Composing a classical album is a dream Winger has harbored since the days his band was charting top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 like “Miles Away” and “Headed for a Heartbreak.” It’s the result of years of studying composition that he embarked on in the late ’90s. “To have this record made by such a great orchestra, amazing conductor, and to be taken seriously and then have it No. 1 on the Traditional Classical chart is surreal,” says Winger. “Really, absolutely awesome.”
Conversations With Nijinsky is a tribute to Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose career was cut short at the age of 29 by schizophrenia. Why was a former glam metal star drawn to his story, or anything to do with classical music, for that matter? The answer is a story of determination, survival and relentless creative drive.
Winger himself is a study in contradictions. Soft-spoken and articulate, he nonetheless howls the chorus of “Highway to Hell” to test the reception when asked if our phone connection is clear. His classical career is flowering from his home base of Nashville, the capital of country. His parents were jazz musicians, but he and his brother played classic rock in a band while growing up in Colorado. When Winger was 16, his then-girlfriend wanted a friend to try ballet with her. Instead of scoffing at the idea, he joined her.
“I thought, ‘I’ll try it. I’m always up for an adventure,’” recalls Winger. ‘We went in, and I was completely transfixed. I heard this music coming out of the studio and people are holding their leg up over their heads like Bruce Lee, and I’m like, ‘I’m in.’ I was hooked ever since.”
The incident was his first major exposure to classical music. He took to ballet “like a duck to water” and performed with a small company for several years. “If I’d grown up in Russia I definitely could have done it for a career, but in Colorado, I didn’t have [enough] training and I started a little too late.” Although he kept studying ballet into his 30s, he left for New York in his 20s since he knew wanted to be a rock star. He eventually landed work as a bassist with Alice Cooper and later founded Winger.
“At the time, I didn’t understand that music is cyclical,” says Winger of when he toured with Cooper and acts like Tesla and Megadeth opened for shock rock’s elder statesman. “I thought, ‘Wow, I did this when I was 16. This is like heavy metal.’ I didn’t understand the genre terminology and all that. I just thought, ‘Wow, I’ve done his my whole life. I can do this.’”
He struck platinum out of the gate. Winger’s 1988 self-titled debut and 1990 follow-up In the Heart of the Young both moved 1 million copies within a year. The band was as prettily coiffed as its peers yet demonstrated prog tendencies, like the existential track “Rainbow in the Rose” or the meandering outro to “Headed for a Heartbreak.” Guys dug the guitars. Girls dug the videos due to Winger’s physical charms. “I’m like the Peter Pan of rock, jumping around doing the double pirouettes with my bass. It was fun, man,” he says. “I felt like I was doing something different. The heavy metal crowd, they didn’t really get it. They thought it was kind of the wuss moves, but it was very difficult stuff to do onstage, playing and singing at the same time.”
When adult cartoon Beavis & Butt-head became popular, fickle audiences started considering the band with disdain thanks to its nerdish character Stewart wearing a Winger t-shirt. And when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich threw darts at a Winger poster in the video for 1992 ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” it literally stuck a pin in the group’s career. The dawn of grunge finished the job. A rock band with no track record of major scandal or problematic personalities suddenly couldn’t get arrested.
“It’s hard to fall that far so fast. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re not so popular anymore, but we can still play gigs,’” says Winger. “It was kind of like being John Travolta when disco sucked. It was like, you’re gone. You are gone. The difference was that I didn’t have points on Grease.” He laughs. “[Travolta was] flying around in a 737 [like], ‘Life ain’t so bad,’ and I’m like, ‘Holy f—, what am I going to do?’”
Having your financial livelihood decimated will set anyone on their ass after such “a pubic stoning to death,” as Winger calls it. And then things went from bad to devastating: In 1996, his wife, Beatrice, died in a car accident.
If anyone had reason to make choking on bitterness his next career move, it was Kip Winger. But this is where the guy who got dismissed at face value showed remarkable character in the face of brutal circumstances.
He noted, “Emotionally, I was like, ‘I’ve lost everything, so I’m going to make a few personal decrees. One is that I’m never going to write for anybody except myself, and two, I’m going to try to follow the path of what I’m hearing.’”
Winger recorded his first solo album, 1997’s Thisconversationfeelslikeadream, which took an adult contemporary direction. After playing in venues to thousands of people, he promoted the album by playing acoustic shows (because he couldn’t afford a van), starting at Borders Books & Music locations for handfuls of people. The work was steady though. Winger also started studying classical composition in earnest. It was “15 years of closing my eyes and plowing through” to learn it properly. “Finally it all clicks, but it takes a long time for it to click.”
Winger’s first officially produced classical piece was Ghosts, a four movement he composed that the San Francisco Ballet debuted in 2010. Winger was so excited that he kept returning to see performances of it “because every time they’d do it I was like, ‘Well, I’ll never get to see this again.’” His attendance led him to developing a friendship with San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conductor Martin West. Winger credits West with “kind of soliciting the whole [Nijinsky] project” since Winger told him about his ambitions. “He understands my music maybe better than anybody. We have an uncanny kind of musical rapport. He just understands what I’m doing, and he conducts it perfectly.”
Nijinsky became the album’s inspiration since Winger had been reading about Nijinisky while composing a second untitled ballet. “I realized at the time that I was actually having a conversation with Nijinsky while I was writing this piece, because when I write music I often stand up and do a grand jete [split jump] across the room,” he says with a laugh, “because that's how I see [the music].”
Other parts of Winger’s life have come full circle, resulting in positive new beginnings. He remarried in 2004, and he reactivated his band in 2006. It recorded Winger IV, an album that “went a little bit overboard” in terms of progressiveness. “People want the brand: You don’t really want to fill a box of Lucky Charms with Cap’n Crunch,” he says. When the group released Karma in 2009, it was “slightly progressive but much more reminiscent of [Winger], and the crowd goes wild,” he observes. “What I’ve come to realize is the Winger brand is the slightly progressive but mostly rock, poppish, with the best possible guitar solos and very high-quality performances and technically pretty polished.”
Winger’s schedule remains full. He tours both with his band and as a solo artist. After promoting Conversations With Nijinsky, he intends to follow up with another classical project and is preparing to write a new Winger album with longtime guitarist Reb Beach. “My big project right now is I’m working on a musical with [New York director] Damien Gray, and it’s more of a rock opera. It’s two-and-a-half hours of music, and I’m about an hour through the music now.”
Winger’s name on Broadway? Not so far-fetched. The Magic 8 Ball has already revealed far crazier things.
[Editor's note: This story contains corrections. In an earlier version, Ghosts was not correctly identified as a four-movement piece of orchestration, and it mistakenly said Winger was composing Ghosts while reading about Nijinsky. Billboard regrets the errors.]