Jenny Scheinman: The Right Amount Of 'Mayhem'

Feb 25, 2012
Originally published on February 29, 2012 11:20 am

You may not know violinist Jenny Scheinman by name, but she's all over the place. She's backed Norah Jones, Rodney Crowell and Lucinda Williams, and written and performed string arrangements for Lou Reed and Metallica. The Village Voice called her Best Fiddler of 2011, and she was named the No. 1 Rising Star Violinist in DownBeat Magazine's critics poll.

Scheinman is also a composer — she wrote all the pieces on her upcoming album, Mischief & Mayhem. That's also the name of Scheinman's current backing ensemble, which includes bass player Todd Sickafoose, drummer Jim Black and guitarist Nels Cline (on loan from Wilco).

"The musicians in the band, and myself as a performer, love the risks of the unpredictable and the feeling of jumping off cliffs musically," Scheinman says. "The feeling of bonding as a band through taking risks together and hearing new sounds that we can make together — it's sort of a natural part of our musical personalities."

Here, Scheinman speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about the new album, growing up without electricity and making music with just the right amount of mayhem.

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Violinist Jenny Scheinman is one of those hardworking players you may not know by name, but she's all over the place - backing Norah Jones, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams. She wrote and performed string arrangements for Lou Reed and Metallica. The Village Voice called her best fiddler of 2011, and she was named number one rising star violinist in Downbeat magazine's critic's poll.

Jenny Scheinman is also a composer. She wrote all of the pieces on her upcoming CD, called "Mischief and Mayhem." The album begins with a tune she says is, quote, "a fantasy about driving down the California coastline with P.J. Harvey." It's called "A Ride with Polly Jean."


MARTIN: The track is a lyrical and playful groove, which may be the mischief referred to in the album title. But later on the CD, there is plenty of mayhem.


MARTIN: Mischief and Mayhem is also the name of Jenny Scheinman's band of innovative players. There's Wilco's guitarist Nels Cline, bass player Todd Sickafoose and drummer Jim Black. Jenny Scheinman joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program, Jenny.

JENNY SCHEINMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, as we just heard in those two music samples, there's a lot of range on this CD. How did you keep the balance between "Mischief & Mayhem?"

SCHEINMAN: The musicians in the band and myself as a performer love the risks of the unpredictable and the feeling of jumping off a cliffs musically, the feeling of bonding as a band, you know, through taking risks together and hearing new sounds that we can make together. And it's sort of a natural part of our musical personalities.

MARTIN: Tell us about the band. You have described them as a rock band without a singer.


SCHEINMAN: I didn't remember that. You know, these musicians have all had a lot of experience and spent a lot of their careers playing in rock bands or song bands - Nels Cline, through his participation in the rock band Wilco; Todd Sickafoose played with Ani DiFranco for many years, and as a producer, he's a wonderful producer; Jim Black also is one of the New York improvising drummers that has a million grooves under his belt.


MARTIN: You grew up in an isolated town in Northern California. From what I understand no electricity or phone. I imagine that may have been kind of a good setting to learn music - no distractions?

SCHEINMAN: Oh, there are a lot of distractions. There are a lot of ditches to dig while the rain was falling and washing out our road. There were a lot of chores. You know, when we finally did sort of get electricity, we were always fixing it. There's plenty of things to fix. But I think you're right. I mean, there weren't a lot of kids to play with. It's a naturally awesomely beautiful place, and I think that was very inspiring. Both my parents are musicians. My mom plays classical piano. My dad plays clarinet. And my parents are, you know, would be part of the back to the land movement, I suppose. They're from New York City. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, my mom grew up in Manhattan and they ended up going out to California - first to San Francisco and then going north to Homestead in the mountains of Humboldt County. In the summers in Northern California, when it doesn't rain - it doesn't rain for the entire summer ever - we would camp out on a part of our land. We would bring couches and set up a little sort of pipe from the creek and set up a sink. And we had a lot of big parties there with the community. And, you know, we were camping. We were sleeping outside with no roof over our head. And I did play a lot of violin during those summers because we did not haul the piano down.


MARTIN: In one interview that we read, you talked about how some classical players have come up to you for lessons and advice on how to "loosen up" - quote, unquote - their playing. What did you tell them? How do you get someone to inhabit their music that way, looser?

SCHEINMAN: I think I just tried to somehow totally bypass the fear that's ingrained in a player that has developed an identity and an approach and try to completely forget that. Try to also make improvisation seem easy. One of the things that helped me when I was first starting to improvise was that I played with a guitarist and we did everything in super-easy keys, you know. There's certain frames of reference that you can play within that makes things really easy on your fingers. You don't want to immediately start playing Charlie Parker. You don't want to immediately give a beginning improviser a bunch of theory to think about. You want to just play, you know, play a scale with a little pizzazz, play a scale with some rhythms, play along with records, play something that has an unexpected funny twist at the end, put a little slide at the end of it. Just sort of take the seriousness out of it because a classical player has tremendous chops, meaning, like, you know, their fingers can do anything. You know, if you're an adult professional classical player, you're probably far better than I am than just playing the violin. And I think just loosening up, it's more therapy than violin teaching.

MARTIN: Has it felt that way sometimes?

SCHEINMAN: Definitely, definitely.

MARTIN: You learn all kinds of things about people through how they play I imagine.

SCHEINMAN: Oh, definitely. And I've had many students break down and tell me about their first teacher or their mother that, you know, made them practice after school or the auditions that they lost or the things they didn't do. And, you know, after a bunch of a crying then we, you know, try and play a fiddle tune.


MARTIN: Jenny Scheinman joined us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Her new CD is called "Mischief & Mayhem." It can be preordered on her website, and it's released on March 6th. Jenny Scheinman, thanks so much for talking with us.

SCHEINMAN: Thank you.


MARTIN: You can hear songs from "Mischief & Mayhem" at




MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.