Tina Guo Is a Metal Cello Wonder Woman

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Tina Guo Is a Metal Cello Wonder Woman

The Shanghai native has worked with Hans Zimmer on film soundtracks, scored video games, and survived "dragon fireball parenting" to excel on the strings.

As far as Shanghai-born electric cellist Tina Guo is concerned, goals are meant to be pursued wholeheartedly. It was this fearlessness that led Guo to famed composer Hans Zimmer, who she recently collaborated with on the Wonder Woman main theme, titled "Is She With You?" And while the classically-trained musician can be heard on many major film, television, and video game scores—including the upcoming Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, also scored by Zimmer—her career has been anything but unconventional.

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Currently on tour with Hans Zimmer Live, she first caught Zimmer's eye after a mutual friend in his orchestra showed him a music video Guo had posted online. Guo had been experimenting with the electric cello for a few years, but was finding it difficult to explain 'metal cello' because it was still only a vision in her head.

"You can tell people things, but if you don't demonstrate it, it's just an idea—everyone has ideas," Guo said. "So I thought, 'OK, that's it. I have to make a video that visually and audibly demonstrates what it is I'm trying to do, or what I'm trying to become.'"

Using her entire life savings—a little under $6,000 at the time—she produced "Queen Bee," a metal-inspired take on the orchestral interlude "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In what she calls "probably [her] most extreme music video" (it got an 18+ restriction on YouTube), Guo's idea can not only been heard, but emphatically seen and felt.

"I spent every penny that I had," Guo said. "I didn't know how I was going to pay my rent or buy food but, you know—sometimes you have to take risks."

Luckily, that risk paid off. Zimmer was searching for a cellist to play on the score of Sherlock Holmes, mentioning it to the aforementioned friend, who told him to check out her video. It was only a few weeks after Guo posted the video, and he immediately called her. After Sherlock Holmes, she went on to work with Zimmer on a number of scores over the years, including Inception, Batman v. Superman, and Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Guo will also be playing on the upcoming Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, of which Zimmer composed the score.

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Funnily, Guo didn't even know who Zimmer was at first. "I wasn't trying to get into the soundtrack world," she laughed. "Actually, I was hoping that Rammstein would see the video and invite me to play with them." However, from the beginning, Zimmer had always shown trust in Guo's creative process."I remember for Sherlock Holmes, he just left me in a room with a bunch of engineers and was like, 'Okay, this is generally what we want to do, just do whatever you want,'" she recalled. "I was like, 'What? What do you mean, do whatever I want—where are you going?'"

For Guo, playing music requires an intense emotional connection. Most of her performances range from passionate and electrifying to sensual and sultry—which she claims is quite different from her "super nerdy" IRL self. "It's like tapping into a different energy, or different part of myself, that I don't express on a day-to-day basis," she said. "And that is really fun, because it's like a release, you know?"

Guo didn't always have this creative freedom in music. Born in Shanghai, she moved with her family to the United States when she was five. Her parents were both music teachers who lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a time when artists and intellectuals were persecuted for associations to the past or the West, and preferred not to stand out or be "inappropriate" even after the Revolution. Guo practiced the cello 7-8 hours every day growing up, and she wasn't allowed or encouraged to listen to other types of music at home besides classical music. This sort of tiger parenting—or "dragon fireball parenting," she joked—led to a strained relationship between Guo and her parents.

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But it was through Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar that Guo got her first taste of industrial metal. She was a self-proclaimed "angsty" kid in the seventh grade, and she loved it. After that, her meager collection grew to include a Daft Punk album from a garage sale—only the first track worked—and then a Guns N' Roses cassette tape from her best friend.

However, the turning point for Guo was during her freshman year at the University of Southern California. She was dating a guitar player of an "OK, not amazing" 80s style classic metal band, and she went to one of their shows one night at The Whiskey in Hollywood. "There weren't many people there, and it was really dirty and dark—but I loved the energy," Guo enthused. "It was so raw and completely uninhibited. That's when I went, 'Oh my God, I need to do this, I need to figure out how to take the cello in that type of environment.'"

While still studying classical cello in school, Guo began experimenting with pedals and different techniques, trying to figure out how to play the cello and sound like a guitar player. While the fingering for both instruments were virtually the same, she said it took her three years and many YouTube videos to figure out what she was doing.

Guo eventually left USC in her junior year, despite having a full scholarship to attend, after she found it increasingly difficult to balance performing and going to classes. Her parents were very angry and didn't understand her decision at the time—and for a long time afterwards—though she says that they've since come around. "Now they're super into it, a complete 180," she said, adding that her dad often shares her videos. "It took quite a while, though. It took—oh, God—over a decade to get to this point."

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In between working with Zimmer and other gigs, Guo joined Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour for two years, before coming back to play on Pirates of the Caribbean 5. She's also played on a number of video game scores, including Hearthstone, Diablo III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and III, and Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. Her video game soundtrack album Game On! (Sony Masterworks) was also released this February.

With everything being so unpredictable, over the years, Guo learned how to think and act like an entrepreneur. Guo has been self-managed for most of her career, and only signed an exclusive recording contract with Sony Music last year. Even then, she says she still oversees everything. "I think it's important to understand the business aspect and see everything that's going on," she said. "Managers are always going to have other clients they're dealing with, so I'm always telling people to be proactive and be conscious of what's going on."

Beyond performing and composing music, Guo has also found time to manage a few side hustles. Her latest venture is Tina Guo Strings, which sells custom acoustic cellos, carbon fiber cases, and colorful "unicorn hair" bows for the violin, viola, and cello.

In addition, Guo has a sample library that composers and producers can purchase and use. She's also started investing in stocks, which she learned how to do through classes she took during her stint at Cirque du Soleil. "I think it's important to live in the moment, but also plan for the future," Guo said.

In spite of being an accomplished musician and savvy businesswoman, Guo still hasn't been immune to sexism. Guo noted that image sells in the performing world, and as a young Asian American woman, she's familiar with the challenges that come with working in these two very white male-dominated spheres."As a performing artist, we don't only listen with our ears," Guo said. "If I look different or wasn't as young, I might have a very different experience."

Guo recalled a time when a guy once reached out to her about a possible collaboration, and he had asked if he could talk to her husband about doing business with her. "I was like, what the fuck?'" Guo said. "I was very offended. Why would you assume my husband manages my business? I said to him, 'I actually do my own business—and his!' which was true, at the time."

While Guo says she goes "all in" when it comes to relationships and work and music, one thing she's learned is that it's important to figure out how to navigate with the flow.

"People only see the things that succeed, but trust me—90 percent of the stuff I've tried has completely failed flat on my face," she said. "And it's not that I don't get attached, you just have to keep moving, no matter what happens. Eventually, something will stick, and you go in that direction."