China Underground > China Views > Interview with Violinist, Pianist & Soprano Maki Hsieh

Interview with Violinist, Pianist & Soprano Maki Hsieh

Maki Hsieh, also known as Maki Mae, is a classically-trained violinist, concert pianist, 14 language vocalist whose award-winning competition pieces have taken her on tour in America, Asia, and Europe. 

Maki Hsieh is a concert pianist, violinist, and soprano. Remarkably, Maki was born mostly deaf and lives largely in a world of vibrations. She is Chinese, Japanese, Korean-American and grew up in Tokyo and Taipei. She was classically trained at Peabody Conservatory and fusing her prodigious artistry as violinist and genre-defying vocalist with fluent multilingual skills and a three-octave range, Maki Hsieh also explores electronic beats to forge a truly distinctive and unforgettable soundscape. Maki is a multifaceted creative force, who excels because of her extraordinary singing voice and range. Her style which combines violin and vocal is full of dynamic power and explosive qualities.  With her amazing spirit and tremendous talent, she creates a very special energy. Maki was a communications officer for two Disney Chairman and Al Gore and is a Recording Academy and Forbes Council member, she served as Executive Director of Arcadia Performing Arts Foundation and she was CEO for Pinnacle Group. She re-entered the music scene in 2013 with her debut single Kyoto; a dub-step piece produced by US DJ Skrillex who mixed electric violin and soprano vocals with pulsating beats. Maki Hsieh is a talent passionate about transcending boundaries for audiences across genres, around the world, with this spirit she took her timeless classics sounds on tour with the aim of helping also in welfare initiatives. She sang the national anthem at major sports arenas, sang in a Cannes Film Festival movie, performed on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, and appeared in major televised events. She has headlined stunning performances also for dignitaries including Queen Fabiola of the Belgian royal family.  Maki Hsieh donates her concerts to benefit charities such as UNICEF and Special Olympics World Games, she was the California State Senate 2019 Woman of the Year for her work as a cultural ambassador empowering community transformation, and for her philanthropic work.  In the same year, she became the first Chief Executive Officer of The Robert Chinn Foundation and she oversaw all aspects of the foundation’s operations and community support and directed the Asian Hall of Fame program. In 2020, Maki donated a relief concert to help raise awareness of Covid-19 and support hate crime survivors through the Asian Hall of Fame GoFundMe for its Stop Asian Hate Campaign. With her vision of artistry seen as a catalyst to unite and transform, she inspired the Asian Hall of Fame and Robert Chinn Foundation to fund the charity album Seasonal Songbook, a hugely accomplished work that represents Maki Mae’s most requested pieces and iconic collaborations with legendary Los Angeles-based artists and producers including Robby Krieger, Ed Roth, Toshi Yanagi, Ringo Starr’s engineer Bruce Sugar, 7-time Grammy and 3-time Emmy-winning bassist Kevin Brandon (Aretha Franklin, Justin Timberlake), percussionist Leo Costa (Sergio Mendes, Herb Alpert), drummer Rock Deadrick (Ziggy Marley), Wu Tang-Clan’s engineer Michael Riach, and engineer Steve Valenzuela (Kelly Clarkson, Rod Stewart). Maki Mae’s intensely personal Seasonal Songbook spans 200 years of music history from the original German “Ave Maria” to the contemporary “Hallelujah.” 100% of album sales support the Asian Hall of Fame Digital Media & Arts Equity Initiative. Its success inspired a second album Walk On By for release in 2022.

Official site | Asian Hall of Fame | Robert Chinn Foundation | Instagram | Youtube

You are a classically trained violinist, concert pianist, 13 language soprano. What inspired you to pursue a career in music? Have you always wanted to be a musician and a singer?

I never had any intention to pursue a career in music. And the reason is because it always was a safe harbor and a private diary for me. I was born with an umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, so I was already dead. When I was born, I was blue, I was not breathing. And then they helped me to breathe. And then a few months later, I actually died. Again, I had a crib death, and I was blue, not breathing, and my mother woke me up. Because of these complications. I was born mostly deaf. And I could not understand languages very well. In fact, I spoke my own language for a couple of years. And the teachers told my mother, I must be a special needs child and had a very bad temper. And I must have some kind of attention deficit disorder and she should send me to a special school. But instead of doing that, my mother signed me up for piano lessons so that I could connect with the world in some way she didn’t know that was my hearing that was causing me to act out.

It is a privilege to collaborate with visionaries in our mutual vision to amplify Asian achievement and to advance cross-cultural influence in the United States and the world.” – Maki Hsieh

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Maki Mae performed the Beethoven piano Pathetique at 10-years old and debuted at the National Taiwan Recital Hall with the Mendelssohn violin concerto

How old were you when you started playing music? What are your fondest memories of training to become a musician? What have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I started taking piano lessons when I was four years old, I was very mean to my teachers, I hit them, I made them cry. This one lasted a few years until one day when I was around seven years old, I realized that the vibration I was feeling in the piano matched the note on the page. And that somehow made people smile and clap. And it was a real Helen Keller moment where I realized what music meant. When I was nine years old in second grade the Taipei American school where I was attending had a choir and band in a very robust music program. So I signed up for choir because I could hear very high things like I could hear the flute, I could hear birds, so I gravitated towards singing. And I signed up for the band because I played piano, and then I signed up for orchestra because I really liked the sound of the violin. I could connect with the violin because I could hear it, I could sense the vibration of the violin. And then this continued through high school where I was involved in musical theatre band choir via orchestra, speech, and debate, I was always very much comfortable on the stage. But really, it was a private diary. For me, it wasn’t really something that I intended to become a public career. Growing up as an American citizen overseas also gave me a lot of opportunities to serve as a cultural ambassador. My father was instrumental in helping to build the National Concert Hall in Taiwan. He was an arts benefactor, and my mother was a professor at the National Taiwan University. So she really enjoyed giving back to the community and letting the Chinese community have a closer relationship with Korea and Japan. So it was a very active cultural environment I enjoyed. This kind of cultural intelligence really helped me to debut. My first professional debut was when I was 15 years old, and the first lady of Taiwan was trying to develop closer relationships between Taiwan and Japan, and she hosted an international friendship concert. I was asked to perform the violin for the friendship concert. That was a very memorable experience because it was my debut, but also because I realized that music was a powerful way to create emotional experiences and bring people together and that was very important to me. I decided to go to Johns Hopkins because I wanted to pursue neuroscience and find a way to cure things like crib death and my hearing and I had this naive idea that I was going to change the world through medicine and I quickly discovered it was a lot harder than it looked. So whenever I was a little bit sad that I was not that’s smart to succeed in medicine, I would escape to the Peabody Conservatory and that was where they had a sister school and I met Berl Senofsky, who was one of the top music, violin teachers in the world next to Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and we became very good friends. I remember just sitting at his studio every Thursday afternoon, and we would just listen to records. I mean, this would go on for like two or three years, every Thursday afternoon, just listen to old records and we would play this game where he would ask was this violin piece played by a man or a woman, what kind of violin is played on and I got to be really good like six times out of 10 I could identify whether the violinist was female or male, the nationality, whether they were Jewish, or from America or they were trained in Juilliard or Illinois because there’s a specific way that people would play and what kind of violin whether it was French or German or Italian, it was really interesting just sitting and listening to music. And at the same time, I also started to train in opera at Peabody Conservatory, and I was very fascinated by the languages so we had to learn. My mother was a linguist, so languages and the way that they connected people and brought people together to me was a source of fascination. So that was when I started to study lyrical diction: I performed in Italian, French and German, Latin, English, Spanish. The first time I first sang in Spanish was during a recital, and then Dvořák composed in Czechoslovakia, and so I started to learn Czech. I was also asked to perform once for the Philippines, a song in Tagalog and I also performed in Mandarin, Japanese, Korean. Of course, Arirang is really famous in Korea. And then lastly, Ravel composed a series of songs in Hebrew, there was one called Kaddisch, that I was asked to perform so I also performed in Hebrew. Those are the 14 languages that I performed. And I think that is really important to realize that cultural intelligence is the key to creating cultural unity and understanding. So for me, that was really important in branching out into language. I did not pursue music as a career after conservatory and Berl Senofsky was very angry with me. And we left on very bad terms. He was very angry because I decided to go into banking and follow in my father’s footsteps. And at that time, I turned down a Master’s of opera performance scholarship at Peabody to go into banking. And he was very upset and he said I was wasting my talent and wasting my life and I was going to regret it. And a couple of years later, when I was married, raising a family and I was working in San Francisco, I read in a newsletter that he had passed away, and we never had a chance to say goodbye. And that made me really sad. So I decided to follow through with one of the promises I made to him, which was to apply for the Queen Elizabeth international competition in Belgium. He was the first and only American violinist to ever win this competition. And I promised him that I would apply to this competition. And I was just at that deadline and there’s a certain age you can’t go past. I just thought that was like the last possible time because they rotate disciplines every four years, and I applied for the vocal competition, and I was accepted. And there were 125 vocalists who competed in Belgium and I flew to Brussels and I sang for the queen, Queen Fabiola of Belgium. At that time, I also sang for Joan Sutherland and several other distinguished panelists. And I think that was another highlight of mine, where I sang for the queen of Belgium and these panelists, and I just felt an immense sense of pride, representing Asians at the competition and also representing Americans because there were only a few Americans who were invited. I was the first Asian American ever to be invited and I represented California. There was a Hispanic singer, she would come from Texas, there was an African American singer from Alabama. There was one male singer, he was from New York, and there was one wonderful blonde singer from Tennessee, and that pretty much represented America, and that was amazing just to see that level of diversity represented at an international festival and that’s when I realized that America has a really robust heart. When we represent on an international stage, we bring to it something very different from the other artists who are coming directly from Japan, Korea, China or Taiwan have a very different cultural sense or style that they bring. And it did make me feel very proud to represent America and also represent Asian artists.

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Maki Mae became known to non-classical audiences when her violin and vocal remix of “Kyoto” from Skrillex’s Bangarang made number one for five weeks on Los Angeles, U.S. and Global electronic music charts

You are Chinese, Japanese, Korean-American that grew up in Tokyo and Taipei before moving to the States. How has your Asian American identity influenced your work? Did living in different countries influence your way to see life and be creative?

My mother was naturalized in the United States. And then she went back when she met my father and my younger sister and I was born as American citizens overseas. And so we enjoyed the expatriate experience, even though I look Chinese, and I can speak Mandarin, and I eat all the food, good food that other people eat. But right away, they can tell that I’m an American. Because I wore makeup, I had a perm. I wore a retainer, I had a backpack and sneakers, I talked back to my mother, I was very vocal and was very different from the local Chinese friends who were from Taiwan, and they were not American. So it was very clear that if you were American, you’re American. And it didn’t matter. If you were African American, or Chinese American, or Japanese American, you’re American. And that kind of reverence that I felt as an American Overseas gave me a lot of pride and being an American, and a lot of confidence in who I am. I did not identify myself as one nationality or ethnicity or the other because I was very proud to be American. Growing up as a kind of bridge between cultures was also really exciting because I clearly was born and raised to be a cultural ambassador. So for me, it was very natural, to go from Chinese friends, to Japanese friends, to Korean friends to American friends, it was just very natural. Of course, in an international school, you also had people from Canada, Brazil, Germany, and Europe. It was a very international hub. I came to the United States when I was 15 years old and It really was a shock. It took me maybe about eight years to adjust. Because in the United States, even though you are American, you’re not seen equally, the Americans are not equal here. And the inequality is based on a lot of things, like what car you drive, or what zip code you live in, what company you work for, what job you have, but it also is divided by race, which is really interesting. And I noticed that a lot of Chinese who live in America, they’re not proud of being Chinese, they’re ashamed of saying they’re Chinese, they’re ashamed of talking about their grandparents who have an accent or don’t speak English, they don’t want to be seen as Chinese and don’t want to be seen as American, but then we’re also Chinese American, you know. So I think that one of the things that’s inspired me is the focus on cultural intelligence, and how cultural intelligence is one of the answers to overcoming unconscious bias against Asians living in America and Asians living in Canada and other countries around the world. We really have to elevate interracial cross-cultural respect of Asian contributions to the community, but then how can we expect other people to respect us if they don’t know what we have contributed? So I think that this entire focus is on my part of letting people know what Asians have contributed to the community, to the country, and also to humanity. This continues with my work in terms of Asian Hall of Fame.

My shows are not just about me playing music but integrating visual and dance elements to create a unifying synergistic immersible soundscape for the audience.” – Maki Hsieh

maki-mae
Maki has performed professionally in English, Latin, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Portuguese, Hebrew, and also Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, and Japanese

You are a fluent soprano in 13 different languages. How is it important to think and communicate in different languages in a multicultural world to understand humans and prevent stereotypes and bias?

I want to add that my fourteenth language is Portuguese. I was asked to sing a bossa nova set with a jazz band. And I had to sing in Portuguese. So that was actually difficult because it’s not Spanish, it’s very different and has a different kind of slant to it. I’m just honored and privileged whenever I have to learn a new language to perform because it really connects to the heart of people. And that’s why I think being involved in creative arts is so important as a writer, dancer, actor, musician, photographer, culinary artist, it’s so important because we hold the keys to civilization, and we hold the keys to the heart of humanity.

 

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How has music enriched your life? What do you love most about it? Can you share with us any meaningful stories?

Music became a public career when my oldest daughter was in fourth grade. At that time, there was a very popular television show, called America’s Got Talent. And a lot of musicians were on the show, she came to me and she said, “Mom, you should be on America’s Got Talent. You should do something really unique. What you should do is you should take your opera and your violin and put it on this thing called dubstep”. And that this was all her idea. And at that time, I was working for the Walt Disney Company, I was a corporate person, I was wearing black suits every day, and I said, “Listen, Mommy does not have time for this kind of thing”. And she said, “No, everybody’s listening to this. It’s called Skrillex. You should place your something on this”. And I listen to this: “Honey, this is just a lot of noise. I don’t even understand what it is, it’s just like electronic noise coming from a laptop. I don’t understand how I can even integrate anything with this”. And so she challenged me and finally inspired me to do something because she claimed that I was not cool, and I needed to be cool, so because I was so sad that was not cool in the eyes of my beloved daughter, I decided to try putting a SAKURA lyrics to Skrillex’ hit song Kyoto from his Grammy album Bangrang. And I put it on YouTube that went viral. I got an America’s Got Talent and performed my opera violin and electronic music. I got picked up by management and I started doing a lot of gigs all around LA. I was asked to play a lot of violins and also sing opera to electronic music and I collaborated with Avicii, I went to Burning Man and play with Diplo and Skrillex at the playa and I played in music festivals, I was on a spaceship at EDC and I was just doing a lot of work. My daughter when she became a high school student, she actually needed me to be closer to home. So I then stopped my public career in electronic dance music to help out with the Performing Arts Centre at her high school. Then my younger sister passed away. This was a huge turning point because my younger sister and I were the only two relatives of our family in the United States. And she was also my only sibling. She passed away in a terrible accident. She basically slipped and fell after getting out of her bathtub, on a Wednesday, hit her head, and by Saturday she was gone over a brain hemorrhage. When that happened, it really traumatized me and it traumatized my mother and the whole family, right because it was such a shock. And it made me realize that I wanted to do something with the talent that I had, the knowledge I had, and the cultural intelligence that I had to bring people together. So the California State Senate honors a woman in their congressional district every year and it’s called California woman of the year. When I received the award in 2019, they asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, “Well, I love to bring my music to the public. Instead of this loud music with the light show and the dance crew and go-go boots. All that’s fun. Instead of having it just for fun, I like to kind of change people’s hearts in some way. And the way that I would like to do this is to bring my music to just 100 people in historic venues around California. And then all the proceeds of the concert are donated to a local charity.” So this started my whole idea of charity concerts, right in my mind, of using my music for the greater good.

Maki-Mae-Gamble-House
Maki Mae  is the stage name for Maki Hsieh, President & CEO of Asian Hall of Fame, and also CEO of the sixth-generation Robert Chinn Foundation

You are the CEO of the Asian Hall of Fame, and also CEO of the sixth-generation Robert Chinn Foundation, can you tell us more about them? What are the main missions? What were the most important milestones? How has the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic affected you?

At that time, I decided that I wanted to do something more global on my corporate side, on my branding side, and I had a couple of people call me for the next opportunity and Seattle called. And this was six months before COVID. But Karen Wong, who’s the chairman of the board called, and said, “We will love for you to help Asian Hall of Fame go to the next level” Asian Hall of Fame, was a kind of dinner party that was established by her father’s Foundation, Robert Chinn Foundation in Seattle was only known to 200 people in Seattle, and it celebrated a lot of great Asian Americans. But they’re seeing that all these people were inducted, and I wanted to take it to the next level. So I said, Yes, I moved my family to Seattle, and I started working for the foundation. We quickly discovered that the Asian hall of Fame has a wonderful name, but it’s not known outside of Seattle. So one of the things that you can make things quickly known is attach a few concerts to it. And it became very apparent that the foundation didn’t have enough resources to book a big talent. So because I’m a professionally managed artist, I went back to my management company, and the company’s called Pinnacle out of New York. And I said that I would like to donate my charity concerts to the cause of Robert Chinn Foundation and Asian Hall of Fame to help elevate Asians in the mainstream marketplace. And they said, okay. “If I donated my concerts to them, then they would donate their marketing and production costs to the foundation because I’m tied to the event as their assigned artist”. They also designated John Nicholas, who is the senior managing director in charge of the West Coast and Pacific Rim. So they designated a really senior executive to handle my charity concerts donated to the foundation. We donated to a concert. This is right before COVID, December 2019. It was a fantastic success. We advanced 35 grants to all these wonderful nonprofits during this time. And it was so popular that people wanted us to do a Mother’s Day concert. So we established a Mother’s Day concert, it was all supposed to happen in May, and suddenly COVID hit. By March, we shut down all of our operations. And we moved quickly. Our headquarters is in L.A. because all of the production is still in L.A. and then we had a problem, regarding our season. We didn’t have anything booked for our season. All of our events are live. So I went to my inductees. I said “Listen, we now have this COVID-19 crisis where there are not enough masks and there are not enough face shields. What if we collaborated? What if we had our Mother’s Day concert go online?”. I was just shooting it in my living room. Then “if you guys can put together your plea, your PSA videos, and we could piece it together then I have the inductee supporting the cause and then I am donating my charity concert and maybe we can generate some traction for donating face shields and face masks to our frontline workers.” And they agreed so the Mother’s Day concert was shot in my living room with Ed Roth. He’s a pianist for Annie Lennox and Joe Walsh. He’s also my musical director. And then we had Toshi Yanagi, who was a guitarist for Jimmy Kimmel Live. We got together. And we did this concert. And then the inductees came together and recorded their PSAs that encourage people to donate for face shields. And, it was a huge success. We had more than 234 media mentions covering it. We had the most impressions I’ve ever had, like 600 million impressions of the concert and the cause. And we were able to deliver 25,800 pieces of PPE to 271 organizations. We made this a nationwide effort and we said “if you need PPE, please just fill out this form on our website”. It was a very simple form. It had five questions on it. Anybody who submitted a request received a package in the mail. And we were very happy to do this and Asian Hall of Fame and the Robert Chinn Foundation supported this effort and were very happy to do so. When we saw the success of the Mother’s Day concert, Karen Wong and the board then came back to us and said “Would you consider donating a charity album?”

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She was one of 30 performers chosen from 17,000 applicants to perform at the ceremony officiated by the US’ first lady, Michelle Obama

In a collaboration with Robby Krieger from The Doors, you championed a larger campaign to “Stop Asian Hate”. Can you tell us how the project came to life?

Now charity album is a whole other thing. Because that means that you need musicians to track you need studio time you need an engineer to record it. You need a tuner to tune it afterward and it goes down the assembly line of production. You want a really good mixing engineer, then it’s got to be mastered, then you have to package it, then you have to write the liner notes and you have to shoot the music video. They have to do all of these things and Pinnacle and I had a serious conversation and we knew that this level of production was going to be like $100,000, it was going to be a lot of money that the Foundation did not have. But we then decided to help the foundation because we knew it was important to have a charity album that supported COVID-19. And later on, Stop Asian Hate was just around the corner and we didn’t know at that time. But we went ahead and just signed a contract with Robert Chinn, where all of the album proceeds are donated to Robert Chinn and Asian Hall of Fame. The inductees joined in a choir. They sang in the choir part of this one song. We had the top musicians play on this record. It was a Bossa Nova Jazz kind of a Christmas record. It was submitted to the Grammy category called traditional Pop Vocal Album of the Year, which is a very difficult category, predominantly Caucasian artists. And we’re very happy to submit this record. It was mixed by Ringo Starr’s engineer, Bruce Sugar. It was a fantastic record. And the way that Robby Krieger got involved was Ed Roth, my musical director, he played Ave Maria. Robby is not Christian. He’s Jewish. But when he heard Ave Maria, he said, “Oh my god, this is a real artist!” Because it’s operatic. But it’s also accessible, right, because most opera singers sing with a big vibrato. And it’s not really accessible. It’s hard to hear. But I created a special technique where I level out the vibrato. And I make it very high and very soft and sustain it with a special breath technique. And actually, the way that I created this technique is on my website. He heard it and said, “Oh, my god, I want to be on this record”. And then Ed Roth played for Robby “My favorite things”, because Ed Roth is the pianist for Robby Krieger. And when Robby heard “My favorite things”, he said, “Oh, I play this all the time, I would like to add my guitar to it”, and that’s how we collaborated and started this friendship of him recording. And then we became friends that way. We also have a similar heart for donating to charity and having charity concerts. So that was right-aligned with what he was interested in. And then we collaborated and that was our Grammy category, Best Pop Duo Group Performance of the year. So we submitted to that category. With Covid-19 Asian hate crimes started to escalate. And the album then started to donate proceeds to stop Asian hate and everything that we did, we would take the album on tour for the Mother’s Day concert we had at the Tokyo theme. And then the Seattle concert we had a lot of Seattle leaders talk about the concert and was raising awareness for our GoFundMe campaign for Stop Asian Hate which we exceeded our goal to give grants to hate crime survivors and help with their medical care and also help with their platform of telling their story. Robin was all in on it and it was very exciting to be part of that. And you know, one of the things that this really shows you is that if you allow talent to lead you, whether it’s music or writing or other talent, things will open up and then you will be able to make a difference in a way that you didn’t even think was possible. I believe that Asian hate is happening more than before because every time something bad is happening in the economy or in the world Asians are blamed.

Photo courtesy of Maki Hsieh,
A special thanks to Rochelle Srigley, Asian Hall of Fame

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