When Shara Nova laughs, it’s like a break in storm clouds. You can feel warm sunlight flooding over everything in the general vicinity, vanquishing shadows and chasing away lingering chill. You can hear the classical training in her laughter, hints of the powerful mezzo-soprano that rises light yet powerful — like fog on the Swiss Plateau — from her diaphragm on stage with her baroque-pop project My Brightest Diamond.
You can hear motherhood in her laughter, the gentle way she must coo and chuckle with her 8-year-old son over vegetables in the garden of their home in Detroit.
But there’s another kind of love that surfaces in her laughter when I ask what prompted her to create a playlist of love songs recently on Spotify.
Her blushing is almost audible through a mischievous laugh.
“I fell in love,” she admits, drawing out the ‘o,’ only half bashful.
It’s a big deal for Nova, who ended a 22-year marriage in 2016. Not quite ready to talk about new love yet, we gently pivot to talk about the love song “Another Chance” off her 2018 release A Million and One.
Everywhere I’ve been has got me right here now/ I have no regrets/ Every love I had, I bless you, thanks/ I don’t take it back.
“A friend of mine pointed out, ‘This is so vulnerable,’” Nova says of the song. “I was like, ‘Really?’ My friend said, ‘Yeah, because you’re basically admitting things that you did that you don’t want to do again.’ Even though I have no regrets, I’m sure as hell gonna be different next time.”
A Million and One is evidence of Nova’s commitment to metamorphosis. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist who studied opera in college, Nova has always placed her focus on lush orchestration. But with A Million and One she was ready to strip away some of the accoutrements. The result is My Brightest Diamond’s rawest album to date, and surely its most danceable, with carefully placed synths and indie club-ready beats punctuating the 10-track collection.
Nova (a surname the singer chose for herself after her divorce — Latin for “new”) has always been quick to acclimate to new situations. She moved around a lot growing up, her father a music minister in the Pentecostal church. Nova had lived in nine states by the time she was in high school.
If it was tough, Nova doesn’t let on.
“I had to adapt quickly and assimilate myself, so I feel at home in the world,” she says. “I feel at home, deeply at home, in many places.”
She is protective of her childhood, careful when discussing the influence religion had on her life and music.
“We were in a Pentecostal church, so there was trance, there was ritual, there were the kind of things that now the white American church has pretty much purged itself of and become very left brain,” she says. “There would be trance and you don’t really hear that anymore. When I began to travel the world, people would make fun of people speaking in tongues — but I fell over too. You know what I mean? So I had personal experiences that were significant to me, and I think what that does is it makes me long for that kind of shift into the unconscious or shift into the altered state of mind which happens when I’m songwriting. I go into an altered state. It is like a trance. You’re in another way of listening to whatever it is that you’re tapping into — the field of whispers.”
Nova laughs, then pauses.
“I’m sorry,” she says finally. “It’s a very hard question and something I never talk about because it’s tremendously difficult to talk about the effect of the church. It’s an enormous subject and one that is so important that I don’t talk about it. People try to co-opt you and I say fuck that. People wanna know if they need to burn your records or not. And hey, I grew up like that too. I mean my family didn’t, but I grew up in a church culture where they would have record burnings.”
As a young girl, Nova wasn’t allowed to go to school dances, so she would sneak off to homecoming and other similar events of youth culture in America. At 19, away at college, she began to sing in a funk band and soon found a new kind of release in dancing on stage. But a catcaller quickly put an end to Nova’s freedom on stage.
“Some women feel empowered by that — I felt completely disempowered,” she says. “I made a decision from that night forward there was not going to be dancing in my music. I was going to be taken seriously as an intelligent person. You see all of this defensiveness, this intellectual display, and I think you hear that in the music as over-efforting. Now I can look back and hear that as over-efforting.”
A Million and One kicks off with a song called “Me On The Dance Floor,” a salute to the bodily autonomy Nova has found in recent years.
I was looking for someone who might see me/ And I might see too/ Maybe that is you/ Maybe it’s me/ It’s me I’m looking for/ It’s me on the dance floor.
“You come to a point where you don’t have to show off,” Nova says of her music. “Vulnerability is OK. You can be powerful and vulnerable. … Why did I let that one person who whistled at me or the hundred men who thought I was stupid at the Guitar Center dictate this about my life?”
She laughs, and the clouds break open again.
ON THE BILL: My Brightest Diamond — with Wes Watkins. 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, 1215 20th St., Denver. Tickets are $15-35, opheliasdenver.com.