Girl’s Got Talent:
Basking in the Foreverglow with Lindsey Stirling
Lindsey Stirling is utterly adorable. Cheerful, funny, genuinely welcoming, she radiates warmth the moment you’re in her presence. Just as she was voting (along with fellow judges Piers Morgan and Howie Mandell) to eject Stirling prematurely off the fifth season of America’s Got Talent in 2010, Sharon Osbourne told her, “You remind me of a little cartoon character.” At least Osbourne was somewhat accurate with that particular observation – Lindsey possesses an effervescent, colorful personality well suited to be the centerpiece of some hypothetical TV show – animated or not – and as she told me multiple times, “I just love to entertain!”
She has come a long way in the few years since her AGT appearances. An early adopter of YouTube as an outlet for her self-created music videos, Stirling’s channel now has almost 11.5 million subscribers and over 2.5 billion views. Two of her albums have cracked the top five of Billboard’s album chart, four of them have reached number one on the trade rag’s Top Classical Albums chart, three have topped its Dance/Electronic Albums chart, and 2017’s Warmer in the Winter hit number one on the Top Holiday Albums chart. With a committed worldwide fanbase, she’s won two Billboard Music Awards and was YouTube’s Artist of the Year in 2015. She’s collaborated with singers and musicians as diverse as Lzzy Hale, Trombone Shorty, Rivers Cuomo, Evanescence, Andrew McMahon and ZZ Ward. Classically-trained on the violin beginning at age five, she’s a unique, self-directed, independent talent whose fresh approach – agile shredding of her instrument amidst big electronic pop, usually sans vocals – makes her success all the more extraordinary. Add in her dizzying live performances, where she leaps and swirls and dances like some dayglo sprite as she’s playing, and it’s impossible to not be impressed.
A few weeks before the September 6 release of her fifth album, Artemis, Stirling passed through Atlanta to charm local radio station music directors into giving the single, “The Upside” (featuring Elle King on vocals), a little airplay. She was also gracious enough to invite me to stop by her room at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead for a casual chat while her little four-year-old chihuahua, Luna, spread the love around…
Tell me a little about this high school band you were once part of, Stomp on Melvin. How kickass was it?
“Oh yeah, we were goin’ big! You know… these guys were like the cool high school band, and I was a groupie. Me and my friends would go to all their shows, and smart me, I was like, ‘The way I’m gonna get to know these boys is I’m gonna be in their band!’ And after going to enough shows and convincing them, they ended up letting me play the violin in their band. And it was so fun! I’m still friends with them to this day.”
Did you guys just play little parties and stuff, or did you actually play in clubs?
“Mostly house parties, but we did a bunch of ‘battle of the bands,’ that’s a big thing in Arizona. And then we occasionally played really small clubs. Hahaha!”
Was that your first time playing on a stage?
“Yeah, first time playing on stage. We even went on a mini rock tour. I was 16, and all the guys in the band were like 18 or 19 at the time. I went to my [parents] and I was like, ‘Mom, dad! My band’s going on tour! Can I go?’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely not! You’re a 16-year-old girl, they’re 18-year-old boys – no!’ And I was so upset. I was like, ‘You don’t trust me!’ They said, ‘No. This is not going to happen… Unless…’ My mom was like, ‘Unless I go with you!’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not taking my mom on my first rock tour!’ …Anyways, cut to two weeks later: my mom is in the van with me and the boys! We went through Utah and Idaho, we went through three states, and played some little shows. It was summertime, we were out of school. But, gosh – looking back at it, I’m like, what a mom! Willing to go on a little tour with her daughter and her bandmates. I’m like, dang… that’s why I’m where I’m at, because I have the kind of parents that would support that.”
I’m sure that helped build your confidence for being on stage, if you ever had any apprehension about performing.
“For sure. I mean, I had done recitals since I was little, because I took private lessons for violin, and I just remember getting up in these little recitals in front of 15 people, and just being so nervous. My hands would get sweaty, and I’d shake. And then being in front of bigger, more rowdy crowds I think brought a different side to it. It’s been a process. I still get nervous. It’s just a different kind of nervous now. It’s a nervous that I understand how to cope with. It’s more of an excited energy than it is being petrified, hahaha!”
You have a really outgoing, funny personality. You seem like a natural at performing, self-expression, self-promotion…
“I think I’ve always loved to entertain. If you give me a stage, I will do my best to entertain you. I remember even as a child, getting all the neighborhood kids together, and I wrote a play that we’d perform, and I directed it, starred in it, I wrote the script, hahaha! Oh, gosh, it was terrible. There’s some videotape of it somewhere. But it’s just so telling of what I…I think I’ve always had a bit of what they call ‘center stage syndrome.’ Sometimes I hate that about myself! Not like I have to be the center, but I just thoroughly love to entertain, and if I see someone smile as a result of something I’ve done onstage, or when we play a song and someone cries, I love having that fan connection through live moments. That’s why I love live performances. And that’s why I think every tour, or every show, feels fresh. Because every show’s exactly the same. We have so many costume changes, and set pieces, and dancers – we can’t just be like, ‘Tonight, we’re doing this setlist…’ We’ll do the [same] show 60 times in a row, the same way. But, it’s new every night, ’cause you get to see the reaction every night – of a child, or anyone, in the front few rows – and it makes it new because they’re seeing it for the first time, and it reminds you that this isn’t the 20th time it’s been done, it’s the first time for them.”
You said you did recitals when you were young. Did you have intentions of following the classical music path of working toward joining a local orchestra?
“I mean, as a kid, I was your traditional ‘orch dork.’ I did the extracurricular orchestra that was after school – not only the in-school orchestra – so I really, for a while, was a classical violinist thinking that maybe I would major in music. [Eventually joining an orchestra] was kind of the thought. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to make it a career or not, and I think it’s because I didn’t find creativity in sitting in an orchestra and being told what to play and how to play it. You know, it’s very regimented. And I’m surprised how regimented I was with it, because I have such a creative personality. But luckily, I was able to dedicate myself to the violin. But when I was in my late teens, I just got burnt out, and I lost the passion. And it made me really sad, because I was like, ‘Once upon a time I loved this.’ And I had no desire to play anymore. So at that point I stopped taking private lessons, I decided not to major in music at college – I switched my major right before I went to college. But, I decided I was gonna keep it fun. And so when I went to BYU, I started going to open mic nights, or band shows at the Velour, and I would go up to the bands afterwards and say, like, ‘Hey, I love your music! I would love to play with you sometime, if you ever want a violinist.’ And a couple of them took me up on it. And I just started to have fun with music. Like I did with my high school band. I was like, I just need to make this fun, otherwise I will never do it again. And in doing that, I realized, I think the creativity came alive for me, and that’s when I started writing, and that’s when I decided to discover what was my sound.”
There are other violinists that play pop and rock music, but almost never as the front person. Most of them are in a band, or work as session musicians or side musicians in performances. You didn’t go that path either.
“I did do that for a minute. I toured with a country band – it was more of a local Utah country band. We’d do shows, and I was the fiddle player. And at first I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting paid to entertain!’ But again, it just wasn’t fulfilling. Because…country music’s not even my thing. Haha! Like, why am I doing this to myself?”
When you were playing open mic nights while attending Brigham Young in Utah, were you playing cover songs, or originals that you’d record for your first album?
“It was a mixture. I had two songs that I had written of original stuff that I was super proud of. They were these little electronic songs, and they were on my first album, but a lot of it was, I would literally just take the actual radio version of a song, and I would play over it. Super unprofessional! I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna play “Right Round” by Flo Rida!’ and then I’d just play the violin over the top of whatever he was singing. But that’s how I started to perform ‘my own style.’ Just over the actual tracks, and dancing around on these little tiny stages at open mic nights, after some acoustic performer. It was probably very awkward for the audience just as much as it might’ve felt awkward for me! Like, ‘What is happening?’ Hahaha!”
So you were already dancing around while playing by that point?
“I was. That was, like, the shtick, I decided, that was gonna be mine. ‘I’m gonna play to contemporary beats, and I’m gonna dance while I do it!’ Which is really funny because I wasn’t a dancer. I had never been trained in dance. So, I was not good. But, you know, it was the beginning of a long road to where now I can dance and play the violin pretty darn good! But, at the time, I mean…it’s that whole thing of, gosh, you’ve just gotta start somewhere.”
You’ve really mastered the art of making it appear smooth and effortless when clearly it is not. Pop singers often do lots of dancing and choreography during performances, but usually they’re not playing an instrument. The focus and concentration that’s involved is phenomenal, like juggling while doing somersaults or something. Do you use backing tracks live to compensate for any mistakes made while spinning and jumping around during the performance?
“No, I play live, one hundred percent. And that’s actually a really big compliment to me when people [think I] play to tracks. I’m like, ‘Well, thank you, but actually I worked really, really, really hard so that I can play live!’ I think that if I’m not playing live, it loses a little bit of the magic of it. Also, I’ve dropped a bow before while spinning around. Once I dropped a violin. You know, stuff happens onstage! I’ve fallen, I think, only twice. I mean, in all the years of touring, I think I’ve dropped my bow maybe three times, I dropped a violin once and I fell twice. But I mean, I’ve done hundreds of shows, so I have a pretty good track record! But, the violin stops when those things happen – or if I break a string, which happens on a regular basis. Not a regular basis, but like, once a tour I’ll break a string. So I can’t have a [backing] track going. ‘Oh, that’s embarrassing!’”
A few years after attending Brigham Young, you performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. What a rush that must have been.
“It was incredible. Not only are they a renowned and respected choir, but I was performing and kind of dancing around right in front of them. I just got chills up and down as soon as they started singing. I even get chills a little bit just thinking about it. It was magical. I was really lucky to snag that one.”
Did that happen due to your growing notoriety at the time, having been on America’s Got Talent, combined with having gone to BYU?
“I’m sure it was a combination of things. One, being that I’m kind of from the fold of being from the Mormon faith. Because, you know, they do have all kinds of people from all walks of life perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But I think it was kind of a special experience, ’cause I had been to Brigham Young, and I did share the Mormon faith that they all share, and so I think that definitely helped it happen. And I would love for that to happen again. Maybe the Christmas program…that is very prestigious to get that. Now that I’ve got a Christmas album, I’m like, ‘Hey!’ We’ll have to see if I can pull some strings.”
Continue to Part 2