A Few Minutes With Violinist Taylor Davis

Violinist/arranger/composer and video game enthusiast Taylor Davis chats about her first headline tour, her new album and how video game music is becoming more respected, rather than considered just “a bunch of beeping.”

Davis built her career by posting covers of video game songs, anime tunes and film scores on her YouTube channel, where she now has over 920,000 subscribers. She’s uploaded more than 130 videos, with theme songs ranging from the video game “Assassin’s Creed 3” to “Mission Impossible” to Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved anime “Princess Mononoke” to the British period drama “Downton Abbey.”  

But Davis doesn’t just cover video game music, she’s also been hired to play violin solos for video game soundtracks, including “The Banner Saga.”

And after releasing several albums devoted to video games, anime and films, as well as a Christmas album, in March she put out her self-titled debut of original material, which hit No. 10 on the classical chart.

In April Davis signed with management so she could start putting more effort into touring. Her first headline tour launches Sept. 29 in Northampton, Mass. She’ll be accompanied on the road by pianist Salome Scheidegger.

Photo: Aga Jones

You’ve been studying the violin since age 8. Was the violin always something you were passionate about? Was it your choice or did you parents want you to play?

Actually, I came to it myself, at first, and then my mom became a huge supporter of it because there were many times when I wanted to quit. (laughs) It’s a very difficult instrument, especially when you’re first starting out and so it can be pretty discouraging. But my mom was always very encouraging of me sticking with it, at least for a year and after that first year I remember then I felt like I could play enough things and sounded all right enough to want to continue myself. Initially I wasn’t really that interested in music, in learning to play an instrument. I was in an elementary school Christmas assembly one year and I saw a girl play “Silent Night” on her violin and for whatever reason I was just like really enthralled with the performance and I suddenly wanted to play the violin really bad. So I went home and asked my parents if I could try it out. My mom said she was really excited because that was something that she had always hoped maybe her kids maybe would want to play.  

You mentioned there were times in the beginning you wanted to quit. Do you remember a certain moment thinking, “I’m so in love with the violin, I want to pursue this years from now, as a career”?

Really, I have to say there was never a time when I got older, at least, that I thought I’d have a career in music because I had been told pretty much the entire time I was playing that you could really only have a career if you pursued teaching or you were good enough to get into one of the classic orchestras that could pay you enough money to live off of. I loved playing violin but it was one of those things where I always had in the back of my mind, “This is probably not going to be my career because it just sounds like it’s going to be too difficult” and I always kind of wanted to have a safety net, just in case, so I pursued a business degree. I did public relations as my degree in college and I just minored in music for scholarship purposes and just to keep it as a part of my life. But it was one of those things I didn’t know that this kind of a career existed at the time, when I was growing up because no one was doing this when I was younger. So I didn’t know what other possibilities there were until I was about to graduate college and that’s when I kind of discovered the whole YouTube world and decided to give that a try.

You recently signed with management. Your publicist mentioned that before that point you were managing your own career. Did you start off getting your name out there because of YouTube?

Yeah, absolutely. I’d been posting for over five years and it started very casually. I had a business day job while I was posting for the first couple of years. It was kind of one of those things where my audience started to grow slowly but enough to the point where it started to take off and I thought maybe, you know, I could make a career out of it. I quit my business day job and I put all my time and effort into creating my first album, which was Gaming Fantasy. I put that up for sale and I had no idea how well it was going to do or if people were even going to buy it. It was kind of taking a risk for six months there, not really knowing what the outcome was going to be. Up until a few months ago I’ve never actually been able to make a living form YouTube itself because I do so many cover songs. There’s a lot of trouble with copyrights that they’re trying to fix. The majority of my income thus far has come through album sales and so for the first, almost full five years of my career on YouTube I was self-managed and built everything as I could and reinvested earnings from [albums] and from my first business job into doing higher-quality productions. That’s kind of how it’s been since I started.

How long ago did you start working with your management team and what made you want to start working with them specifically?

I started working with my management team I think it was right around April 1. I had kind of gotten to a point in my career where I knew what I would be able to achieve if I just continued on by myself and I knew there were limitations. It was one of those things where I wanted to discover what the next level could be. To get to the next level in my mind – touring, more live performances, that kind of thing – I knew I was going to need a professorial team to help me with that. I had put on a couple of my own live shows last year in different parts of the U.S. I managed all that and had to be the point of contact for all the details. And that was just a lot of work and a lot of stress to be not only organizing but also performing. I loved the experience of performing live and getting to meet fans for the first time. That was really amazing. So it was something that I wanted to do more of but I just knew I couldn’t do it all by myself. So one of the main reasons for looking for management, back in March … was because I really wanted to start touring.

You’ve covered a bunch of songs from video games and looking through your Facebook page, you’re obviously really passionate about playing video games. Have you always been a video game fan?

Yes, I’ve actually been gaming since before I started playing the violin. I pretty much have my brother to thank for that because he’s my only sibling and early on he kind of made it his mission to turn me into a younger brother instead of a younger sister. (laughs) So I was very much a tomboy growing up. I played with GI Joes and I played video games. That was just something I grew up with and I loved doing.  

Do you have a favorite video game?

Yes. “Final Fantasy 7” is my all-time favorite.

Do you have a favorite song from a video game to perform?

Ooh! To perform – that is a good question. I haven’t thought about a very favorite. I will say one of my favorites to perform is “Gerudo Valley” from “Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” 

You’ve recorded violin solos for video game scores. How did you actually break into that world? Was that when you were managing yourself?

Yeah and actually it came through one of my YouTube videos. The first time that I had really gotten in touch with a composer in the video game industry who was interested in working with me, that was Austin Wintory and I decided to do a video for the music from the game “Journey.” It’s a beautiful game score. It actually got nominated for a Grammy the year that it [came] out. Austin did an amazing job with it. So I’d gotten in contact with him and just told him that I was planning on making this video and wondered if that would be OK with him and everything. And he was so nice and so supportive about it. And once the video came out he just really loved it and was really supportive of it on social media. And we kept in touch and we’re actually really good friends now and he’s hired me for a bunch of different projects. Probably the most well-known one that I worked on with him was “The Banner Saga.” I did all the violin solos for that game. So it’s one of those things that was a really cool relationship that developed directly from having done one of my YouTube videos.

It seems like it would be so neat to put on the game and actually hear your violin solo.

Yeah, definitely. I mean, being such a huge gamer myself, it’s one of things that I’d love to do more of in the future for other games.   

You released your self-titled debut of original music in March. Before that you’d several albums devoted to video game music, as well as 2013’s Legendary Movie Music and your 2012 Christmas album. Did you previously not have enough original material to put out your own album or were you kind of testing the waters with the first releases?

First I was more testing the waters with the other albums because, you know, cover songs already have a built-in audience and it’s easier to get people interested in those. And I just love that kind of music. So it fit. I’ve never covered a song I didn’t at least like a lot. I usually choose songs from games or shows that I really like or that I’ve played or watched or whatever.

Doing the cover albums has always been fun but in the back of my mind I was always thinking how cool it would be to do an album with original music. So I tested that out with two songs from my original album that I released as singles before I decided to make an entire original album. And those went over really well on my channel. People really liked it. And I’m very active with engaging with my audience and … I like hearing their opinions. So for a couple of years I was like, “What do you guys think? Should I make a whole album? Would you guys like this?” and thankfully there was a lot of support for it. And I ended up doing a PledgeMusic campaign to fund the original album and it got funded within the first week, which I was really surprised about. So it was really awesome and [I was] very grateful to have that much support from my audience. And so that’s kind of how the original album came together.

Just looking through your Facebook page, you obviously interact with fans all the time, replying to comments.

Yeah, I really like the interaction. … My current management, they’re always willing to be helpful where they can be or where I want them to be but I still have whatever say if I want to manage my own social media, which I do for the most part. So if I’m answering somebody that’s me. It’s just something I really enjoy doing.

Photo: facebook.com/TaylorDavisViolin

What was the songwriting process like for your new album?

So I had a couple of backtracks that I’d already written that weren’t very good, in terms of the production quality. They weren’t anywhere near final product. I brought them to a producer and we worked on a couple of those together to really rework them to get them up to the quality standard I needed for the album. I did a couple of the songs fully by myself. I actually also really enjoy the production aspect of things but it’s something that I’m not formerly trained in and it’s something that I’m just self-taught in. So it’s kind of a struggle for me sometimes. It just takes a lot longer for me to put things together. I also worked with a producer to co-write backtracks for a number of other songs. And then all of the violin parts, that’s what I do by myself in my home studio. I just go off what we’ve done with the backtracks and then for most of the songs I would kind of come up with a melody and then we would maybe re-tailor the backtrack completely around that melody or make some pretty big changes based on what I decided I wanted to do with the violin melody. So it was different for each song but that’s kind of the process. 

Do you have a favorite track you recommend people check out?

I would say probably two different ones depending on their mood. If they were looking for something a little more epic, I would say “Soulbound.” If they were looking for something a little bit more subdued or tranquil, I would say “Morning Star.” Those are my two favorites.

Because you started out with anime and game covers, do you find that you’re reaching out to more of a younger audience who wouldn’t necessarily be listening to classical violin music?

My [main] demographic, at least according to YouTube … is somewhere between 20 and 35. … [Although] the anime is a little bit newer, a lot of the games [I cover] are considered classic games, like my generation’s gaming collections and so a lot of those people are more around my age than a much younger audience. But it is kind of a diverse audience, which is really cool. So it just kind of shows the wide appeal of this type of music. It’s not just a younger demographic, it’s … all the way up to 50s.

Another goal that I had was just kind of completely tailoring my channel around this type of music. This has always been my favorite type of music. You know, I can appreciate and respect other styles and but the video game/film/anime/all that soundtrack type work is my very favorite. And for a long time, it just wasn’t that respected and people just kind of didn’t understand like, if you said you liked video game music, they would kind of look at you funny and think, “What the heck is that? Just like a bunch of beeping?”

They didn’t understand that it was really actually beautiful melodies and really nicely done. And so now I feel like a lot more people are starting to respect it as a legitimate genre, which is great to see.

I’m definitely seeing more of those tours being announced in recent years, like “Legend Of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddeses,” where they have an orchestra performing music from the video game. I went with my husband to “Symphony of Goddesses” and I don’t play video games so I wasn’t familiar with the music, but I thought it was beautiful and I could appreciate it.  

Yeah, that’s the thing. I think people don’t realize how close it is to classical music sometimes. I kind of think of it as classical music but in a more pop song format so it’s not as long. And so it appeals to a wider range of people – people with shorter attention spans, like myself (laughs), because I prefer it to classical music. But yeah, it’s neat to see that. The “Final Fantasy” series has the “Distant Worlds” concerts. I remember going to one of those in Detroit, where I used to live a few used ago, and it sold out so fast. A lot of people are really, really interested in this type of music now.

The upcoming fall tour is considered your first headline tour in the U.S. Before that, had you just done one-off dates here and there?

Yes. I’ve never done a full tour. The performances I did last year, which were my own shows, just two in April I think they were about a week a part. One of them was in New York and the other was in San Francisco. And in September I just did two again at that time and one was in Los Angeles and the other was in Seattle. So this is definitely going to be a change for me because I flew in and out for those really quickly and this is going to be a full 20-date, goes back-to-back [tour] and all the different cities across the U.S. So I’m really excited. It’ll be a cool experience I think.

What’s your live show like? You’re going to be touring with one of your friends who is a pianist.

Yes. Her name is Salome Scheidegger. She is an amazing piano player. We met through a mutual project that we used to be involved with and we kind of just stayed in touch and stayed friends. We’re very close friends now, which is really nice. I asked her if she was interested in coming on tour with me for this and thankfully she was. I think that’s going to make it really fun. She actually played at my two shows in September last year. The first ones in April I just did those by myself and I had my orchestra backtrack playing along with the video visuals. And then the ones in September I had Salome with me and it was just such a different feeling on stage, having that extra presence there, someone to play off of and really engage with on stage. And then we did a few songs that were just violin/piano, which was really kind of a nice break from all of the overwhelming (laughs) orchestral instruments going on in the other songs. So it was nice and added a good dynamic to the shows.

I really knew that I wanted to have a piano player and she was definitely my first choice for the tour. The live shows this fall will be similar to the ones I did in September. It’s going to be a wide range between the different styles – we’re going to do some acoustic, just violin/piano and then also there will be some of the most fully orchestral with the backtracks. I’ll also have my videos playing. There will be some new arrangements that people haven’t heard before. I’m just really excited to show those to people.

Photo: Aga Jones

Upcoming dates for Taylor Davis:

Sept. 29 – Northampton, Mass., Iron Horse Music Hall       
Sept. 30 – Cambridge, Mass., The Regattabar
Oct. 2 – New York, N.Y., HighLine Ballroom         
Oct. 3 – Vienna, Va., Jammin’ Java  
Oct. 4 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
Oct. 6 – Chicago, Ill., Park West       
Oct. 7 – Ferndale, Mich., The Magic Bag     
Oct. 8 – Nashville, Tenn., 3rd & Lindsley     
Oct. 9 – Atlanta, Ga., Vinyl At Center Stage           
Oct. 11 – Portland, Ore., Alberta Rose Theatre
Oct. 12 – Seattle, Wash., The Triple Door     
Oct. 14 – Oakland, Calif., Yoshi’s Oakland
Oct. 16 – Hollywood, Calif., Hotel Cafe      
Oct. 17 – Hollywood, Calif., Hotel Cafe      
Oct. 18 – Mesa, Ariz., Mesa Arts Center      
Oct. 20 – Salt Lake City, Utah, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
Oct. 21 – Denver, Colo., Soiled Dove Underground            
Oct. 25 – Houston, Texas, Bronze Peacock At House Of Blues      
Oct. 26 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues      
Oct. 28 – Austin, Texas, The Long Center For The Performing Arts

Visit TaylorDavisViolin.com for more information and be sure to check out her Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube pages.