Jenny Scheinman relishes musical self-sufficiency

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Growing up in the westernmost house in the lower 48 sounds romantic, but it might not be quite as appealing when there’s a giant wall of water roaring in from Japan. Granted, on the day of the Sendai earthquake, Jenny Scheinman was safe in Brooklyn, where she now lives—but her mom was in Mendocino County, California, watching for waves.

“She’s at home alone, looking out the window at the ocean and writing revolutionary poetry, or something like that,” the violinist and singer explains. “She’s like, ”˜I’ve never written through such a tumultuous time, and the tsunami and the earthquake just fit into it.’ ”

In the end, the waves that struck land just below the Scheinman family home were less than two metres high—or “not enough for an overhead curl”, as the surf-savvy musician points out. And her own plans were only slightly impacted by the Japanese disaster: her mom had planned to head east to baby-sit Scheinman’s young son during rehearsals for this spring’s Bruce Cockburn tour, but Mendocino’s coastal roads were closed due to the tsunami alert.

She’ll figure something out, though. Judging by both her records and her résumé, Scheinman’s one of the most adaptable—and skilled—musicians working today.

As the child of hippie intellectuals, she soon learned the virtues of independent thought. That’s served her well in the Bay Area and Brooklyn avant-garde scenes, where she’s recorded and performed with innovators such as John Zorn, Bill Frisell, and Nels Cline while crafting five records of her own instrumental compositions. Unsurprisingly, folk music was also a part of her early environment, which presumably makes it easier to record with roots icons like Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, and Rodney Crowell. And when she started writing songs, having inherited her mom’s poetic inclinations surely didn’t hurt.

Early on, Scheinman kept these three strands distinct, but as she enters her 30s they’re growing ever more closely intertwined—especially on Cockburn’s tour, which comes to Vancouver next week. Having performed on the Ontario singer-guitarist’s just-released Small Source of Comfort, she’ll repeat that role on-stage, bringing her provocative yet unfailingly melodic approach to his chiming, intricate songs. But she’ll also open each show, singing her own material with no accompaniment other than her violin, octave violin, and octave mandolin.

“This was Bruce’s vision, although he said I could bring somebody if I wanted to,” Scheinman explains. “But it’s a relatively short opening set, 40 minutes or so, so I really took it as a challenge or an opportunity to be self-sufficient for a moment, musically. You know, I’ve played my whole life; I should be able to do that.”

It’s also an opportunity for her to showcase the tunes she’s readying for her second song-oriented CD. The most gripping number on her vocal debut, 2008’s Jenny Scheinman, was “The Green”, an eerie tale about the unsolved disappearance of her aunt, but most of the other tunes were culled from the likes of Williams, Tom Waits, and Mississippi John Hurt.

The next one, though, will be all her own—not that she plans to depart from the themes those writers, and others, have already explored.

“They’re songs about the things music is about,” Scheinman says, laughing. “Love and murder and travel and obsession. It just seems those topics fit with rhythm and melody.”

Jenny Scheinman opens for Bruce Cockburn at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts next Friday (March 25).

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