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Grimey Gatsby had the fortune of speaking with New York City-based rock cellist Jessie Reagen Mann, whose unique sound has taken her on stage with hip-hop legends Kanye West, Jay Z, Beyoncé, and more. Read on for this exclusive interview. Feature image by Shapiro Photography.
Photo by John Walder
Grimey Gatsby: How did you start playing the cello?
Jessie Reagen Mann: When I was two and a half, I went to an instrument repair shop with my mom. She had no interest in having me play anything that she did. When I sat down, I was given a cello and gave it a hug. That was the beginning.
GG: How were you discovered?
JRM: I moved to NYC to go to Mannes College of Music. Many of my colleagues were all set to practice for 8 hours a day, but somehow I knew there was more than the 4 walls could provide for me. I practiced a lot, but also made sure I got out there and played gigs. It later became clear that I wasn’t interested in going the normal classical/orchestral route. I started playing in a hip-hop/cross over/genre bending ensemble called DBR and The Mission, led by Daniel Bernard Roumain, a well-known violinist and composer just after graduating. We toured nationally and internationally together for many years. Then in 2005, I got a call from a colleague who passed on a gig to me – it turned out to be Kanye West’s birthday party. My picture wound up in the Chicago Tribune with him. From there, I played with him at Live 8 as part of Wired Strings in Philadelphia and for about a year after that.
GG: How did you go from being a classical cellist to a rock cellist?
JRM: I was booking weddings pretty frequently with my quartet in High School. It was only natural to do so when I moved to NYC. However, around the time I played at Live 8, I became what I now call a musical matchmaker. When leading artists need supporting artists, I find the right people for the job and make sure they have the right look. The first big musical matchmaker project was for Jay Z’s tenth anniversary of his first album, Reasonable Doubt, the Hustla Symphony Orchestra, at Radio City Music Hall in 2006. I put together the orchestra – and got them to headbang. It was awesome. I’ve since done a lot of TV work, including playing on Saturday Night Live with Adele and Kanye West, Beyonce and Enya at NBC’s Tree Lighting Ceremony, The Late Show with David Letterman with Adele, Zedd and Findlay Brown and more. I also just played on America’s Got Talent with David Fenley in August.
GG: Do you enjoy composing/collaborating pieces?
JRM: I’ve only composed one full-length piece in my career so far. I enjoy improvising and collaborating the most – it drives me more than composing. A lot of my collaborations come from working with singer/songwriters who want a cello part but they’re not quite sure how to add it. I then come in and work with them to add my creation to their music.
GG: Can you tell us more about your original composition?
JRM: I wrote a piece for “Hourglass” by the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company. I worked with electronic artist Bryan Noll, who created the soundscape and soundfloor for the piece. Hourglass is a solo dance about a woman’s journey. I was honored to work with choreographer Carolyn Dorfman and Mica Bernas, the solo dancer of the piece. It was a great experience to watch this dance unfold and to create music that would do the same.
GG: Who are some other artists you play with that are less well known?
JRM: I work with a handful of singer/songwriters on a semi-regular basis. Mike Errico, has been getting some more press lately. I played on his latest album, and we’ve performed live together many times. I often play with Pauline Pisano and Aurora. I also have a cello duo, 2VC, with Gene Carr. We have commissioned 8 pieces so far (one with doumbek!) from some amazing composers
GG: What are some artists you listen to?
JRM: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of kids’ music – I have two little boys. They both really like plucked string instruments (like guitars and dulcimers) and anything rhythmic. We’ve been listening to the super talented duo Beatbox Guitar, “Queens Dominion” by Basya Schechter of Pharoah’s Daughter on the middle eastern circuit, Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire” and the Beatles. I also really like Elizabeth Mitchell’s kids’ album “You Are My Sunshine.”
GG: Do you have any upcoming projects or performances?
JRM: I’m looking forward to working on a new score by Thomas Cabaniss for Danspace choreographed by Hilary Easton this winter. I’m also doing a show with a new artist, Anastasia. Keep an eye and ear out for her! She’ll be opening for Oh Land at the Gramercy Theater in New York City on September 24.
GG: How do you balance your work life with your family life?
JRM: It’s challenging. It’s a lot to be a full-time mom (of an infant and toddler!) and a full-time musician – and I say that while I have great caretakers and a fabulous husband. Trying to be a musician is more than just going to rehearsal and showing up; there’s so much practice and work that you have to do otherwise. But I have to say that both my kids and my husband are inspiring and a lot of fun. While there are certain things that give you guilt as a parent, I can’t ignore the fact that I still really enjoy getting on stage and performing.
GG: What are some of your favorite things to do in New York City?
JRM: I really like good food. In addition to trying new restaurants, I love the farmer’s market and finding new and exciting vegetables. I also really enjoy traveling – we just came back from Spain. Having children has not stopped us from travelling! My kids explore all the time and it’s a great reminder that you’re never too old to be curious or explore.