By David Templeton
Lindsey Stirling on her ‘Brave’ new album, preparing for the rigors of touring, and the power of practice
“I don’t like boxes,” says violinist-dancer-singer-author-composer-actress Lindsey Stirling, calling up from New York, where the multi-hyphened force-of-nature has been rehearsing for her upcoming concert tour in support of a brand new album.
Stirling, 29, has taken a break, for a moment, to discuss her ire for boxes, the metaphorical kind. Boxes she’s spent her entire life working to avoid being stuck in by people who, she says, prefer it when artists are easy to categorize.
If I learned anything, it’s that I’m not about to let someone else’s view of me destroy my own view of myself and what I know I am capable of.
“I’ve never liked that,” she says. “I don’t like it when artists are thrown into tight little categories, because categories come with limits. ‘You are a violinist? Then, you have to play classical music, or maybe country fiddle music.’ ‘You’re a particular size? Then you’ll never be a dancer, so think of something else to do with your life.’ I don’t like it when people have to face limits because of their shape, their art, their race, or whatever.”
It’s a stance that she’s earned the hard way, forced to confront and overcome prejudices from an early age. These have included her family’s struggle with poverty in Utah and Arizona, her Mormon faith, a congenital eye condition for which she was required to wear an eye-patch in elementary school, and a lifelong affection for breaking rules, wearing outrageous costumes, and disregarding the warnings of those who suggested she should try harder to “be normal.”
Very little that Stirling has accomplished can be called normal—to the delight of her millions of fans worldwide. She first rose to public awareness through her own YouTube channel, featuring self-made videos of Stirling performing her own original compositions or classic theme songs from video games, often while dressed as fairytale creatures, dancing exuberantly in the forest as she played.
After a stint on America’s Got Talent in 2010, in which she made it to the quarter-finals—only to be told she was not a strong enough musician to play the violin while dancing—she doubled down and used her moment of fame to build a following for her internet efforts. To date, she’s won over 7 million subscribers and her videos have had over one billion views. Earlier this year, Stirling’s autobiography, The Only Pirate at the Party (Gallery Books), made her one of the few violinists in the world, dancing or otherwise, to have a memoir land on the New York Times bestseller list. With two bestselling albums to her name, she’s releasing a third, Brave Enough, issued by her own self-titled label LindseyStomp.
“I have known from the beginning that what I wanted in my life was to try and do lots and lots of different things,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“I want to try different genres, in different places, wearing different costumes, doing lots of things people wouldn’t expect. That’s always been my approach, just to pursue whatever it is that interests me.”
Stirling believes that the broad appeal she’s cultivated, with a fan-base that includes the young, the old, pop-music fans, classical fans, video gamers, fantasy nerds, and dancers (professional and amateur) is a direct result of her many varied pursuits.
“Doing those videos, where I performed video-game songs,” she says with a laugh, “and doing them classically, that ended up appealing not only to gamers but to older generations, too, because it sounded sort of classical and orchestral and was really fun to listen to. My whole career has been a search for the answer to the question: ‘What can’t a violin do?’”
The way to answer that question, she soon figured out, was to play the violin in every context and style she could imagine. “To test yourself, you have to try everything, absolutely everything,” she says. “I don’t think I realized that that approach would earn me this huge audience, but I do think that’s a big part of what happened.”
For Stirling, who started her own rock group while in high school, and has always loved to dance, figuring out how to combine the two has been an enormous, and hugely fulfilling, artistic and emotional challenge.
“When I was first starting out, it was just so hard,” she says. “It’s all about practice, right? It takes quite a bit of practice to get these steps down and play at the same time. When I first decided to do this, it sometimes seemed impossible that I’d ever get it down. I’m not sure what made me stick with it, to tell the truth—because I really had to work so hard just to learn the simplest foot stomp.
“But somehow,” she goes on, “I just kept telling myself, ‘You know you can do this. You know you can do this!’ And when the foot stomp got easier, I decided to try twirling while playing, and it was the same thing all over again. That’s been the process, pushing the envelope little by little. I started out as the violinist doing weird movements while playing.
“Now,” she adds with another laugh, “I think I can call it actual dancing.”
Stirling, a self-described workaholic, says she is looking forward to getting back out on the road. For one thing, she claims she can use the exercise.
“I’ve been in writing and recording mode for a while,” she explains, “but now my body has to get ready to endure an hour-and-forty-minute show every night.
“People always ask me how I stay in shape while on the road,” she says, allowing that most people assume she spends her touring time relaxing on the bus, or chilling in hotel rooms or back stage, wolfing down a parade of room-service delicacies.
“That’s not it at all!” she insists. “Playing and dancing every night, that uses a lot of energy. I come back from a tour in the best shape of my life.”
Of Brave Enough, the album she’ll be touring in support of, Stirling says, “It’s got a very different feel to it from my other albums. The scariest thing to do as an artist is to try something new when something old has been working.
“But in this case, I think the fans are really gonna like it. I think they’re going to like the parts that sound like the old Lindsey, and that they’ll still be excited about the parts that are a bit of a new Lindsey.”
Half of the tracks on the album are collaborations with other artists, including featured vocalists on several tracks. Contributing are pop rocker Christina Perri, Christian hip-hopper Lecrae, blues rocker ZZ Ward, country music duo Dan + Shay, punk-pop artists Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, and Rivers Cuomo of the band Weezer.
“One thing I really wanted on this album was lots of diversity, and I think I really got that,” Stirling says. “It’s been fun to experiment with different styles of music. There’s even a Bollywood track. It’s a lot of different sounds, but there’s a unifying thread that moves through all of the different tracks, making them all feel like a part of one album.”
For Stirling, the album represents a dream team of artists she’s long respected, but until recently would never have dreamed would agree to collaborate with her.
“But, you know, the music world is a community,” she says. “We all love music. We love making music together, and if something sounds like a cool project, most musicians are usually down to participate.
“But,” she laughs, “it’s still a bit of a shock and a surprise when they actually say yes!”
The power of “Yes.” And the power of “Yet.” Those two words, Stirling says, have an incredible amount of power, something she’s had to learn the hard way, in an industry where so many people are ready to say “No,” “Not,” and “Stop.”
“I still remember,” Stirling says, “after that whole terrible experience with America’s Got Talent, thinking, ‘Are they right? Am I not good enough? What do I do now?’ And then I figured out that, yes, they were right. I wasn’t quite good enough . . . yet.
“But that was the key word—‘yet.’ When I did it on that show, I was 23. I was only just starting out trying to dance while I played the violin. It was hard, but I had to say, ‘OK. Maybe I’m not good enough, yet, to be doing this in front of millions of people.’ But, ‘yet’ was the key. I decided right then that I was going to work so hard that nobody ever again in my life would tell me I wasn’t good enough.”
And that’s what she did. “I got back to work, and I’ve worked very, very hard,” she says. “I learn a musical piece, and I learn it so well I can do it in my sleep. Then I learn the steps of the dance, and I practice until I can do that while I’m asleep. Then I put them together, and I practice, and practice, and practice.”
The driving force, she believes, is her faith that what she imagines can, with plenty of work, become something truly amazing.
“It was a very hard moment,” she says of the public criticism she received when being eliminated from the show. “It hurt a lot. And it took a while for me to bounce back—and getting back to work was scary and hard.”
In many ways, Brave Enough comes directly from that experience, and all she’s learned since.
“If I learned anything,” she says, “it’s that I’m not about to let someone else’s view of me destroy my own view of myself and what I know I am capable of.”
As Stirling moves ahead into a new phase of her life, she has a number of dreams that draw her on. She’d like to write more books. Perhaps make a movie. She has a whole list. “Oh, and someday I’d like to do Dancing With the Stars,” she confesses, apparently not entirely done with competitive reality TV. “I know, I know,” she says, “but that one is definitely on my list.” Another item on her list may come as a surprise.“I’ve decided I want to have a life,” she remarks. “I’ve been working on this really, really hard for the last year, trying to have more balance in my life.
“That was one of the other things that inspired this album—the idea that I had to stop hiding behind being a workaholic, or being constantly productive, and to actually be more vulnerable.”
Stirling supposes that, on a personal level, that’s where she’s grown the most over the course of the last year.
“I’ve been learning that, yes, to accomplish our dreams we do have to work hard in this life,” she notes, “but that it’s also important to play sometimes. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work really hard at, you know, not working so hard all the time.”
She laughs again. “That’s so me,” she says, “I even turn relaxation into a challenge!”
What Does Lindsey Stirling Play?
“Yamaha electric violins,” says Lindsey Stirling. “That’s my weapon of choice.” She has several that she plays when going for that electric sound, but when she needs something softer and sweeter, she reaches for Excalibur. Built by German maker Ernst Heinrich Roth, the instrument Stirling calls her favorite was built, she estimates, in the early 1900s. “It’s almost 100 years old,” she explains.
“I bought Excalibur when I decided I was really going to do this, when I said, ‘I’m going to be a professional violinist, so I guess I need a professional violin.’ And I went out and bought Excalibur.” She admits that’s a pretty big name for a violin. “Well,” she adds with a laugh, “it was a pretty big moment.”