By Stephanie Powell
If her Instagram hasn’t caught your attention, her music surely has. What do The Lion King, Academy Award–winning composer Hans Zimmer, Barbara Streisand, and woolly mammoths all have in common? Tina Guo.
Guo is a 33-year-old Grammy-nominated acoustic/electric cellist, recording artist, and composer. She’s been featured playing both acoustic and electric cello on numerous Hollywood blockbuster films, including Inception, Dunkirk, Wonder Woman, and most recently The Lion King remake. (Yes, the one with Beyonce.) She moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to attend the University of Southern California, and started studio work in her second year. Her first studio sessions included recording music for Family Guy and American Dad, and eventually Guo went on to perform “Beat It” on the Ellen DeGeneres Show with the Michael Jackson “The Immortal” World Tour by Cirque du Soleil. Tina also was nominated for Female Artist of the Year at the Classic BRIT Awards last year. If that doesn’t scream “you’ve made it” in L.A., I’m not really sure what does.
More than 109,000 Instagram followers later, Guo has made a name for herself in the heart of Hollywood as an entrepreneur and one of the most sought-after session musicians. Guo took time out of her busy schedule (she just finished shooting, directing, and editing the music video for her own cover of the “Circle of Life,” which will be released July 5 on her YouTube channel) to talk about recording for the upcoming Lion King soundtrack, life as a studio musician, and her recording process.
How did this project come about?
Well, I’ve been working with Hans [Zimmer] for the last ten years—he saw my very first music video that I posted on YouTube on the electric cello, “Queen Bee.” He saw that video and reached out to me—a lot of the featured musicians he uses, he’s found all himself, many from YouTube, so I was very lucky that my friend, violinist Ann-Marie Simpson showed him my music video.
The very first project that we worked on together was Sherlock Holmes and it was solo acoustic cello for that one. Then we did Inception and we’ve been working together ever since. Recently we did the Wonder Woman main theme. That one was recorded on electric cello—most people actually think it’s guitar, but it’s actually electric cello. For Lion King, I played acoustic cello, so it’s just been a long relationship. I’ve been on the last two tours with him in 2016 and 2017, and finally this fall we’re touring Australia and Asia.
How does recording for a film soundtrack differ from your other recording projects?
It’s pretty much the same as far as the actual recording process. Most of my recording work, like 99 percent, is all solo work. So, the majority of it I can do from my own studio at home. I don’t have to put makeup on or drive anywhere—it’s really convenient [laughs]. It can save my clients time, especially if they’re on a time crunch and working on ten projects at one time. It’s easy to just send me all the files and then I deliver it back to them sometimes the same day. You also save on studio costs and engineering costs because I do all of my own engineering.
For the most part I work alone which is nice, but sometimes you get a little stir crazy. I do have two puppies now so they help [laughs].
Can you talk about the recording process? Any surprises?
The Lion King sessions were almost two entire weeks of recording. Hans enlisted the Re-Collective Orchestra [led by founders Matt Jones and Stephanie Matthews] in addition to the Hollywood Studio Symphony (Los Angeles–based session players) in addition to his band, which I’m a part of. The Re-Collective Orchestra is an amazing group of some of the best African-American Classical Players in America- and he flew them in to LA to record, which is unheard of! This was really shaking things up—flying people in from all over the country, and some of our other band members from the “Hans Zimmer Live Tour” from the UK also. Hans also brought back many of the people who worked on the soundtrack of the original film, including Lebo M, orchestrator Bruce Fowler, conductor Nick Glennie-Smith, plus several singers from the choir including Carmen Twillie (who performed “Circle of Life” in the 1994 film).
From my own perspective and everyone else that I spoke to, it was the most diverse, varied, amazing environment, and a great collection of people. It was a lot of fun to meet a bunch of new people, and to work with 100 people as opposed to sitting alone in my studio. Expect for the horrible traffic—at least an hour each way! [Laughs.] We recorded at Sony Pictures Studios at the Barbara Streisand Scoring Stage—that’s where they scored Star Wars and bunch of other major movies.
Hans always does things in wonderfully unconventional ways and sets new precedents and creates new trends. The approach we used to score this new 2019 film was also very unique in that we spent days first just rehearsing the parts, and recorded the entire score live in run-throughs, like a live performance. Hans wanted to capture the raw power and energy of a live performance!
What can we expect from the soundtrack?
The Lion King was the very first movie I ever saw in a movie theater; I went with my parents and my little brother, so I’ll never forget it. I mean that’s a memory engrained into my brain.
The official soundtrack list was released by Disney a week ago, and in addition to the score by Hans and original songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, there will be two brand new original songs, one performed by John and the other not yet announced. I’m particularly excited that “He Lives in You” performed by my friend Lebo M will be included- from the Broadway show.
So, for the most part, the material is pretty close to the original: there are different singers/actors for the songs of course. I think the new soundtrack will be bigger and better, with amazing production, lots of great musicians and a huge orchestra, tons of percussionists and drummers, and choirs recorded in Africa and Los Angeles. I’m super excited myself to hear the official soundtrack when it’s released next Friday!
You’re obviously familiar with the music, but is there anything specific you did to prepare?
The actual process of recording as a session musician requires general preparation of being well practiced, being able to play in tune, and knowing how to blend into a section and/or stand out. Although I do have some cello solos in the film score, I also played in the cello section during the full orchestral scoring period. There’s nothing that I did specifically to prepare for this particular recording session, just general preparation to be ready for any projects applies.
What advice would you give to aspiring studio musicians?
Always show up early! I learned my lesson in my very first orchestral scoring session when I arrived 30 minutes before it started, but somehow got lost walking from the parking lot to the scoring stage and had no idea that the red lightbulb outside the studio meant they were actively recording. Now, I show up at least an hour early. I think it’s very important to be able to sightread quickly and accurately. Almost all the time, unless there’s something insanely difficult or a special circumstance, you may get the part ahead of time, but for the most part you just walk in and play whatever music is in front of you.
I do get a lot of questions about people aspiring to be a session musician and aside from maybe meeting the right people and self-marketing, I think the most important thing is that you can play in tune and sightread immediately. Any mistakes made by musicians is money down the drain as everyone and everything is being hired and rented by the minute. It’s expensive to be ill-prepared! I think the most difficult thing for me was holding my breath and trying to be really, really quiet when you stop playing because sometimes you’re waiting for other musicians recording their parts if you have rests. Everyone is together on the giant scoring stage, so any noise is picked up and can ruin a take! It was just different than if I cough or make a squeaky sound when I’m recording myself in my home studio, I can just edit it out, but you can’t do that if there are 100 musicians and microphones all in the same room.
Can you tell us about your cello, bow and strings?
I usually perform and record on my main instrument—my beloved Gand & Bernadel. His name is Cello Guo, and he was born in 1880 in Paris. My bow is a modern bow by Ole Kanestrom, he’s a Norwegian-born bow maker living in Washington State. My favorite part of the bow is that the tip is made out of woolly mammoth, so his name is Woolly Mammoth Guo—I know, very creative. [Laughs.] For strings, I use Larsen Magnacore on all four strings.
Speaking of instrument stuff, I am doing a cello giveaway—it’s not playable, it’s more of a prop [from my new “Circle of Life” cover music video], and some of the jewelry featured in the video, too. More details will be announced this Friday at 8am during the livestream video premiere, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vSLNeFICW8.