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Jenny Scheinman Reaches Out To Her Father In Song

Jenny Scheinman made her name in the New York City jazz scene, but she grew up on a bluff in Northern California's Humboldt County, where she now lives again. (Courtesy of the artist)

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY SCHEINMAN SONG)

JENNY SCHEINMAN: (Singing) When you going to pack your suitcase and run - run, run, run, run away from me?

BLOCK: Jenny Scheinman spent years not being the voice out front. She made her name playing jazz violin, but now she's out with a vocal album - all songs she wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY SCHEINMAN SONG)

SCHEINMAN: (Singing) What are you going to tell your mother when you get home? Standing in the doorway kind of slumped against the frame. She will look up from the table. Will she laugh or will she cry? There's always time to reckon in the sky by and by.

BLOCK: Jenny Scheinman likes to say she grew up in the westernmost house in the continental United States - a rural homestead up on a bluff in far Northern California - Humboldt County, out among the redwoods. Summers then would be spent camping out with her family, making music all night around the campfire with folks from the community. Jenny Scheinman has moved back to that area now, after many years in New York. I asked her to describe the homestead where she grew up.

SCHEINMAN: It was about a 300-acre, North-facing hillside, covered in coyote brush - very, very windy. And now it's sort of a falling down, dilapidating wooden house with an astoundingly beautiful view, when it's not fogged in, of the Pacific Ocean.

BLOCK: And what was life for you like there, growing up?

SCHEINMAN: Oh, there were - you know, we were very isolated in many ways - no electricity. You know, going to the bathroom in a hole in the field and a lot of chores that come with homesteading, like ditching the road, fixing the water, feeding the animals. You know, we were sort of feral, I guess. As children, we were helping her parents a lot but, you know, after school was out we were just sort of up on the hill. We also had a Steinway in there that my mom inherited from her mother. She grew up in Manhattan. My dad always played guitar at all the parties and taught music to the kids and - so in the middle of all this, there was a lot of music.

BLOCK: Why did your parents move out to Northern California in the first place?

SCHEINMAN: They're hippies. I mean, they're not exactly hippies. My dad's a doctor. They didn't do a lot of drugs, and they didn't really drop out. But they had this vision of community and a way of living that was an alternate to the ambitious, anxious-ridden New York, East Coast scene. They wanted to be around animals and dirt and all this stuff. You know, they were part of that movement of urban kids in the late '60s and early '70s heading for the hills - the back-to-the-land movement. or as my dad wrote in his satire of that movement, the backwards-to-the-land-ers.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, you have a song on the new album that sounds like it's very much about that place - about that part of Northern California where you grew up, "Just A Child."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A CHILD")

SCHEINMAN: (Singing) Way out West there is a place where nothing changes. If you're born there you will always be a child. Just veer off the highway 40 miles from Ferndale, a long and winding road will take you there.

BLOCK: How much autobiography is in this song?

SCHEINMAN: That song really was a gift. I dreamt it. And in that way, it is totally honest and does come out of my childhood and is very autobiographical. I wrote it after I had been on a long camping trip with my father. I think it's a song about father figures and what it was like to grow up. Most of it is language about my childhood - the landscape and what it was like to grow up sort of feral and unsupervised in many ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A CHILD")

SCHEINMAN: (Singing) See the cherry blossoms drifting down the valley, like a snowstorm in the middle of the spring. Every day emerges from the ashes of the past that's disappearing as we sing, sing and sing - of the past that's disappearing as we sing.

BLOCK: You know, it sounds so idyllic, the way you're describing it. But I wonder - as a kid, as you were getting older - if you dreamed of getting out of the country - going to a city - making your name in music.

SCHEINMAN: Yeah, it's an interesting question. It was actually quite chaotic. And, you know, there were the same dysfunctions that so many families have. My parents were continually splitting up for the first 10 years of my life, and then they did split up. And music was a peaceful place for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A CHILD")

SCHEINMAN: (Singing) You were never, ever there when I was little. I've only spent three days with you so far. Are you just another father-figure, drawn to as my family drifts part? But you called me up and you told me on the real deal, something that my father'd never say.

BLOCK: You talk about this father figure basically telling you things - giving you assurance or confidence, in the song at least, in a way that your father never did. And I do wonder what's going on there.

SCHEINMAN: It was a hard song to sing for my father. I remember when I did for the first time, I was nervous about him taking it completely literally and me publicly saying, you haven't supported me enough. You haven't loved me enough. You haven't, you know, validated my choices and had my back enough - or something like that.

Now my father has heard it many times, and he does like the song. And I've sung it for him in public many times. And I've noticed that in the last year, he started saying I love you, and he never did as a kid. And maybe it's because I wrote the song as a way of saying, can you tell me you love me more - do you? And it's really transformed our relationship. It's not a song - my father jokingly calls this the bad dad song.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHEINMAN: He listens to it and enjoys it, and I know it must be hard. And I have a wonderful father, and I learned so much from him. And as an artist, I am in that tricky position of talking about difficult, honest things in music and suffering the fallout from them. One of the hardest things about writing with lyrics is that. I've made many albums as instrumentalist, and it was scary to come out with some true stories and some true statements. Hopefully the songs get beyond that, and they aren't just about Jenny and her dad and wanting to be loved more. Hopefully they're about something bigger than me and him.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY SCHEINMAN SONG)

SCHEINMAN: (Singing) I don't have to go back there. I just shut my eyes and breathe.

BLOCK: That's Jenny Scheinman. Her new album is titled "The Littlest Prisoner." Jenny, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

SCHEINMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY SCHEINMAN SONG)

SCHEINMAN: (Singing) You'd see me as a child. It'd be like lifting up the covers - an awkward little girl in a rodeo of outlaws where the men humiliate you, and the women talk around you. But you know that none of this matters 'cause you're still just a child. You're still just a child.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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