Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

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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.
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