Meet the multi-hyphenate musician who can “throw down and do a hoedown” with the best of ‘em, from Keith Urban to The Voice‘s latest champ. Story by Jimmy Lee.
Back in June, Christine Wu’s workweek started on Monday with a violin performance on the penultimate episode of NBC’s The Voice. On Wednesday, she was part of the band backing the newly crowned The Voice champ, Danielle Bradbery, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where viewers watched the cameras zoom in on Wu for a close-up during a fiddle solo. Her Thursday night gig was at the L.A. International Airport, playing with an orchestra at a special gala for local big- wigs, including the mayor, to preview a new terminal.
Just another atypical week at the office for the violinist, cellist, pianist, composer, producer and dancer.
But at one time, it was a rather conventional narrative — all too familiar to many Asian American children — for this daughter of a Taiwanese father who came to the U.S. and met her German American mother in grad school: Her parents forced her to play the violin, starting at the age of 2.
“I’m half-Asian; it’s my biological imperative to either play the piano or the violin before you can properly walk or speak,” says Wu, just one of many wisecracks that come from the irreverent 36-year-old. Despite wanting to quit, she exhibited a high musical aptitude, adding the cello and the piano to her repertoire by age 5. “My mother, she was trying to take the fun out of everything. She said, ‘That’s really great you can play Beethoven by ear, but you’re probably doing it wrong, so you need lessons.’”
Wu, who was born in Germany and moved frequently throughout the U.S. due to her physicist father’s jobs, was now required to practice all three instruments, every day, which cut into her playtime. So at 5 years old, Wu would wake up at 5 a.m., practice each instrument for half and hour and then go to school. “I was like my own tiger mother. I was like, ‘How can I game the system if I want to be free after school?’ I have to get up early.”
While a music undergrad at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, her jazz friends encouraged her to do something she thought she couldn’t do: improvise. That obstacle, too, was overcome. Now “I can jam or do whatever, and I love it,” says Wu. “It’s brought me some great opportunities.”
She’s supported famed singer-songwriter Paul Anka and Bollywood icon A.R. Rahman, traveling to far-flung places such as Uruguay and South Africa for concerts. Her talents have been displayed on American Idol and Dancing With The Stars. She’s even backed Billy Ray Cyrus. “Who knew that Asian nerd could throw down and do a hoedown?” jokes Wu, on playing behind the country crooner of “Achy Breaky Heart.” It worked out well because the next week Keith Urban’s people called her to play a fiddle part on one of his recordings.
Wu seems to take special delight in upending people’s expectations, like with Kenny Loggins. “He looks at me and he’s like, ‘I don’t think so,’ because … I’m Asian. [Loggins thinks] ‘she has to read music, and she can’t groove.’ But [his managers] are like, ‘Just give her a chance.’ So I get up there and do the thing, and I get the gig,” recounts Wu.
“I really have met a lot of my idols and worked with them. I would have never guessed, listening to [Loggins’] ‘Danny’s Song’ over and over again in high school, that I would be on stage with the guy, playing it in front of 8,000 people in Vegas.”
But getting to this point where she’s an in-demand session musician, who also composes commercial jingles, writes her own artsy pop songs and produces music videos, would not have been possible if she hadn’t gone against her dad’s wishes. After earning a graduate degree at the University of Southern California, she landed a full-time position with the Houston Symphony, beating out dozens of other violinists. “That was my straight job,” says Wu. “That was the job my dad wanted me to have, [with] tenure, benefits, job security.” But after five years in Houston, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2007 to devote her attention to working for herself.
“He still asks me if I’m making enough money, like my regular salary,” says Wu. “I tell my dad I make more money than I ever was working for the symphony. But then he says you have no job security. [I tell him] nobody does anymore. But he sees that I’m happy and making it work.”
Photo by Michael Becker. Originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Audrey Magazine. Get the issue here.