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Laurie Niles Interview with Judy Kang: Touring with Lady Gaga

May 10, 2011 at 5:43 PM

One day in 2010, Curtis-trained classical violinist Judy Kang set aside the Strad she was playing and hit the road with a brand-new hot pink electric fiddle.

You could say she went Gaga. More accurately, you could say she joined Lady Gaga's enormously popular Monster Ball tour, playing hundreds of shows for more than a million people in all corners of the globe.

And she didn't exactly leave the classical world behind -- even while on tour she occasionally sneaked away to play a classical gig, for example, the Brahms Concerto at Carnegie Hall.

But before roaming the world with a rock band, Kang had already covered the map as a classical musician. Born in Edmonton, Canada, Kang has played in orchestras across the United States, Europe and Asia. In addition to her Bachelor's degree from Curtis, she also has a masters degree from Juilliard, as well as Artist Diploma from the Manhattan School of Music. When playing classical music, she performs on the 1689 "Baumgartner" Stradivarius, on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts.

What's it like to live in both the classical and pop music worlds? Well, let's start at the beginning:


Laurie: What made you decide to start playing the violin in the first place? How old were you, and did you start with the Suzuki method?

Judy: My grandmother had a dream the night before I was born -- she saw a baby girl holding a violin. So she told my mom, who never played an instrument but had always wanted to. My mother then naturally had the desire to start me on the violin -- but only if I was a girl, according to her. As an infant, I was inclined to stop and listen or dance to classical music, as well as other kinds of music, but in particular classical. I had my first lesson when I was four years old and took private lessons on the Suzuki method.

Laurie: I know that you had been playing as a classical soloist, can you give us some idea how many concerts you had been playing a year, with whom, and what kind of music?

Judy: I performed an average of 50-70 classical concerts a year, with orchestras, in recital, and chamber music. I performed standard repertoire as well as explored music of today. I also performed in music rock venues, and clubs collaborating with bands of all types including indie, rock, hip hop and jazz. I also performed with my own band, which is a mix of electronic, dub, ambiant, and trip hop. We are called The Simple Machines.

Laurie: How did you learn about this gig with Lady Gaga? Had you ever played popular music before, and in what context?

Judy: It was brought to my attention that she was looking to have a violinist through a bandmate. I have performed pop music before with 'NSYNC (at the MTV Video Music Awards) and with Lenny Kravitz (music video) to name a couple.

Laurie: Was there an actual audition process? I'm guessing you didn't have to play "Don Juan," so what was it like?

Judy: I did go through an audition process. It was first through her musical director, and I was called back immediately. There were several violinists that auditioned, first in Los Angeles, then they held auditions in New York City. I came to the audition in New York. It was a very last-minute thing -- I was told about it two nights before the first audition. I got my outfit together the day before and played the next day.

All the contenders were brought into the room at the same time, and we essentially played in front of each other. I had Bad Romance and Speechless prepared. I had a game plan, but of course, as I had expected, I ended up playing in the moment: An improvised solo with the two songs as the themes. It was about three or four minutes, and then my callback was a freestyle. I played some of the "Bad Romance" and went into whatever I felt in the moment -- just some virtuosic lines, and some of her song, Paparazzi.

The final audition was the next day at an undisclosed location. Gaga was there along with the Haus of Gaga -- her creative team and musical director as well. She hand-picked me out of four finalists. It was an amazing feeling, feeding off of her and her team's energy! I love the freedom I had when I performed for her! In some ways, being able to go in without a set list was amazing. But, the possibilities in that case are so endless that I had to think through what I could give to express a lot of different emotions, moods, and technical virtuosity in less than five minutes. I loved the challenge of it!

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about the commitment you have to make, when you sign up for a show like this: how much of your time is it? Does your whole life revolve around the show for a while? Were you worried about leaving behind your classical-music life? Did you kind of have to even leave behind your WHOLE life? What made you say "yes"?

Judy: Initially, it was a year-long commitment, which then extended into a year and a half-long tour. It is a full-time commitment for the most part, with a few breaks in between, at which time, I had complete freedom to do my own projects. I definitely felt excited because I had always wanted to broaden my horizons through experiencing different types of music in different contexts. I wasn't really worried about leaving the classical music life, because I don't ever feel like I left it behind. I believe there is a purpose in every opportunity given in your life, and it is obviously your choice whether to go through that door, or to pass it up. I felt, at this point in my life, I would have regretted passing it up. I am not necessarily a believer that everything happens for a reason, but I know there is always something to be learned when something new comes along in life.

In a sense, I did leave my whole life behind. I was in New York, and I had concerts scheduled. There were a few factors that made me hesitate to say yes initially, and that was one of them. This was the first time (and last) that I had to back out of the concerts I was scheduled to perform. Fortunately, everyone was SO supportive, and in many ways, even more excited for me to have this opportunity. That made me feel more at ease and encouraged. I got a lot of advice from family, friends, mentors, everyone! I prayed a lot, and I didn't commit until a few weeks in. My decision to fully commit was determined by getting to know my band members, how we worked together, how our personalities meshed, and all in all, what my heart was telling me. I felt comfortable right off the bat with them, and I just got more and more excited about working with them and with Lady Gaga.

Laurie: Tell me about your set-up. What kind of electric fiddle do you have? What made you choose the instrument that you have, what were the considerations? Was some of it about the "look"?

Judy: I perform solely on an electric violin by Mark Wood. I have sound effect pedals, as well. I wasn't too knowledgable about electrics, to be honest. I was so fortunate to have had a couple of weeks of rehearsals before going on the road, to research instruments. I made a cold call to Mark Wood after suggestions from colleagues, and he was amazing enough to hand-deliver an instrument to me a couple of days later at the rehearsal studio! I had a fiveinged instrument brought to me. Of course, this was the first time I had ever played a fiveing, let alone an electric. It was a blast! I had SO much fun discovering new feels, new techniques and new sounds... I even shredded on it to the point where my band guitarists and I were having solo contests for fun because of the similarity of sounds! I decided this was the right violin for the show because of the flexibility of movement I have while performing on it. It looked perfect, and it blended well with the other instruments in the band.

I also enjoyed envisioning of how it would work in the show, collaborating and lending my visual opinions to Mark's designer in order to come up with something very personal and creative. I visualized a shiny hot pink violin, and it came to life through the awesomeness of Mark Wood and company!

Laurie: What were some of the adjustments you had to make, going from playing as a concert soloist to playing in this wildly popular show? Do you have to do much dancing or acting in the show? How is the music different?

Judy: I had about two weeks before our first show to get used to playing on the instrument, moving around, walking, dancing and adjusting sounds. The measurements are also a bit different, as well as the touch. I didn't find it too difficult. A lot of the process was very organic and I learned as I went along. I still feel like I am able to discover new sounds and techniques. I think that is a lifelong process. I definitely am a character in the show, as it tells a story. I think one of my favorite aspects is the ability to dance. I've always loved it, and in a sense, this gave me the opportunity to do two things that I love simultaneously. Stylistically, I didn't feel like it was totally venturing out into new territory, as I had always loved pop music and other styles of music. As long as I can remember, I listened to it, and I think that exposure became engrained in me with regard to the articulations, sounds and rhythms. I essentially am bringing what I do and always have done in the past into the show and of course, am influenced by the music but in very organic ways. It feels very natural to me.

Laurie: One of my students arrived at his lesson, very excited to tell me that he recognized a familiar violin song in a Lady Gaga tune.... so is that you, playing "Czardas" at the beginning of Alejandro?

Judy: Well, I would have to answer this question by saying yes and no. No, it's not me on the recording, but yes, they took out the recording of the violin for the show, and I play it live.

Laurie: What is your favorite Lady Gaga tune at this point, and for what reason? Do you have a different perspective on pop music after doing this tour?

Judy: It changes, but I think overall, Bad Romance, because it is amazing lyrically, instrumentally and stylistically. She sounds amazing, and it's just such a big pop tune. Yet having said that, all of her songs are pretty epic, for the most part. This is a tough one to answer, for sure!

My eyes have definitely opened wider, as to how I perceive pop music. Being around pop artists, writers and producers in the last year and a half has definitely shown me how intricate the process is. Working in a band capacity has also helped me see how similar the process of practicing is to chamber music. I see how much the lyrics mean to the artists, and that they come from a very personal and deep place.

Laurie: Are the fiddle parts fun for this music? Are any of them difficult? In what way?

Judy: They are definitely fun! I think the best part is that there wasn't any sheet music. I pretty much was able to create parts and also borrow from different sounds within the songs. I added some lines to certain songs to enhance the performance in the large venues that we perform in. The challenge I might find is not necessarily in the notes, but in staying consistent rhythmically. It is, in a sense, chamber music. You always have to be listening to each other in the band and staying tight.

Laurie: My 13-year-old daughter suggested I ask you: Did you get to wear any really weird costumes for the show? Is it just one costume for the show, or do you have to change throughout? Are the costumes different on different nights? Do the costumes pose any logistical issues?

Judy: Haha! Now that is a good question! I was waiting for this one...I was so excited about our costumes and what they would be like. I knew my character, but I had no idea how that would be manifested. I wear a black, lacy dress, form-fitted, with fishnet stockings, hot pink stiletto boots and lots of bedazzled jewelry! The attire is actually quite comfortable and it is the only dress I wear throughout the show.


Laurie: What is the craziest thing that has happened to you on this tour?

Judy: Too many to even remember!! We always say, if we had a reality show, we'd be getting the ratings!

There have been so many amazing, crazy situations, from backstage, to being in our tour bus, to some of the things the fans have done or given to me and my colleagues. I think the craziest moment I had on tour must have been when I was jamming with the Kidz (how Gaga refers to us) at our Christmas party, and I broke my bow. It just snapped. It took me a second to realize it. But, funny enough, I wasn't too upset. I guess it felt very Rock 'n' Roll. lol! I was able to get it repaired and it's almost as good as new!

Laurie: What has been the most memorable moment, performing?

Judy: Lollapalooza was insane! I think the outdoor shows are crazy because of the sense of connection with the audience. It's more raw, and you can see the people clearly. I think it has to do with the open air and not ever knowing what can happen with the weather. In that situation, there are so many more magical moments. You have to be prepared for anything that can happen, or for the unknown, and just let things be. You can't rehearse or duplicate those moments! I think in each show as well, we definitely have an amount of flexibility to be spontaneous. There have been several shows where I played a song without having heard or rehearsed it at all. I love that. It's definitely not the first time I've performed something spontaneously on stage.

Laurie: Do you have any fun stories to share?

Judy: Well, I did a concert on one of my breaks in Toronto. I played a concerto with Sinfonia Toronto. After the performance, I was talking to some people, and one of the audience members introduced herself and said that she had come to the Toronto MonsterBall show last summer. She was randomly listening to the classical radio station and heard them mention the concert and my name. So, she recognized me and came to the concert. She said it was the first classical concert she had ever been to and she loved it and enjoyed it.

Laurie: Do you feel you are reaching a different audience, has this work given you any sense of mission?

Judy: I am definitely reaching another audience, for the most part. I get approached, receive notes and emails from fans saying they are inspired to start playing the violin, or they want to listen to classical music. I also met people who are classical fans as well as fans of pop music and Lady Gaga. I am so excited to be an artist in this day and age, as I feel that artists are influenced by everything. It is hard to not be exposed to a lot these days. At least in the major countries in the world. I have always felt a mission to serve through music. To be an ambassador, an example, and to inspire and motivate others to bring positivity and respect to one another. I want to also open up people's minds and eyes to the endless possibilities of being an artist.

Laurie: Have you missed the classical repertoire?

Judy: I miss it. Especially when I listen to recordings. I practice the repertoire. I try to stick in as many concerts as I can in between tours. Last May, I was able to take a morning flight out of London to do a Carnegie Hall performance that night and fly back to Manchester for a show the night after. I was even more inspired and refreshed with the diversity of music that I had been performing.

Laurie: How has this experience changed you?

Judy: This is a vast question. I feel I could write a book about how this experience has, and continues, to shape me. For the most part, I believe that being around so many different personalities -- strong personalities, I might add -- has given me the chance to view things in various perspectives regarding so many things in life. I've learned about true compassion and understanding of how people can have different opinions and beliefs yet feel very connected and related. I also learned more about myself as an individual and an artist through all of the things I've experienced. I can't really say that my lifestyle is different, in the sense that my daily routine is pretty much the same. I went in with the desire to build strong relationships and to be a positive influence. I wanted to challenge myself and be challenged in all areas of my life in order to become a better person and creative artist. I feel that being in this environment has forced me to learn more about the biz, and in turn, I've become more keen and wise in that area. I realized that that is a necessary skill in this day and age to have a career as a performing artist. In so many ways, I've resisted the "showbiz" mentality and believed so strongly that it would just develop organically. And it did, to a certain extent. It's about finding the balance between the two. But in the end, I am a firm believer that everything serves a purpose in life and I know that this will only help me to further reach my dreams.

Laurie What's next for you?

Judy: I've reached the end of the Monster Ball tour after an intense and exciting year and a half of traveling around the world to amazing destinations and performing for over 20,000 fans every other night! I think a couple weeks of sleep is next on my agenda! Spending time with family and friends, eating home cooked meals, being in one place for longer than two days....I definitely want to get back to playing chamber music as soon as possible! Reading trios, duos, quartets with friends, getting back to doing some recitals…I am excited about what's to come, which is in some ways is a mystery, but I have some projects planned for the near future. I am excited about recording a new CD, collaborating with some amazing artists, as well as writing a lot of new pieces... I hope to continue working with various artists and conductors. I am always visualizing, always creating new ways for performance and art in my mind. I love teaming up and collaborating with artists who may share similar visions and ideas.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 10, 2011 at 8:53 PM

 Here's a little counterpoint:

From Michael Divino
Posted on May 10, 2011 at 9:39 PM

 Dream gig? :) 

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on May 11, 2011 at 3:49 AM

What a charming little arrangement! Love it!

From Spero Theodore
Posted on May 12, 2011 at 4:25 PM

I just viewed a video on YouTube made by Judy of her playing a short interesting piece called "The Pretender", perhaps her own composition.  The interview was interesting and other interviews like this one are welcomed.

From enion pelta
Posted on May 12, 2011 at 4:40 PM

Spero, The Pretender is a foo fighters song that a lot of crossover violinists seem to like to play. I defintely like Judy's version the best. I

It is wonderful to see someone at such a high level of technical skill and artistry cross the barrier between classical music and pop music. Things like this may help to reinvigorate classical music and bring in a younger audience, and that's certainly what we need.


From Ian Salmon
Posted on May 12, 2011 at 7:33 PM

I appreciate how much credit she gives to the Mark Wood family. They work very hard to make sure that every instrument is set up exactly the way you want. I toured the "factory" on Long Island and was amazed at how few people are actually involved.

From Spero Theodore
Posted on May 13, 2011 at 2:27 PM

Thanks enion for the information about "The Pretender" that Judy played.  I also agree with you that musicians like Judy playing cross-over music can bring in a wider audience that may come to appreciate classical music.  It's probable that many have already been drawn to classical music via jazz violinists such as Grappelli, Venuti, Smith and others whom I've enjoyed throughout my life.  While visiting friends of ours in Denmark a few years ago I discovered a fine Danish jazz violinist named Svend Asmussen who at the age of 96 is still performing.

From Spero Theodore
Posted on May 13, 2011 at 4:41 PM

My previous post only mentioned jazz violinists whose audience some of which may have later developed an appreciation to classical music but there are those classical violinists such as Yehudi Menuhin and others who crossed-over and performed in other genres of music.  Menuhin during the '70s through the '90s made recordings with the likes of Grappelli and sitarist Ravi Shankar.  The Menuhin-Grappelli recordings are a joy!

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 16, 2011 at 5:00 PM

I have been waiting for something like this! It takes me back to much younger (thinner, trimmer) days of my life when playing violin as Judy has been doing with Gaga. Much of what she mentions is so simmilar or mirrors what Rush say in their autobiography, "Contents Under Pressure" regarding road life! I love this and look forward to many more avant guarde string players who are so, so under rated but oh so tallented! One has to really have an understanding of both instrument/s (yours and your band mates) and music in therory and practical application! What a challange complamenting the other instruments and they complamenting you while not detracting from the music but hightening it, enhancing it, making that song you've played for umpteen years better than ever, especially when you are doing it with a violin!!!!

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