It's Not Easy Being Greene

Excuse me while I trigger buckets of drool from every man in the room: Jessy Greene
Darren Back

Jessy Greene doesn't have any problems finding a gig. Alt-country bands, punk groups, rockers--suddenly they all want to work with a violin. Or maybe they just want to work with a smokin' violin player. I mean, when you put Greene onstage with her fishnets and her Rick Derringer haircut, who's going to notice how much of a bummer alt-country music actually is?

I'm sitting across the table from Greene at Jason McLean's new Kitty Cat Klub in Minneapolis, where Greene is about to go onstage with Fulano, a Cuban music quartet. More than with most interview subjects, I catch myself gawking at her. With her tiny faux suede dress, red lips, china-doll skin, and jet-black hair, she looks like a Renaissance Festival chick who has been caught behind the tent with a cigarette. About halfway through the interview, I tell her, "You know I'm going to have to write about your looks."

She laughs. "Do you want to be my agent?"

Clearly Greene isn't exactly fed up with being the pinup for all the boys in blue jeans. But she also plays with her own band, VioVoom, and has a new solo album, Blue Sky, coming out next month. She played, mixed, recorded, and released it herself, but she's quick to point out how much help she had from her friends, including Tom Merkl of Iffy and VioVoom bandmates Eric Kassle and Margaret Hegg. Greene admits to "taking her time" before putting out her own record, reasoning that her lack of confidence might have kept her from setting out on her own until now. She admits, "I believe in myself enough to play violin in a band, but not to believe I could be in a band that would play my music."

Greene refers to this music as "Ameritronica"--can you tell she has an ethnomusicology degree from UCLA? Evidently, Ameritronica means music with underwater strings, electronic whooshes and beeps, and lyrics filled with rainbows, blackbirds, train bridges, and the devil and the deep blue sea. Pretty, but with a pervasive melancholy brought on by the lost loves a girl tallies up while toting her violin from coast to coast. The album's highlight, the cabaret waltz "The Divine," was written on a decaying piano in the lobby of a Hollywood apartment building. Her vocals are thin but clear in the style of other female neo-folkies--think Edie Brickell or Leona Naess. But her true voice is the violin: It lends a cinematic quality to every song, helping the listener forget about Greene herself (finally!), and focus on the emotional content of each piece.

Greene credits her mentors with helping to refine this voice. When she was a child, her violin teacher, whom she describes as "an old guy with a big cancerous lip," was a first chair in the Boston Symphony. Years later, while working toward that degree at UCLA, she met a man she refers to only as "Johnny Rock and Roll," who played in the Sir Douglas Quintet in the '60s. She credits him with helping her find a light touch as a collaborator. "I think I really do well at working with people with big personalities," she says. "It's not that I don't get intimidated; I just like to come and make somebody's stuff sound better." After coming to Minneapolis in 1997 and working with the Jayhawks, she continued to play with big personalities: Wilco, the Minus Five, Iffy, etc. But her stint in the O'Jeez, a late-'90s side-project band with Dave Pirner and Greene's then-boyfriend Kraig Johnson, stands out because of her equal footing in the group.

Has she always been comfortable surrounding herself with so many guys? "Being a female in the music business is not always a bonus," Greene confesses. She talks about the catch-22 of beauty: She thinks "having to bare midriff to sell records is a load of crap," but is proud of the effect yoga has had on her legs and arms. "People don't necessarily give you credit [if you're a woman]," she explains. "It's hard to be taken seriously, and maybe I haven't taken myself that seriously. But I'm trying to turn that around."

Well, I hope I'm not guilty of maximizing her looks at the expense of her music. It's great to finally watch her onstage with her own project. And not just because she's hot. Although that helps.

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