Cellist Tina Guo, heard in Wonder Woman theme, on touring with Hans Zimmer, Slash’s solos and horrifying her parents
Wielding her electric cello with the flair and dexterity of a guitar god, Shanghai-born Guo, currently on tour with film music legend Hans Zimmer, says her repressed childhood helped make her the performer she is today
Even if you don’t recognise her name, you’ll have heard Tina Guo’s music. The Shanghai-born cellist and erhu player can be heard on the soundtracks to some of the biggest pop culture films of recent years, including the just-released Dunkirk, as well as Iron Man 2, Inception, Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: First Class and Clash of the Titans.
Most recently, she lent her distinctively ferocious electric cello sound to the Wonder Woman theme Is She With You?, used in both the recent stand-alone film and the lasso-wielding heroine’s appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
She has also created music for a host of video games, performed alongside Justin Bieber, Foo Fighters, Stevie Wonder, Ariana Grande and Joe Bonamassa, and featured on hundreds of other artists’ albums.
In February, she released Game On!, an album of the most popular video game music, including tunes from Tetris, The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft, Pokemon, Final Fantasy and Halo.
“I like to punish myself,” laughs the busy musician, who moved to the US with her family when she was five. Speaking via Skype, Guo was at home in Los Angeles during a rare break from her tour with composer Hans Zimmer.
A musician with a strong entrepreneurial instinct, Guo has many strings to her bow. Over the years, her interests have grown to include a line of instruments and merchandise, a musical sample library, and an entertainment company. Sometimes, she manages to squeeze in a little practice too.
Guo’s routine sounds exhausting, but she thrives on the energy and momentum of her business and performing responsibilities. Being on tour with Zimmer is “like a vacation” compared to her usual routine, as she doesn’t have to worry about logistics. Her only responsibility is to show up and play, her favourite thing in the world.
The 31-year-old, who admits she hasn’t yet had chance to watch Wonder Woman, describes Zimmer, 59, as “like a brother-dad.” The German-born composer/producer contacted Guo in 2009 after he saw her Queen Bee video, a metal remake of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous 19th century interlude, Flight of the Bumblebee. Guo threw all her savings into creating a dark and disturbing video in which she appears as the gold-painted queen bee herself, complete with strategically placed black bandages.
The video channels all the great rock music video tropes – thrashing hair, unsettling cutaways of writhing forms, band members in eyeliner, bedecked in heavy metal finery – and features shots of Guo emerging nude from a creepy chrysalis.
The risqué film landed her an 18+ warning on YouTube, while also earning the kudos of both metal and classical fans, who marvelled at the speed of her playing and the video’s erotic themes. But while establishing her as an international sensation, it also “horrified” her parents, both of whom are classical music teachers.
“It was bad – they were really freaking out,” Guo says. “Admittedly [the video was] a bit extreme, but I wasn’t trying to be shocking. I just thought, ‘I’m trying to be a bee, and bees don’t wear clothing; they’re gold and have black stripes.’ But they thought I’d brought shame on the family and that all their students would quit, but none of them did – they actually got new students, so it was okay.”
Guo’s love of dressing up likely stems from feeling deprived of that experience as a child. “I think it’s a psychological reaction because I never got to play when I was a kid. I grew up in such a strict, conservative, super traditional household and I never had Halloween costumes or anything like that,” she says.
“I really didn’t have much of a childhood, I was always working and practising, I didn’t go on field trips or to birthday parties. When I turned 18 and went to college, I went artistically crazy. I guess it was worth it in the end: I don’t think I would be the same person if it wasn’t for how much I was repressed.”
For years, Guo struggled to shake the feeling that her musical ability had come at the expense of important childhood experiences, and she carried a lot of resentment towards her upbringing. Now an established and respected musician, she is grateful for her parents’ coaching and discipline; they, in turn, are among her biggest supporters, and were even in the crowd when Guo joined Zimmer to play at the Coachella festival in California this year.
“I asked them, ‘Do you know what you’re getting into?’ I had to reiterate that there weren’t any seats and that it was in the middle of the desert. They were amazed at how different it was from a classical concert, with everyone screaming and stuff, but they had a good time. I’d converted my parents, which was a pretty big feat!”
Before signing with Sony Masterworks last year, Guo had released a string of self-published albums including the Grammy-nominated Inner Passion – a new age album produced in collaboration with US pianist and composer Peter Kater. Game On!, her major label debut, came about after representatives from Sony watched her perform with Zimmer at Wembley Stadium in London, after which they pitched the idea of an album of game themes.
“It was perfect timing,” Guo says. “I’d already done an album of the greatest Hollywood themes and I’ve played on a lot of video game scores. There’s so much amazing game music with many different genres of music within it, and I had already planned to do a video game album after the tour last year.” She will also star in a series of accompanying music videos, each with its own crazy costumes; a childhood dream come true.
Sometimes, Guo’s videos attract comments from viewers who assume that her revealing stagewear is nothing more than shrewd image-sculpting by leery industry executives. It’s an observation that used to rile her, but nowadays she’s more likely to smile and roll her eyes.
“I’m the one controlling everything. I’ve always done exactly what I wanted,” she says. “I direct most of my own videos, I do all the production and the editing. I used to get so angry and offended at negative comments … a lot of people would write, ‘It’s so sad how someone must be telling her to wear these outfits.’ I’m sure that happens all the time, but I’m a bit bullheaded.”
Watching Guo’s videos and live performances, it’s hard to imagine that beneath the studs, leather and gothic make-up lies an “awkward, antisocial, nerdy person”. She describes her younger self as “the girl who just played cello all day and wore garage sale clothes”, and had no friends.
She recalls one lonesome, yet pivotal, summer afternoon spent in the library, when she stumbled upon a paragraph in a book about Marilyn Monroe, whose off-screen persona was said to be as studied as her acting.
“It said that even the way she entered a room, the way that she walked, she would practise for three to four hours. So after I read that, I looked at myself and realised that I was really awkward. So I started practising how I walked, how I’d stand, but it took a very long time.”
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Performing at recitals used to take a lot of courage for the self-conscious cellist, but after years of practising and learning how to act confident on stage, she no longer experiences the same nerves. “I now feel completely free. It’s almost like a meditative state,” she says.
Monroe wasn’t the only Marilyn who made an impact on Guo during her formative years. When she was 13, the school goth lent her a Marilyn Manson album, exposing her to a sound she describes as the “complete opposite of everything” else in her life at the time.
When her parents weren’t listening, she’d secretly take her classical tapes out of her old boom box and replace them with the industrial rocker’s songs instead. From there, her collection of heavy metal grew, and came to include Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. “I’d never heard guitar solos until Slash. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool. I wish I could do that, but I play the cello.’” Although it would be years until Guo began infusing metal techniques into her repertoire, those records planted the seeds of rebellion in her young mind.
Guo’s internet access was limited until she went to university, bought her first laptop and discovered YouTube and Facebook. Already aware of Finnish group Apocalyptica, pioneers of cello metal, Guo bought her first electric cello and would binge-watch videos of virtuoso shredders such as Steve Vai while wondering how she could apply her cello skills to a rock setting. The instrument is usually played from a seated position, which didn’t really lend itself to rock’s wild and energetic performances, so she practised balancing while standing up. She experimented with lots of guitar pedals, changing the tone and distortion of her cello until it was virtually indistinguishable. It’s almost impossible to tell that the Wonder Woman theme wasn’t composed on an electric guitar.
“It all came from me listening to these amazing guitar solos – I guess I found a way to emulate that, using an instrument I know how to play.”
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“I don’t think I’ll have time to take a break until mid-November. I admit I’m not very good at scheduling off-time. I do find myself overloading a little bit, but I guess I’ll keep doing it while I’m young,” she laughs.
“In the entertainment and music industries, new opportunities always come up. I always try to seize every chance, and I love it. I love what I do.”