EXCLUSIVE: SAMARA GINSBERG - THE WORLD'S COOLEST CELLIST?
Updated: Sep 12
In thirty years time, what will you most remember about COVID-19? I won't dignify my own question with an answer, because ultimately, we've all experienced a unique combination of highs and lows.
Let's agree, though, that there's been no shortage of creative levity throughout. Among this group of innovative creators is Samara Ginsberg - one of the most versatile cellists of our generation. Throughout lockdown, Samara, of South East London, has penetrated thousands of hearts and raised millions of smiles with her gloriously nostalgic reimagining of classic TV theme tunes.
"To be honest, I was hiding under the kitchen table panicking about whether I was going to get sued for copyright infringement!"
As I sit here now, Wednesday 9 September 2020, Samara's reimagining of Knight Rider has accumulated 3.5 million views on Twitter and 1.2 million on YouTube. Equal delight has descended upon her 'Airwolf', 'Star Wars' & 'X-Men' performances, to name just three. With Samara's nostalgic recitals making international news, I wonder how it feels to be simultaneously in the eye of a viral storm and a global pandemic. Samara was kind enough to accommodate my curiosity via an exclusive interview - so scroll down... let's see.
CK: Forgive my bluntness, but when I was a kid, were you peeping through my curtains? Somehow, you've effortlessly tapped into my entire adolescence. Knight Rider is arguably an obvious choice, but Ulysees? Jesus, that's meta. I love it! Tell us how you chose which classics to reimagine.
SG: I have never peeped through anybody’s curtains! Initially, I was just thinking of great themes that would work well for multiple cellos, but then people started making requests, so it’s partly audience engagement and partly the weird recesses of my fevered brain.
CK: So, I have your assurance that you weren't peeping?
SG: Peeping through curtains to spy on a child? Sounds like something Santa would do. He always freaked me out.
CK: Agreed - plus, I'm not sharing my cookies with anyone. Screw him! Your first theme tune, Inspector Gadget, appeared one month into lockdown. Was COVID-isolation the driving force?
SG: It sure was! That arrangement pretty much jumped into my head fully formed, and lockdown gave me the time and motivation to put the video together. I really only did it to make other musicians laugh and had no idea it was going to go viral. In fact, I very nearly didn’t post it at all because I thought it wasn’t good enough.
"It’s one of the most frustrating things about being a classical musician - all we want is for people simply to enjoy it and for everybody to feel welcome, but there’s so much cultural baggage that can get in the way..."
CK: On Twitter, you have a brilliant wit and are very funny. Combine that with your theme tune recitals, is it fair of me to say that you're helping make a traditionally 'fringe' art more accessible to the masses? I love classical music, I always have, but it's hardly a traditional source of viral entertainment.
SG: Thank you! I would never presume to say that I’m making classical music more accessible - it feels a bit arrogant to think that I can solve entrenched perceptions with a few YouTube videos. This idea of classical music being “inaccessible” is such a tough nut to crack. It’s one of the most frustrating things about being a classical musician - all we want is for people simply to enjoy it and for everybody to feel welcome, but there’s so much cultural baggage that can get in the way of that simple enjoyment. But if some people have used my silly videos as a 'gateway drug' into Brahms and Stravinsky, I couldn’t be happier!
CK: Your Knight Rider video has 3.5 million views on Twitter and 1.5 million on YouTube - making it your biggest viral hit. As a classically-trained musician, can you please tell us simpletons why we're so bloody obsessed with that tune? Is there some sneaky wizardry in its construction?
SG: Sneaky wizardry? Not really, it’s just a cracking tune. The only specific thing I can think of is that it has uneven phrase lengths - sometimes you’ll get a five bar phrase when you were expecting four, that sort of thing. Also, the production on that theme was so quintessentially 80s - those synth patches couldn’t have come from any other decade. I think a lot of non-musicians don’t appreciate how crucial production and instrumentation are in creating stylistic markers.
CK: Before I forget - your leather jacket in that video was a beautifully subtle touch. Bravo! Did you consider a mullet?
SG: Absolutely not! Some things should remain in the 80s.
CK: I'm always fascinated to hear how artists deal with their first taste of 'viral' status. So, give us THREE words that best describe how it felt when your videos started amassing those crazy numbers.
SG: Terrifying, terrifying, terrifying.
SG: To be honest, I wasn’t just hiding under the kitchen table, I was hiding under the kitchen table on the phone to the Musicians Union panicking about whether I was going to get sued for copyright infringement! I’ve kind of got used to it now though - it’s not nearly as scary as I thought. Let’s face it, I’m not exactly Beyonce.
"I don’t think not liking my videos would make someone a nobhead at all - they’re only a nobhead if they’re mean about it..."
CK: If I wrote a film about you - The Samara Ginsberg Story - I'd be remiss to not include the cliche nobhead who turns his nose up at a classically-trained cellist performing non-classical TV themes. Have you encountered any such nobhead since going viral?
SG: No, I have not! I’m absolutely certain that there are many people who don’t like what I’m doing, but they’re being quiet and nobody has been nasty about it. I don’t think not liking my videos would make someone a nobhead at all - they’re only a nobhead if they’re mean about it or think that something shouldn’t exist just because they personally don’t like it.
The only thing is, there was this one guy on Twitter who made a really snotty comment about classical musicians always having to read sheet music! Joke’s on him though - the truth is I have a ridiculous memory and don’t really need sheet music at all, but I always film videos with the dots in front of me because if I don’t give myself something to look at, I end up staring into the camera as if I’m going to eat your soul.
CK: In my film, for dramatic purposes, I might also write scenes where you yourself reflect on the years of training you've committed to your craft, only for 80s theme tunes to be your ticket to mainstream awareness. Would that scene have any merit?
SG: It would be me laughing like an 80s cartoon villain. I’m all for it.
CK: Thank you for humouring my wild imagination. By the way, is it just me or does 'The Samara Ginsberg Story' have a glorious ring to it? Who'd play you?
SG: Ew, no it does not. Please, nobody make a movie about me, I would die of embarrassment. I’m pretty sure it would flop anyway! In answer to your second question though, definitely Tina Fey.
CK: One thing I most admire about you is your willingness to invite your fans to support you via voluntary financial contributions. You use ko-fi for this. As an artist myself, I'm aware of how awkward some artists find this side of their artistry. Obviously we shouldn't. Any words of advice you wish to share?
SG: I found it awkward too at first, and the only reason I did it was because I, along with everybody else in my industry, had found myself suddenly and catastrophically unemployed with no prospects for employment in another field, so I felt as if it was okay within that rather specific context. I say "just do it". The thing is, we don’t have much of a 'tipping culture' in the UK so it can feel a little crass to a British person, but if you’re putting stuff online, then a good proportion of your audience is going to be in countries where there is a tipping culture. If some of those people want to show their appreciation by sending a few dollars, then I am simply going to be grateful for that. It’s been enormously helpful.
A lot of people have suggested that I ought to set up a Patreon, but I don’t want to do that - lockdown made me more keenly aware that a lot of the people who most need a minute or two of escapism are the people who can’t afford to donate, so I want to keep all of my online content available for free so that everybody can access it, and donating remains strictly optional.
CK. Okay, back to the theme tunes. You make each video using the Acapella app. Again, for us laymen, give us a little insight into how it works, and how long each video takes you to produce
SG: You’re wrong, I don’t use Acapella any more! I started off using Acapella, but that app really has some serious limitations - it’s a great app for what it does, and I highly recommend it for kids, but it doesn’t enable editing, you can’t save multiple takes, and there’s an intermittent issue with latency between the click and the playback. From Knight Rider onwards, I’ve been editing the audio in Logic Pro X and then stitching the video together in Final Cut Pro. I’m completely new to both audio and video editing, but people seemed to like the “raw” feel of the first two videos, and so muddling along learning how to use the software and knowing that it doesn’t have to be 100% perfect seems to be working well for me.
I couldn’t possibly tell you how long each video takes to produce because I work in a completely chaotic way - I’ll do ten minutes work, and then get distracted and do something else, and then come back to it, and sometimes I have multiple projects on the go. Imagine if the Swedish Chef was a musician and you have some insight into my creative process.
CK: Right, this is my interview, so I plan to be shameless. Here are my five dream classic theme tunes for Samara Ginsberg to perform. Please rank them in order of how appealing they are to you. 1 = most appealing, 5 = least appealing and NHOIM = never heard of it, mate
- Magnum PI
- LA Law
All the rest, I've never heard of them, mate. I think I might be a bit younger than you [laughs]
CK: Outrageous. You're a mere two years younger than me, cheers! Finally, let's assume hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have a new curiosity about the majestic cello - and are even considering lessons. Please tell us what the cello means to you and what it has brought to you life.
SG: That’s a big and quite scary question to answer! I don’t know really. I always wanted to play the cello when I was a kid and finally got my hands on one when I was thirteen, after which it just sort of became clear that I wasn’t going to do anything else. It’s given me a lot of opportunities I might otherwise not have had. The other thing I always wanted when I was a kid was to travel, and I couldn’t have predicted how much the cello would enable that.
The first time I ever went abroad was on a youth orchestra trip to France when I was fifteen, and ever since then, most of my travel has been cello related. In non-COVID times, I have a job with Lincoln Center Stage, which involves travelling the world playing chamber music. It’s my absolute dream job and I can’t wait to get back to it, fingers crossed. It sounds melodramatic, but I suppose you could say that the cello has pretty much shaped my life ever since I picked it up.
Did you know?: Samara began cello lessons at secondary school - age thirteen - gaining a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama five years later, where she studied with Stefan Popov. Now working predominantly as a chamber musician with several established ensembles, she divides her time between UK work and international touring.
Samara works regularly with Lincoln Center Stage, based in New York and touring internationally. Back in London, she is the founder, arranger and artistic director of the Jukebox String Quartet, an ensemble specialising in virtuoso rock covers. In addition to her work in chamber music, she is a regular freelancer with many of the UK’s top orchestras, and is in increasing demand as a session musician and string arranger. She is a regular contributor to Classical Music and The Strad magazines.
Samara lives in South East London with her partner, pianist Leo Nicholson, and their incredibly spoiled Persian cat. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, sleeping, and popping bubble wrap.
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