Who is the most visible, most popular violinist in America right now? Without a doubt, it's Lindsey Stirling.
But while millions of fans worldwide flock to her shows and watch her elaborate Youtube videos, her detractors go at her from both sides of the table: What does she think she's doing, making pop out of violin music? What is she doing, making violin music out of pop? Does she think she's a dancer? A violinist? A gymnast? A cinematographer? A composer? An actress? Is she playing dubstep, hip-hop, musical theatre, New Age, or classical? Why, and how, does she bend in so many uncomfortable ways?
Talking to Lindsey, it becomes obvious that she does not think about music in the typical way that a musician might. She doesn't compose a song; she composes a scene. The scene has music, but that's just a small part. It also has movement, light, landscape, costumes, story, theme, dance and scalable dimension.
Her way of thinking did not win her much credit in 2010, when Lindsey appeared on season five of America's Got Talent. She made it to the quarter-finals and then was epically dissed by judge Piers Morgan. That defeat may have been the best thing that happened to her; she persisted in building and improving on her ideas, and two years later she posted her breakout video, Crystallize, which has attracted a staggering 103 million views on Youtube. In it, she dances through a palace of ice (made by Brent Christensen) while playing her violin in a style that might be classified as easy-listening dubstep.
Now, at age 27, she has released two albums, Lindsey Stirling in 2012 and Shatter Me earlier this year. She's created an elaborate live stage show, complete with dancers, video, costumes and lighting effects, and she is currently in the middle of a 77-show tour of Europe and North America.
Stirling grew up in a Mormon community in Arizona and attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah to study filmmaking -- a discipline that certainly shaped her view and prepared her for making videos. I spoke with her over the phone in early September about what the violin means to her, how she conceives of her videos and shows, what classical musicians may be misunderstanding about her, and her recent return to violin lessons at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.
Laurie: Where were you born and what made you take up the violin in the first place?
Lindsey: I was born in Santa Ana, California. My parents loved music, and when I was a little kid, they used to play classical records on an old record player in the house. Also, they would take my sisters and me to orchestra concerts in LA -- they have so many free orchestra concerts in the park, in the convention center. Being exposed to so much classical music, I realized that the violin is the star of the orchestra. Today, kids see MTV -- they see Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and they want to be them. But I was exposed to violin music, and seeing that the violins have the solos, I thought, "That's the star!" And so it was kind of my rock-star icon: the violinist.
Laurie: As you've gone along, obviously you've done a lot of pop music, did it ever occur to you to switch to guitar or anything like that? What made you stay with the violin?
Lindsey: You know I never did. I begged for lessons as a kid, and it was something I always loved. Rather than giving up on it when I started to get burned out, and I wanted to be more creative with it, to be able to create art and not just play what other people had created. So rather than switching instruments or giving up on what I had worked so hard to do, I just thought, no, I need to make the violin fit me, rather than make me fit the violin.
Laurie: It seems like you have a lot of elements going on to every show that you do. How do you prepare for a stadium show, and how much of it is your vision when you do those big shows?
Lindsey: When we plan the tours, I'm involved in every single piece of it. I talk with the lighting director about what colors I see for certain songs. (For this tour,) I designed the stage set-up: the risers, where the screens were going to be, what shapes there would be. I looked through videos and picked out what kind of video content I wanted to play on those screens. I arranged the set, so I chose the order of all the songs. I helped design the costumes with the designer -- some of them I made myself and some of them I had designers make. So pretty much every single piece of it, I'm a part of.
So I guess I'm basically the Creative Director of the tour.
Laurie: You are involved in so many different aspects, how do you know when to delegate? How do you find the people who can carry forth your vision?
Lindsey: That's been the biggest challenge, because the reason I was able to be successful was that I was a do-it-yourself artist. I couldn't get anyone to believe in this vision that I had, I couldn't get anyone to understand or see it. So I had to do it all myself and prove it to people. I'm so used to that, and I love being a part of everything -- but you can't. You can't control everything. Especially in this last year, as things have gotten bigger and crazier, I've really had to learn to trust people and learn to delegate. I can be a part of it, I can give ideas, I can give suggestions, and then I have to let them do it. It becomes kind of a back-and-forth thing: they do the work and then I give feedback. It's been hard to let go, but it's definitely necessary.
Laurie: You must have to have tremendous communication skills, you're not just telling someone what to do but you're also kind of telling them your entire vision for something. That's not always easy to put in words!
Lindsey: No, it's not!
Laurie: How is it different, the process of conceiving a video or conceiving a stage show?
Lindsey: I try to compartmentalize them into two very different things, although sometimes it's fun to try to bring a song to life on stage because people connected with the video. For example, for Crystallize, I played the ice castle video behind me onstage -- without me in it -- it's just the ice castle background. As soon as it comes on, people immediately connect with it, and they're taken back to a memory of when they first saw that video. That was such a huge moment for me and for a lot of my fans. I even made it snow in my first tour, during that song. I wanted to bring it to life for people and make it magical.
Other times, I try to divide the two; I want it to be a very different experience when they're listening to a song live than when they saw the video. But there are certain concepts I love to keep. A lot of times I think of the idea for the music video and the live performance in terms of, what do I want this song to represent? For example, I very first started writing a song in the studio and immediately I knew that it felt like pirates to me. So I called it Master of Tides. Right from the get-go, before anything was barely created on the song, I knew that I was going to make a video where I was a pirate captain, and I knew that on stage, I would have my dancers dress up as pirates, and that's the whole theme of the song. They have bows, -- I got really cheap violin bows -- and they're using them as swords on stage.
In the video you have a different kind of creativity; you can do things you could never do on stage. They're the same concepts a lot of times, but just done in a different way. Sometimes it's more theatrical on stage and more fantastical in the video.
Laurie: About how many shows have you done?
Lindsey: Probably about 200 shows in the last two years.
Laurie: It's got to be physically exhausting. How long is the show and how do you keep yourself from collapsing in the middle of it?
Lindsey: It's an extremely physical show. We've got dancers now. At first I thought it would make it easier for me, but it actually makes it harder because I have to keep up with these dancers and choreography as well. But it makes the show so much more engaging, to have all these elements of movement going on. I write music, hoping that it will inspire movement. The show is about an hour and a half long, and there's a small section in the middle where I get to sit down. I have two songs where I sit on a chair and they bring out a piano. It's part of the set that I really need, to catch my breath halfway through and then continue on. But yes, I have to be in pretty good shape. This last tour, I've never been in such great shape in my life as I was at the end of it! We do the show every night, and that's a huge work out. Then we do crunches after the show and I work out on my days off, so it's pretty intense.
Laurie: What do you think that classical musicians most mis-understand about what you're doing?
Lindsey: I definitely take a lot of influence from my classical background and throw it into my electronic style. I try to make it a big fusion of everything that I love, be it classical, be it electronic, be it rock, be it Celtic music. Sometimes my fans will say, "Lindsey's the best violinist in the world!" and I think, heavens no. There are so many violinists who can play far better than me, and I don't ever pretend to be the best violinist in the world and I definitely don't think I am. But I think that it's important for people to realize that I do what I love. I've found a way to make the violin something that kids can relate to, kids who maybe wouldn't normally be drawn to a classical violin. It doesn't mean that it's better or worse, but it's just different. I've never felt like things should be categorized. Just because you're a violinist doesn't mean that you have to play classical music; just because you're maybe shaped differently doesn't mean you can't be a dancer. I want to live my life in a way that boxes don't exist and boundaries don't have to be there. So I hope that people can see that through my music; it's about being fresh, being innovative, and making it fun again. Because I lost my love of it for a little bit, and I wanted it back. I wanted to love it again.
Laurie: What made you lose your love for it?
Lindsey: I'm not sure. I think I just got kind of burned out. I'd been playing classical violin for years, since I was six years old, and in my late teens I just realized I didn't love it, I didn't enjoy it, I didn't want to major in music. I kind of had no desire to do it, and it was almost like a fight with myself: I couldn't give up, I couldn't quit, but could feel it slipping away because I didn't care any more.
I realized, I need to start playing the kind of music that I want to listen to. When I turn on the radio, what am I searching for? When I buy music, what am I looking for? And so I started to get creative with it, and it just made my passion come more alive than it ever was.
Laurie: Do you have arrangements that kids can get at this point?
Lindsey: Yes, I have two books that are cover songs, and then Phantom of the Opera medley, and they all have piano accompaniments to them, and then I also have a CDs that come with them, of a backtrack to play along with. And then for my original music, they come as individual sheet music pieces. Most of my original songs have a backtrack mp3 and the sheet music and piano accompaniment. (Here is a link to Lindsey Stirling's violin sheet music.)
Laurie: I understand that you use both an acoustic and an electric violin, a Yamaha Silent Violin Pro. What can you do with an electric violin that you can't do with an acoustic? What kind of things has it helped you explore?
Lindsey: They have a very different sound. Sometimes I love the classic, beautiful warmth of a wood violin -- that's something you just cannot recreate. With an electric violin, it's an extremely clean sound, so when you do want to put effects on it, it's easier to manipulate and get to exactly the sound that you want. I like different violins for certain songs. I'm so into costuming as well, and it's fun to be able to use my violin as an accessory to my costumes and looks. For example, we had a song where I wanted it to glow in the dark, because my costume and the choreography lends itself really well to glowing in the dark. There's another one where I pull this sparkly violin out of a treasure chest, because it's the pirate number, and it allows the violin to be not just an instrument, but also a piece of the story and the world that we've created through this show. So I've searched and searched for a violin that I could decorate, and you can decorate electric violins, you can do whatever you want with them. I love the Yamaha violin the most, and I think they've put a lot of time into improving it over the years. The (Yamaha) electric that I use now is far superior to my first electric violin, which was a Yamaha back in about 2000. It's amazing, how much they've improved it, and it just keeps getting better. It definitely has the most clean and warm sound, and the least bow noise of any of the electric violins.
Laurie: In what ways did it get better over the last 14 years?
Lindsey: It used to be really hard to do dynamics on it -- a lot of electric violins are like that, they can catch the bow to the string and it just makes a loud sound, amplified. But this is very sensitive to the dynamics that you put into it and the pressure of the bow. Also, it has very little bow noise, which is very hard to get. It used to also just be a very flat sound and now it's got some warmth to it, which is very important for me.
Laurie: When you use an acoustic, what kind of acoustic violin do you have?
Lindsey: I have a Roth violin, it's about 80 years old. I love it, it's a German-made, Roth violin.
Laurie: Do you still use it in your show, or do you use just the electric?
Lindsey: I definitely use it, especially for the middle of the set, where we do an acoustic part. I have to use that wood violin, it's just not the same with anything else.
Laurie: Do you have any advise for teenagers who are deciding whether they'd like to stick with the violin or not?
Lindsey: It's so important to do the exercises, do the scales. The classical music is so great and essential to getting your chops up. But at the same time, I think it's important for kids to reward themselves, to make it fun. For me, it was playing fiddle music. I loved listening to Mark O'Connor; that was almost like my dessert after a meal. I learned and practiced my scales, then okay, now I can learn my fiddle tunes. So whether they want to try playing along with a Katy Perry song or they want to learn a Lindsey Stirling song, I say there's a balance. You have to work hard at the scales and the skills and the classical, but also keep it fun. Join a band, find a way to make it fun, otherwise it is easy to burn out, and that's why people quit.
Laurie: Do you still do some of those exercises now?
Lindsey: I do, I actually just started taking lessons again for the first time in 10 years, and I think it was a wonderful decision. I'm like a rusty car that needs a lot of maintenance! I feel like I'm starting all over again, but I'm working on going back to the basics again. Tuning up!
Laurie: No one is ever to old for that, or ever too accomplished for that.
Lindsey: It's true.
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Lindsey Stirling's cover of the pop song by Imagine Dragons, "Radioactive," with the acapella group, Pentatonix:
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