Sound & Vision: My Brightest Diamond on Her New Album 'A Million and One' and Moving to Detroit

Interviews, Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by Shervin Lainez

My Brightest Diamond is led by singer-songwriter, Shara Nova. You might have heard her voice backing up the Decemberists or Sufjan Stevens. She’s now out with her fifth full-length studio album. And she’ll be hopping on tour with Washington’s own Death Cab for Cutie this spring. 

Nova can relate to the Seattle musicians that have moved away as the city becomes more and more expensive. She moved from New York City 10 years ago back to Detroit— a city near her hometown. Detroit is also a place that’s very affordable for artists and musicians. The average home there will cost you less than $40,000. Nova says her latest album, A Million and One, is a love letter to Detroit. 

“I was just reflecting so much on how deeply the music that came from here has shaped my life.”

Detroit is the birthplace of techno and Motown. Nova says she's inspired by Stevie Wonder. She says she followed a formula similar to how  Stevie Wonder structured his album, Songs in the Key of Life. She says that album has "songs about political and social difficulty juxtaposed with love songs.”

A Million and One has love songs, but also songs about climate change and race. And Nova she says her move back to Detroit has made her think about race in a whole new way. 

Listen to the segment and read some of the highlights below.

On Why She Moved to Detroit

I wanted space. I collect instruments. I have so many instruments that I just needed kind of a larger floor space to put all my toys. And I also wanted to know why I was making music. I kind of felt like I was in a more competitive space artistically. I didn't know who my work was for. And I think moving to Detroit has given me a sense of community that is not just of other artists but is with my neighbors in a really different way.


On How Moving to Detroit Changed How She Thinks About Race

The fact that you are in an environment where you are seeing the poverty and you're seeing the challenges of native black Detroiters in a way that... When you're on the subway in New York, you can not talk to your neighbor. You don't really have to interface with people in New York. I mean, this is really subjective, but for me, I'll just say [that] when I was in New York I could live strangely in more of a bubble. I think that I'm confronted with social inequity in a way that.. It's different here. It's different. You feel it, you see it, and you can't ignore it.


On Gentrification, Artists, and Affordable Housing

"I know that my presence in Detroit, by simply being a white person walking down the sidewalk, I am affecting the environment. Which is to say Detroit is a black city. And so the way that gentrification begins is by white people like me moving in because it's affordable. To kind of accept that that's – whether you like it or not, whether you want to be an agent of gentrification – which is to say I'm changing this space, I'm telling other white people that I'm part of changing a narrative that 'Oh, Detroit that's unsafe. Oh, we don't go there,' says the white people outside of the city. And so white folks aren't saying that in the same way that they did. And then it just makes you start asking a lot of questions about affordable housing for everybody.

But also when you move into any place being very, very mindful of what the neighborhood is that you're moving into rather than using the language of 'it's an open frontier' or 'it's kind of a blank slate.' It's like, well the folks who've lived here don't feel that way. So I think those are the kinds of things that I'm thinking about and that I think we need to mindfully be aware of as artists. Artists always have gone into cheaper neighborhoods, to neighborhoods that are "affordable" and that's how SoHo ends up being the SoHo of New York. Artists move in and make things out of spaces that people perceive as being not livable anymore. So it's a complex thing to consider. I don't think something to be careless about."


On Trayvon Martin and Her Song "You Wanna See My Teeth"

When I was a teenager, my parents didn't let me have candy. And so I would sneak and ride my bike to a corner store that was about for four or five blocks away from my house and I would get candy and I would ride home. And my parents never found out that I did that. And I think when you hear that Trayvon died going to the corner store to get some Skittles and you think, 'Why him? Why not me?" Why Trayvon and not my child? My son, who could walk to the corner store because he also wants to get some candy. Why is that narrative of a black experience so vastly different? And the innocence of just being a kid and walking around and then how does one end up with a bullet in your body?

I think the very simple human fact that these stories can be so different. ...It's so unfair. and there's an outrage that I think that's really appropriate for us as human beings to have that it's not okay. It's not okay. So I think that that was a really emotional response. You want to rewrite history. You want to write the stories so that Trayvon is unconquerable and his spirit is bigger, that no man can define another person in such a small and narrow way. That he is self-defined. And "You Want to See My Teeth" is about that moment of conflict where someone is placing a limit on you. But it's not truth. It's not the real truth of who you are. And I don't think Trayvon was small. I think he is great and we narrow one another to much. We make each other too small.


On Using Music to Talk About Race

Music, we can access emotions. There's so many emotions to process through and that's why we need music so desperately as human beings. Music can... Literally, the sound itself goes into our bodies and changes us. There's a universality about the experience of being a musician. You play with another person, you're side-by-side with them, so you can have empathy in a way that if you never get to the opportunity of walking side by side or doing the same activity with a person who has a different experience than you in talking about race... If I'm playing with someone who's a different skin color, a different ethnicity, a different culture than I am, but I'm playing music with them, I'm going to experience my relationship to them shoulder to shoulder, side-by-side. And I think that that's a really incredible gift of music, to give us the experience of empathy.

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

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