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Asheville vocalist Jordan Scheffer has a clear vision about her emerging career

Jordan Scheffer and Ugandan musician Chinobay are front and center of Scheffer's 10-piece band.
courtesy Eric Scheffer
Jordan Scheffer and Ugandan musician Chinobay are front and center of Scheffer's 10-piece band.

It’s Saturday night at the 2022 LEAF Festival, and Jordan Scheffer is being guided to the stage. Eight musicians and two backing vocalists are already in motion as Scheffer orients herself by feel to the microphone in front of her, the stool just to her right and the water bottle on top of it.

“When I have a band behind me, it just feels like I’ve got this power to totally control the musical direction,” she said. “And for me, my voice plays off the feeling I have of this freedom.”

Control, power, freedom. Scheffer said she has fought for these feelings her entire life. She was born after just 23 weeks—a micro-premie, as these newborns are called—and has been blind since infancy. Today, with a microphone in front of her and music in her ears, the Asheville native is a force of nature and nurture.

To this point, Scheffer has made her way covering songs and recording an album primarily of R&B and soul artists. In music featuring her own lyrics, she’s fostering a growing commitment to African sounds and rhythms and collaborating with musicians native to them.

Scheffer and her band are performing Saturday at Isis Music Hall in West Asheville.

“My parents played every single genre for me you can ever think of, from classical to hard rock to classical to country to frickin’ avant garde, like everything,” she said. “I didn’t care who I listened to. I was like ‘Let me find a sound in here I really like.’ If I don’t, I’ll move on to the next person.”

The engine behind her is Eric Scheffer, Jordan’s father. His long-ago travels in the music industry include working for Sting. In Asheville, he was the founding chef of Savoy and, to this day, owns the popular Italian restaurant Vinnie’s. He manages and bankrolls his daughter’s emerging career.

“We noticed that she had this immediate sense of rhythm,” Eric Scheffer recalled about his daughter. “She would mimic Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra and some of the oldies we would play and she would love making her way around the house and singing. It was very sweet.”

Scheffer came up through the choir at Silsa High School and won a national singing competition called Blind Idol. A connection there opened a door for Scheffer to perform at amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

“Most of the artists in my life that have inspired me are Black,” Scheffer said. “Being on the same stage where Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone where everybody from the ‘60s and ‘70s just stood and made history, was just like wow.”

Scheffer said she has always felt self-conscious about the breathy nature of her voice. She said has gained inspiration from watching how the French-Nigerian vocalist Asa has carved a career with similar traits. Once her father placed a band behind her, Scheffer said she put her anxiety behind her.

“I had to evolve and project a bit more, but I wanted to front a band—not necessarily front one, but I wanted to be in one,” she said. “It felt more natural to me, and I’m like ‘Why didn’t I do this the first time? This is so much better than just singing to something.’”

When she’s isn’t studying African songs to include on her next record, Scheffer spends time drawing, sculpting and working toward her degree in international studies from UNC-Asheville.

Scheffer has been collaborating locally with Ugandan musician Chinobay—he performed in her band at the LEAF Festival—and she speaks with awe about the cultural and spiritual underpinnings of African music. Her father is bringing in musicians from Africa to record live with Scheffer.

That record will feature some songs with her own lyrics. Scheffer said she sees that as a milestone in her journey, after someone who works closely with her discouraged her lyrical inclinations.

“I wanted to just write about the human condition, and I still want to, and he just wanted to make it about something way more profound than I wanted it to be,” she said. “I believe simple stuff conveys way more than being profound and using big words and going into depth and being this guru.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.