Ask the person next to you to name five violinists. Really, go ahead and ask.
Depending upon the age and preferred musical genre of the person you asked, you’ll get different answers. Many will include Nigel Kennedy, Stephane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Paganini and perhaps even the odd folk fiddler such as Dave Swarbrick, Kevin Burke or John Sheahan. If I were a betting man I would willingly hazard a few pounds that the name Vanessa-Mae would appear on more lists than any of those above.
Bearing in mind Vanessa-Mae’s widespread fame as a violinist, it comes as some surprise to learn that her early success was as a pianist. Vanessa began learning to play the piano when she was just four years old. A year after that she began to learn to play violin as well. By the time she was seven, Vanessa had won a prize in the Young British Pianist of the Year competition. Despite that early accolade achieved at the keyboard, with the encouragement of her parents, Vanessa began to concentrate more upon violin. Her potential on the second instrument soon became evident and by the age of eight she was studying under Professor Lin Yao Ji at the Central Conservatoire in China.
Vanessa-Mae’s musical studies continued at prestigious establishments in Europe, notably the Royal College of Music, and when she was 10 years old she performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Her first studio album, Violin, was recorded in October 1990, around the time of her 12th birthday, and released in 1991. That first album featured classical music exclusively but her next album, Kids’ Classics, also released in 1991, contained popular songs as well as classical pieces. Her third album, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven Violin Concertos, which was released the following year, saw a return to pure classical content. From that point on, she began to release classical and popular music separately or together, seemingly as the mood took her.
During 1993 and 1994, Vanessa-Mae recorded what would be her breakthrough album, The Violin Player. This was a very different sound, and marked the beginning of her development in a genre that she called Techno-Acoustic Fusion, which later evolved into her Classical-Crossover style. The commercial appeal of this hybrid-genre album was huge. Before long, a succession of TV appearances around the world had firmly fixed the image of the petite oriental teenager and her electric violin in the public eye. Since its original 1995 release, The Violin Player has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Subsequent recordings and live performances have been similarly well received making Vanessa-Mae arguably the most recognisable, popular and successful star of contemporary violin music.
Regtransfers met with Vanessa in London when we delivered her new personal registration, V1 MAE. We chatted in her Audi RS6 Avant.
“Actually, I didn’t take my driving test until I was about 21. Before that I never really had a need to drive. I wasn’t that mobile and independent. I think many people think they’re going to break free around the age of 17, but I was still very much living at home with my parents until I was about 20. There seemed to be no point in learning to drive.
“My first car was a Lotus Elise 111S. When I was a kid I used to like to spot cute and retro looking cars. I was like, when I get my first car I’ll get a Lotus! I had L-plates on that car for ages and it cost me a bomb because I only had a provisional license and the insurance for a learner to drive a sports car is very high. Finally I thought I’d just take some lessons, learn and take my test. I passed first time, so I was quite pleased about that.
“I still have my Lotus. It’s got my W8 MAE plate on it, which was a reference to my postcode, and is quite cute.”
We hadn’t realised that Vanessa-Mae was already a private number plates enthusiast. “I don’t know why, but I guess that if you’re interested in cars then you’re interested in the plate. It makes sense to me. I think they’re cool. I have a friend who was teasing me the other day, saying they’re tacky. But why are they tacky? I mean, you care about how you dress and you care about the colour of your car, so why wouldn’t you want to top it off with a personalised plate.” Vanessa is not the only family member whose car sports a great plate.
“My father’s name is Graham and he has a country home called Hoo Hall. I bought him G2 HOO at the same time I got myself W8 MAE.”
“My boyfriend’s from France. The French have a funny system for their number plates and he says that you can’t personalise them there. I think it’s really cool that you can have something personalised like that in this country.”
Vanessa admits that she is very particular about certain things, such as her cars. It is a personality trait that she associates with her choice of musical instrument.
“When I was young I went to this all-girls school where everyone played something. Obviously some played recorder, but other people played the guitar or the flute, piano, violin. I played the piano and violin but I concentrated on the violin when I was eight. It’s a bit like my car: I’m quite fussy about who gets behind the wheel. I’m a little OCD in a way, so part of what attracted me to the violin was that I had my own instrument. With piano you had to share. It kind of felt like someone else had played it and hadn’t disinfected it afterward, but the violin is your own.
“As a child, before you think of the artistry, you think about things like how it’s just a cute looking instrument. The aesthetics of the violin are probably what pleased me most as a child.” Vanessa also associated learning piano with a degree of pressure that she did not experience with violin.
“I liked both instruments at the same time, but my piano teacher was much more pushy about me working harder, so I kind of gravitated towards the violin because there was less pressure there. From age eight I concentrated on it seriously. In fact, tonight I am going out to dinner with the professor who taught me from when I was 10 until I was about 15 years old.”
Looking back at her own childhood, how does Vanessa see the role of music in children’s lives? “You know, it is such an important part of children’s lives. Things like that, sports and music, anything that gets them out of the house and motivates. Well, perhaps music doesn’t get you out of the house much, I’ve spent many hours practising inside the house, but you know it really motivates you and gives you a focus.”
The mention of sport leads to the subject of injuries. Vanessa is a keen skier and suffered a mishap that rendered her unable to play either music or sport for a while.
“Well I broke my elbow last year when I walked out of a cable-car and slipped near my home in Zermatt. It was fine really, because I had my arm in a plaster cast and had intense physio. I managed to do a show seven weeks later. Then there was a kind of sprain that I got at Easter. It sounds really pathetic, but I moved a pot from the stove to the worktop and... Well, I don’t know; something went. I had to have a bespoke plaster cast made; one that I could put on and take off unlike a traditional plaster cast.
“I’m pretty gung-ho about things, I’m afraid, and being a musician doesn’t make me any less gung-ho. You can hurt yourself as easily cooking as skiing. I think you just have to get through it.”
Now she is recovered, Vanessa is working on some new material for her tours. Like her recordings, Vanessa-Mae’s tours have featured a wide variety of different musical styles.
“Classical music relies on so much old repertoire. I mean, if you listen to most classical albums it’s the same thing over and over again. It all shares a pool of music. Of course, I love classical music as well, but at the same time I like to stretch myself, to commission new music and have writers co-write with me. Even then it comes to a point where you feel that you’ve toured enough of the same songs. That’s when it becomes time to create new music.”
Vanessa-Mae’s repertoire has attracted its share of controversy at times. When she first strayed from straight classical material into the realms of pop, rock and techno music, certain eyebrows were raised.
“Yes, fifteen years ago, when I came out with The Violin Player, it was me just being funky and spunky, but I think I had guts. I was facing a lot of purists who were like, ‘ooh what are you doing?’ and I just didn’t give a toss, you know. I just did my own thing, which I think proved to be right for me.
“When you start a career at that age, you’ve nothing to be frightened of. I am lucky now, at 31, to have 15 years or so of crossover experience and before that a few years of classical experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better start in the music business, but definitely it was a shock for a lot of people to see the violin in that light, because people had only ever seen it touching on folk music and little bit of jazz, but mostly classical. There I was making it as outspoken as an electric guitar, which meant that the violin had a lot of potential in it really and just needed somebody to take it out of the instrument.
“I don’t listen to that much classical music. I’ve got stuff on the MP3 player in the glove compartment, but a lot of the stuff that I listen to isn’t so much classical. When I was growing up I listened to people like Prince and Michael Jackson through the 80s and 90s. Sure, my training was classical, but luckily I was allowed by the people around me to push forward. There is always going to be an audience for classical music, but why not play new music as well?”
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger