In an industry of disposable divas and wannabe radicals, Stephanie Schneiderman is refreshingly basic. She didn't roll from a dumpster with a guitar pick in her teeth and her image is that of a high school band geek turned sultry chanteuse. Her musical past is a mix of classical training and self-taught style, and she is every bit as intoxicating as the handful of female icons the media has deemed her kin. These include jazz dynamos like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, Indie princesses like Jewel, Tori Amos and Dar Williams and pop stars like Michelle Branch and Sheryl Crow. Schneiderman handles such grand comparisons like she does a good melody--deliberately and with a sense of humor.
"We all hear other people's stuff and most of the time you want it to seep in. I grew up with Marty Robbins and Supertramp, so I had to catch my ears up really quickly," she laughed.
Now 31, Schneiderman is a thoroughly "caught up" artist going on four years of solo performance. And solo means she writes, produces and promotes her own music--a full-time job supported by the 20-some students she instructs in piano. In fact, she was headed to a lesson when I caught her on the phone, and I was surprised at her immediate modesty. I was holding a stack of promo bits from other, bigger papers that sang her praises and detailed her journey from fronting a cover band called Hi Fashion to performing with popular funk band Body and Soul to breaking out on her own in 1999. I was expecting her to be at least a little bit aloof and practiced in her answers (after all, she once opened for Hall and Oates).
Much to my surprise, she was relaxed and genuine, and we talked through a listen of her latest CD, Touch Down. Her singing voice got under my skin within the first line. It is full and pure like polished wood with an underlying softness that manages to be both dreamy and eager. The sad songs are soulful, the happy songs contemplative and smooth, and everything is propped on the underlying richness of Schneiderman's ease.
She is beautifully at ease, whether on a CD cover or strumming her guitar on stage, but she is the first to admit how hard it was to grow up in front of an audience.
"Everybody has that big hump, but they usually get over it on their own. I did it in front of people," she said. Despite the alternate peace of in-studio recording, she added that live shows are what really breathe life into a melody. "Playing for an audience is more personal because you're connecting with somebody. You have a lot more freedom in the studio, but you can also get too much in your head," she said. "Live, you're committed to that take--there are no second starts, but there are many more opportunities to play with the delicate parts of a song."
Sometimes the delicate parts pop into Schneiderman's head in the middle of the night.
"It happens when I'm asleep. I'll hear tons of music in my head, and I'll call my own voice mail and sing these horrible sounding, half-conscious melodies. My roommate gets really pissed," she laughed. But the results of such midnight karaoke have been worth the trouble; Schneiderman's three CDs (Stephanie Schneiderman, Unbelievably Unbroken and Touch Down) all demonstrate her originality as a writer and skillful treatment as a performer. Every song is completely different and completely familiar, a tactic that has worked for Schneiderman's idols. She is a huge fan of Patti Griffin's story-telling abilities and strained earthiness, and we share an obsession with the silken pipes of the late Jeff Buckley. Despite being compared to both of them and countless others, Schneiderman is unwilling to toot her own horn (though she knows how to play one).
"I consider myself an artist who's working her ass off. I'm my own label right now, a one-woman show trying to juggle writing, managing and being an artist," she said. "Joni Mitchell had this amazing quote about the muscles we use in business deteriorating the muscles we use as artists. It's really hard, but I also think it's important to flex both." Schneiderman admitted she is often insecure about her work, but its effect on a culture of synthesized, mass-produced garbage is like cold water on a dry throat. It soothes, cleanses and inspires. In return, all she wants is to play more, not for money, but for the joy of losing herself.
"The best part is when I personally disappear. It's not about me anymore, it's about the music," Schneiderman said. "It sounds cheesy, but when it's like that, you forget time--a song just is. It exists with or without you, and the best thing is to tap into the moment and connect with people. That's my bread and butter."
Stephanie Schneiderman,Thursday, June 3, Tom Grainey's. More info at www.stephanieschneiderman.com.