If you’re watching the latest Disney film in Copenhagen, you’re most likely listening to singer Helle Henning. Helle not only sings the character overdubs for big animated film imports in her native Denmark, but she conducts the ensemble singers on these sessions. She also teaches jazz at one of Denmark’s foremost music conservatories and recently released a pedagogical big band recording in Danish to teach American jazz to primary school children. In addition to her studio singing and teaching, Helle has gigs regularly—but she only recently started performing in the U.S. As Americans become more familiar with this vibrant and innovative singer—and as Helle sings more in English—her presence in the U.S. will likely grow. Tunes like the touching “Loudness of Loneliness” and the steadily grooving “Happily Heading for Home” transcend musical borders and speak to the universality of Helle’s appeal as a vocal musician.
This weekend Helle will perform on a double bill of original music with singer/composer Maryanne de Prophetis at Scholes Street Studio, and later this year she’ll be working on a project for ENNA Records, Maryanne’s new label. Helle and Maryanne recently sat down with Five Music Minutes (5MM) to talk about Helle’s work and why Maryanne has become its ardent champion here in the U.S.
5MM: Helle, in your native Denmark you’ve been successful as a singer in many different arenas. You’re an educator, a composer, and a performer in both live and studio performance. Can you tell us how you got started in music?
HH: My father was a jazz drummer, and [as a child] I made a lot of music with him. I started to play guitar, and after high school it became obvious that I would do something with music. I went first to university, because at the time there was no music conservatory in Denmark. But a year later the conservatory started, and I was the first student and the first singer educated there.
5MM: When did you first start performing in the U.S.?
HH: I recorded my third CD here in New York in 2014, with [Danish pianist] Nikolaj Hess, [American bassist] Jay Anderson and [American drummer] Gregory Hutchinson. And I played my first gigs here in April 2017 [as part of the VoxEcstatic series at Cornelia Street Cafe].
5MM: I would imagine that launching an international career from Denmark involves lots of thought about how to appeal to both your native fans and an outside audience. How have you managed that?
HH: In Denmark, your typical career in jazz is that you don’t sing in your native language, you sing in English. That automatically brings you abroad, to other countries. For me, all of my jazz tunes are in Danish, which means that I only play these tunes in Denmark and Sweden, in Scandinavian countries. But that’s why now I’ve decided to perform my songs with English lyrics.
5MM: My sense is that jazz audiences the world over are becoming more open to vocalists who sing languages other than English. Are you finding this to be so?
HH: Yes, maybe. The American language for so many years has ruled in jazz, and maybe people find it refreshing to listen to lyrics that are not just in English, even if they don’t understand the words. [Hearing music in other languages] can bring you into another level, into another vibe.
5MM: How does that work do you think?
HH: People are seeking new stuff—so [touring musicians] bring a new vibe to a place because they’re not from there. When you come from abroad [your home] is in your blood and it just affects the [music].
Maryanne de Prophetis: When Helle sings in English I think it has such a beautiful quality and warmth. She’s said to me in the past, “oh, but my accent…” But her particular accent colors and gives a new environment to the lyrics. And I don’t think that’s true of every [non-native] singer singing in English. In her case it’s very true.
5MM: Is Danish a language that lends itself easily to singing?
HH: No. In Danish we have a lot of back-tongue vowels, so many Danish singers have trouble singing high notes. Because when you sing a high note the larynx goes up and when you make a back-tongue vowel it fights with that. In English you have fewer problems with high tones.
MdP: But when you’re connected to the music and it’s something personal it doesn’t matter. You make the words work and you make your sound work.
5MM: What other cultural differences affect the way that you create music in Denmark do you think?
HH: [In Scandinavia] we have more small countries, more languages, and a lot of space. In the country the space really does something to you, with the big mountains and the forests.
5MM: I’ve noticed that a lot of Scandinavian jazz draws elements from folk music—melodies or rhythms or lyrics.
HH: I was going to mention that. Musicians in Scandinavia want to bring that folk tradition into the music, and my music is totally a mix of straight American jazz standards and a lot of Danish folk music. But there’s also a difference between jazz singers from the south and the north of Europe. I’m frequently with singers from Spain and Italy, and they sing in a much more traditional American style, the way they scat. Not many singers are doing that in Denmark anymore.
MdP: What attracted me to Helle’s music right away was that it was not traditional. But it was soulful and clearly grounded in something very real. Not imitating the old school, traditional kind of [vocal jazz]. That’s where I’m coming from as [a singer and producer] as well.
5MM: What do you usually perform for U.S. audiences?
HH: When I’m playing gigs here it’s my tunes, and when I'm out jamming I sing the good old standards.
5MM: Tell us about your originals. How do you approach composing?
HH: I have very different ways of writing. Sometimes I’ll have a good idea for a story, sometimes I’ll have a nice bass or guitar line. Sometimes I’ll write a nice melody and find out afterwards what the chords will be. I try to push myself a little out there instead of repeating myself.
5MM: You have three albums out, two recorded in Denmark and one here in New York. There’s been some clear movement there. Can you talk about how your music has evolved over the last few years?
HH: On my first album I was very curious about whether I could make the songs work because I had so many of them that [didn’t go together]. On that record I learned that you can actually [make it work] because [the music] all comes from me. The next record was simpler, with not so many chord changes in the songs. And the third record I recorded here was a whole other thing because I hadn’t yet played with Jay and Greg.
5MM: How did you work with musicians in a foreign country whom you’d never met before? That sounds challenging.
HH: I just told them a little about what the song was about because I was singing in Danish. I tried to help them into the world of the song, telling them that the feeling is kind of like this, you know, and they just kicked it off. In one day we had a record of 10 songs, with many of them the first takes. But I chose to do the vocals in Denmark. As a bandleader there was so much going on in the session that I couldn’t really fit the vocals in. Also it felt right to be with an [engineer] who understands my lyrics. I worked with this engineer on other records, so he knows me very well.
5MM: Tell us about the album that will be coming out on the ENNA label.
MdP: We’re coming up with some new [tunes] for it. We’re in the exploration phase. Hopefully we can put out a couple of my jazz songs later this year.
HH: I’m also working on another project—one that’s a little more bluesy, a little more roots—so I’m figuring out how these projects will all work out. I think I’ll be back in June to do that one over here. I want to go a little further with my music, to bring it to a bigger audience. That’s why I’m singing in English. We’ll produce these songs a little more, maybe with shorter solos, so more people, not only jazz listeners, will feel that it’s easier to connect to my music.
5MM: So we can expect more touring from you?
HH: Yes. The nice thing about being a musician is that you can travel around the world and meet people you haven’t met before and just make music together. These musicians are not only good at their instruments but so respectful. They bring in their personality but also understand what comes from me. It’s so amazing.
5MM: It’s such an important thing for a singer to find those musicians.
HH: Some piano players are just so nice to play with. They know how it is to be a singer and they love to play with singers. That’s the one we want to call.
5MM: These types of connections across borders—and across instruments!—illustrate just how similar we all are at a fundamental level.
HH: True. It’s so interesting that when I am Denmark, sitting in my room, writing lyrics in your language, you understand me. Not only word for word, but in a people way. When I say something funny the way I would in Danish and then I translate it, you laugh. It’s crazy—and really nice.