Embracing the Changes: Vocalist Arianna Neikrug on her Path to Artistic Enlightenment

Arianna Neikrug has compressed a lot of success into a very short number of years. The Los Angeles-born, New York-based vocalist burst into public consciousness only three years ago, making a grand entrance with her win in the 2015 Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal Competition. The following year, she performed a critically praised set at the Montreal Jazz Festival, adding the title “international jazz performing artist” to her résumé. And to top it all off, on August 24 of 2018, Neikrug will release her debut album, Changes, on the Concord Jazz label. Mind you, she’s only 25.

Don’t let that number fool you. Despite her age, Neikrug brings a wealth of experience to Changes. Raised in a musical home, she’s been performing in front of audiences since she was a child, initially pursuing a musical theater path in high school, and later shifting to jazz studies as a student at the esteemed University of Miami Frost School of Music.

Changes is in many ways a summation of Neikrug’s career to this point, combining boldly reimagined Songbook standards with her own thought-provoking originals. Accompanying Neikrug on this journey are pianist Laurence Hobgood, drummer Jared Schonig and bassist Matt Clohesy. The musicians here demonstrate strong cohesion across a diverse musical program, which runs the gamut from Broadway show tunes (“The Song Is You” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”) to R&B classics (Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”) to a mash-up of Joni Mitchell hits (“Help Me” and “Be Cool”).

Changes also features two originals by Neikrug that reveal both her ample skill as a vocalist and her profound depth as a lyricist. On “New York Song,” she depicts her journey from L.A. to New York with unblinking clarity, investigating the hardship she endured while learning to adjust to life away from home. On the title track, Neikrug wrestles with similar themes of adversity, chronicling the emotional strain she experienced after trading the safe, structured life of college for the strangeness and uncertainty of the real world. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, however, the music never feels weighed down or encumbered. Changes is an album built around positivity, and the musicians rarely veer from their pursuit of melody and groove. The collective mood is one of optimism and uplift.

Neikrug spoke to JAZZIZ over the phone about the making of Changes and how music helped her cope with the mental and emotional challenges of the creative life. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

You come from a musical background. What was your house like growing up?

Well, just to give you a little synopsis, I came from a sort of broken home. My parents were divorced, but up until I was about 6 years old my dad would come over quite a bit. He was a classical pianist and he would play all of my favorite show tunes. I would be singing and performing in the living room – for just my mom and my brother, maybe my dog (laughs). There was lots of playing and singing. I mean, I’ve probably been doing shows in my living room since I was 3.

My mom played a lot of Motown, R&B, oldies, and her parents were huge into the Great American Songbook: jazz, musical theater, you name it. So there was lots of music growing up. We lived in L.A., so all of our closest friends were either actors, agents, managers or musicians. It’s a weird thing to talk about having such a musical family to people who don’t have a musical family, because it was just so normal for me to grow up in a house where you’re constantly listening to music, or singing, or dancing around.

Credit: Gil Bitton

Did you always know that you wanted to be a singer? 

I think at a very young age, maybe 2 or 3, I knew I wanted to be on stage, to be performing, so I knew that I loved singing and I knew that it was maybe my ticket to performing. But there was some decision-making early on – I went to a performing arts high school – where I really had to decide if I was just going to do musical theater or if I was just going to study voice. I think the creative side of being a jazz singer was more alluring than being in musical theater, because being myself is ultimately what I like to do. I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I had creative license to do what I wanted.

You ultimately wound up pursuing jazz studies at the University of Miami. I’ve heard you say that your transition out of school was difficult, and that you even went through a depressive episode after college.

Yeah, that was a crazy time.

 What helped you overcome that? 

Many different groups aiding and offering support. Family, friends, my boyfriend at the time. Many of my friends had left Miami. My professors had to go back to teaching other students, and they didn’t really have time to help me. But to be quite frank and transparent: therapy. I was actually going through another really hard time that I’m finally comfortable talking about. I actually come from a history of a very long eating disorder, about 14 years, and that transition out of college sparked a little more of that eating disorder mindset, which, if we’re being completely honest, just really takes you out of whatever discomfort you’re feeling about your own self. It’s a distraction from some of those deeper, more concerning emotions, such as “What is my purpose in the world?” “What meaning am I offering to other people?” Those were huge things that kept finding their way back to me. What was I doing that was actually moving people, touching people, affecting people?

Something as simple as getting up in the morning, getting out of bed – those were really hard. The mornings were incredibly painful. I remember journaling a lot through that time, just to get my thoughts on the page and sort through them. I had to find it within myself to put something on the page, whether it was lyrics, a little lick on the piano, anything.

The tune “Changes” really targets that transition of coming out of school and figuring out who I was when the only thing I had on the schedule was one yoga class a week and some side work at Lululemon. I don’t want to sugarcoat it, because the lyrics to this song are so painfully blunt. I’m ready to say, “Hey world, let’s not try to cover up these struggles. Because they’re often the most important times in life to figure out what you want.”

“Changes” was absolutely a standout for me, especially because it dealt with the topic of perfectionism, which a lot of creative people grapple with. 

That was a challenge I worked through for a while. A lot of the struggle in college was trusting that I had the chops, tools and knowledge so that I could use my body as a vessel for all that to come out.

One of my voice teachers taught me to think about my artistic self like a cabinet. I’m the cabinet and I have all these shelves in me. I have my intonation, my phrasing, all the things that go into a musical composition. And every time I’m nervous about singing, I just stop and trust that those things are inside of me. When I’m living in the moment and singing in the moment, then those things will come out of me if I’ve stocked my cabinet well enough.

That’s a struggle that I think a lot of young artists are kind of figuring out. Because if you want to connect with an audience that doesn’t know music, you need to be in the moment. You need to show that you are nothing but a vessel to produce a really organic way of emoting through art.

It’s just a matter of shifting your thoughts. Artists rely so much on other people’s approval. I have to remind myself that it’s good enough. I am who I am, and I have nothing that I’m embarrassed to show.

For Changes, you had the opportunity to work with Laurence Hobgood, pretty much the king of modern Songbook interpretation. When did you first start working together?

We started working together in February of 2017. It was about six months before we decided we wanted to record. Now, I thought six months was nothing – I wanted two years! But the label was there to remind me that it wasn’t college anymore (laughs).

So when Laurence and I first met up, it was pretty much just two hours of talking, telling stories and making music. I was a little nervous, only 23 at the time, so it was a real challenge. I was unsettled, not happy at my job. I wanted to sing more but didn’t know how to do it. So a meeting with Laurence was like my golden ticket. The quick-mindedness that Laurence has, and the ability to express what I’m looking for and just have him take two minutes of futzing and have something to play off musically, is incredible.

It was a strange relationship because on the one hand you have this kind of angsty I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing 23-year-old, and then you have this guy who’s been around the block. But he really listened to me without judgment. He’s so open and really let me take the reins sometimes. And that was what really made me feel a part of this project. I don’t want anyone thinking that I met up with Laurence once and gave him all the titles and that he just wrote arrangements. Absolutely not. He might have scripted it on paper, but I am 100% certain that he and I created this record together.

Your version of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is unlike any arrangement I’ve ever heard. 

(Laughs) It really is.

It’s kind of dark and forlorn. How did you approach your interpretation of that song?

I actually recorded a version of this song as part of my college audition, and I had zero awareness of what it meant to have spring, to really experience that season and associate it with rebirth, with life. I grew up in Southern California and went to school in Miami – not a lot of seasonal change! But the transition between winter and spring is something that very few people really understand.

At first, we were arranging this tune as this heavily produced bossa nova. But we weren’t sure that it was working. So I was fiddling around with this darker lick at the beginning [sings dark, minor lick], and that came about from me hearing a specific note [isolates note in the lick]. This gets a little technical, but when you have a half-step in the first interval of a scale and you also have a major third it’s like the lightness of spring and the darkness of winter’s end. It’s push and pull. Having experienced spring now, and having come out of some of my internal struggles, was a really pivotal moment for me. And that’s why this is such a pivotal tune for me, as gorgeous and eerie and haunting as it is.

I have to ask about the Al Green tune. “Let’s Stay Together” is one of the tracks on this album. What about that song stood out to you?

It actually came from the Rolling Stone Top 100 Songs of All Time list. Laurence saw the title and said, “Do you like this song?” I said, “Of course, who doesn’t?” It really struck him for some reason. He took about five minutes to really flush some things out on the piano. Five minutes later he told me to pull up the lyrics and start singing. So I did. His arrangement was so simple yet so beautiful, and it came out of him like he had been sitting on it for seven years.

It wasn’t until we brought it to the band that we discovered this kind of snowflake-y jazz waltz vibe to it. We took out the synth and all the electric keyboard sound and we decided to go with upright bass and acoustic piano. And it just sounded so hip and so cool.

You’re a Sarah Vaughan winner. You’ve performed at the Montreal Jazz Fest. Your debut album is about to launch. If you could put yourself back in the shoes of the little 6-year-old Arianna, would you have ever guessed you would end up here?

This might sound strange, but yes. It has never felt like a dream to be a singer. It has always just been what I knew I was going to do, and it was just about how I was going to do it. I started realizing that things were aligning in a very universal way. Yoga was what transformed my thinking toward being able to receive the benefits of my work. Knowing that physical postures can lead to a very deep kind of enlightenment. Obviously, I’m not there yet, but I’m at least on the journey. That’s the way my music is, too. I’m constantly practicing and opening myself up to whatever comes my way.

To learn more about Arianna Neikrug, visit the vocalist’s website.

Neikrug’s debut album Changes will be available August 24. Attend her album release party at  Lark Theater in Larkspur, California, on August 23 or reserve your copy today.

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