Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy
AAJ: That is the whole point of the album, isn't it? To have "songbook" in the title usually meant we were talking about Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and so onyou can reel them off. All those Ella Fitzgerald songbook albums were "the canon," weren't they? That was trotted out time and again by different people in slightly different ways.
BJ: Yes, and I think this is a canon as well. I absolutely think it is, but amazingly, I don't think the American cognoscenti has totally woken up to that, really; I think they might be waking up to it but I don't think they've realized it totally. I'm not saying that people like Dylan and Cohen don't have their fans; I'm not saying that. But I am saying valuing the material in a different way, valuing the material as not necessarily sung by them. Which, of course, in the beginning with Dylan people did; "Blowin' In The Wind" and so forth by Peter, Paul and Mary. The hits were with other peopleThe Byrds with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," et cetera. Then suddenly, it is untouchable. But they are songs; they exist. Which, to me, is wonderful.
AAJ: But, as you say, it is that "cover" word, isn't it? Just chuck it out; they are versions but not covers.
BJ: Yes. "Covers" to mean means karaoke. Actuallyand I was thinking about this the other dayBrian Ferry has been doing great versions for a long time. Far be it from me to find praise for Brian Ferryalthough I was a great Roxy Music fan---but, my God, his solo albums, when he took other songs... and the same with David Bowie. It is not as though there isn't a precedent within popular music so I really don't quite understand it.
AAJ: Even in the past decadeit is back to the songbook again Rod Stewart has trotted out all of the oldies rather than going for the New canon.
BJ: He has gone for the new canon now because he has done a Tamla-Motown. I was driving back from a gig in Portsmouth and there it was, a version of [sings] "You're sweet like a honey bee..." one of those. And Jenny went, "Who is this?" and I said, "It's Rod Stewart." But he's done the same arrangement. What's the point of that? Why do that? I don't understand the point. Why would you do that? For what purpose? But I can see that you could take that song and do something different with it. And it's not as though Rod Stewart doesn't have the means to do that. And I do think he is a great singer. Great vocalist, perhaps that's a better word for what he does.
AAJ: Down the years he has done amazing things with Dylan songs as well; he has reconstructed Dylan quite a few times, hasn't he?
BJ: Yes. It is very odd, but yes anyway...
AAJ: Let's talk about the creative process that led to The Men I Love. The obvious way in is through your versions of the songs on The Men I Love. They are total reinventions in some cases, aren't they?
BJ: I hope so.
AAJ: Did that come out of you and Simon, or you and Jenny?
BJ: It was me and Simon on this but on albums I've done with Jenny, it has been me and Jenny. Jenny did the arrangement of "Walkin' In Memphis"; she just went away and did it, in the same way that Simon did "Baby Blue" for me. Over the years, I've probably taken much more of an active part in the process. And they are very glad to see the back of me, my piano players, once I've gone, I can tell you. Otherwise I've sat there going, "Not that chord" or "Oh no, I don't like that." But they do also know that we are going somewhere together and that that is valuable. And they are brilliant. Simon is absolutely... they both are; I'm not going to make any distinctions here.
AAJ: So who does the actual re-imagining? Let's pick an example; the one that is most striking is the Talking Heads: "Once In A Lifetime" is... I was a minute into it and I thought, "Hang on, I know this song."
BJ: That was a mutual piece of work, and I can't remember which of us suggested it. I can't remember if that was me or Simon. But when we started working on it, we just took it to pieces and we decided that this water motif was the thing. Simon played me this thing that he had found in Thailand, which was an old Thai folk song and had a waterfall in it. He had written a symphony in Thailand and had spent a lot of time there. He played it, and I said, "We'll have that! That's great, that is." So we found a way of using that.
And then it is so much a process of using two heads where one of you is going, "That's great," and then the other one is going "If I do that then I can't do that." And then you sing it. And then we re-ordered it because I'd started to look at the lyric, and there is a real through line here but I'm not sure if that is the way that I can tell the story. So can we re-organize it so that we can tell the story our way? Because I think it is a great piece of work. David Byrne is very, very smart. There is something about the philosophical aspect of it. And the understanding that he had, clearly as a very young writer, because he was younger when he wrote this. It is actually a philosophical viewpoint, I think, that you reach at a place in age, when you suddenly go, "That isn't what life is about at all." And you have to live with that process somehow.