Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

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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.



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