Livewire (a UK on-train magazine)
Talented, savvy and sexy, violinist Vanessa-Mae continues to confound the critics as she releases a new classical album, China Girl, hot on the heels of a pop success with Storm. Jonathan Webster meets Miss Mae (sic).
Audacity has always been the name of the game with Vanessa-Mae, the 19-year-old violinist. Even at 13 she and her canny manager Mel Bush, struck a deal with EMI whereby it was agreed that she should record for both the company's classical and rock/pop divisions. This cossover is unprecedented in British recording history and makes Miss Mae one very hot piece of musical property — she recently launched a pop-fusion album, Storm, featuring a selection of refurbished 70's classics.
Named by America's people magazine to be "one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world", Vanessa-Mae has so far achieved a number of remarkable firsts in her career. She was, for example, the only Western musician invited by the Chinese to play at their reunification of the Hong Kong ceremony. In an exclusive interview with Livewire she talks of her recent creative baby Storm like the cat with the cream. "You know even before current sales from Storm are taken into account, I've already sold three million CDs, so I have very high hopes for this album."
On Storm, her right-hand man is the highly distinguished producer/songwriter Andy Hill, best known for his work with Céline Dion, and together they and their session musicians have crafted something special. The 14 tracks range from the sublime to the holy. There is witty mischief with (I) Can, Can (You)? to blinding virtuosity on Hocus Pocus and, to cap it all, she turns disco diva on the Donna Summer chestnut I feel love then switches back to R'n'B chic with Aurora.
Vanessa declares: "The whole process of selecting the material for Storm was great fun. I think that audiences will be able to tell that as soon as they listen to it. I'm very lucky to be able to do both classical and pop-fusion albums. Some of the critics don't like me switching back and forth, but hey, who cares?".
Ah yes, the critics! There seem to be two groups who are giving Miss Mae a bit of a hard time. The first are a number of classical music purists who abhor what they see as a wasting of talent by selling out to vulgar commercial interests. Vanessa says she "has a pet response" for those so-called protectors of a high musical art: "They are a minority who claim to know what they like. But the fact is the only like what they know — and what they know is a very small percentage of the music that is out there."
The second group of the critical fraternity receive even frostier treatment. Vanessa pinpoints them as "those protectors of public morals (mostly men) who claim that I'm exerting some sort of Lolita-like influence in my quest for stardom. This is not true. I'm very proud of my attributes — musical, mental, physical or otherwise — and any publicity shots I've done have been totally natural, and not posed to draw a salacious response.
"Besides," she adds indignantly, "why should I be pigeonholed into playing a certain kind of music or behaving in a certain way, just because that's what members of the cultural cognoscenti expect of violinists? It goes against my background and upbringing." According to Vanessa, her background was anything but conventional. Born in Singapore on the same date as Paganini, history's first great violin virtuoso, her parents are Chinese. Her mother Pamela, a lawyer, divorced Vanessa's father to marry an English lawyer, Graham, and they moved to England when Vanessa was four. "To begin with," she says, "I had all the attributes of a white middle-class London upbringing. Home was (and is) a comfy house in Kensington, and I enrolled at the Francis Holland School for Girls." By all accounts she was a normal, bright young girl until her parents, who had encouraged her to take up the piano, began receiving some unusual school reports. "My music report said: "She may not be Mozart yet, but....'."
Her parents soon realised that Vanessa had an innate musical talent and set about trying to find a specialist piano teacher. Ruth Nye was that teacher and to this day she remembers how "when Vanessa first came to me to learn the piano at the age of six (is this right ?), she could play anything her little hands could manage. She has an innate musicianship, which is natural to her as breathing."
At seven (is this right?), Vanessa switched to the violin, but not before winning the runner-up prize in the UK Young pianist of the Year competition. Even now she is not 100 per cent sure why she shifted to playing strings. "Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my stepfather is a keen amateur viola player — who knows, suffice to say that I took to the violin like a duck to water." That has to be one of the understatements of the century. In no time Miss Mae was astonishing everybody with her prowess, not least her parents who realised that they ought to channel her precocious talent. And so, at the age of eight, Vanessa began a round of rigorous musical training. Her parents first sent her to China to study with the formidable violinist and pedagogue Professor Lin Yao Ji of central Conservatoire of China in Beijing. Vanessa says, "I realised that the experience would be good for both re-acquainting me with my Chinese roots, as well as brushing up on my Cantonese. Besides I got a chance to wear one of those cute Mao suits!".
At eleven, Vanessa became the youngest person ever to enter the Royal College of Music where she started her studies with Professor Felix Andrievsky. He was quick to tell colleagues "she looks as though she was born with a violin. I am jealous to see how easily she plays the most difficult things." The Royal College's principal at the time, Michael Gough-Matthews, was equally bowled over: "She is amazing, a true child prodigy. What she has, like Mozart and Mendelssohn is a maturity beyond her years."
A year later she touring internationally as concerto soloist and recitalist, releasing two classical recording and embarking on a third, which was to set a world record, establishing her as the youngest person ever to commit the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven Violin Concertos to compact disc/cassette. Without a trace of arrogance Vanessa says: "As soon as I had this first round of concerts and recordings under my belt, I knew that the big time beckoned. Besides, I was also secretly harbouring some other serious musical ambitions — I've always loved jazz, folk, the best of pop and rock just as much as classical. If you come to our house you are just as likely to hear The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and the Bee Gees on the turntable as Mozart or Bruckner. I was determined to find a way to explore this side of my character as well."
Consequently, her mother sought a more rounded representation and management than she would receive from the average strait-laced classical impresario, which is where Mel Bush came into the picture. It did not take long for Bush, Mae senior and Mae junior to mastermind a careful but concerted strategy for success, consisting of a number of fusion albums to go alongside her classical output, and a series of appearances at rock and pop festivals to build an entirely new group of fans. Vanessa says: "While I agreed to Mel overseeing the business side of things, I insisted on Bodytaining complete artistic control. "But what is her mother's role now she has come of age?". "I'm more of glorified nurse and companion these days," says Pamela. "When she was young, I used to worry that Vanessa would be portrayed by the media as a precocious upstart, but now she is more adept at handling the media than most professional PR people."
Indeed she is. "No one has ever pushed me into this career, all the important decisions that are made, have been instigated or at least endorsed by me." So would that extend right down to whether she dresses racily or soberly for a magazine, TV appearance or album cover? "Absolutely. To a certain extent I go with the mood I'm in on a particular day and what's right for the occasion."
For a person so relentlessly in public eye, almost nothing is known about Vanessa private life. Does she have someone special in her life? "You mean a boyfriend?" she asks with a mock coyness. "Sadly I'm too busy right now. I have lots of boyfriends from my schooldays, from my management company and from within my band - but they're just good mates."
Her other passion is animals — especially her per dogs. "My little fluffy Lhasa apsos Kim-Sing, Chung-Pao, Tsi-Tse and Charlie are amongst my best friends. In fact, show me any animal and I go all gooey. You know if I hadn't been a musician, the thing I wanted to be most was to be a vet. Who knows, I might shock everybody and do it yet!"
When you have the world at you feet at the age of 19, it's hard to imagine what else there is to achieve. Vanessa is clearly proud of her new-found success and seems to want more of the same. "I know that this sounds pretty boring, but at this stage I'm quite happy to continue developing my parallel classical and pop career; if nothing else to keep annoying certain critics!" she says.
Hot on the heels of her Storm success to another album on the EMI label dear to Vanessa's heart: China Girl: The Classical album 2. "You know, not everything I do is about letting rip on stage. For this venture I think that I'll be probably be quite demure. The three works that I've selected, Butterfly Lovers Concerto, the Violin Fantasy on Puccini's Turandot and Happy Valley: The 1997 Re-Unification Overture, will show my fans a completely different side to my nature. For a long time now I've been wanting to musically explore my Chinese-Oriental roots and China girl gives me an ideal opportunity to do just that. I hope a new set of music lovers will jump on board for the ride."
Webmaster's note: "Vanessa-Mae" is a double-barrel name, like "Anne-Marie", so "Miss Mae" is not a correct way to refer to her. Vanessa-Mae, like some other artistes, chooses to use only her first name on stage. Her full name is Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson. Therefore, to refer to or address her formally, one should use "Miss Nicholson".