Matthew Olson has drifted away from playing the violin a few times in his life and returned but when it happened most recently over the past year, he found something was different.
Olson, who has lived in the Seattle area since 2001 and grew up in various parts of the Midwest (mostly in Kansas City, Mo.), has dubbed himself the “Shirtless Violinist” launching his new guise with a trio of violin covers of current pop songs such as Katy Perry’s “Rise” (16,600 views since Aug. 29) Justin Bieber’s “Cold Water” (20,000 views since Sept. 8) and Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” (7,900 YouTube views since Sept. 15). Using the hashtag #ShirtOffMyBack, Olson encourages viewers to donate to charities in their areas, especially those that help with mental illness and addiction issues.
They resonate most with him because his mother battles both. Olson was her caregiver for several years and recalls “some very dark periods of my life and very sad periods” where he considered giving up the violin. Music, he says, has been a salvation. He hopes it will be for others now with his videos.
“I’ve taken some time off from the violin at different times, tried pursuing some things in other directions,” he says. “Music really kept me sane as a child growing up and it got me through a lot of trauma.”
Olson began music lessons at age 3 and has two siblings who are also professionally trained violinists. They formerly performed around the world as the trio Two Hits and a Miss. Olson has performed as a soloist, chamber musician and in orchestras both in the U.S. and abroad. He was formerly concertmaster for the Kansas City Ballet Orchestra. He had offers with full scholarships to various conservatories but passed because of his mother’s needs. He still managed to study with a series of teachers he says were excellent and highly respected in the world of violin pedagogy.
The idea for the Shirtless Violinist project developed with his boyfriend of five months, Paul Castle. Though only together a short time, Olson says they have mutual passions for physical fitness and creative endeavors. Castle, a painter, has a genetic, degenerative retinal condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa — he has about a 15 percent field of central vision, which says is “just enough” to “pursue my passion in the visual arts field.” He shoots the Shirtless Violinist videos while Olson plays and together they hope to use shirtlessness as a way to draw attention to and raise awareness for homelessness, addiction and mental illness.
Olson gleans most of his income teaching but also does studio work in Seattle on film soundtracks, video game soundtracks and occasionally providing string work for touring acts that come to town such as Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli.
“I’d seen the Piano Guys on YouTube and really loved how they combined beautiful music with stunning visuals,” Olson, who declines to give his age, says. “I’d always done all classical, but I was ready to branch off and do something creative … so I started covering these pop songs, something I’d never done before. … I feel like this is the right thing to do.”
Together with a shoestring budget, Castle and Olson filmed “Rise” the third week of August and had it posted by the end of the month. And for those who haven’t seen the videos, no, this isn’t just two guys filming with their iPhones in the backyard. Castle and Olson travel extensively for beautiful vistas and have filmed in Napa Valley, San Francisco and Mount Shasta in California; Crater Lake in Oregon; and Chuckanut Mountains and Whatcom Falls in Washington state, among others. Olson — always sans shirt — falls in lakes, plays with water pouring over him (obviously with prop instruments) strikes poses with planes and trains swooping overhead and all sorts of creative setups.
So far, they’ve taken anywhere from three days to two weeks to film and several days of post-production and editing. Olson comes up with the arrangements himself and adds rhythm under his violin lines. Castle and Olson are brimming with ideas for songs they’d like to do next. Olson says songs like Sia’s “Bird Set Free,” a gypsy-style classical piece called “Csardas” by Vittorio Monti and maybe even some pop hits from yesteryear as likely future projects.
Castle says the projects have given him renewed passion.
“Meeting Matthew, falling in love and discovering our mutual creative passions reignited in me a love for making videos,” he says. “When the Shirtless Violinist idea was born, I truly felt it was the universe calling out to me and giving me a chance to do the thing I’d always wanted to do, but stopped believing was possible. I believe … Matthew and I were meant to find each other and help galvanize our shared dreams. … We truly make a great team.”
And though it’s a new endeavor, Olson says it works for the same reasons music has always drawn him.
“I feel like music has the ability to go beyond words and connect directly with the emotions,” Olson says. “That’s why we’ll sometimes listen to a song on repeat — it connects directly to our emotions and bypasses our brain and language. I’ve always had the most sublime, beautiful experiences through music.”
On arranging pop songs for violin: “If it has a lot of spoken lyrics, like a rap song, it won’t work. Or too many repeated notes in a row — that’s hard, too. Trying to find ones that have enough of a melody that it still sounds beautiful without the words, that’s the challenge.”
Songs that didn’t work: “We tried ‘Closer’ by the Chainsmokers, which is a great song, but just didn’t really work. Sometimes it becomes a fun challenge. I kind of love it when I’m just messing around and can’t just play it instantly. … But other times I can see that something might work but would really take a lot of time so it kind of goes in the B pile.”
Views so far: “About 200,000 counting Facebook and YouTube.”
Weight: I don’t really weigh myself. I’d guess about 180. Caliper measurements are much better for giving you body mass index.
Fitness regimen: “Five-six days per week at the gym alternating upper and lower body but always some form of cardio, too.”
Diet: “We try to reduce sugar completely, no fruit because of all the sugars in fruit, no processed foods, high protein and stuff with good fats. We start the day with a green smoothie and then lunch and dinner are usually a little bit of Quinoa with sautéed veggies — lots and lots of veggies like mushrooms, cucumbers, maybe a bell pepper, broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, and top that with some protein like fish, ground turkey or chicken breast. We get one cheat meal a week which is usually a double-scoop waffle cone, occasionally a burger and fries before the waffle cone.”
Naturally smooth? “No, I shave. Paul likes it.”
Ink? “None. I’m just not into it at all. I’d be sick of any tattoo after a year.”
Creepy fans? “No, I thought we would have trolls, but all the feedback has been really positive so far.”
Mostly gay audience? “It seems more gay men but some straight women too. I might guess 60-40 from the comments so far.”
An LGBT cause? “Sure, I would love to.”
An ‘80s song you’d like to cover: “We talked about maybe doing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ for Halloween but not sure.”
Where you donate: “I do stuff with our local food banks and we have clothing donation bins all over the city that makes it easy to give. I also like to do volunteer work.”
What’s next: “We’re in talks with producers to maybe do something on ‘America’s Got Talent’ for its 2017 season. There’s also a company in Los Angeles that has approached us about maybe doing some live streaming. I also want to start sprinkling in some classical stuff in the videos as well.”