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Jenny Scheinman: Some Serious Mischief

By Published: February 27, 2012
AAJ: Coming back to Mischief and Mayhem, one of the standout tracks is "Devil's Ink," which is a very interesting, edgy composition. Could you tell us about this track?

JS: One of the things I do as a sort of relaxing technique is, I write 12-tone rows. I have reams of them. Its part of my workaholic problem, which means my relaxing always involves something productive. Also, I find 12-tone rows relaxing to listen to. A 12-tone row is all 12 notes in an un-repeating sequence, so you end up playing all 12 notes without going back to any of them. It was something [Arnold] Schoenberg pioneered and talked about a lot. It ends up very often not sounding based on any chord or not based on folk music; it's slightly beyond that. I find that if I sit down and write 20 of them, I begin to recognize my own rhythmic and melodic patterns. "Devil's Ink" is basically three 12-tone rows, with a little bit of stuff in between. There are parts of "Devil's Ink" that are really peaceful, and then it kind of ramps up at the end. I added a groovy bass line for the last part of it so it rocks. I really like playing that piece, and it was mysterious enough to me that we kept playing it for a while.

AAJ: The last two minutes rock like King Crimson. Was that a band you listened to?

JS: Yeah, I have listened to them a bunch. I never quite know where the influences are coming from. They might come from all the bad radio I've listened to or all the good radio. Your guess is as good as mine as to what actually made it into my subconscious and what might pop out in a decent tune.

AAJ: Another great track is "The Audit," which is gently hypnotic and very lyrical. This might work very well in one of your solo performances.

JS: That's a good idea. It's actually a song that can be played all on violin; almost all of those notes can fit on the fiddle. It's a restful oasis in the middle of the record. Believe it or not, it actually almost didn't make the record. I'm crazy about sequencing, and we couldn't find exactly how it functioned in the record. Now I really like it as a sort of a pause in the middle of the record.

AAJ: Could you talk a little about your solo concerts, please? If someone comes to see Jenny Scheinman solo what can they expect?

JS: I did that all last summer, opening for [singer/songwriter] Bruce Cockburn, with whom I was also playing. I would mix in several instrumental songs and then do a lot of singing. I would strum the violin to accompany myself as I sang, which is something I do a lot around the house. I had a whole collection of new songs that I was doing a lot, which are going to be on my next vocal record. I did a few from my last vocal record, and there were some instrumentals. If it's just me, I can play anything I know, so it was really flexible, but there ended up being a core group of songs that worked really well. I play something like "Sand Dipper," something which has a melody but which is compelling without a big, interactive band. I might play a fiddle tune or something that is not actually a fiddle tune but which has enough bones in the melody. I was playing a lot on octave violin, which is a cool instrument; it's an octave lower than violin, and it just adds a nice texture.

When I was putting together that show, I was terrified because I'd always played with other people. I haven't turned into a diva, for better or for worse, so I'm not compelled to go out there naked. I'm always playing with other people, and I'm really fascinated by the interaction between players and the chemistry of a band. But I thought it was really important for me to do a solo show to see what was there. What some people often do is to find some artificial way of creating a band, with backing tracks in pop or loops. I have nothing against loops, obviously, because I love Nels [Cline] and Bill Frisell, but those guys are really pros, and that's part of their instrument. I considered cramming and learning how to do loops and doing something like multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird does, or singer/guitarist Juana Molina. Now there are lots of people who use loops as a way of providing more environment and more texture.

But I decided not to do that. I did exactly the opposite; I went out there super naked. I went out there with my voice and my violin, plucked or bowed, and an octave violin, plucked or bowed, and that was it. It ended up focusing me and the audience on the content of the songs, and I think it was a pretty powerful show, to be honest. It's a hard thing to do for two hours. Those weren't long shows; they were 45-minute shows. I think I could do an hour and a half, or an hour and 15, but the length is challenging. I think the shows were pretty compelling, because as terrified as I felt before I started them, I think it turned into a kind of vulnerable thrill, from the audience's perspective.

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