One of the most inspiring success stories of 2011-2013, and certainly among my own favorite discoveries of last year, was an elfish little lady named Lindsey Stirling. Ever a fan of underdogs, I fell in love with her story the moment I first heard it. Of course, it also helped that her self-titled debut album, Lindsey Stirling, rocked—an immediately appealing and eminently danceable fusion of classical, Celtic folk, new age and dub step.
She is also one of the single greatest live performers I have ever seen and having had a former career as a professional booking agent I have seen many. It wasn’t the scale or production value; it was her. While entertaining, her videos don’t fully convey the electrifying passion and energy of her live performances. This is an artist committed to giving her absolute everything from opening note to final bow. This, despite the fact that the show I was at had a very small turnout because her fan base where I now live in Seoul, Korea, isn’t as humongous as in Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world. But she performed her heart out as if she had been in front of thousands (the mark of a true professional) and I left the show riding on a transcendent high, determined to step up my own game as a writer.
But as her fans know, it took a lot of tears and setbacks to get where she is now. Her parents initially couldn’t afford to pay for the violin lessons she begged for as a kid so they tried to get her “half-lessons,” which won the disapproval of teachers who insisted that a child cannot learn to play on just 15 minutes a week. Fortunately for Lindsey, her parents were eventually able to find a young teacher who agreed to take her under her wing. Since this left no more money for the dance lessons that she also wanted, she effectively taught herself how to dance by watching videos on YouTube and did not even receive her first formal dance lesson until 2011.
After years of devoted hard work landed her on Season 5 of America’s Got Talent, she was “buzzed out” by Piers-or-what’s-his-face and viciously told that she wasn’t talented enough to both dance and play the violin at the same time. In interviews and on her own blog she has talked about how that was the most painful moment of her career but that it was also the best thing that happened to her in that it filled her with the drive and resolve to become a better artist:
“I admit that the things that were said to me on live, national TV were extremely hurtful. I was devastated at the results and it was almost serial [sic] that something that had nearly consumed my life for so long was instantaneously gone. Yes it was painful, and a bit humiliating; however, I had to relearn where it was that I drew my strength.”
I’m quite big on this most painful moment-as-greatest motivation thing and have written about it in my posts on motivational speaker Lizzie Velasquez and dark archetypes from pop culture. Check out the AGT video below. The judges start critiquing her at the 3:24 mark (but be warned if you have a hard time watching artists get their spirits crushed, it isn’t easy to watch).
A few years, countless hours of self-improvement and some brilliant YouTube marketing campaigns later, she has become one of the biggest indie artists out there with over 4.5 million subscribers on her YouTube channel and her most popular videos getting views in the tens of millions and up. The scale of her sudden, meteoric rise to success is staggering, but one thing is clear: the uniqueness of her violin-dance act, her personal story, her do-it-yourself attitude and her insistence on staying true to her voice despite some very severe criticism has struck a chord with audiences around the world.
Her inspirational story alone makes her an ideal subject for Pop Mythology, and ever since seeing her live I’ve wanted to write about her in some capacity. But as if this wasn’t enough, she is also a self-professed nerd and often covers material from all the essential geek classics with cosplay often being a key element in her videos: Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim and many more. Check out this beautiful cover of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score:
(Yes, that is her own voice doing the singing there midway and I think you just fell in love, didn’t you?)
Though busy with nearly non-stop touring since the release of her debut album, Lindsey has somehow found the time to write and record new material and today released a new album, Shatter Me.
Not as instantly catchy as the first album, Shatter Me takes a few listens to start to get into but there’s solid work in here and if you’re a fan then it’s definitely worth the purchase.
Lindsey has always seemed taken with the symbolism and imagery of being trapped, of breaking free, rising and flying. Songs like “Song of the Caged Bird” (the bird being herself, of course), “Transcendence” (my personal favorite) and “Anti-Gravity” explored these motifs in her first album and are further developed here on soaring, inspirational anthems like “Take Flight” and “Ascendance.” Even the album cover art depicts a diminutive ballerina figure trapped inside a cracking musical globe.
The title single “Shatter Me”—a collaboration with Halestorm front-woman Lzzy Hale and one of Lindsey’s first attempts at writing lyrics—makes this theme of breaking through more explicit:Somebody shine a light I’m frozen by the fear in me Somebody make me feel alive And shatter me
and:If I break the glass, then I’ll have to fly There’s no one to catch me if I take a dive I’m scared of changing, the days stay the same The world is spinning but only in rain
It isn’t clear if this is Lindsey baring her heart as it felt post-America’s Got Talent or as it feels now post-success, though I suspect it’s the latter (after all, success doesn’t make artists’ fears go away; it just gives them more resources to express them). Shatter Me as a whole seems to back up this impression not just thematically but also stylistically. Just the fact that two of the tracks contain vocals—both with lyrics written by Lindsey and both very much Top 40 pop singles territory—suggest that she’s seeking to explore new territory and perhaps even grow out, eventually, of the potentially limiting dubstep-violinist label that she started out with.
Shatter Me is also a more progressive album with songwriting of increased complexity and subtlety, traversing a greater range of sub-genres without straying too far from the violin-dubstep combo that made her famous. Because of this, it isn’t as cohesive or consistent a work as Lindsey Stirling but ultimately more rewarding in some ways. And if her love for Michael Jackson wasn’t apparent enough from the debut’s “Moon Trance” song and video, there’s yet another MJ tribute here in “Night Vision” (she herself does a pretty mean moonwalk that would do MJ proud).
This is the sound of an artist trying to honor her impulse to grow and evolve artistically without alienating her core audience at the same time. It’s also an encouraging sign that she isn’t an artist content to remain in just one place for too long, not just figuratively but literally.
And just like in the cover art, the glass hasn’t fully shattered yet. It’s only begun cracking. Who knows what a few more years of experimentation and growth will bring?
You can bet Pop Mythology will be there to find out.