Electric Review

Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms

Appointments With Destiny

Scarlet Rivera stands with her violin in a 12th-century Italian castle. Photo by Paolo Brillo. All rights reserved.

40 Years Removed From Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Caravan, Violinist Scarlet Reflects On Her Life and Career
 

Scarlet Rivera was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, a stone’s throw from Chicago. Years ahead of her chronological age, she began taking classical piano lessons at the age of six and then switched to violin lessons when she turned seven. Rivera excelled as a violinist during her high school years, and eventually won a music scholarship to Southern Illinois University (SIU). In college, she focused on playing in the classical orchestra while simultaneously crafting her own improvisational style that could meld with the sound of contemporary artists like John Mayall, The Doors and Janis Joplin. After two years at SIU, Rivera took a risk on herself and bought a one way ticket to New York. And when she hit the city, she found her true self: First crossing paths with the great Jazz saxophonist Ornete Coleman, and later auditioning for Bob Dylan, who was so captivated by Rivera’s work that he invited her to play with him on the now legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. Sharing a spotlight with the iconic poet gave Rivera her real break, and she hasn’t looked back since. To date, Rivera has released twelve records, with her latest, All of Me, serving as her vocal debut.

The Electric Review was fortunate enough to catch up to Rivera late in the evening on May 16, 2020, during a Coronavirus-induced lull in her touring schedule. Scarlet Rivera’s work as a musician brims with vitality and candor, and she’s exactly the same way in conversation. Our interview follows.

I understand you grew up in Illinois. What did your parents do for a living? Are you the only one in the family to embark on a career in the musical arts?

Yes, I grew up in Joliet. My dad was a chemist at an oil refinery and my mom was a homemaker. My parents wanted all of the kids to take music lessons, but I was the only one to excel and make a career of music.

Tell me about your background and how you launched your career.

I actually started playing piano when I was six years old. I took piano lessons for a year, but didn’t get any gold stars for it. I wanted some gold stars. So I changed instruments. First, I asked for a harp. But the orchestra didn’t have one. So the violin was the third instrument I picked. I made quick strides with it and I didn’t mind practicing. I was first chair violinist in the orchestra throughout high school. And I was given a scholarship to Southern Illinois University when I graduated. That’s where I started really playing. But my life truly changed when I heard Bob Dylan on the radio. He was somebody real who was saying something profound. Nothing impressed me on the radio before I discovered Dylan. That led me to listen to – to hear – people like Hendrix and Janis Joplin and The Doors. Hearing people like Paul Butterfield and the Byrds taught me to improvise on my instrument. And then things came full circle when I actually played with McGuinn years later on the Rolling Thunder tour…

Why the violin?

The violin and I picked each other. We became a good fit for each other after I’d learned what wasn’t such a good fit…

How did you meet Bob Dylan?

It was the summer of 1975 in Greenwich Village [New York City]. This wasn’t so much a meeting as it was an appointment with destiny. I was walking down 13th Street in the Village just as Dylan was driving up the street. He glanced over, spotted me and stopped his car. He just started talking to me. Asking me about music and what instrument I played. He then invited me to his loft which was a just couple of blocks away. When we got there it was loaded with instruments. When we arrived at the loft, he immediately went to his guitar and started playing. He asked me to play along with him. Bob told me nothing. Didn’t tell me the key he was playing in or the songs. Nothing was easy. I just tried to keep up. And his expression told me nothing. It was blank. I had no idea if he thought I was any good. But after we were done Bob invited me to the Bottom Line, which was a club in the Village. He was playing that night with his friend Muddy Waters. When we got to the Bottom Line, Bob seated me at the bar and then took the stage with Muddy’s band. After just one song, Bob introduced me as his violinist and then invited me to play with them. There I was – playing along-side Dylan and Muddy. And I got to do a solo! At the end of the song, I got a double thumbs-up from these two living legends. After we wrapped at the Bottom Line, we all headed over to Brooklyn and went to see Victoria Spivey [noted Blues musician]. We did a sing-along with her until dawn. Three days later, Bob called me up and asked me to work on his record Desire. Those were my first moments with Bob Dylan. Had I not been walking on 13th Street at the exact moment his car turned the corner, it [their collaboration] never would have happened…

Wasn’t your first public performance with Dylan at the John Hammond Tribute [television special] in 1975?

Yes, I am surprised you remember that show. We did “Hurricane,” “Oh, Sister,” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” It was a tribute show to John Hammond Sr. and it featured many of the artists he had discovered and signed. We were the last act on the bill. We were the finale. It was my first major concert and my first time on television. If you look at the video you can see how petrified I am. Dylan really had put big trust in me not to blow it…

You played a prominent role on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and brought him a brand new sound – a sound he then further expanded during his Street Legal tour [1978]. Why do you think your sound worked so well with his poems?

Nobody had discovered it before I guess. But I had a knack to play with poets. It didn’t hurt that I loved and understood the phrasing of both poetry and music. You’re really on the spot – you have to come up with the right fills there on the spot. Like I said, Dylan had put me big trust in me. It would take years for it to really sink in that I replaced Eric Clapton [whom Dylan had initially planned to use for the Desire sessions].  It seemed unthinkable, but Dylan changed the course of Desire and re-recorded the tracks from scratch, with me as the final soloist. I think he also decided on a smaller, more intimate sound [which was better suited to the violin].

What was it like being on the road with Dylan? What’s the back stage guy like?

I have seen him act differently during different periods of his career. I saw him back stage years after I played with him when G.E. Smith was his guitarist; at that time, he was smiling and pleasant and engaging. I have seen him friendly and I have seen him with his back to the audience – very quiet. He is capable of both depending on his head space. But during the Rolling Thunder shows he was very open. He was comfortable on that tour because it was something he created and put together. He could have been in huge stadiums, but he chose a different kind of tour. A more personal experience.

The Martin Scorsese documentary about that tour opened a lot of eyes to your unique style and just how ground-breaking the Rolling Thunder shows really were. Is that film on point? And how much time did you spend directly with Scorsese during the production process?

It’s real and on point when it shows the live performances. It also has some fictional parts to it and I don’t really know why those fictional parts are there. I will tell you this: I didn’t have a chest full of snakes in my dressing room. I never slept with Ronnie Hawkins’ drummer. And I never took Bob Dylan to see a Kiss concert…(pauses) I never spent any time with Martin during the production phase of the film. I only met him at the premiere. And he said to me that night: “Scarlet I have spent the last ten years of my life with you.” (laughing)

Do you still see or play with any of the people from Rolling Thunder?

I have occasionally. Once I did a session with T Bone Burnett. I have worked with Rob Stoner on some projects as well.

When was the last time you saw or spoke to Dylan?

Oh boy, I guess that would have been the late 1990s. I used to see him occasionally in Minneapolis. During Rolling Thunder, Bob introduced me to one of his dearest friends from childhood, Larry Kegan, who was paralyzed. Larry was amazing because he still sang and didn’t let anything keep him down.  We became great friends and I did some shows with him in Minneapolis, their home turf.  Bob once came to see us rehearse at Larry’s house and then came to our show in a small club where I sang Bob’s song, “I Believe In You.” Dylan took a big chance and believed in me and I sang that back to him…

Did he like your performance?

He was very gracious, even though I probably was not very good…(laughing)

Delineate some of your musical influences and their affect on your development as a musician.

Hendrix. The Doors. John Mayall. Janis Joplin. Right after going on the road with Bob I did fusion music. I have also done a progressive mix of classical and rock. Also some jazz. Even Hip-Hop! The fact that I am a classical player didn’t stop me from keeping my ears open to everything. It’s led me to being quite diverse. I can play with anybody and I didn’t get pigeon-holed.

Your new album, All of Me, is a stunning achievement that blends each of your styles together in one majestic pot. Tell me about the genesis of the record, which also marks your vocal debut.

A person I was very close to died and the poet in me came out. I had to write about that experience.

Why did you wait until your 12th album to sing on record?

As I’ve told you, I have a history about being shy about my vocals. For a long time, I never liked my voice. There were times when I would dip a toe in, but I would withdraw it quickly. I was actually happy to stay an instrumentalist. I didn’t feel like a lead singer. But I was never shy about singing back up harmony though. I have perfect pitch. Plus [singing back-up] there is not that scrutiny on you. But when I started performing with this Americana band in 2015 everybody had to take a turn at singing a couple of leads. And gradually I got more confident. Tim Goodman – who produced my new record and also served as a co-writer – certainly helped my confidence.

The piece “Songbird” from the record seems to reflect on your path as an artist. Was it written recently and is it autobiographical?

Oh yeah, about two years ago. I wrote it for and about Joni Mitchell. She’s the painter I am talking about. She paints her life. And the beauty never fades. You see her as a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and as an older Joni. But the beauty never fades. Because she’s got something deeper than that.

Where do you want to take your sound from here?

You know – maybe toward an adventure I have never been on. Toward the germ of an idea that’s still floating out there somewhere. I have never been known for only one genre. Somebody like John Lee Hooker was all about the Blues. But I am eclectic. I’ve done Celtic. Fusion. I move around. I keep moving that sacred wheel toward something new.

We are living in unprecedented times with the Coronavirus crisis; it has locked down most of the country and suspended large-crowd gatherings like concerts indefinitely. How is this going to impact the music scene going forward should musicians not be able to take the stage for a year?

It’s going to be financially devastating to musicians and venues and clubs and all the supporting people who work with us. It’s going to hurt restaurants and bars and taxis and every element of society you care to mention. It’s frightening to think that things could stop for that long, really.

How are you spending time during the lock down?

I have a couple of quarantined friends I have been seeing who I feel safe with – they happen to be in one of my bands. I occasionally get together and work with them. I have also done some live-stream shows as fund raisers for healthcare workers and for small businesses. I really would not like to be in this situation that much longer though…

Some people believe we’re in a hopeless spiral. What message does your music deliver to these folks?

It says that it’s important to embrace and love this planet for the beauty that still exists – the beauty in music and nature and art. That part of nature that hasn’t been touched and has not been destroyed. It says we have to fight for beauty and hope to come back…

by John Aiello

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2020 by in 2020, Artist Profiles, Features & Profiles, May 2020 and tagged , , .

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