Jenny Scheinman Reflects on Her Americana Influences
On her eighth album, The Littlest Prisoner (Sony Masterworks), violinist Jenny Scheinman features a different instrument: her voice. While it’s not the first time she has sung in the recording studio, the new disc—with its honest, keenly observed lyrics and Americana-influenced sound—is a major step in her development as an artist.
Scheinman, who frequently fares well in the Violin category in DownBeat polls, performed last year at Carnegie Hall with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Brian Blade, both of whom are featured on the new disc. (Scheinman has played on eight of Frisell’s albums since 2003.)
“We performed all of the music from the album after we had made it, and the band played so minimally yet evocatively,” Scheinman said during a recent phone interview. “It can really set such a deep, spiritual and emotional space for a lyric to come out.”
The performance of “Just A Child” on that night especially resonated. “There were moments where I was almost singing a cappella; it was so sparse,” Scheinman recalled. “I felt like people were listening to every word.”
References to “moonshine” and “cocaine” on the new disc may surprise some listeners, especially when they’re juxtaposed with lyrics that tackle some of Scheinman’s own familial experiences. But she balances such lyrical moments with wonderful restraint and musical control, allowing the witty, sardonic moments to strike a deeper chord.
Scheinman is currently working on Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a film set to premiere in March 2015 that combines live music with 1930s footage of people in North Carolina.
DownBeat caught up with the Scheinman to talk about the new album, and the craft of songwriting.
DownBeat: When did you start writing what would ultimately become The Littlest Prisoner?
Jenny Scheinman: Well, [the songs] were written over quite a long stretch of time. I think the first one might have been the second track on the album [“Run, Run, Run”] and that was written around the time I released my first singing album [2008’s Jenny Scheinman] and its tandem instrumental record [Crossing The Field]. I added a bunch of new touring to my life about the time those two albums came out. I had been almost exclusively performing and touring as a jazz player with Bill Frisell and Madeleine Peyroux.
And then there was probably that time about 10 years ago, when Norah Jones came to NYC and a lot of us were playing with her. When I became friends with Norah, that formed this really solid bridge between the worlds of jazz players and singers. I crossed over that with assurances from all of those people, including Norah, and made those first two singing records, including four originals and the rest are covers.
Around that time, I started writing more and I accumulated a bunch of songs. I’m very picky, so I have to write a lot of tunes before I feel really confident about an album’s worth. I probably wrote about 20 tunes that became The Littlest Prisoner.
A lot of them [grew] out of the influences that came into my life around then. I toured a lot with Rodney Crowell, who was born in Houston and is a legendary country and Americana singer; Bruce Cockburn, one of the great Canadian singers-songwriters; and a few other people like that. When you’re on the road learning somebody’s repertoire, playing with them and singing harmony with them, it’s such an education in songwriting. And it definitely brought up a lot of the [music] that I had grown up with.
That first singing album I made was a sort of personal research project into the formative songs of my childhood, a lot of which was folk music. And on top of that, I started writing material and was able to tour a lot and perform that set of 20 songs in front of audiences. I was opening for artists that were much more famous than me, so there were big audiences.
It’s so helpful to have a sounding board and have an audience to respond to these things in order to figure out who the people are in the songs, the characters, what jokes work, what songs are just a bummer and [which ones] are poignant—with a little silver lining of humor—so that they can be deep and entertaining, and hold people’s attention and imagination.
How do you think The Littlest Prisoner will be received by jazz fans?
When Sony put it out, I think that they wanted to represent it as an Americana album. Mostly due to my history and these all-star jazz players on the album, it has ended up often in the jazz bin. It wasn’t marketed that way by the label but they were kind of unable to keep it from going there.
Also, there’s a huge difference between music with words and music without words. Jazz has a whole group of brilliant jazz singers. But even within jazz, there’s a lot of musicians who are uncomfortable playing even with jazz singers … . There’s this feeling that when you’re playing a song with words, [there’s a feeling] of being controlled, that the words are saying something specific. And that the listener and the players are having to face that. There’s sort of no way around it. If you get around it, then the singer isn’t doing a good job. If you’re telling a story, you are the focus. You’re giving a speech and people should be listening to that.
Although the players may be the ones making it provocative or poignant or sad—for they may be truly interpreting the song and responsible for how successful it is—they are supportive; they’re underneath it. That has always been a problem for a lot of jazz musicians. As jazz musicians, we want to just take off, get on our rocket ship, go to outer space and be there with our friends [laughs]. We wanna really play.
What is this album that I made? Is it Americana? They’re relatively simple songs with a clear lyric and often [have] choruses and verses and plain language. I’m not scatting. That’s probably going to be off-putting to fans of mine who are expecting some sort of galactic liftoff, like I’ve delivered in Mischief & Mayhem  and on other instrumental records.
A lot of it has to do with words, and that’s just the human brain. Let’s say that you’re writing or working on something: It’s really hard to have Lucinda Williams singing brilliant lyrics in your ear. The whole presence of words, it’s kind of assaulting. So I understand when people are uncomfortable with going between those [aspects]. But I was an English major, and I was always interested in words.
I’m also interested in taking personal risks. I feel like I can find something if I take a risk. It has been both thrilling and terrifying to come out with some true stories and actually say something. As far out and seemingly risky as jazz is, it’s nothing compared to actually committing to a lyric—that experience of saying, “This is actually what I mean.” I’m not hiding behind a beautiful tone and a bunch of other musicians who are out there in space with me.
—Shannon J. Effinger