Vanessa-Mae Is Back Where She Belongs

She’s been off the scene for a while but Vanessa-Mae’s back with her most exciting disc to date.

Vangelis (Chariots Of Fire), Tolga Kashif (Queen Symphony), Bill Whelan (River Dance), Vanessa-Mae (that T-shirt)… the names on Vanessa-Mae's album, Choreography – a collection of original orchestral works with V-M soloing on violin –read like a Who’s Who of classical crossover.

Classic FM meets the violin virtuoso at a Notting Hill recording studio to find out more. 

“We finished at four in the morning yesterday,” Vanessa-Mae tells Classic FM. She affects a weary air but she’s clearly thrilled to be back in a studio (her last album of fresh material was released in 2001). 

“It’s my normal rhythm: I sleep during the day and work at night. It’s been like this since I was a little girl. I’ve always preferred late recording sessions.” 

If you’ve just joined us from Mars you might be forgiven for thinking that the lady speaking these words – Vanessa-Mae came to the UK from Singapore when she was three but hasn’t quite lost her oriental inflection – is, oh, about 35. Wrong. As any red-blooded classical watcher with a calculator can tell you, she’s just 25 (26 this October) with an incredible eight million album sales under her chin. 

Her output ranges from classical warhorses such as the Tchaikovsky violin concerto to acid jazz, rock and flamenco but it was her best-selling pop album The Violin Player (released 1995) that made her name and that is, according to industry guru Rob Dickins, the mastermind behind Dances With Time, the new album’s inspiration. But if I thought I could suggest as much to Vanessa-Mae, I was wrong. 

“The Violin Player was a big hit for me but this album is not a Violin Player II. I don’t ever want to retrace my steps. I’ve always broken new ground. When I came on the picture 10 years ago there wasn’t a crossover scene. I stretched the violin beyond its classical heritage. My music is always about going forwards.” 

And occasionally backwards, too? 

OK, she concedes, the new album does revisit old territory. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s an area I haven’t visited before. I dabbled in pure classical at the start of my career, then in my mid-teens I did crossover – cover versions of pop songs, synthesised music and I played with rock bands. I’ve tried many things in my career and I’d say this new album is a coming together of those experiences. It’s not virgin territory for me.” 

So what does it sound like? Cut to Rob Dickins. The founder of Warner Classics and the Classical BRITs – and along the way, the man who signed The Sex Pistols and revived Cher’s career – has invited me to his London offices to hear the new CD’s backing tracks. I say “backing” but what I’m hearing through Dickins’s speakers is a 60-piece symphony orchestra (the Royal Philharmonic) on full throttle. The only second fiddles playing here are in the orchestra. 

“We’ve had 10 years of classical crossover – basically, old classical music with a dance beat,” says Dickins. “People are tired of it. They want emotion in their music. We’ve taken that old “four on the floor” approach and thrown it out.” 

At first sight, the new disc’s treatment of dance forms such as minuet, bolero and tango wouldn’t seem to promise much in the way of raw emotion but in the hands of composers as diverse as Vangelis and VK Raman, that’s just what you get. Take the bolero piece, written by French composer Walter Taeib – best known for The Alchemist Symphony, a seven-movement work based on the best-selling novel by Paolo Coelho. Taeib’s take on the familiar crescendo of snare drums and massed strings, punctuated by a calmer, more restful central section, is an arresting opener. 

Save for Tolga Kashif’s full-blooded arrangement of the Sabre Dance and an exquisite Handel minuet, all the music is freshly commissioned material and incredibly varied. There’s VK Raman’s dance work, a culture clash of Indian and Italian Baroque styles, Bill Whelan’s Emerald Tiger blending Chinese and Irish dance music (listen for the bodhrans) and Tribal Gathering – a powerful, driving piece in which each instrument represents the animals emerging from the jungle. 

“I want this disc to be like a nuclear bomb going off,” says Dickins. “Everyone thinks they know what the next Vanessa-Mae disc is going to be like. Not this one, they don’t.” 

So how is Vanessa-Mae, an artist used to being in charge and working with a small team on a far narrower canvas, coping with so many different composers and styles? 

Back in her recording studio, she’s resolutely upbeat… 

“Sure it’s been tough; I’m having to be much more accepting of other peoples’ opinions and tastes. But that said, I am the artist and everyone – the composers and the producers – has been very accommodating.” 

Her favourite track is by VK Raman. “Despite being Oriental myself, I’ve never really performed Oriental music. Raman brings an authenticity to this music that we’d never have found in a western composer.” 

A European tour is planned to support the new album, something Vanessa-Mae is clearly looking forward to: “I come to life on stage!” 

Dickins reckons she’s an electrifying performer, “the classical equivalent of a rock legend like Jimmy Page.” So it comes as a shock to hear her last tour was 2001. She dodges the inevitable question and explains she’s been “bumming around.”

“I tried snowboarding but my instructor put me on a red slope the first day and wrecked my confidence. Skiing’s my first love. Once the album’s finished I’m off to the slopes!” 

And then another album? Something classical? It’s a subject Vanessa-Mae has strong views about. “Maybe one day I’ll record a pure classical album but then I ask, what would be the point? My idol is Jascha Heifetz. Am I supposed to just spend my career trying to better his performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, which I performed at 12? 

“If you’re doing the 150th recording of the Tchaikovsky it becomes a competition to finish faster without any bum notes. Why not be realistic about the changing world we live in? Why not commission composers and, like Yo-Yo Ma, perform new repertoire? Once you’ve tasted classical crossover, because there’s a creative, raw element to it that doesn’t exist in just interpreting the classics, you can’t say goodbye to it.” 

She does seem very work-focused. In fact, only now is she seriously considering writing her autobiography – “apart from my work there’s been nothing to write about’.”

The closest she gets to scandal is admitting a fondness for the occasional glass of Guinness. No Charlotte Church-style growing pains, either: last month she celebrated her fifth anniversary with French boyfriend Lionel Catelan. Instead, she explains, the book will focus on how she had to grow up so quickly and how her career has been a journey through so many cultures. 

“It will be readable, not just loads of pictures,” she says. 

Scant pickings for the T-shirt fanciers, then. And scant time for further conversation. It’s time for V-M to get back to the business of recording and with the clock reading 5pm, she’s got 11 hours of graft ahead. But, as she signs off with a light giggle, you’d never know. Clearly, Vanessa-Mae enjoys her work.