigan. These dislocations were both broadening (“country music on the school bus in Tulsa and before that was New Orleans — the first marching bands I'd ever seen were at Mardi Gras — and then there's country and jazz with my uncle and then there's soul and Detroit Motown singing”) and, as anyone who’s moved South-to-North knows, at least a little emotionally traumatic.

“I had to learn in seventh grade that I was going to get made fun of if I had a Southern accent,” she says. “So I can tell you I got rid of it in about a month. It's only recently I've begun to embrace the fact that I have a complex identity. And that very much includes being a Southerner and not allowing shame to change the way that I talk.

“Now, my questions are, who am I as a Southerner? And let me stop running away from being from the South because the South represents certain things to me that, if I leave it all behind, I'm leaving a huge part of the beauty of my life.

“I mean, without those Southern hymns.… The value to me in Southern music is this core relationship to hymn singing and thinking about my grandfather's relationship to the guitar and that very earthy relationship to songs. I see my Southernism in the hymns and the choir and collective singing and that deep love of sitting on the porch writing a tune. I mean, those things are foundational.”

So how does all that lead to studying opera?

“I just didn't know what else to study,” she explains. “I had only seen Phantom of the Opera and on a choir trip, when I was 18, I went to La Scala in Italy. But those are the only two operas I'd ever seen in my life. I had no familiarity with the form. If you are a singer, there just wasn't anything else for you to do. Nobody in 1992 ever talked about women being composers. There weren't even women composers in the school.

“I didn't start writing songs seriously until that first semester,” she continues. “The gap between what I was doing in coffee shops and with the opera program was just so vast. I had one teacher who did eventually identify me and teach me, but it was his initiative where he would come and listen to my songs. But girls just didn't do that.”

This one does.

Bright Diamond, Big Ears

Befitting her chameleonic career arc, the five My Brightest Diamond albums — plus a host of EPs and dance remix collaborations — traverse a long path. They shift from the unclassifiable amalgam of pop/punk/prog on Bring Me the Workhorse (2006) to the stripped-down dance-floor production of 2018’s A Million and One, which marked her first release under the Nova surname and the first where she enlisted a co-producer. The DIY ethos is strong with Nova, though everything she puts out feels like she has a huge team behind her. Her attention to detail and quality is that strong.

The third MBD release, All Things Will Unwind (2011), marked an ambitious escalation in her attraction to elaborate orchestration. The earlier albums bore marks of this approach, but the arrangements for chamber ensemble yMusic alongside conventional pop instrumentation of drums/guitar/keyboards heighten the drama, humor, and emotion in Nova’s songwriting. This video for “High Low Middle” offers a terrific introduction to Nova’s (then still Worden) interest in costuming and theatricality as a compliment to her inventive orchestration.

The musical variety comes dizzyingly fast, but the central thread in the fabric is Nova’s shimmering voice and smart songwriting. Even with all the stylistic and genre variety, it is all recognizably her. A unified field.

Nova refers to My Brightest Diamond as a band — in-demand drummer Earl Harvin and bassist/guitarist Chris Bruce have been constants from the beginning — though the fiscal reality of touring finds her flying mostly solo these days, as she did for her opening night show at the 2023 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Shara Nova on stage at the 2023 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee (photograph by Billie Wheeler)
Shara Nova on stage at the 2023 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee (photograph by Billie Wheeler)

Nova emerges from the rear of the hall carrying a footlocker filled with props and costume changes. She is wearing a cutout mask of Britney Spears, the subject of her opening number, a song from her 2013 mock Baroque “p’opera” You Us We All. Accompanied primarily by harpsichord and typewriter, Nova sings her message to the beleaguered former Mouseketeer with a quill pen in hand. Here’s that song from a Brooklyn Academy of Music production.

I lov'ed your performance at the Grammys
even though people said you look'ed fat.
Evil is all mankind -
so in love with watching beauty suffer.

— “Dear Britney Spears,” music by Shara Worden, lyrics by Andrew Ondrejcak

Funny and poignant, this letter to Britney set the tone for a set that was by turns funny, sad, goofy, absurd, and deeply moving. Nova performed her mix of old and new songs in The Point, a small non-denominational church a little north of downtown Knoxville. I asked why she requested that venue.

“The record that I'm working on is about understanding my relationship to my grandfather, the preacher,” she says. “I think that the context of a church makes people feel more expectation [for] communal behavior. There is a laying down of burdens, a kind of collective ritual that I'm inviting people into. A church puts people more immediately in that mindset than a club, where the expectation is maybe more ‘we're gonna mosh’ or ‘you're gonna entertain me.’ In a church, there's maybe a different kind of possibility for collective practice.”

Nova’s hybrid presentation — a mix of music, performance art, standup and prop comedy, and monologue — evoked a bittersweet cocktail of Laurie Anderson and Lucille Ball (ask your grandma) that dialed the audience engagement all the way up.

In an email the next morning, Nova explained, “It was an experiment.… I am so glad the audience laughed at my jokes. A lot of learning how to work in this form yet for me to do, but it felt like a response to the place and to this moment.”

Several days later, Nova told me, “There's a certain element of clowning that was really fun for me. I never get to clown. I had a lot of fun. It was sloppy. I think playing to [pre-recorded tracks] is less musically satisfying — the musician in me is not very happy about that. But in terms of me feeling I'm able to use my sense of humor and structure the show in a way that might feel like we can collectively process what's happening — not just me having a presentation of what I'm processing — but facilitating group engagement? That's what I'm playing with.”

Shara Nova gets up close and personal with the audience at The Point during the 2023 Big Ears Festival (photograph by Billie Wheeler)
Shara Nova gets up close and personal with the audience at The Point during the 2023 Big Ears Festival (photograph by Billie Wheeler)

A few days later, Nova took the stage at a packed Bijou Theater for one of the Big Ears finale shows. Accompanied by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Aram Demerjian, this was only the second performance of The Blue Hour with Nova as the featured vocalist. From the dazzling opening line — “Now appears to us in a mysterious light” — Nova held the audience rapt. Even though the cycle consists of 40 songs, there was rarely applause to interrupt the mood.

Shara Nova with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (photograph by Cora Wagoner)
Shara Nova with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (photograph by Cora Wagoner)

There was one awkward moment when a handful of men scarpered for the exits to get to another show, a performance by the avant garde guitarist Marc Ribot. Though Nova seemed a tad startled by the breach, she quickly recovered and stage-whispered, “Tell Marc Ribot I said hi.” That quick-on-her-feet stagecraft triggered laughter and relieved a tension that could have derailed the performance.

Over 70 minutes — and across the nearly three-octave range demanded by the piece — Nova inhabited the character of a woman in her final hour. The technical demands of the piece are substantial, the emotional content even more exacting. This piece, written by Sarah Kirkland Snider, gives an idea of the intensity Nova sustained that evening.

Earlier that day at a Blue Hour composers panel organized by Big Ears, I asked Snider — a close friend of Nova’s who has written several pieces with her voice in mind — why she thinks Nova is so emotionally convincing, especially in near-proximity to the specter of Death.

“I think she sees and understands things about the human condition that a lot of people do not, and I think she's not afraid of it,” Snider told me. “She goes very deep into her musical characters, so deep that it's almost meditative, almost trancelike. That kind of inhabiting the characters, inhabiting the story ... it's unusual. It's special. But I think it's also who she is, in general. You know, she can go really deep into a dark conversation and not be afraid. I think she brings that to everything that she's singing.”

For her own part, Nova says, “What I find most difficult is how to work myself up to that place of feeling the emotion, feeling the horror or the anger or whatever it is that I'm feeling, but not going too far to let the tear fall. How to allow the voice to have that sound of the tear, you know, to allow the anger to be in the voice but not destroy yourself.

“That's the line. Often in a dress rehearsal, I will go over the edge, and I will cry and then I'll lose it. I try to allow myself to find where those lines are.”

She pauses before she opens up about the sources of those feelings.

“My family has had so many suicides,” she says. “And that is a kind of darkness that I've had that many people have not experienced. And I think that has just shaped and defined my life. Every family has tales of some form or another. But suicide is my family's tale. So I think that my capacity to know the darkness comes through because I lived it. I'm not just acting it. I've been there. Maybe that's a distinguishing thing; I've lived a bit of life, and I had that happen early.”

The Art of Craft

In one Zoom conversation, Shara sets me straight about my suggestion that her work is confessional. She leans into the camera and says, “I seem so. I appear to be confessional, and there’s a big difference.” Gently scolding me for my gendered assumption (mea culpa!), Nova explains, “There are always about five layers of removal. If you look at the substance of my stuff, that metaphor allows me that distance. You never know what the events are, you never know who the people are. You very rarely know the gender of the people I'm talking about.”

Shara leans in

By way of example, we discuss what is perhaps her most well-known song, “I Will Never Love Someone,” from All Things Will Unwind. On the surface — and it’s a story repeated in article after article — this is a lullaby to her son, based on the children’s book The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. I allowed that it might not be confessional, but it is surely immediate and vulnerable.

“It seems so, yes. It does seem so,” she says with a grin. “It’s a puzzle. It’s The Runaway Bunny. And it’s Edith Piaf’s ‘Hymne a L'Amour.’” She proceeds to sing several bars of Piaf in French, switching to English so I would get the connection.

“I just wanted to write that song over again. It’s not confessional. It seems so because it’s coming through me and it happened because of the perfect storm of things that happened in my life. But really, it’s just me reading Runaway Bunny and loving Edith Piaf.”

So it’s the craft?

“It’s the craft. It appears personal, and it is personal because I share in the human experience, which has a hard time receiving love. But that's a craft song. It just happened that I caught it that day, and it's tremendously influenced by me knowing the Piaf.”

Another example from Unwind is the inspirational raver “Be Brave,” which she wrote while grieving the death of Henryk Górecki (best known for his Third Symphony, which Nova has performed several times).

These songs are just two examples of Nova obliquely invoking specific emotions to produce music that opens up to a broader range of emotional possibilities. That’s craft, exactly the kind of creative alchemy that made artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga into megastars. And my assumption that it is “confessional” is just another example of the headwinds Nova — like Gaga, Britney, Bey, etc. — faces every day in her struggle to be seen in full.

The challenge of presenting an artist like Nova to the world is indeed complicated by rigid gender expectations. Where guys like David Byrne and Elvis Costello can skip across genre boundaries at will and be proclaimed daring for their courage, women continue to struggle for even the most basic recognition of their work.

“I can’t tell you the number of times that people have [mis]attributed work that I contributed to men I work with,” Nova tells me, “[such as] harmony parts that I wrote with no acknowledgement. There's no attribution at all. And it's just like, you know, the number of times.… It's just sickening, and it makes my voice go up. It's exhausting.”

Catching her breath, Shara continues, “People can look at a male and they want him to be a genius. They want him to be their unrealized childhood fantasy. They want him to save them. That is not what they want from women. So I get up and I wear butterfly wings. It's not going to have the same effect. The impact of those actions is all gendered. The perception of the music…it is all gendered.

"Rock ’n’ roll cannot see women. They don't perceive women. It’s just atrocious, and it makes my blood boil. But at the same time, I see my whole life as a reaction to that: You think I can't do any of that? Fuck you.”

“I have lived that over and over and over again in rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll cannot see women. They don't perceive women. I mean the whole thing that's happening with Meg White (note: the White Stripes drummer/singer/songwriter had recently and out of nowhere become a target of unhinged vitriol in social media) — it’s just atrocious and it makes my blood boil. But at the same time, I see my whole life as a reaction to that: You think I can't do any of that? Fuck you.”

The sheer breadth of Nova’s musical vision may in fact work against her ability to achieve the kinds of market success that artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga have achieved, and I invoke these artists as markers deliberately. Both are ambitious, extraordinarily hard-working, and they strive for intentional emotional connections with their fans. Moreover, their smart challenges to convention elevate them above the fast-food music marketplace.

Nova presents a different case, though all that about ambition and work ethic certainly pertains. Her MBD “pop” songs are every bit as danceable and earwormy as Bey or Gaga (or you name your favorite), but her grand sense of orchestration outstrips typical pop fare by a country mile. And, while bigger stars’ orchestration ideas might originate with them, they are often executed by a stable of collaborators. The arrangements you hear on almost every My Brightest Diamond tune are written by Nova herself, like these rich, simmering harmonies that could make Sade think “damn, I wish I’d written that.”

Now mix in her prolific output as a composer for everything from string quartets to choral ensembles and The Blue Hour and Titration releases, plus her many contributions to other musicians’ projects, and you might begin to have some sympathy regarding the task facing Nova’s management (and music writers) as we try to get our arms around such a vast talent.

“It does make branding hard,” Nova admitted in a 2019 interview with Denver's Westword. “It makes you hard to market [laughs]. That’s what life has taught me. You can’t market complexity. It’s a lot easier to market a consistent product, and that’s not been my interest.”

She tells me, “What I find very difficult about wrangling myself in a business model is that I just get bored. I would never be satisfied if I just did opera. And maybe that's just a total fear of being rejected. Maybe it's that I always feel like an outsider everywhere I go, and I'm interested in so many different things. It's working within certain confines that I just get bored of.”

Taking it a step further, Nova reflects on how a lack of market success can be something of a blessing.

“In many ways, I feel like my life has been protected by not having fame, because I've been able to actually address the questions in life that I have. I have financial pressure, but the pressure I don't have is to keep producing the same thing over and over. So you know, whatever happens in your life is what happens. There's nothing I could do differently than what I've done.”

“I Will Practice Being Human”

Like any of us, Shara carries her share of baggage: Her fundamentalist upbringing; the daily sanding down imposed by patriarchal structures and sexist buffoons; memories of assault, heartbreak, and rejection; horror at the casual cruelties of our world; and the basic day-to-day challenge of being a working single mom.

Before a recent Blue Hour appearance with the Oregon Symphony, Nova wrote in her Substack, Songs in Four Dimensions, “I will practice being human, which is to say feeling fully alive, counting time signatures ferociously while also contemplating the horrors of war, falling in love, remembering being a child swishing in a dress, enjoying the touch of the fabric, to feel outrage, to dance, to meditate on a dove, to enjoy the feeling of a word in my mouth, to die in front of an audience, to be a ghost, to become one voice inside many.”

Talk about ambition!

While those remarks were about a specific performance, they also offer an accurate characterization of the person I’ve gotten to know through several months of Zooms and texts and emails: Shara Nova lives her life as she lives her art, fully committed to a practice that will bring her closer to excellence as both an artist and mother/friend/citizen. Such a life entails conscious effort and sacrifice, and though the reward may be abundant, the cost can be dear.

I ask Shara what success would look like five years down the road. She falls silent and looks away from the camera for the first and only time in our hours of interviews. When she looks back, her eyes are filled with tears as she speaks about her son, Constantine.

"I work morning until night. I've had, like, not even two full days off this year. And so I just don't get to do stuff with my kid. We talk about it: I just want you to know that this isn't what I wanted. As a mother."

Shara Nova: I keep saying, it's not gonna be like this all the time, honey. I'm gonna get to spend more time with you. So the first measure of success is that I have more time with my kid. I work morning until night. I've had, like, not even two full days off this year. And so I just don't get to do stuff with my kid. We talk about it, and you know, I just want you to know that this isn't what I wanted. As a mother.

Rob Rushin-Knopf: That’s a hard one.

SN: It's a hard one, because where it lands is at home when I'm trying to make ends meet and keep my work at the level that I expect [for myself]. And I just don't get enough time with him. You know, there's no chance of me being in a relationship with anyone. I have no time to give to another person. So there's just a loneliness that I have because of that. And, you know, that's my choice. That's what I choose. Because my work is very important. I try to stay in touch with other musicians and with my friends and stuff, but it can be really, really socially isolating. So success for me would be that I get to have more of a balanced life, whatever that means. More people to help me. You know, it's not just a measure of money.

I love the music I do and it feeds me. It's just very, very hard to balance being a mother and taking care of my body and having time to exercise. I have been working literally for years without much of a break. I mean, last year, I didn't take a vacation. You know, so it's just like the pace of what I'm doing and what I've pulled off is pretty badass.

I’ll say.


Titration, released in late April, springs from Nova’s research into somatic therapy (an approach that emphasizes the mind/body connection, especially as a means of treating trauma symptoms) to address “the experience of our own bodies, the capacity of our nervous systems, and the quest to identify and embrace our most difficult feelings.” That kinda makes it sound all gloomy and dour, but while Titration is dead serious about the scars of trauma and ways of dealing with it, it is also playful and downright funny in its peculiarly Shara way. Here’s the first single.

On top of everything else, Nova recently recorded five compositions by Nico Muhly (Hymns for Private Use) and contributed three compositions/performances to The Crossing’s Carols After a Plague album. On a few days’ notice, Son Lux asked her to create a choral arrangement for their Oscar-nominated song from Everything Everywhere All at Once for a performance with David Byrne at the awards show. She has been writing and recording songs for a sixth My Brightest Diamond album, with the first single/video due to drop any day now. She put the finishing touches on a string quartet commission just before our last conversation and a few days later received a grant from Opera America to complete her third opera, The Subnivean Zone: Under the Snow.

If we were to review every substantial piece of work of hers over the past two years — never mind her entire career — this article would become a book.

We may not fully appreciate what goes into the creative offerings we receive from artists, how high the hidden and apparent costs sum up. I often wonder whether their gifts to us are of any use to them once the act of creation is complete. Can Shara Nova — that brightest diamond — turn to “I Have Never Loved Someone” for comfort the way we can? I sure hope so. Because whether this song means what I think it means, or what any of you think it means — and let’s go ahead and figure that we are all completely wrong and undeniably right about it all — I cannot imagine a more touching expression of love and hope.

We’re okay. Go. Listen.

Author Profile

Chattanooga-based writer/musician Rob Rushin-Knopf, Salvation South’s longtime culture warrior, blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom and appears regularly as one-half of the near-jazz duo RoboCromp.

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