Lindsey Stirling: Violin Virtuoso Bursting with Creativity
Image courtesy of Lindsey Stirling.
Violinist, songwriter, and dancer Lindsey Stirling began her musical journey at the age of five with violin lessons, later creating a band called “Stomp on Melvin” in middle school. After winning Arizona’s Junior Miss title with an original violin rock song, Lindsey started a YouTube channel, became a quarter-finalist on season five of America’s Got Talent, and catapulted in the charts with electrifying performances of her dancing while playing violin. Her YouTube channel has over 12 million subscribers, and she has collaborated with artists from Pentatonix to Lang Lang across many musical genres.
Read more about Lindsey in conversation with WHRB's Felicia Ho, and listen to her latest single, “Lose You Now”
This transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Felicia Ho: Back in middle school, I remember watching videos of you dancing and playing the violin with my friends in awe. What drew you towards bringing the two disciplines of music and dance together with your performances?
Lindsey Stirling: I think I've always loved dance, but I was never a dancer. I was made to choose when I was a kid: I wanted dance lessons, and I wanted to play the violin, but my parents couldn’t afford both. I had never danced at all until I started to try to pair it with the violin. I was starting to get into different kinds of music, and it just felt strange to be standing there while playing rock or electronic. I started to add movement, and then that turned into teaching myself how to pirouette, how far can I do a backbend. I was experimenting and realizing how much I could do while playing the violin.
Dancing and playing violin must take lots of practice, so I was wondering how you make the most of your time. There’s only 24 hours in the day, but you have to work in both disciplines!
I probably do it best by compartmentalizing. I don't consider myself an amazing dancer. It's something that's an appendage of my skill as a violinist, as the edge of my art. I definitely keep up my violin practicing, and then I work my tail off when it's time to prepare for a music video or tour. I have to connect them in my brain so that the violin and the movement of my feet or my body is one thought.
Who did you want to be when you were growing up?
Amy Lee from Evanescence. Evanescence mixes such cool styles together and makes something so powerful, yet so beautiful. Avril Lavigne, oh my gosh I wanted to be Avril, a 100%. I loved her punky style, and I think even in my art, to this day, you can see elements of both of them in what I do. In college, I fell in love with music from David Garrett who is a violinist and inspired me to step outside the traditional way of playing.
Along the way, you’ve likely faced a lot of criticism on your style of combining dance with playing the violin. How do you stay strong?
I've worked really hard to learn how to deal with criticism because I'm a very sensitive person. I’ve learned it's always going to be hard for me to take criticism because my violin playing is so connected to me. I tell everybody they should read Berné Brown’s books like Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. They've really helped me realize how much courage it takes for all of us to be vulnerable and that you can't take criticism too personally because it's coming from someone who's outside your own arena. It's not like it doesn't hurt anymore, but I'm able to talk myself through it when it hurts. I never set out to be the greatest violinist in the world, so when people attack my violin playing, I remind myself that I don't ever profess to be the greatest. I just do it the way I do it and that's okay.
Let's talk about your music spanning all genres. How has your approach to creating music changed and evolved over the years?
When I wrote my first album, I didn't know how the process was supposed to work. That's a really great thing, to not know what the rules are, because you follow your intuition based on fun and feeling. The first 12 songs I ever wrote were on my first album, and it's partially because I was paying the producer for every song, and so I couldn't afford to not use the song. Once you develop a sound, the tough part becomes, how do you reinvent yourself so that this next project feels fresh and new? I've written albums solely based on a concept: Shatter Me was based on my experience going through anorexia, and I wrote Brave Enough on my experience of loss and grieving from losing my dad and my best friend. The Artemis album is written about a story; I wrote a comic book and then scored it with music. All the music videos are based on these characters and their worlds. It's important to continue to find new inspiration and ways to approach music so that it feels organically new every time.
From start to finish, what is the creative process in going from creating and writing the song to bringing it into production with choreography in a video?
My best gift as an artist is that I love the creative process and storytelling. I’ve been making videos since I was a teenager, editing them myself and directing my friends. In my shows, I'm super involved in the choreography, the production, and the creativity. I love seeing a baby little song go through all of the processes. Sometimes, I sit in the studio just playing melodies until one sticks. Sometimes they come from a very specific emotion like hope, and other times, I'll be inspired by an image or a music video. Shatter Me’s album cover was inspired by a music box I saw with a ballerina inside, and it made me go back to where I felt trapped in anorexia. The music video is its own story and then on tour, I bring the story to life in a live way. One of the best ways to make a performance really pop and come to life is using cool props.
Speaking of props, how do you retro-fit your violin to different styles?
I think of violins as costumes. For me, it's all about the theatricality and how we can make every element pop. For music videos, I'll make very cheesy looking violins held together with tape, and I’m always pleasantly surprised by how cool they look. It allows you a lot more freedom because you really don't have to make a perfect violin--you just have to look good in low light with lasers.
Are there any particular songs that you carry close to your heart as favorites?
“Shatter Me” will always be one of my favorites. The way I envisioned it was the way it came out, which rarely happens as projects sometimes take on a life of their own. My favorite song for a live tour will always be “Roundtable Rival.” It just gets the audience pumped, and we have a guitar violin battle on stage. “Artemis” is probably one of my favorite songs I've ever written because, sonically, it's super. There's a really fun energy to Artemis, and I knew it as soon as I wrote it that I loved it. My favorite cover is “I Wonder as I Wander” on my Christmas album. It was fun to spin a song on its head and make it in a way that no one's ever heard it before.
What do you hope is the larger impact of your songs and videos?
My focus has always been to make people feel empowered, make them feel like they can do great things. That's always the goal after every show. I hope that, of course, everybody's well entertained, but I really hope that, secondly, they leave thinking, ‘I want to get after it!’ I really think about that and try to say things that I would want to hear if I was sitting in the audience.
“Lose You Now” is an incredibly moving piece on loss and moving on, and it captures so many memories with your father and your best friend, from cereal picnics to butterflies. How was the process of creating this piece kind of different from others?
I wrote an entire album inspired by my dad and best friends passing away, but I was in a very different place when I wrote that album. I was consumed by grief, and it was raw. It had all the feelings of bitterness and guilt and anger and sadness as I was going through the stages of grief, but in writing “Lose You Now” I'm in a very different place with grief. I've come to terms with grief, and I know that they'll always be with me as my angels now. I've had so many little experiences that have been really sweet and have shown me, look, that's my dad or that's a sign that Gabi [my best friend] is looking out for me.
During the pandemic, many have struggled with losing loved ones or their jobs. And for artists, it has been particularly difficult with no tours or live shows. How do you think the music industry will bounce back?
I toured a lot, and that was a huge part of my experience. But I didn’t quite realize just how much the music industry relies on live music. These days, a lot of the things that artists work so hard to do are free: the music that we create is free and you can listen to it on Spotify or YouTube, including these videos where we put so much budget, time, and energy. You realize, then, that a big part of what makes this industry run is live touring. It has been really hard for a lot of musicians to realize how much we miss it, not only as performers in our hearts, but also, maybe selfishly, as the kind of people who thrive on that energy and that feedback. A lot of people, including myself, have released music in the pandemic feeling like the music goes into a vacuum. People experience music at events, or in clubs, or in live shows, or in their cars, and there's so much less of those things going on now. People are craving music, though, because of all these reasons, and I do think that people are gonna be so excited to go to concerts and listen to the radio, and it’ll be incredibly beautiful when we get to do that again.
What are the next steps down the road for the girl who brings the “rocking edge to the violin?”
We still have our tour dates for this summer, and I'm hoping we get to go. I've got some music videos coming up soon. I’ve really enjoyed Twitch streaming lately, and I've got this book club on there with my fans. It’s super nerdy, but I love it. I’m also working on my fourth issue of a comic book series, so that comes out soon. It’s been nice to reevaluate what are things that I want to do, not just things I've always been doing and feel like I have to do. This pandemic has given all of us a chance to say, what do I actually want to do.
To someone out there who's just starting out dancing or playing the violin, what are some words of advice?
Have patience with yourself. Just allow yourself to make mistakes and be patient. The key to being successful in anything is the ability to get up when you're discouraged and just the ability to say we’re going to be okay.
Felicia Ho ‘23 is a producer for the Classical Music Department.