How Scarlet Rivera became one of the most prolific violinists in music

Laura Fernandez is the host of Café Latino on JAZZ.FM91

Scarlet Rivera is one of the most in-demand and versatile violinists in music.

She’s best known for her work on Bob Dylan’s album Desire and his Rolling Thunder Revue, after Dylan discovered her in a chance meeting on the street in New York. But Rivera has also recorded numerous albums spanning many different styles, including Celtic music, jazz, blues, new-age and world music. She has been featured on records by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Tracy Chapman, and she was a soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Rivera joined Café Latino to tell us the story of how she met Bob Dylan, how she replaced one of rock music’s most famous guitarists in the studio sessions for Desire, and how she eventually made her way into the world of jazz.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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So, Scarlet Rivera is not really your real name — how did you choose your name?

It’s kind of a spiritual thing. Scarlet came from my connection to the poppy. It’s got a dark side and a beautiful outer side. I was very young and troubled at the time, and I was always commented for my outer beauty, and nobody understood the inner difficulties I was going through.

It’s wonderful you should say that, because I think a lot of artists have different sides. They have the side that they project out to the world, and they have the side that is really what makes them create. How did you choose to become a musician, and how did you choose the violin?

As a child, I was born to be in the arts. I was drawing, I was dancing, I was painting and I was doing music from six years old on. I started piano, and I didn’t get any gold stars and I didn’t like piano that much anyway. I chose violin and that really stuck. I took to it immediately.

There’s this legend about how you got discovered by Bob Dylan when he was going in for recording sessions or rehearsals for his album Desire, and that he saw you on the street. Is this true? What’s the story?

Well, it’s true. Literally, I was walking down the street with my violin case. It was like one in a billion that he would be on the same street that I’m walking on that second. I was going to walk across the street within seconds and go into a basement apartment. I would’ve been out of sight within one minute. His car pulled up before I could cross the street and he engaged me in conversation. By the end of it, he said he had to hear me play. I got in the car and we went to his SoHo loft, and he started playing all kinds of songs that I could never have heard before; they were never released. No key, no chart, no suggestion, nothing. Sink or swim. Then he went to the piano, played a few more songs, a tiny little smile, and that’s it. Then he asked me if I wanted to go to a club with him to see a friends of his play. I sat at the bar and I was just expecting to watch the whole show from the bar. He was with Muddy Waters and the band, and at the end of one song, he went to the mic and said, “Now, I want to bring up my violinist.”

Talk about putting someone on the spot, right?

Well you know, he was testing my musicianship, but he was also testing my character. He wanted to know not only can I play, but who am I? Are you going to be the kind of person I’m going to have to fire in a week, are you going to be a pain, are you going to be conniving and gossipy and invade my privacy? Are you going to ask stupid questions? Are you going to be egotistical, vain? All these things he was testing, testing, to see my character. If he was going to have somebody standing next to him, he had to know … and I continued to pass these tests.

You really rose to fame with that album Desire, and it’s one of my favourite albums. When you listen to that album, I feel like you really gave it the character that it has. It just would not be the same without your playing on it. 

Something interesting your listeners might not know … I actually replaced a lead guitarist that was supposed to be on the album, and was already on the album. That was in full progress before I walked in — and that guitarist was Eric Clapton.

That must have made you feel very self-confident.

It would have been a completely different thing. It was already in motion with Eric and his band, and all the top New York recording session artists. It was a full, gigantic sound, and then two days later, I went back to the CBS/Sony studio, and all that massive amount of guys in the studio were gone, and the only people that were left were me, the bass player and the drummer.

How did it feel to be part of the Rolling Thunder Revue? Was it hard to be on tour with someone in such an intimate setting, spending so much time together, and you didn’t really know them that well?

We seemed to have known each other deeply. It doesn’t matter how well you know somebody. You can know somebody for 20 years and then suddenly you find out you don’t know them at all, or you can know somebody for a week and you feel like you’ve known them for 100 years — that’s the kind of feeling I had. I was never intimidated by him. Everybody seems to be intimidated him, but I was not. I had a very comfortable feeling, and he never tried to make me feel intimidated. He went out of his way to make sure I didn’t feel that.

Did that whole experience get you composing your own music, or were you doing that before?

I had my original band at the time. We did completely original fusion music. Fusion was very progressive thing to be doing in the ‘70s. It was my very first album called Scarlet Rivera, and I would say it was a precursor to world music.

I know you worked with Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. How did you really immerse yourself into that jazz world?

It was just natural. I probably couldn’t even pass a theory test, but I just know it. I know instantly what to play against any chord. No matter how dissonant it is, I know what to play over it and what not to play over it.

I know you’re really drawn to Celtic music because your background is Irish and Sicilian. What draws you to jazz? 

I feel more musically drawn to Celtic music, but I’ve played with various people in jazz, and one of the biggest things that happened was an invitation to meet Mercer Ellington, which is Duke Ellington’s son. That was in the ‘80s … He asked me to play, and he asked me to improvise, and we talked about music in general. And then he looked at his calendar and he said, “What are you doing on April 23?” And I said I don’t think I’m doing anything. And he said, “Well, would you like to join us at Carnegie Hall?” That was my very first show with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Who are some of the artists nowadays that really draw your attention and get you excited?

Brandi Carlile is one. She really impressed me. I saw her perform at the Joni 75 celebration last year. I was just blown away by her whole demeanor, character and authenticity.