Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

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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.
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