Caroline Shaw became the youngest recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for Partita for 8 Voices. The prize ensured she was suddenly in demand to collaborate with names like Kanye West, Nas, and Arcade Fire, and she describes one of her career highlights as singing in three-part harmony with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds at the Kennedy Center. She won a 2019 Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Her favorite color is yellow.
I picked up a violin at the age of two
My mother taught violin and I think I was maybe an experiment. It’s the Suzuki Method — this idea that all children can learn to play the violin, if you give it to them early on.
I joke that everyone else was listening to Nirvana and Lisa Loeb
Which I sort of missed in high school and middle school. I started playing with my string quartet and I was like: “This is all I want to do.” I discovered more music in college and, really in the last 10 years, my world has opened up a lot, especially with hip hop and pop.
My biggest influence?
Around age five or six, I started having lessons with Joanne Bach, who was a student teacher. I was with her Wednesday afternoons every week until I was 18. She’s such a beautiful person. I think the best thing she taught us was that it’s not about the competition, it’s not about being the best, it’s about loving what you do, finding colors in the music.
I’ve lived in the same Hell’s Kitchen apartment for six years
I’d been living in Princeton for a while, and in a friend’s apartment in Chelsea, then I got kicked out of there and wanted to move to a place that I could walk to concerts and Broadway theaters. I moved to Hell’s Kitchen in August 2013 and I never left.
I like the energy of the place — it’s kind of the opposite of myself
I’m a very quiet, private person and I absolutely have to have quiet. So why did I choose to live here? Well, if I’m going to live in New York, I want to live just right in the middle of it. And every day, the people who are coming to New York for the first time — it reminds you that it’s really exciting to be here.
2013 was kind of significant, because I won that big … prize (she means the Pulitzer!)
It’s this little Tiffany glass object, and when I had a fish, it was in my fish bowl.
I wasn’t supposed to win!
That was not supposed to happen. I certainly didn’t expect it. No one else did either. A lot of people said: ”I didn’t know you wrote music.” But it suddenly created opportunities where people that I really admired were asking me to write pieces for them.
I made Kanye West wait a while
There was an album called 808s & Heartbreak and they were going to do a big orchestral version of it. A producer said: “Hey, Kanye West wants to know if you would write something with any of the songs… anything you feel.” And I waited for a long time… maybe two weeks. I think I was a little depressed, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I knew this was a thing that I was supposed to jump on to, and people would kill to do, and I was supposed to put all of myself into because Kanye had asked me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Then I was at MidCity Gym, and I remember being like: “OK, I’m going to listen to this.” And the first track is called Say You Will. You have an idea of Kanye having this big personality, but there was something very private, very tragic in it. So that was my way in. And then I made this new version of it, which he liked, and it sort of took off from there.
We’re not really in touch now because I really disagree with his politics and he has a very difficult personality, but I liked working with him at that time.
And then I won a Grammy …
This was with the Attacca Quartet, who are an amazing group of people. A couple of years ago, they said: “What if we record a whole album with your music?” And we did. But the thing is, I never intended to win a Grammy — that’s not why you start to make music.
We found out about the nomination last December. We were all in London together for a concert, it was so exciting. They were out in LA for the Grammys but I wasn’t able to go — I was driving back from Massachusetts, and was in a Five Guys when it happened. I had a hamburger though, so I guess that counts.
CAROLINE’S HELL’S KITCHEN
Manhattan Plaza Health Club, W43rd St – 9th Ave
Frisson Espresso, W47th St – 8th/9th Ave
Pocket Bar, W48th St – 9th/10th Ave
Amy’s Bread, 9th Ave – 46th/47th St
Kahve, 10th Ave – 47th St
Clinton Community Garden, W48th St – 9th/10th Ave (it’s my favorite place in New York, maybe top five places in the world — it’s that perfect).
This article was originally published in Issue 63 of W42ST Magazine in March 2020.