Shara Nova has a new record — and a new name.
It was 2016 when the lead singer and songwriter for experimental indie rockers My Brightest Diamond decided to update her surname in an effort to start fresh.
“I got divorced after being married for my whole adult life,” Nova says. “In so doing, I felt that I had reached a new state, and I wanted a name which would reflect that internal shift. Going back to a family name didn’t feel right. The word ‘nova’ — ‘new’ — felt hopeful and transformative.”
Nova’s name isn’t the only thing that’s different these days, as My Brightest Diamond’s fifth record, A Million and One, is a notable departure from the group’s past efforts.
This time around, there’s a dash of disco, a flourish of electronic pulses that conjure both the primal joy of dance as well as the dark underpinnings of an artificial world. When the band performs at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop on Tuesday, Feb. 26, fans will hear songs that touch on everything from the murder of Trayvon Martin to the gentrification of Detroit — all processed through the potent lens of Nova’s operatic, frenzied vocals.
For Nova, the pivot to a new sound is a familiar recipe. My Brightest Diamond’s second album, 2008’s A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, introduced woodwinds to the fold, while 2011’s All Things Unwind found her moving to mostly acoustic arrangements. Then Nova got sick of being quiet, which inspired the marching band mentality at play on 2014’s This Is My Hand.
Thus, when it came time to begin work on A Million and One, she was eager to tweak her formula once again.
“With this album,” Nova explains, “I realized I sure had spent a lot of time thinking about bells and whistles, but I’d never really addressed song form. With almost all of my previous records, I would write maybe 15 songs max and then whittle that down to 11 or so. For this record, I started nearly 50 songs.”
Part of the reason for Nova’s seismic shift in output was simply the result of having more time. The 10 songs on A Million and One were created over the course of nearly two years — a luxury Nova had previously never enjoyed.
With newfound space to experiment and contemplate, Nova found her mind returning to the musical influences of Detroit. Her home for the past 10 years, it was the city that first shaped her sensibilities as a singer. While attending middle school and high school an hour west of Detroit, Nova would teach herself to croon by imitating artists like Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson.
“I was listening to these incredible singers on the radio, these Detroit artists,” Nova recalls, “but when I first started as a songwriter, I started wrestling with notions of appropriation.”
Fans of My Brightest Diamond may be surprised to learn Nova feared the possibility of being pegged as unoriginal, as her band’s work has consistently been praised for its willingness to exist untethered from ephemeral trends and trifles. However, having spent the past decade as a resident of Detroit, a variation on a theme emerged in her mind.
“Whether I wanted to acknowledge my role in it or not,” Nova says, “I have had to accept the responsibility of what being a part of gentrifying a place does to a city. I’ve now seen that not all boats rise when the water gets higher. I’m an outsider to Detroit. As much as I was deeply influenced by it, I’m not from there. I wasn’t born there, and yet, I owe a very great debt to the music of Detroit.”
A Million and One may not be an outright reckoning when it comes to Nova’s disquiet over the matter, but it does serve as a lattice upon which her infatuation with the sounds of Detroit — as well as her unease over her right to embrace them — can blossom in parallel. There’s a similar sentiment at work on “You Wanna See My Teeth,” a standout track on A Million and One that indirectly references the 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
“There are a couple of songs on this record that wrote themselves in five minutes,” Nova says. “That was one of them.”
She explains the intent of the song as her struggling to unpack the reasons we perceive one another in certain ways.
“I used to go to the candy store as a teenager because my parents wouldn’t let me eat candy,” she says. “I would sneak on my bike and ride to the store, but I got home safely. My parents never knew. Why did that happen to him and not to me? Trayvon could also be my son. I have an 8-year-old. We can’t escape the history of this country, and the racism that we are complicit in whether we know it or not. Over the last several years, I think I’ve realized just how much work we need to do to deconstruct our own assumptions about our roles in society.”
My Brightest Diamond, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m., at Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St. $18-$20, rickshawstop.com