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Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

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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.
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