String Theory

Violin-playing chanteuse Jessy Greene

Violin-playing chanteuse Jessy Greene

Jessy Greene
A Demon and Her Lovers
Ravenstar Records

Jessy Greene is MySpace. She's Friendster. She's the human incarnation of a social networking site. There are holes to be poked in this argument. One way of doing this would be to point to Jessy Greene as she stands onstage in a vintage minidress and roughed-up hosiery, singing and playing her violin.

"That is some sort of bohemian chanteuse who quite possibly ran away from her childhood home in the voivodship of Kiev to join a touring group of French punk-rockers. Clearly, we are dealing with a person, and not a piece of interactive, multimedia, user-connecting software," you may assert.

And to that, I would respond, "But with her violin playing, she connects Golden Smog with White Light Riot, the Jayhawks with Heiruspecs, Romantica with Doomtree. Her singular status as a lone-wolf violinist and relentless collaborator joins all sorts of otherwise unrelated performers. (Although I will grant you that 1) the foundation of her beauty is a knowing Slavic exoticism; and 2) the name of her old band VioVoom is typographically similar to voivodship.)"

Greene and I recently collaborated on a project of tea drinking and dessert eating, two areas where I've also found great satisfaction as a solo artist. It's been three years since her album Blue Sky, and she is finally ready to release a new record. "I had finished my new CD, A Demon and Her Lovers, and I was moving from Minneapolis to LA," she explains. "I was joining the house band of a new radio show—the concept of the show was that every week, we'd have a different singer-songwriter on, and we'd all compose a song together during the broadcast. I packed all my belongings into boxes, quit my job here in Minneapolis, and three days before I was to leave, I got a call. 'Sorry, Jessy: The show's canceled.' Well, I went to LA anyway. But compared to Minneapolis, it felt cold and lonely. I had an epiphany: I love Minneapolis, and I want to stay here."

Greene's roots are in western Massachusetts, where she grew up practicing classical music on her violin for four hours a day. "My mom would sit next to me while I played," she says. "By the time I was a teenager, my whole life was about getting out of playing the violin."

Life in the sleepy, rural Berkshires was boring for a young woman. "There wasn't anywhere to go. We hung out by the side of the road—we called it 'Florida.' We'd say, 'Meet you at Florida!'"

It wasn't long before Greene, who'd put down the violin in favor of the electric guitar, broke away from her parents and went off to explore the underage adventures available in the sunny, hospitable warmth of the real Florida. But after spending her late teens bouncing around, she says, "I asked myself, 'Do I want to be a party girl the rest of my life? No.'"

So Greene moved to California, where she reconciled with the instrument she'd been ignoring. "I bought a violin. I went to Santa Monica College and saw students jamming on the violin, as if it was a guitar."

She finally understood that it was possible to move past the rigidity imposed on her musicianship by her classical training. It was a breakthrough for Greene. She was accepted to UCLA and started combining her love of high times with her interest in performance. "I was in orchestra, and people in advertising were always getting orchestra kids to play our instruments in their commercials...I did commercials for Folgers, Healthy Choice, and one of those Ray Charles commercials for Pepsi," she laughs. She even met Slash after a night of partying at the Sunset Strip's Rainbow Bar.

"He asked me if I wanted to play a violin part for one of the new Guns N' Roses songs, but he wanted me to get in his limo, and I just thought, Don't get in the limo! so I didn't do it."

After graduation (her degree is in ethnomusicology), Greene toured the country with the Geraldine Fibbers. She soon began performing and recording with other bands in the alt-country community, including Golden Smog and the Jayhawks. Followers of the local music scene have been able to play six-degrees-of-Jessy-Greene since shortly after her move to Minneapolis in 1997.

On A Demon and Her Lovers, Greene's voice floats over light beats, recounting feelings of loss and misunderstanding in a frosty, detached whisper. Her violin is pensive and controlled, skating over the rhythm section's icy emotional flats. "Want to be so hard after where I've been so long/But hanging up's not easy," she sings on "You're Breakin' Up." (For those keeping track at home, the backing band on this album is the instrumental section of Heiruspecs, although on "You're Breakin' Up," Greene gets vocal accompaniment by Dessa of Doomtree.)

But the very adult, slightly emotionally removed Greene of Demon might already be an obsolete application: Greene's current source of elation is her love for live-instrument hip hop. Her latest collaboration is with a new group, Audiotribe. "It's more of a freestyle thing—I play violin over beats, come up with hooks—I'm having a blast," she gushes. Of course, the pantheon of famous hip-hop violinists is about as crowded as the list of dope MCs who roll with the Vienna Philharmonic. At the very least, she's making it easier to connect Jessy Greene with Prince in six links or less.