October 31, 2005

W.I.T. Series: Jenny Scheinman

Since the art of making it becomes a huge aspect of the making of art, TINSQUO has created an ongoing feature called "What It Takes." The W.I.T. interviews explore different artist’s applications of will in forging a successful artistic life in New York City and beyond.


Jenny Scheinman’s violin has played a dizzying dance of collaboration with with the current greats of New York’s Downtown New Jazz scene: from John Zorn to Norah Jones, she’s played her way into a rising reputation as a talent to watch.

Last month, in between her gigs with Jones, guitarist Bill Frisell and preparations for a mid-November tour with Madeleine Peyroux, Scheinman managed to squeeze in two mesmerizing cd release parties for her own new work, 12 Songs, one at Tonic (with a fifteen piece orchestra) and the other at the Jazz Standard (in duet with Frisell).

If you’ve never heard Jenny Scheinman’s nuanced and atmospheric compositions, they can provide surprisingly unnostalgic entrance to the raw character and sound of America’s past. Yet, hers are not the works of an artist longing for some yesteryear. They echo what is vital in this country’s Irish, Folk and Jewish fiddle traditions, stringing along lazy streams, pooling into the jazz manouche of San Francisco’s ‘90s Django Reinhardt revival and picking up speed along an underground current that wells up from the collective urban holler.

With six cds of her own work in just over as many years and a solid reputation as a great side person, TINSQUO wonders what it takes to maintain a music-only income while remaining one’s own producer and where Jenny hopes to go from here.

TINSQUO was introduced to the violinist under novel circumstances: hearing her sing a night of early 20th century folk compositions with some Willie Nelson mixed in during her monthlong vocalist debut at Ludlow St.’s acoustic enclave, The Living Room.

TINSQUO: Did stepping into the lead vocalist spotlight affect your ideas about how to “sing” with the violin?

SCHEINMAN: Singing made me want to look at the audience, made it really clear that I was saying something to them. Whereas back on the violin, I felt much farther away from everyone; I felt relatively alienated. I also remember at one moment being filled with hope that music can, in fact, bring people together and bringing that optimism back into my instrumental work is energizing.

Your question is interesting though - how did it feel to return to the violin after singing? At moments, it felt powerless. Even as a fledgling singer, I felt empowered singing into the mic. I felt like I could gather the energy in the room.

I'm amazed at the inherent emotional power of the human voice: when a singer takes the stage, she takes it with such power, such a different power than an instrumentalist.

Like so many other jazz musicians, I've been trying to find my way into that power as an instrumentalist. So, the singing project was more research into the boundaries that can or cannot be crossed - the similarities and differences that can or cannot be erased between a singer and an instrumentalist.

Naturally, I was terrified before my first gig as a singer but pushed myself to do it in order to see how it might affect and infect my violin playing.

TINSQUO: Are you a composer of habit or chaotic habit? When do you create your best work?

SCHEINMAN: Sometimes I'm able to just sit down and make myself write. For example, 12 Songs came out of an assignment to write twelve melodies a day. After two weeks, I had something good.

Then, there are the magic times of just hearing stuff on the subway and scrambling for a scrap of paper to write it down. The follow through is the key - whether that’s holding on to the scrap of paper or carefully looking through the piles of notes to find the real ones. I don't really do well under pressure - like if someone wants something for something, this is a kind of pressure that is not constructive to me.

TINSQUO: You've mentioned your “luck” at having been able to avoid the day job and your site's brief autobiography is compelling reading from the early years. What is the present process by which you engage the nuts and bolts of making a living as a musician?

SCHEINMAN: I still say, ‘yes,’ to almost everything. I'm pretty happy if I'm challenged by a situation. I can be playing music I don't even particularly like - music that I wouldn't want to listen to - and, if its difficult in some way, then I'm pretty happy. So, I'm versatile and flexible.

TINSQUO: Nuts and bolts?

SCHEINMAN: I answer the phone and say, ‘Yes,’ and even if its not a gig that blows my mind, it usually, eventually, leads to something and I always learn something.

TINSQUO: What do you wish someone had told you about this business when you
were 18?

SCHEINMAN: Right now, what I need to hear is that I don't need to please anyone in particular but I've got to go straight into what it is that I hear and find the power inside. We should have another interview in twenty years and I'll answer all the same questions again. I think I would answer this one with more perspective.

TINSQUO: One of the things you said at the Jazz Standard 12 Songs party stays in mind: “All of the labels I want to work with come to see me but they haven’t signed me.” Do you feel it is important to somehow define yourself beyond your music or have some clearer vision of who you are musically in order to get signed by a label?

SCHEINMAN: I don't know what you mean by define myself beyond my music. Maybe I'm too diverse? Maybe record companies can't figure out who I really am or maybe record companies (as everyone always says) are having a hard time and can't take anyone new on. [shrugs]

Hey, wanna be my manager?

I am ready for a [big] label. I don't hustle. I make my presence known through playing and do my small bit to send out email notices, make records, hire a publicist for a few months when my record comes out.

Four of my records have come out on labels: the first on Avant, the second and third on Tzadik and this last one on Cryptogramophone. These are all wonderful labels and I feel especially lucky to have been supported by them. The thing that these small labels just can't afford is tour support and large scale publicity campaigns - to not only make my record available to lots of people but make ME available to lots of people.

John Zorn (who runs Avant and Tzadik) is totally straightforward and with money, challenging and passionate. Though we sometimes disagree, he - for the most part - gave me the freedom to make the records that I wanted to make.

This is also true of Jeff Gauthier, the owner of Cryptogramophone. Like Zorn, he gave me nearly total artistic freedom, is passionate about the music on his label, is totally trustworthy with business stuff, returns calls, all the things that one could hope for in a small label. What has been exciting and new working with Cryptogramophone is that they put money into radio and press promotion and spend money to sell the record. They really helps get it out there which has been super encouraging not to mention fun.

TINSQUO: With the release of 12 Songs, where do you see yourself in your career arc?

SCHEINMAN: I don't know how to answer. I have been tremendously lucky so far and its hard to believe it could get any better since I'm doing what so many people would like to be doing - making money doing what I want, doing almost exactly what I want.

Bill Frisell is not only one of my main artistic inspirations but is a fair and generous employer. So, I've had enough relatively steady income to focus the little time I have left after work (being a side person) to compose and make records.

I can't tell the future. If you ask me to dream, I would say, ‘Yes, I'm still tremendously ambitious and want these things: a record deal that pays for the whole record, not just part of it, tour support, total artistic freedom; I want someone to make me a star; I want the challenge and the power; I want to do something really, really good and I want someone to ask me to do it and believe in me enough to push me that far.’

TINSQUO: On The Rabbi’s Lover, did John Zorn’s label, Tzadik, hear your work and offer you funding because of your own relationship to “radical Jewish culture?” Or was his project already slated for that topic when he called?

SCHEINMAN: He asked me to do it [after beginning the series]. It took a good five years before I could finally get my head around exactly how I could write something on assignment but... finally, I got it together, recorded the record. Ironically, when I gave it to him, he didn't think it sounded Jewish enough. So, he axed a few songs and re-ordered the [rest] to fit the program a little better.

TINSQUO: Is it different creating work for an externally funded project as opposed to a personally funded one?

SCHEINMAN: I always put tons of my own money into my records. I had more money to work with on 12 Songs but I still dumped about a third of my yearly income into it - all I could.

TINSQUO: So, the jury's still out on that question.

TINSQUO: In broad strokes across The Rabbi's Lover (‘02), Shalagaster(‘04) and Twelve Songs(‘05), are there any archetypal themes or personal motivations you recognize as your works progress?

SCHEINMAN: 12 Songs has the clearest agenda: to be perfectly honest about what I was hearing and not try to clever anything up for anyone. It was a turn away from the creative jazz, downtown music avant garde that I’d felt compelled to please in the former records.

I don't mean to dis this world - I totally admire the pushers of the envelope and the experimenters and the really smart people out there trying new and genius ideas but 12 Songs rebels against this. It is my own challenge to 'write dumb,' to write without desire for approval by the music elite.

The Rabbi's Lover and Shalagaster were more programatic. In The Rabbi's Lover, I was trying somehow, if only subconsciously, to do something Jewish. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly how Jewish I was. I feel much less Jewish now. [laughs] I'm kind of back to normal.

On Shalgaster, I thought a lot about Myra Melford [the "blackbelt piano player" with whom Jenny recorded the cd]. 12 Songs, I didn't really think about anyone.

TINSQUO: You’ve said you were very influenced by your copious transcriptions of Ornette Coleman compositions. Currently, do you consider yourself a perpetuator of the Free Jazz scene? Your ongoing series’ at Brooklyn’s Barbés and The Living Room feature such playful agendas and guest rotation, what are some thoughts on your live show philosophy?

SCHEINMAN: I am interested in band-audience communion. I am interested in finding the honesty of the moment. I am into exploring the many realms of possibility with performance. Basically though, I'm a very simple musician. I like vulnerability - exposing - I like taking risks in front of people. I like exploring varied emotions. I like the suspense of the unknown.

TINSQUO: How has your youth in such a free-spirited communal teaching and living situation equipped you to survive as a functioning artist?

SCHEINMAN: My parents taught me to live on very little. An essential lesson for an artist in our country these days. I realized pretty early on that, fortunately, the things that are most important to me don't cost much money. In terms of their free spiritedness? My mother and father are both far more wild than I will ever be. They outdo me and surprise me.

They are far more courageous, far more articulate, far more outrageous. Being one of their children is like being the child of a famous person. Granted, they aren't actually famous to many people but they have that kind of charisma and impact. So, anything I do seems flawed by comparison. The up side is that they validate the fringe, the dangerous, the ambitious, the impossible.

TINSQUO: I know your Dad visited recently, as folk musicians, are your parents supportive of the life you’ve made? How does a life on the road leave time for friends, love, family?

SCHEINMAN: They are supportive but they don't make much of a fuss about me. My mother always said that it was bad luck to brag about your kids – even praise them! So, I don't look for support there. Life on the road leaves me with very little desire to travel, which is what I need to do to see family. So, yes, it is hard to keep in touch with everyone.

TINSQUO: Is there anything that would make you quit or has threatened to do so?

SCHEINMAN: Babies. This is the big challenge for women. How to have kids and continue with a career. What else? I love traveling; I love the bond with the band on the road; I love making records; I love performing. It keeps me alive and vital.

I was once an English major and was - unsuccessfully - persuaded to go to graduate school, since I, apparently, showed talent. Anyway, I didn't and, instead, have continued down this road. What I do miss about that is THINKING. My brain is so vacant so often. It takes tremendous discipline for me to stay intellectually stimulated as a musician.

There is not a challenging community of thinkers constantly around - that is not our job. Musicians are very good at making each other feel good - getting the vibe just right so that even complete strangers can feel comfortable with each other, enough to do radically intimate things - improvise together in front of an audience!

Yet the real challenges of the mind, that I miss. Of course, that is my fault. It’s the challenge of being an adult.

TINSQUO: What is it like to see the mediated image of yourself beamed back at you?

SCHEINMAN: I have, only recently, been able to tolerate the image of myself beamed back at me. I'm actually quite a shy and modest person - not a good thing as a performer.

I couldn't talk for three days after first seeing a poster with my photo on it – and it was even a good photo! This was five years ago and now I'm much more chill about these things.

Recently, I've actually gotten into the art of portraiture and have done a bit of research. I'm trying to get a good one, working with various photographers....

TINSQUO: What lessons do you take about fame and the "business side" of music from your insider proximity to the rise and ongoing celebrity of friends and colleagues like John Zorn, Norah Jones and Bill Frisell?

SCHEINMAN: Both Norah and Bill are tremendously talented and do something no one else does. Also, they have been very lucky and gotten lots of help with their careers at key moments. Though they make good decisions, I wouldn't characterize either of them as ambitious or strongly desiring of fame.

Zorn is a famous eccentric and a spectacular business man - a tremendously energetic person. He is very organized, very calculated and has built an empire stone by stone.

Its funny. Now I'm answering this question from the road with Madeleine Peyroux who is having tremendous success. We just played the Olympia in Paris which seats maybe 3000 and it’s been sold out [for these dates] since June. Once again, she's had lots of help and has a unique gift. I hope I can find a manager to help transmit what I do to a larger audience and I hope someday to be able to pay my musicians really well.

Currently touring Europe and South America with Madeleine Peyroux and Bill Frisell, alternately - see Jenny’s Nov. calendar if you’re traveling - Ms. Scheinman will return to her local haunts sometime in early 2006. Meanwhile, check out her cds. 12 Songs is a beautiful work, resonant of Thanksgiving.

Posted by janna at 01:02 PM | Comments (1)

August 23, 2005

W.I.T. Series: Gina DeMayo

Since the art of making it becomes a huge aspect of the making of art, TINSQUO has created an ongoing feature called What It Takes or W.I.T., for short. These interviews explore the application of Will from myriad angles pertaining to artistic life and success in New York City.


On the occasion of her Thriftshop Theater Workshop’s first show funded by an outside source, we meet the company’s cofounder, Gina DeMayo.

Three years and five shows into life beyond college, things are going full steam for the actor turned producer. With an August double bill of “Twelfth Night” and “Hamlet,” quickly followed by Sam Shepard’s “A Lie Of The Mind” in October, the company formed by two women fed up with auditioning 578th for unpaid children’s theater in Jersey are on a non-stop drive towards Destiny.

On an Avenue A rooftop in Manhattan’s East Village, Gina gives us her angle on what it takes to build a theater company in New York.

So, how did it come about that your upcoming DUMBO Shakespeare production is receiving this magical funding?

Someone from the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy came to see our last run of “Twelfth Night” through a contact of our director, Nina Pinchin, and we were promptly invited to add some live theater to their calendar. Just like that. They have a fairly new arts program out under the Brooklyn Bridge.

This is also Thriftshop Theatre Workshop’s first outdoor event. What has planning for that been like?

Well, we go out there to investigate a couple of weeks ago [around July 6th] and I’m expecting a tent, ya know? Maybe a couple of chairs. I’m thinking, ‘Well, if it rains, not everybody will come...I can live with that.’

BUT when we arrived at the park, which is right in between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges on the East River, we found a gorgeous space called the Old Tobacco Warehouse. It’s brick, all brick, a shell about 120 ft. in length and 60 ft. in depth and FILLED with this white, glorious tent which rents for $7K per night if you’re having a private function!

So, the park is supplying everything that we need: the space, the chairs, the sound system...rehersal space. All of which totals around $8,000. Now, we’re not being paid but, then, we are because we're getting to work.

Is that the most money you’ve ever been supplied for one of your shows to date?

That is a TON of money. Yes! I mean, we never have much money in the bank but at Thriftshop, we would never even think of spending more than, say, $5,000 on a production. And that includes rehearsal, rent, rights for theater material, costumes, props, set....that adds up quickly. But $8,000... that we didn’t have to raise ourselves?! That is a TON of money and we are so grateful.

Let’s talk about money and a fledgling New York theater company for a minute. How have you financed the four productions that came before this?

For starters, we are members of The Field, a non-profit art sponsorship program. Through them, we have access to non-profit status.

So, we have patrons and do fundraisers. We’ve done fundraising letters and offered our patrons a tax deduction for their donation. They actually donate to The Field, which takes eight percent, then, we get the rest.

For direct fundraising, we’ve done a lot of bingo and Halloween costume parties. We did a Mr. Manhattan contest last spring. We have a very strong support system of friends and the men among them competed for a title and a crown. They wore boxer shorts and displayed a talent.

We’re always trying to think of creative things. Next is a cabaret, hopefully.

So, you’re always staging productions in order to stage your productions. Is that how it works?

Exactly. I mean, we were in the process of planning our Mr. Manhattan fundraiser last April while we were in the middle of staging our run of “Eastern Standard.” So, we were so stressed out.

With the “Hamlet” we are doing in Brooklyn Bridge Park. We hope to move it into the city and do a fundraiser where we’re actually performing theater.

We’re trying to do staged readings instead of party fundraisers. Then, we get something out of it and if people who come to support you can leave with something, it’s a lot more worth it.

But, in the beginning, it’s kind of ‘anything you can come up with.’

Is one of your ambitions to recruit an in-house fundraiser?

Well, I think what we are hoping is to become non-profit ourselves. But, you know, that’s a lot of legal paperwork. Also, I found that you need to be established for a couple of years and build up a portfolio before you can apply.

But that’s what I’m looking at now. So we’ll be tax deductible for any sorts of goods we need and, of course, for patrons as well. That eight percent, obviously, makes a huge difference.

Just to get an encapsulated view of what a given production encompasses from beginning to end, with this current double bill of “Twelfth Night/Hamlet,” can you give us a rough timeline for its development?

We started doing some meetings about it at the end of May. We had, literally, just gotten finished with “Twelfth Night,” and were planning to take a break, during which time Katie got married. So, our next production was her wedding out on Lake Tahoe.

But the BBPC wanted two productions and between Katie’s wedding and our Fall staging of “Lie Of The Mind,” that seemed difficult.

Then, Kevin Connell (a Marymount professor just out from California) suggested an adaptation of “Hamlet” that he had just completed to our director, Nina. So, suddenly, in early June, an ideally edited tragedy was offered to go with our comedy.

I got that script in hand around July 12th. Our park meeting kept getting pushed back and we hadn’t actually been able to get in to see the fabulous space until the day before our director left for Greece. So, the redesigns for our use of the set pieces and the revisions of the new version of “Hamlet” all happened amidst weddings and vacations.

That same week, I started calling cast members to insure their commitment and give them the scheduling info. One of them, Luke Hancock, was surprised coming home from vacation to get a message on his answering machine, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re adding “Hamlet” to the bill.’ Between the two shows, he will play five parts in the course of one afternoon, including the dual role of Sir Toby/Sir Andrew via the Sir Andrew puppet in “Twelfth Night.”

As of today, July 20th, I think the last person officially found out that we’re adding Hamlet to our initial plan.

Then, there are directorial script revisions. It is “Hamlet” but Nina felt like it was a lot of “Hamlet” and the women were missing some of their arcs. So, now we’ve got revised scripts out and we start rehearsals Monday, July 25th, for an opening a month later, nearly to the day, on August 27th.

We’re finding the time for ten, unpaid people to rehearse together to put this new “Hamlet” up in time. Naturally, they all have jobs and lives. I mean, it’s like sticking needles in your eyes.

From here on out, we rehearse “Hamlet” Monday-day, Tuesday-night, Wednesday-day and, then, work the “Twelfth Night” on Thursdays and Fridays. Which wouldn’t be so bad but we are bringing in two new cast members for this “Twelfth Night” that don’t know it. So, that’ll be a little bit of a test. It’s always a new experience.

Was the choice to have Luke Hancock play both of those roles in “Twelfth Night” one born of necessity?

Oh, absolutely. Fortunately, our director, Nina, had done a lot with puppets and masks, lots of those Commedia dell’Arte elements. After we’d lost a cast member due to scheduling, she said, ‘There is a way for us to make Sir Andrew a puppet as a theme stemming from the puppet show at the outset of the play.’

It’s a lot of work for Luke. But Luke has done a lot of improv and is a really hard working guy. He always says, ‘Yes.’ That’s the huge thing about him. He is always a breath of fresh air and ready to take on the challenge. I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about him.

Has there been a good response to having made that decision?

A wonderful response to having made that decision! It turns out to be delightful and really plays in to all the themes of the play. “Twelfth Night” was the courtly festival where all the guests take turns changing into one another’s attire, basically. So, with women and men dressing in reverse at this traditional festival, that’s where Viola’s romantic predicament and the story of Shakespeare’s play evolve from.

Using Sir Andrew, the puppet, was also in keeping with the playful theme of the festival’s tone and I feel it brought people out - and may do so again - who might not normally see Shakespeare. Sir Andrew just takes it to another place.

Is the Thriftshop aesthetic going to result in any new twists to the staging and presentation of “Hamlet?”

Well, I think there’ll be more puppets for sure [laughter]...in the form of ghosts. But we’ll just have to wait and see what we don’t get, basically. You know, then we’ll figure out what we can make it into.

We start off with a very clear process in mind and then it changes and molds into something completely different. Those surprises are not just for the public; they’re surprises to me, too.

How did all of this begin? Why did you form Thriftshop Theatre Workshop?

Katie Sweeney and I were colleagues during college at Marymount. One day in 2002, we found each other at the same audition for a children’s theater in New Jersey. The production was for no pay; the audition was unorganized, taking forever. We arrived that the posted 11a.m. call-time and were told, ‘We probably won’t even see you today but have a seat.’

We were really frustrated doing shows like “Pippy Longstocking” and saying to each other, ‘Why are we here for this? It’s a project we don’t even care about. It has no real artistic inspiration.’

At that moment, we quit.

We said, ‘We’re going to change things for ourselves. Even if we showcase our work ourselves and nobody comes. At least we’ll be working in a healthy environment.’ So, that was about three years ago.

Many of the artists you went to college with are in the company. How did you build from these earnest beginnings?

We wanted to form a group of fresh, well trained artists who use creativity and drive to support their work in inventive ways. The whole idea of Thriftshop is to use what we have and working with a lot of the people we went to school with, we found, really met those criteria.

We actually have grown though. Katie and I are always finding people - mostly at our day jobs - who are in our same boat, that we relate to and trust.

It’s hard to be in theater productions, especially traveling companies, with people that you don’t trust, who aren’t organized and whose work you can’t respect. So, we thought that, coming from the same background, we had a better chance to survive working together.

But, that said, I’m always looking for people I can help or people from other circles to come into the company because another set of eyes or ears helps make it a different experience each time.

Your sets and props are often very simple, yet they do the job very creatively. How is that philosophy being applied to “Twelfth Night/Hamlet?”

For this piece, we’ve designed a cabaret style show all sitting in a semi-circle around the stage. We work very minimally with no waste involved. But we do have the best costumes ever for this production.

One of the shows that we did required us to break two chairs during every performance. So, because we did ten performances, we needed twenty chairs, okay? This is a test of the two of us and if I didn’t work with Katie, I don’t know who I’d work with.

We got wood glue and bargained for about six chairs at the Salvation Army that we would wood glue back together at the end of each night’s show.

Sometimes, we’d go have a beer and come back to get it done. Oh, in that show, we had to cut a fish, serve a turkey every night. The clean up after... we wouldn’t get out of there until two or three in the morning!

So, you barter, you bargain, you try to make every show as minimal as possible. But, in the end, you do what’s required. Don’t even get me started on the story of the Amish Market on 9th Ave. delivering us cooked turkeys every night!

So this begs the question, how does your life as an actor and your development as an artist find its place - just the development of a single role inside a play - amidst all of these other chair gluing, turkey baking, casting, rights granting, producing credentials?

I don’t know. Looking at it, I always feel that wish: ‘If I could have more time...’ But with all I do, I feel it’s made my drive so much stronger because I work so hard to make it happen that when I’m in rehearsal, I am incredibly focussed. I can see exactly what the character wants because I’ve struggled with life more just to make that chance happen.

We always have a rule that, when Katie and I are about to go into rehearsal, we don’t talk about production stuff until after rehearsal is over. Because we need that time as artists not to have to worry about, ‘Who’s paying for that curtain and is it flame proof? Who’s sewing it and who’s picking it up?’ So, we’ve gotten pretty good at that.

Can you imagine a life where you’re “just an actor” again?

Well, I didn’t think, when I went to college, that I would ever be doing the things that I am doing in order to act and I’m really happy about it.

I did recently do a reading where I was just an actor and I thought, ‘Wow. This is kind of nice. It’s so easy. You just show up.’ But I still found myself saying, ‘Do you guys need any help. Are you okay?’

I love to act and that’s why I produce, so that I can work, but I find much fulfillment in the producing end as well. So, to do it all, I would be verrrry happy.

Posted by janna at 03:50 AM