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 Celine 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
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 maintaining
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."
Special thanks to Andy Craven for sending us this Live Wire magazine.
The copyright of this article belongs to the Livewire magazine