My Brightest Diamond

Saturday, Apr. 13, 7 p.m., $30–$55

Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh

My Brightest Diamond already had as many different ways of combining classical instruments and concepts in a rock context as it had albums. But the art-pop band found a way to radically depart from even that mercurial template with its most recent record, which probably would have earned more best-of-2018 accolades had it not come out in the awkward month of November. 

Like all of My Brightest Diamond’s music, A Million and One centers on the commanding voice and keen, venturesome compositions of Shara Nova, a multi-instrumentalist who considers the guitar her baseline, and who bounds lightly along the indie-academic divide. She’s currently engaged in a multi-year Mellon Foundation-funded residency at Carolina Performing Arts, which staged one of the few U.S. performances of her chamber opera You Us We All a few years ago, and where she’s working on something new that we should see next spring.

But instead of rock, the substrate of A Million and One is dance music. Lucid and otherworldly, it’s like a hazy glimpse into a parallel universe where Laurie Anderson is Robyn’s producer. With the new-music encrustations pared back and the populist pulse of dance music, it’s My Brightest Diamond’s most immediate, accessible record. 

“Certainly there’s a kind of stripped-down quality, and that was to see what it would do for the songwriting. I wanted to focus on song form and rhythm rather than how I was going to use orchestration to tell stories,” Nova says, driving down a Texas backroad with a skittish phone signal last week. 

Texas is where she’s from, but in recent years, she’s been living in Detroit, which is one reason dance music infiltrated A Million and One. After all, this is the city where techno was born, the foundation on which all the global bricks of electronic dance music were built. Nova singles out Carl Craig, the second-generation Detroit-techno genius, as a particular influence on songs like “Supernova,” a humming column of light and air that whispers of electronic dance music before bombastic EDM.

“It’s the way that Carl evolves music,” Nova says. “He does these very long crescendos and decrescendos when bringing in another part; he doesn’t do these hard drops.” 

The city infiltrated A Million and One in more idiosyncratic ways, too. Nova says “Rising Star” began when her eight-year-old son, a hockey player, asked her to write him a cool song. Given its characteristic hushed restraint, you’d never guess Nova was imagining a  pump-up anthem for the Detroit Red Wings in the four-on-the-floor style of “Seven Nation Army,” by Detroit legends The White Stripes. But once she tells you this, you can’t not hear it, like you’re listening to the roar of a crowded arena from the afterlife. 

The record plays with the pulse and thrust, the halt and release, of techno, but it isn’t really dance music. It’s flooded with rich, fine acoustic timbres and moored in ideas about the paradoxes of the individual and society, these opposite entities that are supposed to coexist—all of us part of the million, each of us the one. 

“In terms of the thematic material, the lyric material, the title is about this investigation of how we become individual,” Nova says. “How does one have autonomy and self-definition, face adversity, and relate to your neighbors, your community, the world?” 

To pry open this contradiction, especially on opening track “It’s Me on the Dance Floor,” Nova winds a high-tension spring between club music’s spirit of collective experience and her vocal presence’s numinous isolation. She transmutes hedonistic tropes into  vessels for something personal and cerebral, its threads teased out of the deepest fabric of her life story. 

Nova, a pastor’s daughter, says she wasn’t allowed to dance as a teenager. And as a young woman vying for respect as a composer but getting catcalled as a backup singer, she came to feel that she couldn’t allow herself something as deceptively frivolous as dance. For her, A Million and One is part of a process of self-reclamation that began on 2014 album This Is My Hand.

“I just stopped dancing and took dancing out of my work,” she says. “I felt that in order to be taken seriously, I had to lead with arrangement over dancing, and what that did to me was shut down my own relationship to the body. So this is the continuation of that exploration for myself. It’s not about dancing to hook up with somebody, it’s dancing to be connected to your own body.” 

On Saturday, My Brightest Diamond opens for Death Cab for Cutie at Red Hat Amphitheater, and you could be forgiven for murmuring “wha?” at the pairing. If there’s such a thing as major-label indie rock (there totally is), then Death Cab is one of its standard bearers. 

In contrast, My Brightest Diamond formerly recorded for Sufjan Stevens-affiliated indie Asthmatic Kitty, and released A Million and One on the smaller, woman-owned Rhyme & Reason Records; the band’s music defines the outer edge of any cosmos in which Death Cab is central. 

The connection is Zac Rae, Death Cab’s keyboardist, who has played on several My Brightest Diamond records. But it’s also Nova’s malleability, her capacity to traverse boundaries—between the indie touring circuit and academic halls, between pop music and art music, or between the self and the mass—as if they weren’t even there.

Correction: This article originally misstated the release date of A Million and One.