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Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

By Published: March 23, 2010
AAJ: There is that feeling of alienation; he is looking at himself as an outsider.

BJ: Absolutely. I love that moment; for me it does all hinge on that moment of "My God, what have I done?"

AAJ: Yes, that really comes across live, and on the record as well. It is the tipping point of the whole song.

BJ: It is the tipping point of the song—it absolutely is for me.

AAJ: It is like a self-revelation and a confession, isn't it?

BJ: To me, it is like the Reaper is in the room. There is this whole thing in our societies of "Keep your head down." My dad was Czech, and I went over to Czechoslovakia, as it was, when it was behind the Iron Curtain. And it was at the time when the Stasi were in East Germany and the secret police were operating in what was then Czechoslovakia. People were scared all the time; and those people, their lives were taken from them. There is that sense that if you have got a life, try and live it, for God's sake. Otherwise, "My God, what have I done" is what you end up saying. Who would want that?

AAJ: Or "My God, what have I not done"?

BJ: Precisely. Yes, absolutely. And I love those moments, you know: What is this? What is this? Where is this? Why is that happening? To me, it is just so interesting. As a process, to sing I've loved it. I love that song. I love it. My yoga teacher played it in her class. She said, "Do you mind if I play it? I've been playing it in relaxation. And every time at the end of class, people have been coming up and asking who it is singing." And this woman came up to me and said, "It is such a feminine take of what I thought of as a very masculine record." I thought that was very interesting, because it hadn't occurred to me that it was a masculine record. It does with other records and other texts, but not that. I though, "Wow. That is so interesting that somebody felt that." So, that was nice.

AAJ: That gender thing is an issue that you mentioned onstage the other night, for quite a number of the songs you sing. How do you deal with that? Often you don't; you sing it as written.

BJ: I mostly sing it as written. The interesting thing is, if I'm completely honest, I don't think you analyze your own work, it is always a mistake. I'm reading The Gift of Asher Lev [by Chaim Potok] at the moment, which is exactly about that examining or not examining your work. And I'm all for not examining it, partly because it is painful, actually. Also, somehow you are an idiot about your own work. That's fine, because you have to do it. Thinking too much isn't useful when you are about to sing a song. You've got to go, "Right. I'm in that song and I'm going to sing it with every fiber of my being. " But the other week this really nice young woman came from The Independent to do a big article. And in the middle of it, she said to me, "You know, it seems to me that you do a lot of things in between things." Well, of course, I called my first album Chanson: The Space In Between, but it had never occurred to me. So she went, "You know, between songwriter and song, between male and female." And I'm going, "Duh! How come that never occurred to me?" Because you don't think about it; you just do it. You look at a song, for me. Take as an example "Night Comes On," which I think is a really deeply personal song. I've changed that because that is about somebody talking about a lover. And I want to sing this personally, so for example, "My son and my daughter climbed out of the water saying "Poppa, you promised to play" I sing as ..."Momma, you promised to play." In order to sing that song right, for me, I've made that work for me. That process worked for me. I haven't changed, "My father was fighting in Egypt" or "My son, take my gun," but I've changed other bits of it to make it work as a story for me when I'm doing it. But say, in contrast to that, "The River"—how can you change that? "I held her close to feel each breath she'd take." It's a male perspective of a marriage. And there's that wonderful, really great moment: "I act like I don't remember, Mary acts like she don't care." And those are very interesting statements, actually. You can't change that. If I sing that the other way round, it's not going to work. It is that way; that's how it works. That's how it operates psychologically, rightly or wrongly. I didn't change anything in that. So, it entirely depends on the song. What did I just change recently? And it was Simon who suggested it. I'm singing "Lost on the River" [by Hank Williams] and there's a line, "Tomorrow you'll be another man's wife," and Simon said why not make it, "Tomorrow I'll be another man's wife"? A brilliant idea; that just makes it so poignant to sing that song. But I don't automatically do it, and it isn't simple.

AAJ: When you go back to New York (to Café Carlyle), you are doing something called "River." Is that what you are preparing now? Is it a whole bunch of new songs that you are working on?

BJ: Yes. I'm going to sing "The River" and "Once In a Lifetime" and "Everything I Own"—which I think is a water song without having water in it, because I didn't do that there last year. They have to have a new show, a new collection every time. I've got quite a lot of back catalog water songs; I've got "Baby Blue," "Waterloo Sunset," "Suzanne" and "My Father," all of which are in my catalog. So I thought if I take the songs that are in my catalog and if I then go, "Ooh, what have I always wanted to sing?" because there are a couple of real songs that I have always wanted to get my hands on, but need a good excuse. And then we did a bit of trawling—no pun intended—and found some great stuff, a great Percy Mayfield
Percy Mayfield
Percy Mayfield
1920 - 1984
song called "The River's Invitation" which is just fabulous, about somebody who has lost their baby and then the river talks to them and says if you're not happy, why don't you just come in the river with me. And then the person goes that I'm going to find you and we'll go and jump in the river together. It's just great. So, I've got some great songs. I think I'm going to play the harmonica again; I haven't played the harmonica for years. I thought, "What can I do this year to wake the Café Carlyle up at around midnight?" as I can't sing Iggy Pop this time. I thought, "I know, I'll play the harmonica. That'll be good."

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