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'I Never Expected Any of It': Kip Winger on His Classical Grammy Nomination

Courtesy of Kip Winger
Kip Winger

If you scrolled down to the very bottom of the big list of Grammy nominees this morning -- all the way to the classical section -- you might have seen a name that rang a bell: C.F. Kip Winger. Indeed, the singer/musician who was famous for fronting the eponymous hard rock band Winger in the late '80s has scored his first Grammy nomination, for best contemporary classical composition for his album Winger: Conversations With Nijinsky.

While many eyebrows were raised at the nomination from name recognition (that Kip Winger?), the fact that he’s found a new niche in classical music shouldn’t come as a big surprise, considering how ambitious Winger was, especially in the '80s. Although the band is best remembered in pop culture as part of the hair-metal wave three decades ago -- if not for a shirt worn by a famously wimpy character on MTV's animated hit Beavis & Butthead -- Winger was an anomaly at the time, smartly blending pop, heavy metal, funk, jazz rock and progressive rock.

The band has been chugging along, having released the very good Better Days Comin’ in 2014, but all the while Kip Winger has toiled especially hard at his classical work, which has steadily become more and more in demand. It’s been a long journey from “Seventeen” to the classical realm for Winger, and he took some time to chat with Billboard about it and about being nominated for a Grammy.

How amazed are you with the success Conversations With Nijinsky has had this year?

It’s astounding. I’m very pleased, and I never expected any of it. I just wanted to compose classical music just for the love of it. When I was at the height of the Winger era, I heard orchestral music [in Winger’s music]. That’s what I heard. I’m out there singing “Miles Away” or “Headed for a Heartbreak,” and I’m hearing what you hear in this music, and I didn’t know how to write it. So I had to go find a professor at a university to start going through the process of what you would study at university to learn composition.

It was 10 or 12 years of studying and writing bad music until I could come up with anything that I felt was publishable. I finally got to a place where I felt I could send some of my music out, and I got talking to a choreographer named Christopher Wheeldon, who eventually did a ballet that I composed for him called Ghosts, which was with the San Francisco Ballet and Orchestra. That was a big hit, and I became good friends with the conductor. He heard the Nijinsky piece and wanted to record it, so I owe them a lot in terms of my journey getting here. They were very helpful.

I’ve just been dedicated and fascinated and intrigued by music and studying music. I’ve got two goals in life: study music and write music. I’m kind of in shock, because it’s a long way to traverse from being in a big rock band to nominated in a category of five with other great composers for best contemporary classical composition. It’s definitely humbling.

What do you know about your competition in this category?

I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Higdon’s music, and Michael Daugherty, and Mason Bates, all three are superb composers. I’m not totally familiar with Christopher Theofanidis, so I’m probably going to check it out. I’ve seen a lot of Higdon’s Daugherty’s and Bates’ compositions live. I live in Nashville and we have a great symphony with Giancarlo Guerrero conducting and they’re always doing new music, so I spend a lot of time at the concert hall listening to a lot of music that’s being written today. I’m fascinated with it.

It always felt Winger were a lot more ambitious-sounding than they were given credit for.

It’s interesting to make it big in a certain genre and then be labeled a certain thing that you’re not. We made it in that stream of '80s bands, but in the whole spectrum of musicality in terms of technical proficiency -- no judgment on who’s better or worse. We have [drummer] Rod Morgenstein for example, from The Dixie Dregs, we were always edging into more progressive, more complex music. But when you have a big hit in pop/rock, people put you in a category in their head, and usually you stay there. I never paid attention when that stuff was presented to us. I just kept moving on to the next bigger and better thing.

Is the kind of validation you feel for your classical work today something that you wish Winger had more of in the late '80s?

Only in my early days, when you’re young and you want that. But the older I got, the more I realized that it just is what it is. You’re not really in control of a lot of that, and the best thing you can do is just keep your head down and keep moving.

In regard to feeling validated [today], I mean, come on. It’s incredible to be nominated in this genre having come from where I come from. It’s just amazing. I’m well pleased, to say the least. It’s humbling, but it’s like a “swish” -- a basketball shot from across the court and it goes right in there. It’s really nice.

What is it about Vaslav Nijinsky that inspired you to make this record?

I was always interested in ballet. I studied ballet when I was 16. Having come out of karate, my girlfriend wanted to take ballet and nobody would take it with her. So I volunteered and took to it like a duck to water. I started hearing Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky and was like, “Wow, what’s this?” It was really moving. Before I mustered up the courage to study it, I listened to it a lot, and I’d always wanted to write music for ballet.

Being fascinated with the Ballet Russe -- which is a group of Russian dancers who formed a ballet at the center of the artistic scene in Paris in the early 1900s -- they were in Paris making great ballets with great composers. Debussy wrote a ballet for Nijinsky to choreograph; Nijinsky choreographed The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, and Afternoon of the Faun, and all these major, groundbreaking ballets. I was reading all these books about Nijinsky, I was writing this piece, I didn’t really know what it was about, and a quarter of the way through all of a sudden it hit me like a bolt of lightning that I was basically conversing with Nijinsky.

So I spent the rest of the time writing the piece in an imaginary mode of writing music that I would call “the unseen dances of Nijinsky.” Nijinsky suffered from schizophrenia and his life was cut short, so there’s always the question of “what would he have done?” I took that angle with the piece and honored his memory with the music that I wrote, inspired by the idea of what he might have done.

What do you have going on next, at least from the classical side of your career?

There’s another piece that I have on this album called “A Parting Grace” that will be in Oregon next year. And right now I’m writing a musical theater piece with a guy in New York named Damien Grey, called Get Jack. So I’ve got an hour and 15 minutes of music, and I’m done with the first act and should be done with the second act in about six months. It’s a sung-through musical opera, like Sweeney Todd meets Tommy, with rock music but very heavily orchestrated. It’ll hopefully be done in August.

With your classical success, how torn are you between that side of your career and your band?

My band and I are great friends, they’re great musicians. I love to work with them. I find that performing in public and playing and writing rock music feeds what I do. I’m trying to find an area in symphonic music that, for lack of a better term, rocks. [Laughs] And if you listen to the first movement of Nijinsky, it kind of approaches the sound I want to explore, with big, powerful sounds.

I love doing both. My band does 50 to 60 shows a year, or else I’m playing solo. It’s inspiring; you don’t end up being in a tunnel, sitting in a room all year, writing. I like to get out and keep it fresh, so when I come home I have new ideas. It airs your head out to go back and forth.

2017 Grammys