By Mandile Mpofu
Boston University News Service
On a Sunday morning, Erika Ingrid is conducting a church choir. She stands confidently in front of the group, arms oscillating rhythmically at the turn of each phrase, fingers flicking apart at the top of each bar. Her drop earrings follow suit, catching the soft light emanating from the church’s picture windows.
The song is an African American spiritual, and Ingrid, music director of Forest Hills Covenant Church, guides the chorale of congregants who are all much older than she is. The age gap doesn’t bother her though; she moves with certainty. In the small, Boston-based church, the singers’ voices are passionate and, at times, inharmonious, held together only by Ingrid as their chaperone. Her pace quickens until finally, the chorus swells into a mighty crescendo and the voices offer up the final line: “God’s gonna trouble the waters!”
Enslaved Africans created spirituals out of necessity. These jubilee songs were a part of their sustenance, something they brought from their home countries — a vestige of the past and a glimpse of the future. Years later, these hymns would contribute to the birth of jazz, a genre characterized by harmonies and improvisation.
Ingrid is anything but improvised. She values consistency. The three times I met with her, she sported dangling earrings and dressed in a manner I can only describe as simple and no-frills (each time, a straightforward pants-and-top combo.) Her choice to study jazz voice at the New England Conservatory despite her classical piano background and preference for structure may be surprising, until you get to know her.
“Jazz just gives you more freedom to really express your identity,” she tells me matter-of-factly. Excluding her pandemic-triggered two-year break, when she graduates in May 2023, Ingrid will have spent two years discovering herself in the genre.
Many musicians have alter-egos, sometimes completely different from their “original” selves. Others simply change their names; because “Richard Starkey” is too stuffy for a rock band musician, “Ringo Starr” is the obvious next choice. For the same reasons, Erika Hallenbeck dropped her last name, which she calls clunky and formal, and replaced it with her middle to become “Erika Ingrid,” which she thought had “a better flow.”
Don’t think of those two as separate identities though, because the 26-year-old is a polyphony: two parts sung at once in harmony. Where Hallenbeck is buttoned-up and traditional, Ingrid is loose and buzzing. You may only catch glimpses of the latter side, perhaps because she is reserved or perhaps because she is not fully ready to accept that she is a risk-taker — but it exists.
In her latest single, “Asleep Alone Again,” which she released on April 9, 2023, you will meet a heartbroken Erika. She wrote the song in a house she and her friends rented in the middle of the New York wilderness. At some point, they all decided to spend an hour writing music, and, wallowing in loneliness, Ingrid sat down at the piano and played whatever came to mind. The result: a brooding song about an unrequited crush.
“‘Cause I had been single for so long, and I mean that’s where the title comes from. It’s just like, ‘Damn, I’m still by myself. I didn’t think that I would be at this point in my life,’” she reflects. “It’s not like 23 was old, but it just felt like I had been alone for so long.” In her vocals, there is anguish and acceptance, but she somehow manages to make you feel like it’s all going to be okay.
The Beatles were the soundtrack to Ingrid’s childhood. She grew up in an upper-middle-class home with her mom, dad, and two sisters in central New Jersey. There’s a debate about whether “Central Jersey” exists, she tells me over coffee — she assures me, it does. Fictitious or not, that was where her parents introduced her to music. Had you walked into her home at any given moment during her younger years, you might have heard the tunes of the sixties English rock band stirring through the house, the same handful of songs serving as the soundtrack to each day.
She sits across from me in an intimate café, her medium-sized frame leaning forward slightly, legs crossed, hands placed atop her knee, light brown hair tucked neatly behind her ears. So, I am taken aback when she suddenly and quickly sings a line from “All My Loving”: “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you…” Not even for a second do her blue eyes dart around the cozy room to check who might be listening.
“Do you know the Beatles at all?” she asks, having recognized my ignorance. Still unbothered by the proximity of other patrons sitting nearby, she volunteers a line from “She Loves You,” before naming three other songs that she used to sing with her dad, her on piano, him on guitar. Nostalgia flashes across her face, illuminating her fair skin as she also recalls belting out “Les Misérables” and other musicals at the top of her lungs. With her dad, she was a rock star; with her mom, she was on Broadway.
“My family has always thought music is important and pushed me and supported me in doing music. So, I’ve been very lucky in that way,” she says. Given her parents’ affinity for the art and the classical piano lessons she had to take, it may seem inevitable that a young Ingrid would turn to music.
At 16, she “made a killing” after starting a music studio in her central Jersey home, teaching the kids in her neighborhood. Her path to musicianship was almost pre-ordained, but her two sisters aren’t musicians. So, why her? Maybe it’s the middle child rebel in her that led her down this path. Whatever it was, once she received inner confirmation that she was on the right path, she didn’t look back.
“A lot of people talk about a moment where you feel like you’re flying in music. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but it’s just kind of this moment where you’re doing something in music, and you feel like you’re kind of watching it from above and you’re not even really doing it.” That feeling hooked her and music became her constant. When a close friend of hers took his own life, she turned to music. Through it, she grieved. And through it, she healed.
I first heard Ingrid perform at a small gig in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she was one of three previously unknown artists in the lineup of the anti-Valentines-themed performance. Sitting on the floor of the bar-turned-concert-space, I watched as she introduced her set, regaling the crowd with tales of a horrible ex-boyfriend — the inspiration behind the first song in her set, “Come on Home.” Then she sang. Her voice was full and comforting, guiding the audience through a story of love and hate before gently releasing them back into the reality of the dimly lit spot.
It’s this reassuring vocal quality that acclaimed jazz vocalist and Ingrid’s teacher, Dominque Eade, says is “at once very warm and reserved — like both things at the same time.”
“The sound of her voice is something that has kind of an ineffable quality that appeals to people,” she says, taking a beat before responding.
Ingrid’s partner of two years, Will Gorman, describes her as “fearsome” in “the best way possible.” When the pair connected at a Cécile McLorin Salvant concert, one of Ingrid’s idols, Gorman thought his now-girlfriend was, unsurprisingly, “very cool, very collected, very put-together.”
But it was Ingrid’s self-driven, ambitious move from classical to jazz that elevated his perception of her. “For her to not have that background and then attend New England Conservatory, where specifically it’s like the school for vocalists because of Dominique…it’s really impressive.”
The muffled woops of a trombone travel through the wall in the New England Conservatory as another musician rehearses in an adjacent room. In this dull classroom, music is the color. Eade’s master’s students are rehearsing for a monthly concert series at the school, and, when it’s her turn, Ingrid marches up to the music stand, raring to go, and lays the sheet music flush against the black metal. She wants it “Bossa style,” she tells the pianist, asking for the upbeat, unpredictable rhythms of the Brazilian genre. She’s working on a rendition of “You Must Believe in Spring,” and she wants to make it her own. “Like, groovy,” she reiterates when she notices the pianist isn’t quite getting it.
“One, two, one, two, uh, uh,” she says, leading the band in. “When lonely feel…,” she begins singing, before Eade stops the ensemble abruptly. The pianist started playing the melody a little too soon, the teacher announces, and the pianist apologizes.
“It’s not a crime,” says Eade, half serious.
“It’s a petty theft,” Ingrid jokes and giggles, turning to the pianist. She’s proud of herself for the witty remark, for how quickly she came up with it. Eade pushes Ingrid to sing the song differently, speeding up where it requires slowing down and slowing down where the rhythm picks up. At first, Ingrid stumbles, unsure if she can achieve the level of looseness Eade is asking of her. Finally, she gets it, and she gets into it.
“One, two, one, two, uh, uh,” she says, snapping the band into the song one last time.
This time, she is surer of herself. As the song progresses, she surrenders to the uncertainty, letting the syncopated rhythm take over. At times, she hunches her back and kicks up her leg, digging deep to find the air to produce a guttural note.
“You must believe in love, and trust it’s on its way,” she sings, eyes closed, eyebrows furrowed.
For a moment, I am transported by the delicacy of her voice, engulfed in what sounds like my rainy-day jazz Spotify playlist personified. For a moment, I am unaware of my surroundings before being brought back down into the classroom when the song ends. Erika Ingrid has emerged and Eade has one word to offer up: “Beautiful.”