Julia Ehninger, on and off stage, radiates a confident warmth and she is not afraid to express latent depths in performance. She wrote both the lyrics and music for her new CD Hidden Place released by BERTHOLD records in January 2019. Accompanied by Jeroen Truyen on drums, Jonathan Hofmeister on piano and Nicolai Amrehn on double bass, her quartet has produced a subtle and thoughtful album, combining lightness of touch with masterful musicianship.
The singer/composer at first had no overarching theme in mind when she wrote lyrics for the tracks on this CD. That developed once the quartet played the songs. “I discovered that the text deals with the things you don’t see everyday,” she reflects, “…our reality, the hidden forces that shape human behaviour and feeling. On stage, you always give away something of your heart. It doesn’t matter if it’s instrumental music, or if you put words to it.”
Ehninger tells the story of travelling with a friend on the US West Coast. “We got into this huge fight about driving. I wanted to talk about it. He said: no it’s in the past. It’s over now. But I could still feel it. It was unresolved. That inspired me to come up with the lyrics of the song Ghosts from the Past.
To the Red Lighthouse, admits Ehninger was first a composition exercise in which the harmonic foundation allowed only one note-change at a time. “Later,” she explains, “I wrote lyrics to it and dedicated the song to a very special place in New York, the Red Lighthouse on the Hudson River. I often run past it. There you feel that the city has vanished. You just see George Washington Bridge. Everything is calm and you experience nature.”
Other songs on the album have more direct origins. “I came up with the idea for Everywhere but Here when I was really stressed out,” says Ehninger. “Thoughts were running wild and I couldn’t concentrate on the here and now. I guess that’s a feeling that everybody knows.”
You Cover Yourself is the most recently written song on the CD. “That really picked up the political Zeitgeist,” she explains. “It’s about a person who projects his or her anxiety through anger.”
As a teenager, Ehninger first sang Gospel at the church in her home town, close to Stuttgart. She listened to soul and R&B. Her peers were rock music fans, but she soon discovered jazz, playing gigs with older professional musicians before joining the Baden-Württemberg Youth Jazz Band. “That’s what inspired me and then I really wanted a career in music,” she recalls.
Her main influences include “Erykah Badu who uncompromisingly does her thing and Norma Winstone who wrote the lyriks to The Peacocks, one of my favourite jazz ballads of all time. I really admire her.” Ehninger studied for her masters at the Manhattan School of Music under Gretchen Parlato and Theo Bleckmann. New York for her is itself an inspiring place. “There are so many great musicians here from all over the world and there’s so much going on. At the same time it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s just too much and you have to go to the Red Lighthouse.”
“Singing is very physiological,” explains Ehninger. “If a runner or a weight lifter doesn’t train, their muscles get weaker. It’s the same with singing. You have to find strategies; train your voice. But as soon as you make music and go on stage you forget about all that. At that moment it’s about emotion.”
The singer/composer moved to Cologne in 2017. “I’ve picked up a lot of influences there as well, in a way a more experimental and a more democratic approach,” she explains. On the suggestion that her new album combines the minimalist with the complex, she replies,“it’s helpful to hear other people talking about your own music, because you’re so inside of it. It’s hard to explain it yourself.”
Ehninger has played at numerous New York venues including the Carnegie Hall, as well as at leading Jazz clubs in Germany, such as A-Trane in Berlin and Jazz-Schmiede in Düsseldorf. Jazz Podium has described her as “a musician with enormous potential”; Soultrain writes that she is “immensely talented.” This new album is the work of an original singer/composer who can mesmerise, surprise and seduce her audiences.