LIANE HANSEN, host:

The career of Grammy-award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn is taking an interesting turn. When she's not in the spotlight as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, as she was in February, Hahn's playing gigs at rock clubs and record stores. She may seem overqualified, but Hahn says her indie-rock apprenticeship is opening her ears. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose has her story.

JOEL ROSE: Hilary Hahn went on stage for her recital at Seattle's Benaroya Hall in a sleeveless gown. She was wearing jeans the following night, when she played along with a singer-songwriter at the Tractor Tavern, a performance that's watchable on YouTube.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Hahn says she likes the informality of playing in a rock club.

Ms. HILARY HAHN (Violinist): They listen in a different way because it is a closer kind of setup, and they're right there, almost under my feet when I'm standing on the stage and they're standing, you know, two feet away from me. It is really different, and I really like that feeling.

ROSE: At the Tractor Tavern, Hahn was sharing the stage with singer and guitarist Tom Brosseau. She also plays on his CD.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. TOM BROSSEAU (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) I once had the power to make you sigh, confident to love you and to hold you in my arms. And you...

ROSE: Brosseau grew up in North Dakota. He may not be as famous as his violinist, but Brosseau is drawing praise from critics for his CD, "Grand Forks," a collection of songs about his home town and the Red River flood of 1997.

Mr. BROSSEAU: Having flood problems in that city, it's, you know, every year we would sand-bag it. It just happened to be the year of the 500-year flood. Sixty-thousand people had to leave their home. I was one of them.

ROSE: Brosseau and Hahn were introduced by mutual friends. A few months later, she over-dubbed her parts at an office building in Los Angeles. That's the kind of quick-and-dirty approach you associate with making a rock record, not a classical album. Hilary Hahn has made plenty of those in a recording career that began when she was 16.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. R.M. CAMPBELL (Music Critic, Seattle Post-Intelligencer): She had all the technique in the world that you could want, but there was no sense of - it was simply for show.

ROSE: R.M. Campbell is a music critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who heard both her recent concert and club shows.

Mr. CAMPBELL: She always had a musical sensitivity. She had poise. She had depth of understanding that was really quite astonishing, and I just say in the past 10 years it just has developed.

ROSE: Now 27, Hilary Hahn is a top draw on the classical music circuit. She plays about 80 solo recitals and concerts a year with orchestras all over the world. Hahn says she doesn't have any plans to scale back that schedule, but in the last few years she's also found the time to play and record with a handful of indie-rock acts, including a Texas band called And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Hahn says her rock career started by accident, when she volunteered to play with singer and songwriter Josh Ritter(ph), a family friend.

Ms. HAHN: I don't know what possessed me, but I'd never done anything like this before, and I said, well, do you want me to play in your show? Like I could maybe play along to a couple of your songs? And he was like, sure. I thought, uh-oh, now I have to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAHN: And I was really excited about it, but the day of the show came around, and I didn't have anything I liked. I thought oh no, what I am going to do?

ROSE: Hahn says it was the first time she'd ever gone on stage without knowing exactly what she was going to play. That was a year and a half ago. Now Hahn says she's getting more comfortable with improvising her own parts, as she did on Tom Brosseau's CD, "Grand Forks."

Mr. BROSSEAU: Hilary took it a lot more serious that the other people, which was, you know, quite refreshing to see.

Ms. HAHN: I'm kind of a perfectionist, and I tend to want to do more takes than anyone else. So I think I did a bit of that. I was like, can I do it one more time? No, I don't - I think I should do it again and again. Let's do it one more time. That's why we had so many string tracks to work with, and that's why so many appear at once in one of the tracks, because they had all of these different takes that I had done.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Hahn isn't the first classical musician to play pop music on the side, but she doesn't seem to be doing it to appease her record company or her publicist. Critic R.M. Campbell says musicians at the top of the field often look for new ways to challenge themselves, either by playing different material or by playing outside of the concert hall.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It's kind of irrelevant to the Berlin Philharmonic whether she plays at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, but nevertheless it's a way that she has of keeping herself fresh.

Ms. HAHN: I found that when I got back to doing my own concerts with stuff that I'd been working on for a long time, my musical and creative thought process was just kick-started.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HAHN: For the first time in my life, even after years of music theory and knowing theoretically what the chords were that I was playing with, I actually understood what the composers were dealing with trying to put this music together, and I really admired the music that I was playing in a way that I hadn't before, much as I'd loved it before.

ROSE: Hahn says she doesn't know what her next indie-rock recording will be, but she says she'd jump at the chance to do it again. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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