It's great to have a conversation with a musician like violinist and vocalist Jenny Scheinman. It's hard not to with someone who refers to playing a week of shows at the Village Vanguard as "heaven." That's Jenny's spirit: she loves to play, she has more ideas for records than she has time to make, she needs change and challenge to thrive, and she absolutely loves the musicians she collaborates with.
Her latest is Mischief & Mayhem, with her group that goes by the same name -- Nels Cline on guitar, Todd Sickafoose on bass, and Jim Black on drums. Each of these musicians have earned their respective accolades in the music world, and when they come together, it's big: they have an undeniable chemistry. Their namesake perfectly describes the playfulness and teetering-on-the-edge way they play together. Jenny explains how this is the closest thing she's had to a rock group. You hear that electricity come across on the record. But alongside all the explosive moments, the band knows how to let the music breathe, take turns delicately and remain super melodic. And above all, you can hear how spirited this group is: you can hear the ambushing, the inside jokes, and the love they have for one another.
We also got into it about how she's at a jumping off point in her career as a bandleader, how motherhood has affected her musicianship, and what she has planned down the road with the singing side of her music.
* * *
Congratulations on the record -- I think it's fantastic. I love the way this group sounds together. What are some of your thoughts on this Mischief & Mayhem group?
What can I say about the group? We just had a certain chemistry from day one, or two minutes into the first gig. It was all I had in my head plus a lot more surprises and a lot more energy. It's fun and rambunctious and exuberant and very collaborative. It's one of the groups that I have that feels like a band, instead of a collection of players that are together for a few gigs. There's a feeling of... maybe it's the closest I've gotten to having a little rock band. That feeling of commitment and excitement for a certain sound, not just the sound of my composition or my sound as an artist, but the sound of the band. There's something that happens with these voices; there's something in the chemistry when we all play together that's exciting, fun and special.
We've actually been together for a while -- it took a while to get that record out. It gave us time to refine the material, and I had a little bit of time to write material specifically for the group. We got to play those two weeks, in consecutive years at the Village Vanguard, plus a couple of tours... I don't know, I guess its formed an identity -- that sound that you hear on the record and that you hear live is more extroverted, but still a song-oriented experience.
How does the writing process differ for this group?
I write everything and the charts are simple. I'm not controlling what people are playing, but I do have the final say in the arrangements. But it is collaborative. For instance, Nels will suggest, "Why don't I play this one on electric 12-string?" You know, it's not the feeling of a musician waiting for instruction at all. It more about trying to find the sound that this band makes when it plays it. [laughs] That's just the way the musicians I play with are, and that's what I mean by saying collaborative. It's that we've toured, and people are coming up with their own parts. And not in the way of changing the melody, but adding the parts that make it sound like a band. Similar to the way a band like Wilco is collaborative. Jeff [Tweedy] writes most of the music, but basically it's the sound of those players rehearsing in a room and gigging a ton and making it sound special rather than the musicians playing the music.
Yeah and you can hear that on your record. You hear each musician's voice.
Well, not everyone has heard it yet, so it's interesting with doing these interviews because I'm hearing the first responses to it.
So far, so good [laughs]. One of the songs is called "Blues for the Double Vee" which is about the Village Vanguard...
I wrote a lot of that music about three days before we played the Vanguard. I just took a weekend, got a babysitter, and wrote music. We were heading towards that room, which was a pretty mischievous thing to book. I'll give Lorraine Gordon [Village Vanguard owner] a lot of credit for that -- because it's a band that's built for a bigger stage and sort of a bigger environment. It's more rocking drums, static and guitar chaos -- stuff that usually doesn't exist within the walls of the Vanguard. One of the things that's lovely about that band is that people can adapt to the room, and we can still create that intense, the walls-are-slightly-caving-in feeling in a small room or in a big room. And the Vanguard can take so much abuse; the acoustics in that place are so amazing, it's like a natural compressor. You can really wail and crash and it sounds really powerful, but it never hurts in there.
But that song "Blues for the Double Vee," I guess the title, has that comic twist that the whole band has -- they're funny people. That rocking element, I don't think is ever angst-y or sincerely serious. I think there's a lot of ambushing going on, and surprises and girl-energy in it. Anyways, that's why it's called "Double Vee," as in some old ranch or something. I grew on up on "The Big Zero" which is ranch out in California.
The song itself, in terms of the composition, is connected to a lot of the history of two specific players that have made a huge mark on the Vanguard, which are Thelonious Monk and Paul Motian. Paul Motian is sort-of a defendant of Thenonious Monk in a way or somebody who studied and loved his music more than almost anyone. If you were to get into the nitty-gritty of the musical part of that, it's this sort of intervallic obsession and deep blues. Basically it's sort-of a blues, and this really simple, but obsessive focus on a motif, that Monk does so much. And also, a melody that carries the tunes, rather than a bunch of chords with the melody laid on top. The tune is in the melody.
Well, also, a lot of times you've played together in this band has been in that room.
We've played a lot of other rooms, but we did do two weeks there, so that was formative. And I think the record was done two days after that first week we played there.
So, you went into the session hot?
We did go in hot, which is challenging. It's hard to go from a super-amped up room filled with cheering people that are feeding you energy, and a great sounding room where you're stepping on the bass players cord and bumping into the cymbals, to being in the much more sterile environment of a studio. I have a tiny little instrument that has to be in an isolation booth and we all have to be separated. It was a great studio, Brooklyn Recording. But it's still not the Vanguard; one the best rooms in the world. So that was challenging. We had to figure out the feeling of the band without creating fifty minutes of chaos and how to keep it up through multiple takes, which there weren't too many of -- we actually didn't record for that long, but it was about keeping focus.