I recently had the privilege to interview Jenny Oaks Baker. She is a Juilliard-trained musician known as “America’s violinist” who recently released her 14th solo album.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in music?
Jenny Oaks Baker: My name is Jenny Oaks Baker and I am a violinist, a wife, a mother and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I started to play the violin at age 4 after attending a Mormon Youth Symphony (the precursor to the Orchestra at Temple Square) Concert that had featured some talented young violinists. My mom then asked me if I would like to learn to play the violin and the rest is history…
I always hated practicing but I loved performing so this kept me going. I still don’t love practicing.
Kurt Manwaring: What was the role of music in your home growing up?
Jenny Oaks Baker: My mother played the piano, and almost all my siblings took music lessons, but I was born 13 years after my next closest sibling, so I was raised almost as an only child. Consequently my mother was able to devote a lot of time to help me develop my musical talents.
My parents encouraged me to “Work First, Play Later”, and to do everything I could to reach my potential. That was really the goal- to work hard enough to be prepared for whatever the Lord had in store for me and my musical gift—and to live worthy to receive His blessings.
My parents never pressured me to pursue music, but they did expect me to work hard to develop my gift.
Kurt Manwaring: Would you tell us a little bit about this album and where people can purchase copies?
Jenny Oaks Baker: My latest album is “The Spirit of God: Classic Hymns and Spirituals. It is an album of music that pays tribute to the inspiring Legacy of Faith of the Pioneers and other devout men and women throughout America’s history who sacrificed so much for the religious freedom we cherish.
The music — arranged and produced by Emmy Award Winning Composer Kurt Bestor — is spiritual, emotional, heart-felt and invigorating. This album also includes two songs that feature my four musically talented children, “Family Four”.
Here is a link to a video of our performance of the song “The Spirit of God” from the album:
It is really a joy to record and perform sacred music with our children.
This is my fourteenth solo album, and I feel so grateful to God for enabling me to share my musical gifts for the through recordings for the past twenty years that have enabled me and others to feel the love of God in greater abundance. I know that God lives and loves each of His children on the earth. I hope everyone who hears the music on this album will feel this love and glory in The Spirit of God!
Kurt Manwaring: How difficult was it to narrow down the number of tracks included on this album?
Jenny Oaks Baker: My arranger and producer, Kurt Bestor worked closely with me and my record label, Shadow Mountain Records to come up with the final track list.
We aimed to pick hymns and spirituals that are centered in the Faith and Devotion of our honored ancestors. Kurt Bestor arranged many of the songs in a way that hearkens back to the music of the early to mid 19th Century in America.
We also wanted to create music that would touch people and be music that they would want to listen to repeatedly. Many of my fans listen to my music with their families every Sunday, others listen as they drive to work, others play it to comfort them, and bring them joy and peace.
I hope this album will truly bless lives!
Kurt Manwaring: “Family Four” plays two tracks on this album (“Oh Shenandoah” and “The Spirit of God”). Could you briefly introduce us to each member and share a musical talent of each person?
Jenny Oaks Baker: “Family Four” is made up of my four children—Laura who is 16 and plays the violin, Hannah who is 15 and plays the piano, Sarah who is 13 and plays the cello and Matthew who is 11 and plays the classical Guitar.
Performing with our children is my greatest joy! I am in awe of the gifts that Heavenly Father blessed our children with. They all learn and memorize music quickly and their ensemble skills are really impressive. They all also feel music deeply and are great performers.
I am grateful we can perform together as a family and I am grateful to have such a supportive husband who makes everything possible!
Kurt Manwaring: “Bound for the Promised Land” has such a majestic feel to it — and a variety of emotions. It swings from a simple kind of Celtic sound to something resembling a movie soundtrack for an army going to war and back to a quiet simple ending. What kinds of emotions do you hope to convey in this track? Is your arrangement purposefully dynamic?
Jenny Oaks Baker: I love Kurt Bestor’s arrangement of “Bound for the Promised Land”. It is such a fun song to perform and to listen to!
Kurt Bestor did conceive of a story to go along with this song and he sent me the following before we recorded it to help me understand what was behind the music.
These are his words about the piece:
“This piece is a little biographical for Jenny’s progenitors. Knowing that many of Jenny’s ancestors (on both sides) trace their LDS beginnings to the onset of the Church, I paint a musical picture of a young Mormon relative of Jenny dreaming of leaving England on a ship “bound for the promised land” of Zion in America. It has a youthful and joyous sound at the beginning before hitting the “adventure groove” and the high seas. Of course, it’s just a dream and the song begins as it ends.” ~ Kurt Bestor
Another really special song on the album is, “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again”.
I love Kurt’s explanation of this one which he also shared with me when he first sent me the music.
“This song was conceived as a very intimate and personal experience. The song begins with a poignant loneliness and a great sorrow as someone deals with the death of a loved one. The first verse is done as a lament.
The second verse, however, begins to be more hopeful as the subject/player begins to gain strength in their testimony of a place where they will meet their deceased loved one again.
This grows into a glorious chorus of love for the Savior and the plan of salvation. The third verse is a dreamier section as one enjoys the thought of an idyllic life in the hereafter. The final chorus is one of joyous rapture which ends with a sweet, peaceful ending.
In short, I wanted to present the feelings that many people have at a funeral – bitter sweet but, buoyed by the Spirit, eventually joyous and effulgent.” ~ Kurt Bestor
As Kurt and I recorded this track, we both were very overcome by emotion.
We both have lost close family members and therefore understand the deep pain of loss and yet know the joy of the plan of salvation which promises future reunions with our loved ones. This recording is a testimony to the reality of eternal families.
Kurt Manwaring: What is the role of a producer on an album like this? What kind of partner is Kurt Bestor?
Jenny Oaks Baker: Kurt and I have been working together on albums for more than 20 years. He is wonderful to work with. He understands my musical soul and truly writes music that allows my soul to sing. His music is really epic, emotional, riveting, spiritual, and deeply moving and I love how it always takes you on a journey that is completely fulfilling.
He is also a great producer and thinks through everything so that our albums are very well conceived and the recordings go really smoothly. He is also a superb musician so our albums always end up sounding amazing.
Kurt Manwaring: How does music affect spirituality? Could you share a personal experience in which you experienced spiritual yearnings through music?
Jenny Oaks Baker: My Music and my Spirituality are completely intertwined. I grew up praying before every performance and completely relying on The Lord to get me through each scary concert.
Throughout my life I have practiced hard to try and be prepared for the musical life that I knew God had in store for me.
And every time I perform sacred music, I strongly feel God’s Spirit and feel Him sustaining me and giving me power to convey His Love through music. Every performance feels like a prayer and a testimony.
Kurt Manwaring: Your music video of “Scarborough Fair” (“Classic: The Rock Album,” 2014) is breathtaking. Could you take us behind the scenes and share a memory or two from filming?
Jenny Oaks Baker: I am happy to hear you like this video. This one was really a joy to film because we were given access to film it at the Maryland Renaissance Festival when no-one was there. They even provided us with authentic Renaissance Costumes and jewelry.
There is something pretty romantic about walking through the streets of an abandoned Renaissance village dressed as a princess…
My other favorite music video shoot was filming The Sound of Music with our family throughout Salzburg, Austria.
I will never forget the feeling of of standing on top of the Austrian Alps, playing “Climb Every Mountain” together with my children while we were all dressed in Dirndls and Lederhosen, overlooking all of Austria, with my husband (dressed as Captain Von Trapp) looked proudly on. It is an incredible memory.
Creating that video was truly one of the best experiences of my life, but our family had to overcome a lot of trials in order to do so.
Four days before we started filming, while we were visiting Pisa Italy, our rental van was broken into and all our luggage, backpacks, purses, wallets, passports, Sarah’s cello, an accordion, all our music, and our drone- basically everything we brought for our trip to Europe- was stolen.
(Miraculously, my violin, Laura’s violin and Matthew’s guitar were left behind.)
So we spent the days right before the video frantically trying to get back on our feet.
Blessedly, Director Danny Drysdale had all the costumes with him so they did not have to be replaced, but we had to scurry to find another cello and bow for Sarah, rent an accordion for Hannah and find another drone.
Thankfully, we were blessed to obtain everything we needed in time to shoot the video.
We will never forget the whole incredible, miraculous experience. I know that God is real, He cares about each of us, and He will help us get through all the trials we encounter.
Kurt Manwaring: What is your next big project and/or album?
Jenny Oaks Baker: I stay busy performing with Family Four and as a soloist with orchestras around the country. Upcoming shows include performing with Family Four at Orem’s Summerfest on June 6 and in Layton at the Kenley Ampitheater on June 23, and with The Utah Symphony at Red Butte Garden on Aug 1.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could record any song and have any guest artists you wanted (in addition to your family), what song would you record and who would join you.
Jenny Oaks Baker: I am a fan of Celine Dion. She is classy, has a great voice, and is a consummate performer. I think we could create a pretty incredible duet together… but I honestly am really happy performing with our children. I just wish they wouldn’t grow up!