Brianna Tam likes to play barefoot.
She moves to the beats she creates, her body swaying like a metronome, side to side, side to side. Her jet-black, waist-length hair shimmers and swirls as she plays. Her wrist is flexible but firm enough to command her bow gliding across the cello’s strings. She taps her right foot on a pedal on the floor. Melancholic sounds fill the space in her apartment; her eyes are closed.
“I think it’s just a feeling,” says Tam, who lives in Greensboro and has been playing the cello since she was 8 years old. “I think a lot of it is being able to calm my nerves and block out everything else and to just focus on what I’m doing.”
Repeating notes plucked by hand lead into a beat that sounds not unlike a pulsing heart as Tam’s foot taps another nearby pedal. The strings connect and an urgency is infused into the song.
“Intrepid,” the second song off Tam’s new album, Growth, encompasses the artist’s philosophy and style of musicianship.
At just 23 years old, Tam’s relationship to the cello has changed significantly over the course of her life. Like most who start with the instrument, she began learning classical pieces and playing in a traditional style. But more recently, Tam has embraced playing the electric cello and working a loop pedal to become a one-woman act, using the instrument to build and add to songs while playing live.
“I like being in control,” Tam says. “I like being able to be my own ensemble and not having to rely on anyone else. And if something is messed up, it’s completely my fault.”
As she plays the instrument, which looks more like an outline of a cello with just the fingerboard, she stands, rather than sits and uses the loop pedal to capture and layer the sounds she creates. It’s like building a cake, baking one layer at a time then adding adornments and decorations before serving the final creation. And it’s a lot harder than it looks.
“You need a good sense of time ’cause if you don’t, the entire thing is gone,” says Tam. “I don’t think I’m actually a talented cellist. I think my talent is that I can listen to a song and figure out all of the parts. I know how to keep track of all of the things that are going on.”
Tam initially picked up the cello when she missed the deadline to apply to play the violin for her school orchestra. She says she always gravitated towards games or books that had instruments in them, particularly stringed ones.
“I was always drawn to that,” she says. “We had brass instruments at my school, but I think they were a little too loud for me. I wanted something that had a little more subtlety.”
Over the years, teachers took an interest in her talent and as a teenager, Tam landed a spot at a music conservatory. That’s where her passion for playing and the expectations put on her diverged.
“The thing was, like behind the scenes I was trying to play some rock and roll, or my brothers would play Guitar Hero and I would listen to the music and try to figure out the compositions behind them,” she says. “I had never heard rock and roll really; that was really inspiring and that stuck to me.”
She began experimenting with tapping on the neck of the cello to create percussive sounds and playing in a more aggressive manner. During one particular class, Tam played a bit of her new style and received harsh feedback from her teacher.
“She was like, ‘Quite frankly, I’m questioning your style and I don’t know if I like it,’” Tam recalls. “And that was hurtful because I always try to be authentic and that really twisted the knife for me. Like I’m being myself and you’re saying you don’t like it.”
Tam says she dropped out shortly after that.
When she was 20, Tam was gifted an electric cello which she says has expanded her style of playing and really let her be herself. She gravitates towards hip-hop and RnB — she’s covered AWOLNATION’S “Sail” and uses beats by Kanye West in some of her shows — but her style is everchanging, she says.
“You traditionally want a more smooth sound in cello but I’m more of a percussive, a little aggressive style,” Tam says.
As she plays, the instrument towers over her small frame, but it’s clear that Tam is in control.
“I think it looks a little more commanding when you stand,” she says. “I personally feel more engaged with the music.”
And that’s how she approaches arranging and writing music too. She says that the combination of the electric cello with the loop pedal lets her have total control over the sound.
“Growing up, I would need a lot of people to manifest the arrangements, but now if I have an idea, I can just hear them right away,” she says. “I think it was the perfect way to use that because it seemed like a useless skill for a long time.”
Still, Tam has played with orchestras like the Spartanburg Philharmonic, for which she was the principal cello, and performs with Saturn Leaves, a local band that plays hip hop and R&B.
But mostly, she’s trying to market herself as a solo artist and showcase her skills of live-looping with the electric cello. It’s completely different from her upbringing in the classical world, but she says it’s a development that is finally a true expression of who she is as an artist.
“I personally haven’t experienced anything that makes me feel quite the way music does,” she says. “And I’m just trying to do that. You don’t need anything complicated or fancy to make someone feel that way with your music. I think there’s something very pure and genuine about music and I want to be able to express that to as many people as possible.”
Learn more about Brianna Tam at briannatam.com or on her Instagram at @brianna.tam.cello. Tam will be playing at the Grandover Resort on June 18 and at Bull City Ciderworks in Greensboro on June 19. Her album is available to stream on Spotify.