Lancashire violinist Isabella Baker on her opera-singing grandmother, the Royal Northern College of Music, Covid, and feminism
Sure, admits Isabella Baker, there were times when the last thing she wanted to do was practise. "Like any teenager, sometimes I just wanted to watch telly," says the Garstang-born violinist with a light chuckle. "But, once I got going, I always enjoyed playing."
A Manchester-based multi-genre violinist and professional session, ensemble, solo, and improvisational musician, Isabella has attended some of the country's most prestigious music schools and worked with a raft of ultra-talented artists. Her original inspiration when she was younger was her grandmother June, a former opera singer. She has music in her blood.
"My family's very working class and I was always very close to my grandparents," explains Isabella, 25. "My family's very working class and I was always very close to my grandparents. My grandma's 85 and still teaches choirs; she's amazing. One day when I was seven, she found a violin for me and I just took to it straight away. I loved it.
"I don't know what it was about the violin," she adds. "I think, because I'd been brought up on a lot of orchestral recordings, the sound gave me a very strong emotional attachment as a kid. And I'd grown up with classical music because of my grandma, so I always enjoyed that, too. When you're younger, it's seen as uncool, so I wasn't the coolest kid at school."
Any kid who listens to Shostakovich and plays the violin is very cool, I say. "Well, I know classical music and the violin are cool now!" she says with a laugh. "And I was into pop and other music as well - my step-dad showed me the Beatles when I was about 14 and I went through a massive phase of loving them. But here was just something about classical music."
Her passion for the violin blossoming and her natural talent shining through, Isabella's weeks slowly became consumed by all things musical. On Saturdays, she'd be at the Junior Royal Northern College of Music and Sundays were spent with the Halle Youth Orchestra. She also found herself on stage, the spotlight firmly planted around her feet.
"My grandma would organise concerts at Garstang Arts Centre each Sunday and I'd get involved, which was great," she says. "It taught me how to be on stage in front of an audience. At that age, it was nerve-wracking, but it got me used to it. I'd usually be absolutely terrified beforehand but, as soon as I got on, I was fine.
"It was a useful experience to have at a young age," she adds. "It was around that time that I started to really think about a career as a musician. I'd thought about other careers - I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to join the RAF because of my granddad, and I looked into being a lawyer or studying English - but I knew that I was going to study music at the very least.
"It always came back to music," Isabella says. "I didn't want to waste the opportunities I'd had as a kid, I guess."
At 16, she attended Chetham’s School of Music before earning a scholarship at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music, where she completed a degree in classical performance. And it was during her time in Manchester that Isabella began to curate a fascination with other genres besides classical too, exploring everything from jazz improvisation to classic rock.
"Cheetham's was quite a big culture shock because I went from Garstang to living in the middle of Manchester with all these crazy good musicians," she says. "It was intense but great for my confidence. And it was there that I realised I wanted to explore different genres and where I learned to love session music. It was just so different to anything I'd done before.
"The RNCM was an interesting experience as well," she adds. "It was very classical-based and, while I'd realised pretty early on that I didn't want to be in an orchestra, I learned other things - like how to improvise - there. And there was a pop music course, so I networked with as many musicians as I could, which was great.
"The RNCM itself is a great place and I got a lot out of it," Isabella explains. "The other students were just amazing and it was a lot of hard work and projects, so it was a full-on four years. While I was there, my own playing was all about experimentation - I'd sit in my room for hours and just play along to all sorts; stuff like Stefan Cappelli and jazz violin - and try to copy it.
"There was a lot of trial and error, but I knew that by listening and playing along, I'd get the hang of things."
Having committed to a career as a professional session and performance musician after leaving the RNCM, Isabella has gone on to work with countless original artists on a wide and eclectic range of musical projects, including performing the entire string section on the album ‘Road to the Royal Albert Hall’ by Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro.
She has also worked with Jamie Lawson, the first artist signed by Ed Sheeran's record label, Ray Quinn from ITV's X Factor and Dancing On Ice, and chart-topper John Newman. Other projects include directing the string section of a large pop production with the RNCM, touring with singer-songwriter Chloe Foy, and collaborating with musical improviser Canter Semper.
"Being part of a collaboration is fascinating," says Isabella. "There's something about having an input in an artist's music that's so rewarding and fun. You go on a journey with artists, which is lovely, and the fact that every project is so different keeps you going. Music is a hard industry - often you don't know what you're doing from one week to the next - but it's great fun.
"I almost realised how precarious an industry music can be too late!" she adds. "I was already at uni when I thought 'this is quite risky', but you've just got to work at it. Covid showed how unpredictable things are. I remember that week in March 2020 - we were finishing a UK tour and all got these notifications about the news and emails about cancelled work.
"It was scary," she continues. "We didn't know how long it would go on for, but it's amazing how the industry adapted. Personally, for example, I taught myself how to record from home, which has been so useful. I still do it now and it means I can work with people much geographically further away but, for the live performance side of things, Covid was really difficult.
"Getting back into performing live after a year-and-a-half was really tricky - it felt very strange but, five minutes in, you realise it's natural. The summer just gone was great what with the number of festivals going on again. That was so nice; quite emotional actually."
One aspect of the music industry Isabella is particularly passionate about is diversity. In 2019, she founded her own ensemble, the Northern Session Collective, in order to not only explore her passion for merging the classical and pop genres but to also instigate more equality in an industry which is - at the top, where the power lies - male, pale, and stale.
"I'm a big feminist and, from what I've experienced in my relatively short career so far, there are still issues around the perception of female producers and musicians in the industry," she says. "There's still sexism there; I've done events where male sound engineers can be quite rude in assuming you don't know the technical requirements of your own instrument.
"Things like that aren't right," Isabella adds. "So I'm trying to make the Northern Session Collective all-female. Music is a very male-dominated industry, which is an issue because it comes down to giving people with other perspectives a chance. At the bottom of the industry, there are a lot of female artists but, at the top, a lot of the people at labels are male.
"The people making the decisions and the money are men. We need to change that."
Music to the ears.