Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

Sign in to view read count
Singer Barb Jungr is on a roll at present. In March 2009 she and accompanist Simon Wallace played for the first time at Café Carlyle, in New York City, presenting a show entitled "The Men I Love" which featured songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Todd Rundgren and Neil Diamond. The show received rave reviews and was voted one of the year's best by Time Out New York. The songs from the show formed the basis for the album The Men I Love: The New American Songbook (Naim, 2010) released to great acclaim. By then, Jungr was opening a new show, "River," at Café Carlyle to further rave reviews. With concerts lined up throughout the year—invariably well attended and well received—plus other projects coming to fruition, the future looks bright for Jungr.

Anyone keen to check out Jungr's past would be well advised to spend some time on YouTube: it contains copious footage of Jungr from various phases of her career, including from her time working in the backing band on comedian Julian Clary's TV show, from her own solo career over the past decade, and even some post-punk footage from her younger days.

In mid-February, Jugr performed a Valentine's Day gig at The Vortex in London, where she was joined by long-time associate accompanist Jenny Carr. The program of songs was perfectly suited to the occasion, including love songs from throughout her catalogue. In between the songs, the set was peppered with anecdotes and wryly amusing observations on life. Throughout, in typical fashion, Jungr confided in, wooed and charmed the audience.

Jungr has recently been interviewed by The Independent newspaper and on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, indicating her rising popularity. Jungr is keen to talk—honest, outgoing, thought-provoking, intelligent and self effacing.

AAJ: The two shows I saw were very different. I saw "The Men I Love" gig with Simon [Wallace] on piano.

BJ: Both great piano players; different but great. They are my favourite piano players. Simon Wallace, as you know, I've been working on with this CD [The Men I Love] and the stuff for New York now. And Jenny has worked with me for years now, since 2001. Mind you, so did Simon; he worked on the Chanson album [ Chanson: The Space In Between (Linn Records, 2000)] and the Dylan album [Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan (Linn 2003)]. I think they are both great. I'm often amazed that other people don't try and snatch them away from me because they're so good.

AAJ: Are you now at a place where you trust each other?

BJ: I trust them both implicitly, yes, because they know me well enough. I think you have to let people do their work. You have to let people do what they do but if there's something that I think is too busy or if I think the vibe is wrong, they know me well enough to know that we just have to find the right solution to whatever that is. And in the same way... like yesterday Simon said something to me about a lyric thing. He said, "You're not singing this bit." I was singing a bit of the lyric, and he said he thought it was a mistake to sing that. And I went, "Oh, but I like it." He went, "I know you do, but I think it's a mistake." And I went, "I'm going to have to think about that"—and I abandoned it. You've got to listen to people as well; it's not a one-way street.

AAJ: So he's not just involved in the creative process; he acts as audience as well, reacts as a punter?

BJ: This was about the song, about if you sing this bit of the song, people will think essentially that you've lost the plot. Because it was a backing vocal bit of the song, and I was singing it because I thought I could get away with it as conversation. He said, "But it doesn't sound like conversation. It just sounds as though you've got some headphones on and you're singing along." And I went, "Does it?" because it didn't sound like that in my head. He went, "That is what people will think." So I went, "OK. Fair enough. It's a fair cop, guv." [Laughs].

AAJ: It was interesting the other night [at the Vortex Valentines Day gig], the relationship between you and Jenny. There was friendly banter going on, like when she set off at too quick a tempo and you slowed her down. That was very nice to see as an audience member. It was nice to see that process at work.

BJ: I think so. Also, it is a real thing when somebody is playing the piano. It is an art, accompanying. It is kind of an underrated art, actually. So, you'll hear people say of Richard Rodney Bennett that he is the most brilliant accompanist—of which there is no doubt. But I never hear it said of people like Simon and Jenny. Because playing as a solo pianist in your jazz trio is not the same thing, and there are some great piano players who are not necessarily great accompanists. Accompanying is so much a process of sensitivity to the singer. That means, of course, that the pianist has to respect the singer because there are an awful lot of rubbish singers, as we know. They have to think that it is worth listening, and you have to be listening to them, because it's a ball game; at different points the ball might be held in either of your hands or anywhere in between you. I think that is dead exciting. I love working with just minimal musicians on stage. You see the passage of that ball much more clearly in the audience, and it gives the piano so much room. Sometimes people say to me, "Obviously when you're at the Albert Hall you'll put a band in." Nobody would think of saying that to Glenn Gould, would they? Nobody would dream of it. "Oh, shame you haven't got a double bass, Glenn. That would perk it up a bit." It is very interesting the way we have completely different standards in completely different areas of music.

It's the same with the word "covers" which really annoys me. Nobody ever says, when they are putting on a new Bizet, "Innit a shame with that new opera. Innit a shame you all didn't write your new one yourself." As though there is no value in great work. The whole point of this The Men I Love album, as you know, is that they are great songs. And fifty people could sing them completely differently. Had we been in a different time, in the period that Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington were in (where nobody was going round saying, "What a shame you don't write your own material" to Ella, were they? Nobody was doing that) they'd have been singing this. They would have been going, "What great songs."

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 on—you 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 people—The 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. Actually—and I was thinking about this the other day—Brian Ferry has been doing great versions for a long time. Far be it from me to find praise for Brian Ferry—although 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 decade—it 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.

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 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."

AAJ: I didn't know you played the harmonica. BJ: Yes, I played the harmonica all through Jungr and Parker, I played mandolin and harmonica. Funnily enough—I don't listen to my own stuff after we've finished recording and mixing because you're singing it all the time but somebody asked me if they could have a copy of the early Jungr and Parker, so I had to put it on the computer in order to do that. So as it was on the computer it was playing and I was copying it and I thought, "Hang on a minute..." Then recently we rereleased Hell Bent, Heaven Bound, which Michael Parker, Christine Collister, Helen Watson and I did together in about 1992 or 1993. I got sent the remastered, and I was really knocked out at how proud I was of it because we'd recorded something like 24 songs in a day, standing around one microphone, the four of us playing and singing at the same time, all of it one take. Also, I can't believe that I played and sang; we were all doing it, I can't believe it. I thought there is something that I need to revisit in my head that this is an option for me, if there is a blues and I suddenly think it would be good to have the texture of a harmonica there. I don't have to be Sonny Terry here; nobody's expecting that, but I can actually play reasonably well.

AAJ: You've never been tempted to have a harmonica interlude on a Dylan song? That would be setting yourself up.

BJ: You know, I never have. It would be setting myself up. And at that point, I'd kind of moved so far in a certain direction when I did those. Again, I might feel differently about that now, because time has gone by.

AAJ: You are like a human dynamo, it seems to me. Are you really like that?

BJ: Yes, unfortunately yes. Simon said that someone said to him the other day, "Is she always like that?" and Simon said, "Not always. But quite a lot, yes." I get very, very down sometimes. I'm half Czech—in fact three-quarters Czech because on my mother's side there is Czech as well—and the parts of me that aren't part Czech and homeopathically Jewish are part Lithuanian-Prussian. So there is the capacity within me for enormous Gorky-esque depression, but I'm pretty good at keeping that to myself. And the converse of that is that, you know, you bounce. So if I'm in good frame, I can bounce. I've practiced yoga for a long time and I meditate, which has helped me a lot, because it was difficult in my earlier days to cope with those things, but I'm better at it, I have better strategies. Years of therapy and all that malarkey, endless loss and tragedy—all of those things help you find ways of coping, actually. I'm dead lucky. The woman from The Independent said, "What about music?" and I went, "Oh yeah, music, of course." Of course, singing is a fantastic thing because you do work though so much. Not intentionally; I mean, that isn't the starting point. But I can be feeling agitated or something, and I can start singing and you put everything out of your mind because you are just in the text of the music and the process and then you come out the other end of that and you are not where you started. Time has gone by and you have shifted; that is a brilliant thing. I sit beside pianos and this stuff comes out of the pianos and it is music that vibrates you. That is why you go and see music live; it vibrates your body and you are better for it, healthier and better for it. So that all really helps, actually. When Russell Churney [composer, pianist, arranger and musical director who worked on several albums with Jungr; he died in 2007] and I went with the British Council to Burma, we went to this beautiful place, The Shwedagon, that sadly was in the quakes last year and was damaged but, hopefully, they'll be able to fix it, that is just the most remarkable place; it should be one of the seven wonders of the world, it is quite extraordinary.

Russell went there one morning to prove to me that he could get up early, because it got so hot the marble was too scorching to walk on so the devotees had to go there before sunrise. He got up early and he met this old lady—I told this at his memorial service; it is quite telling about Russell actually and tells you what a great bloke he was—and she twigged that he was British for some reason, and she said, "You are British, and I speak English. So, tell me, you look so young, what do you do?" and Russell said he was a musician, and she said if you play music it makes you look young. Then she said, "What are you, 55? 56?" and Russell at the time was about 38. He said, "I'm not 40" and she said, "Ahaa! But you still look young." The great thing was that he told me that story and it took a great deal of courage to tell that story to somebody else. And I did laugh, but also, I think it is true—music does have a real physical effect on people.

AAJ: Are you attracted to certain types of songs?

BJ: I'd say yes, if I could think what they were.

AAJ: You were talking about trawling earlier. Do you trawl far and wide? Or do you ever hear a song and just think, "That's the song for me"?

BJ: Yes, we do sometimes. We found this Ewan MacColl song called "Sweet Thames Flow Softly" and I've fallen completely in love with it. You know the man who wrote that book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat [Oliver Sacks], well he has written a book about music and all the brain problems that people have and I had to stop reading the book because I have got them all. And he is talking about them in terms of problematic mental illnesses and I think all musicians have them. For example, if you are in love with a piece of music or if you are writing a piece of music, you can't take it out of your head. So this morning when I woke up and thought I really need to go back to sleep, I need to sleep a bit, I had to go, "Stop, stop, stop." I can't stop it. That Ewan MacColl song just keeps coming back, it is just the most beautiful song, so in a way I don't want to stop it because I want to hear it, you know. "Sweet Thames Flow Softly," it is the most beautiful song. This is the last verse: "But now alas the tide has changed / My love she has gone from me / And winter's frost has touched my heart / And put a blight upon me / Creeping fog is on the river, Flow sweet river flow / Sun and moon and stars gone with her, Sweet Thames flow softly / Swift the Thames runs to the sea, Flow sweet river flow / Bearing ships and part of me, Sweet Thames flow softly." And when you hear the melody, you go, "Oh, God, it's just gorgeous." So that was going around my head this morning. So yes, sometimes they do, and sometimes you find a song. I love [Sandy Denny's] "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" which my mate Carol Grimes has done a great version of, my mate Christine Collister has done a great version of, and I can't sing it. I'm not saying I can't sing it because I can sing it but you wouldn't want to hear it; it's not any use; as an interpretation, it doesn't do anything. We were talking about this the other day because we had a go at "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and I said to Simon, "If somebody at the BBC had phoned me up and asked me to sing this for a particular reason, I could do it, it would sound all right. But if you asked me, with my hand on my heart, am I bringing anything to this song, the answer is no. I'm singing it but the answer is I'm not." Whereas I do think I bring something to "Wichita Lineman." Obviously, I'm not a man but I think I'm singing something from it that isn't the same, and it doesn't take from the original; it adds to, so you go, "Oh." And if it works for me as a process, and if I'm doing my job right, if I'm singing it right and people get that, then what it makes people do is go back and listen to the original, then listen to mine and go, "It's like two different songs," which is what you want, which is what I would do if I was listening to Miles Davis play "Summertime" and then Sarah Vaughan sing it; they're different songs—they're not, they're the same song but that's the beauty I would hope.

AAJ: They're multi-faceted; you're just looking at it in a completely different way.
A lot of the songs on The Men I Love , the love songs, are melancholy, about the pain of love, aren't they? Is that part of the chanson tradition?

BJ: Well, it is partly, isn't it? You can count on the fingers of one hand Jacques Brel's happy songs. I suppose "Madeleine"; his funny ones like "Les bonbons"; his daft ones. If you compare those songs to "Les Marquises," for example, they are not in the same ballpark, are they? It is like "Little Red Bull" versus "Ch-Ch-Changes." Maybe we are more attracted by those; I like tragedy, I like drama, I like those things. That is not to say I don't like Billy Connolly, and all my various mates I have been lucky enough to work with— Julian [Clary] and so on.

AAJ: Melancholy is a lot more powerful an emotion, isn't it, really?

BJ: I suppose there is something in my makeup, you know. There is something in that Slavic-y kind of thing that you do have, in the way that the Irish have. I remember somebody once telling me a story about being in a pub in Ireland, and there was a gang of old men sitting around singing ballads. One person sang then another sang. All these guys were getting on; they were in their advanced years. And one person would stand up and sing this ballad, and everybody's crying. Then he'd sit down, and everybody would say, "Sing us another song that makes us cry," because the capacity to cry and laugh—we've got an awful lot of "making-us-laugh" in our culture but we do need the "make-us-cry." Because we need to do both as human beings; we need that. It is in our makeup. We all know this: you know when somebody says, "I never cry," you think, "You'd better get some therapy quick" because that's not right. Nothing makes you cry? I don't even have to cross the road, I can cry. I cry when I think about my elderly neighbors.

AAJ: That's it. People often cry about other people's pain rather than their own. That empathy.

BJ: Princess Di. I live (in Westminster) and when that was all going on, I remember perhaps the Friday evening [before Princess Di's funeral on the Saturday morning] . And I took a walk and I walked all around. Everywhere you went there were people on the pavements because they were getting ready, to be in place, and they were all weeping and wailing. I wonder if they did this for their mums and dads, their sisters. Because I do weep and wail. There was a very funny moment—I'm not diminishing my family's pain, but it is funny in retrospect, when my middle sister died, there was a moment when her coffin came in, and my family, as one, threw themselves on the coffin as though we were genetically programmed to do it. In retrospect, it has always made me smile because I thought how funny that we all did it without any fear—if we were Greek, we'd all have started wailing. We all did it; there was no thought process, we just did it. But when I saw all those people crying, that was kind of weird.

Having said that, I'm now going to completely trash my own argument because last night I heard that Phil Archer [aging patriarchal character in long-running BBC radio soap opera, The Archers] had died, and I shed a little tear. I was standing in the kitchen, right there, and I thought, "Oh, no. Phil Archer," and I said to myself, out loud, "You daft bat. You're not crying about a fictional character are you?" And then I thought I'm not actually; of course what I'm crying for is because it reminds me of my own losses. And perhaps that is what people need; they need to be reminded of their losses. And maybe that opening and cathartic outpouring—peculiar as it was—wasn't a bad thing. Maybe it opened a door of something that had been trapped, because there has been a difference in our common psychology since, I think. I don't think that is a bad thing.

AAJ: I think you provide an outlet for that. Most of the times when you stop a song, people applaud. But there are other times when you could almost hear a pin drop before they applaud; people have almost gone deep inside themselves.

BJ: People do cry.

AAJ: Is that more so in the States?

BJ: Actually, no. I think people do it here but are less likely to admit it here. They do there, as well. I'm really pleased if people are moved because I'm really moved by nearly everything. I think I cried in Enron [the Independent Lens production Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room]; I can't remember why. I think when he did his speech at the end. I nearly always cry when people come to take their applause, if it's been good. Really, you can't believe it, can you? I quite often cry in the cinema.

AAJ: For the same reason? Things have struck a chord in you?

BJ: And also, I do laugh a lot as well; I will laugh out loud at things. On the tube yesterday, you know you get stuck in a tunnel. And a voice went, "I'm very sorry but we've stopped at a red light, so we'll be here for a few moments, held at a red light." Then we kind of crept forward and it was obvious we'd crept forward about 10 yards. And then he went, "Sorry to tell you we're stopped at a red light. It is not the same red light that we stopped at before."

[Laughs] I couldn't help it. I thought that was hilarious so I started laughing, and that set some other people off laughing, and then there were some people who were kind of smiling a bit, then they started laughing. I think that thing is in us, isn't it? We want to do that. We want to be in community with other people, I think. I mean, I love my computer, I bloody love it. I love that I can speak on Facebook with people I lost contact with 30 years ago. I love that, it's great but I'd rather look at somebody's face. Always. There is that awful thing that when you're talking you do lose all sense of grip on what you are saying. God only knows what you've said afterwards.

AAJ: A while back you used the word "dramatic" or "drama," and some of your performances are. You live those songs, don't you?

BJ: I don't know how else you could do it? You know when people say, "and Robert de Niro had to do this today," I go, "And? That is what you do." [Laurence] Olivier said, "It's called acting, dear boy." That story, you know, but you have to go there. If you're not going there, I don't quite know what you are doing, if you are doing this kind of work. It is an entirely different thing if you are doing something different. For example, I don't think Al Jarreau is doing the same thing; we're both singing but I think he is doing something different. He is operating musically in a different way. It is great and I love what he does and absolutely adore him and go to see him whenever he is on. But I don't think you go there for the same thing. There is room for everything. He is dramatic in his own way. Is it possible to do interesting stage work and not be dramatic? I suppose that would be my question. Because even if I take somebody like Eliza Carthy as an example, we can use all kinds of words like "stagecraft" and "presentation," but they are the same thing actually. They are all contributing to whatever the drama is of what you are doing. Sometimes people use the word "dramatic" as a pejorative, and I'm thinking of someone who is particularly critical of my work Sometimes people do that, "Oh, it is very dramatic" as a sort of brush-away, but Dylan is dramatic. Look at the way he presents himself. I think if you're doing your job on stage... All the people I've worked with recently here on stage, Mari Wilson, Claire Martin, Ian Shaw are all dramatic in their way. Christine Collister—my God! Each one fabulously dramatic and totally understands the parameters of performance. Sarah Jane Morris, The Bad Plus—all top level performers, I think—Guy Barker, Jamie Cullum, the same.

AAJ: What does it say on your passport?

BJ: I think it says "singer."

AAJ: Because your card says "singer writer," I notice.

BJ: I don't know why I did that. I think I was just being arsey. I do write, because I am writing The Fabulous Flutterbys [a children's story with music, to be staged at The Little Angel Puppet Theatre from May 2010] and I'm writing Mabel Stark [a musical theatre piece about a female tiger tamer] with Jonathan Cooper. Somebody said to me yesterday on [BBC Radio 4 programme] Woman's Hour I completely forgot that I've written kids' stuff before; I actually forgot my own life. That tells you a lot, doesn't it, really? It tells you all you need to know about what kind of person you're dealing with. I completely forgot that I'd written all of the music for three pantomimes. I completely forgot that I'd done the lyrics for Birmingham Stage Company's The Jungle Book. "Why are you doing children's theater?" "Because I just thought of it." I thought to myself today, "What? What were you thinking of?!" It is as if someone said to you, "Oh, and you can drive" and you went, "Yes, I know, isn't that amazing... Oh no, I've been driving for 25 years. What a surprise!" [Laughs] I can't believe that I'm such an idiot sometimes. Can't believe it.

AAJ: Over here [UK], you play jazz clubs, don't you?

BJ: Yes. The Vortex is pretty open-minded. I've played the 606 and Ronnie Scott's. I do the Dean Street Jazz Club and Boxford [Suffolk] and places like that. It is such a tricky thing this, isn't it—what is jazz?

AAJ: But over there [USA], you are "cabaret." Compare and contrast...

BJ: They're very different, they've got a different attitude. Over there, Frank Sinatra is cabaret; over there, Ella Fitzgerald is cabaret; anybody who plays at Vegas is cabaret. So, there is a different kind of understanding of the word, for a start. Over here, "cabaret" is often used pejoratively.

AAJ: Over there, do you only get into a jazz club if you're a horn player?

BJ: Not necessarily, actually. I like the places I have played. Um, but the whole "what is jazz?" thing is very interesting. My records are racked in jazz, that actually tells you exactly how categories are made. Categories are made for people to rack things in.

AAJ: But racking is other people defining you. How do you define you?

BJ: I would say that I was "singing." I actually think it is a real shame that there isn't just a thing that says "singers," "saxophones," "flutes" ... Because what is the real difference except repertoire between Oscar Peterson and Glenn Gould? They are piano players, they are playing the same instrument. Their repertoires are different. Then if it just about repertoire, what are we saying? That songs that actually came out of shows are jazz songs because that is the Great American Songbook; they were all written to be sung on Broadway in shows—that is what they were written for. So there is a very interesting thing that happens—with goalposts just swimming around according to how we want to use them. I don't really care anymore. What I care about for myself is that I try to get to as many people as I can, and I like as many people as possible to hear what I'm doing. That is what I like. But how you achieve that...you achieve it by every possible means. I don't think it is any more or less jazz than all sorts of other things that call themselves jazz but, in the final analysis...

AAJ: ... we are splitting hairs or dancing on the head of a pin.

BJ: It is tricky stuff. Simon maintains that it is difficult to call anything that has got vocals in it "jazz," and that jazz is actually instrumental music. That is a pretty good argument. Then you go, "Where would you put Al Jarreau in that?" There are always things that make you have to reframe it. And finally it is just terminology. It is problematic. Like my hygienist said to me, "I can't stand soul music." I went, "You're not talking about Marvin Gaye?" She went, "No, no. I'm not talking about Marvin Gaye. No." "What are you talking about then?" "You know, soul music." I can't remember who else I said, and she went, "Oh no, I don't mean them." And people often do that with jazz: "Oh, I can't stand jazz." And you'll go, "Do you like Billie Holliday?" And they'll go, "I like that." And you go, "A lot of people call that jazz." And they go, "Do they?"

AAJ: "Singer" is probably a good one to stick with, because then you avoid all of that.

BJ: It is, isn't it, because it's what you are doing, actually. I suppose it would be too much trouble in HMV—not that there are too many of them left these days.

AAJ: You probably achieve something when you are in "jazz vocals" because then you're all over the place, really.

BJ: What you want to be into is "Easy Listening," because who wants to be "Hard Listening?" Because those are the people that most people seem to know. Doris Day—easy listening. Great singer, Doris Day was a great singer. Dusty Springfield—easy listening. Great singer.

AAJ: It is the only place you'll find Sinatra, too.

BJ: That tells you something as well, doesn't it? I wonder whether those things will matter less and less as the shops go and everybody just shops online anyway. All you do is search online for it, and at that point it doesn't matter what it is categorized as; it is irrelevant.

AAJ: There is that catch-all category, "Beyond Category."

BJ: There is that, too. Where most things lie, I think.

AAJ: Increasingly in jazz, there is a huge melting pot in the middle, which is a lot of stuff.

BJ: Absolutely. You look at what is coming out of Sweden, all of that material that is coming out of Scandinavia. And the music coming out of places like South Africa. Those things that absolutely trash the boundaries.

AAJ: And the instrumentation—people's use of electronics now. It would have been outside of the big tent before. "You're not jazz if you use electronics." Increasingly, it's in there.

BJ: Yes. Totally. I totally agree.

AAJ: We've spoken about River, and you have touched on The Fabulous Flutterbys. What else is coming on down the line in your busy life?

BJ: Well, we think we are going to get a full commission on Mabel Stark Tiger Tamer, which is the story of Mabel Stark who was a female tiger tamer at the height of the American circus. Jonathan Cooper is writing the music; he and I collaborated when he did some work for me on the Elvis album, Love Me Tender (Linn Records, 2007) and I did some work for him on The Moon Behind the Clouds. We've been working together for years in this sort of swippy-swappy way, and then he came to me with this idea and we started working on it and we got commissioned by Greenwich, and then we've been commissioned by Royal and Derngate, Northampton and did a big workshop at the Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in November 2009 which was really fantastic. So I think we are going to go to full commission for that and hopefully a production in 2011. That is really exciting to me because Jonathan's music is fabulous. Difficult, but not in an arsey way. It is difficult in the sense that it is not simplistic, but it is melodic and it is really beautifully written. He is a beautiful composer and he is a great collaborator, because he is not easy because he is particular so between us we thrash a lot. That makes me have to work really hard. So, yes, we are working on that, and that's great. The hope is that I'll play the older Mabel in that, because there is an old Mabel and a young Mabel. And, much as I'd like to play the young Mabel, she has to be the Mabel who is 20 going into the ring... and even I thought that was going to be quite a leap for the audience [laughs]. So, that'll be next year, but that will be quite a lot of work this year, through the summer.

AAJ: I must say, I love your so-so hand gesture [used in concert to accompany the line "I'm young, I know" in "Love Hurts"]. That is so incredibly charming, honestly. I've seen you do it twice now, and it has given me a wry smile both times.

BJ: It's not as though people are idiots, they can tell. And also, I think, that at a certain point in your life you go, particularly as a performer, there is a rough area when you are too old to be Lady Gaga (if that were your intention) and you are not yet into your "dame" territory. It is sort of a no-person's land and quite a difficult area particularly for women, I would say. And then there's a place you get to, which I think I have come to really, where you have gone past that and you can go, "No. I really have been around the tree; you know I've been around the tree; I know I've been around the tree; we can take that as read. Therefore if I sing this, you know that I know what it means." Then people can go, "No. I get that" and they can be at any place in their lives and know that. Whereas I find it problematic if I go and see someone and I think, "You don't know what that means. I'm sorry, you've no idea what that means." You can't make that work then, you know. So, you can't kid an audience; they're not stupid. So that [gesture] tells them that I know that they know I know they know, and that they know that I know they know... Which is great. So we're all in the boat together.

AAJ: Yes. You are of an age but so is lots of the audience members. But you are an attractive and sexy woman, and you trade on that. You are electric on stage. You are; you know that, surely.

BJ: Well, you don't think about things like that.

AAJ: Would that be like thinking about walking upstairs, where you can't walk because you're thinking too much about it?

BJ: Absolutely, you can't think about that. Obviously, I think you do your best to present yourself in the best possible way. In that way, I don't think I was ever doing anything different. I don't like the slope on stage with your old trainers on—because I think if I've paid, the least you could do is to scrub up. It is the least you could do. I don't like it. I want people to have scrubbed up, whatever that means to them. I loved Amy Winehouse in concert recently; look at the amount of effort in that image; there is a lot of effort has gone into that. I might look as if it has just been knocked off in a dressing room, but it's not; a lot of thought and effort has gone into it. I'm really all for it.

AAJ: Onstage, it is not that you put on a persona. What is onstage is you, isn't it?

BJ: I think that is true of everyone.

AAJ: Amy Winehouse? There are people who almost put on a different persona when they go onstage.

BJ: I don't know. It came up yesterday on this Woman's Hour thing, with this whole thing of working on the alternative cabaret circuit. And I do think that was my training ground; I think I learned so much there. And everything that people did there...I count among people I work with and know some of the greats who are now on television. They are all people who you see something of them on stage. You may not see all of it, but there is not a huge difference; there is a real connecting thread between Paul Merton-funny on Have I Got News For You and "Paul Merton sat beside you in a pub after a Julian [Clary] gig." There is a direct line. It is not like, "My goodness. I would never have thought it." There is not that, and I think maybe that something that came from that was... I remember Ivor Dembina—who has taught a lot of young comics and is a really, really nice man—saying to me, very early on this was, when you go onstage don't do anything, just be yourself and tell people things. That was a real gift, what he said, because that is enough actually. Just go on there and tell people things—that is enough; you don't have to make a big effort. I think that whole thing which maybe is what you are talking about, if I think about it, is what I see a lot in America, this whole scripted-by-someone-else thing. I hate it. I don't want to hear that. I like it if I know the person has written it. I went to see Carrie Fisher's show, which is called Wishful Drinking and she is a great writer. She has obviously written her own text and it is her, and it is fantastic. The same with Elaine Stritch, it is her. You are getting her, you are not getting somebody else. Somebody else may have helped shape it, somebody else may have directed it but you are getting them. That is what I want if I'm watching somebody, I want them

AAJ: With you it seems that it is not scripted—obviously it isn't, you just take it as it comes. You talk about the people on the train the day before with a pit bull terrier and all of that. It is almost like a blog where people just tell you what has happened in their day.

BJ: But it is true. I don't say anything on stage that isn't true, that I haven't experienced or that someone has told me. It is a real part of life. I think that is what makes it interesting and relevant.

AAJ: It seems like what you would say to someone if you were chatting to them. "I was on the train..." and there it is. And you are doing it to an audience. It is almost like a conversation with them, except that they don't converse back.

BJ: Every so often, somebody does. I do get the odd person who'll heckle or communicate something. Which I think is quite courageous, actually.

AAJ: It'd be a brave person who'd heckle you, Barb. Good grief.

BJ: I have this marvelous friend who is Danish, and he can get slightly pissato. And one time, suddenly for no reason at all, he shouted something like "Blue Tuna" and the whole audience was completely nonplussed as indeed was I. I knew it was him. He was so thrilled with himself that he'd done this great heckle, afterwards he said sorry but just that he thought it was funny. I went, "I know. I know you did." I had to say to the audience, "It's a friend of mine. Don't worry about it. He's Danish." And they laughed, because of the "He's Danish."

Selected Discography

Barb Jungr, The Men I Love: The New American Songbook (Naim, 2010)

Barb Jungr/Christine Collister/Helen Watson/Michael Parker, Hell Bent Heaven Bound: Money The Final Frontier (Stereoscout, 2009)
Barb Jungr, Just Like a Woman: A Hymn to Nina (Linn, 2008)
Barb Jungr, Walking in the Sun (Linn, 2006)
Barb Jungr, Love Me Tender (Linn, 2005)
Barb Jungr, Waterloo Sunset (Linn, 2003)
Jonathan Cooper, The Moon Behind the Clouds (Self-produced, 2002)
Barb Jungr, Every Grain of Sand (Linn, 2002)
Barb Jungr, Chanson: The Space in Between (Linn, 2000)
Barb Jungr, Bare (Irregular Records, 1999)

Various, Ne me quitte pas: the songs of Jacques Brel (Irregular Records, 1998)



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles