Barb Jungr at Barton Ropery Hall

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Barb Jungr doesn’t do covers ….

…. and woe betide anyone foolish enough to utter the word within her earshot. I only did it once and such was the magnitude of her wrath that she was really nice about it, because apart from being one of the best singers in the world she is also a very lovely person.

She is, of course, an interpreter of the songs of others, a songwriter in her own right, and a performer acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. She has a Sunday residency at Crazy Coqs in Soho and has won two of the most prestigious theatre awards in New York, the 2008 Nightlife Award for Outstanding Cabaret Vocalist and 2003’s Best International Artist Backstage Award. She’s also a radio presenter, a composer and has a masters in ethnomusicology.

She is well known for her themed shows and albums in which she explores the songs of a particular writer or performer, and her most recent album, Hard Rain, is a collection of interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. On Friday night she was in Barton at the Ropery Hall with a set of songs from these two master songwriters, some of them widely known, some less so, and we got to chat to her before the show.

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The Peoples: The press frequently describe you as a chansonniere. Are you happy with that description? What do you think it adds above and beyond being simply called a singer?

Barb Jungr: I don’t really think it adds anything. It’s just a French way of saying singer. It came about because my first album on Linn Records was The Space In Between, an album of French songs in translation, with works by Jacques Brel and Jacques Prevert among others. That’s when people started to associate me with the chanson tradition. French chansons are story based. They are supposed to be like one act plays although with people like Brel they are more like the works of Shakespeare. I don’t mind people using the word about me but I don’t think it adds anything.

Does it signify the idea of having an especially intense commitment to the song?

It’s possible. The French songs are very dramatic because they’re stories but Dylan songs are very dramatic too and if you don’t have an intense commitment to the song and then you shouldn’t be doing it.

Did you grow up in a house full of songs?

I grew up in a house full of music. My mum and dad came from Europe and met over here, in Rotherham, in the mills. So I grew up with a very European attitude to music. We had very catholic tastes. We had jazz and opera and Nat King Cole and Alma Cogan on the radio. We had a record player before anybody else in our street. And I was really lucky because they took me to things. They took me to everything, and amongst the little working class catholic community that absorbed us, (because in those days people did welcome and absorb people who came over from the war), they had lots of pantomimes and concerts. So there was music around us all the time. Music that people made, people who weren’t professionals. Music that we went to. We went to everything. We went to variety shows and a lot of opera. My parents didn’t think opera was posh, because in Europe it isn’t.

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So you grew up in Rochdale and Stockport. Your father was a refugee and your mother was also from Czechoslovakia. Were people nice to you and your family?

They were very nice to us. By the time I was old enough to notice everything had settled down enough but my mother had a very difficult time coming after the war. If she had known how difficult it was going to be I don’t know if she would have come. My father was very damaged. He had been in the German work camps, which were one step down from the concentration camps and I think he struggled with a lot of things for a very long time. But when the Velvet Revolution came he opened up and told us a lot about his story that we hadn’t known until then. I didn’t know his story until he applied to the German government for compensation and that’s when we realised what he had been through. But there was trouble with some kids and I got into a few fights.

What was the most important thing you learned from your parents?

My parents said “You can do anything. Except be the Pope and you might be able to do that by the time you’re old enough. You can’t be the Queen of England but you never know what else you can be. And they were right and I am very grateful for that.”

So the girl in Stockport to Memphis, sneaking out on a Friday night to get a bus into Manchester. Is that you?

Oh yes.

And when you went to London in 1975 were you running away?

No I wasn’t running away. London was just where you went if you wanted a career as a musician or an artist. I don’t think I really thought “Oh I’m going to be an artist.” That wasn’t in my head. I wasn’t that pompous. Then.

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Were you part of the punk scene?

Oh yes. I managed Angle Tracks. I married a punk drummer. And then we started recording together in a studio at the back of a bacon factory in South Kensington. My first single was recorded there. It was He’s Gone which we released as The Stroke. I still love that record and I’m dead proud of it.

Then you worked with Julian Clary. What was that like?

I worked in with Julian on stage and TV and I opened for Alexei Sayle for two years. Julian is still a really good friend. He was my guest at my residency at the Crazy Coqs last week. That was fun. I learned a lot from him about things like how to talk to audiences and framing shows. It was a great show business education.

And you worked for 13 years with Michael Parker performing a mix of folk and roots music. On the track of the Shopping For One there’s a great piece of harmonica playing. Is that you?

It’s me playing harmonica on all the Jungr/Parker stuff.

It’s a really great piece of playing. And you played harmonica on Billy Bragg’s Workers Playtime album too. Nowadays that’s regarded as a classic album. Did it feel like a classic at the time?

No. Not at the time, but Billy was really sweet. He released a lot of our existing Jungr/Parker stuff on vinyl which was really putting his money where his mouth was.

In 1991 you went to the Sudan and later to Burma and the Cameroon. After that you decided to do a masters in ethnomusicology. Was that a good experience?

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The masters was not just a result of the trips for the British Council. A lot of things were happening in my life at the same time. Jungr/Parker was falling in on itself which happened naturally and I’m still great friends with Michael. In fact I have just re-released Blue Devils on my own label on iTunes because some of that stuff has never been available except on cassette and that stopped years and years ago and now we are re-mastering and putting them out again. We had some family illness as well and I lost my sister to multiple sclerosis and I felt that I just needed some space. So the masters came along at just the right time. I did two years at Goldsmiths and the School of African Studies and it was a wonderful experience. I was around a lot of to really brilliant people. John Baily who is the world’s leading expert on Afghanistan music and who has saved a lot of Afghan musical history over the past few troubled years was my tutor. I was very lucky. And then I kept going back to Africa. I did my Masters in the music of Malawi because I was working with the national troupe there.

Do you see many connections between the African music you studied and the music that you perform? Or do you try to make connections?

The connections happen anyway. Music is music. Everything is music. I don’t think that music is an international language because there are some musics that don’t to speak to each other. But usually two musicians can sit down together and find something in common whatever traditions they come from.

You’ve done several themed albums based on the music of individual performers like Elvis, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Are there any other writers you would like to perform in this way?

I’ve got so much that we’ve already started. We are performing the Dylan/Cohen show that we’re doing tonight. We have also resurrected the chansons and we did them in Brighton last week and I’m going to dig out the Elvis material and do that again as well. I’m also updating the Nina Simone songs with Simon Wallace who is accompanying me tonight. So I am very busy but there are things are I have mind the but I don’t like to discuss them too far in advance.

Your new album features the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Do you approach each of them differently?

No. I approach them as I would any other song. I try it in my own way and see if it works and if it doesn’t work, if the song means enough to me, I will keep on trying. Sometimes the people I’m working with make suggestions which help to make it work. But I don’t have a set mental process about the interpretation of the songs. My intellectual life is not there. It is in the books that I’m reading and the things that I am researching that interest me. These things may not be specifically about music but to me everything is about music. If I were reading about Van Gogh, that’s music. Driving here was about music. Sitting here talking is about music. Everything is about music.

Among newer songwriters is there anybody writing songs of this quality?

I haven’t found anybody but Dylan and Cohen have fifty or sixty years of work behind them. It’s very hard to compare newer songwriters work against that kind of back catalogue. Often somebody will say to me something like “This is the new Joni Mitchell” and I will think “No, you need to go back and listen to the original Joni Mitchell if you think that.”
All we can ask is that young songwriters try to be who they really are and not to copy people who have already been successful. And we shouldn’t hothouse people or bring them forward too soon. We should give people time to develop their talents. Nowadays a performer can go from living in a cupboard to having seventeen Grammys in a couple of weeks.They haven’t had the space all the time to find themselves. When Dylan had his first success he had been around awhile already and then he carried on working. And he didn’t carry on working on primetime television. He played small clubs and learned his craft. Time to develop is crucial for any artist and in a world where people can have been on The Voice and then are playing for thousands of people a week later, where is their time to learn? I think that’s a real problem.

But would you still recommend it for young people as a career path? Is it still a good way to make a living?

I wouldn’t say either of those things but I would say that if you are a young person who has the desire to act or write or sing then you should do it but not because you expect to get rich. Don’t do it because you think it’s going to be easy or great for your bank balance or for your social life, because it probably isn’t. It’s a vocation. You should do it because you love it. I’ve driven two hundred miles today to sing some songs in Barton and then I’ll drive two hundred miles home. And that makes me happy. I love singing to people.

And we love listening. Thank you very much indeed.

Thank you. You’re welcome.

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When Barb Jungr takes the stage it’s clear that she hasn’t been kidding. She radiates joy from the start and her takes on her chosen texts are transformative and inspirational.

The show opens with Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma, but it is delivered as a recitative with a rock and roll chorus, allowing her to bring out the irony of the wordplay in the verses. I’m taking some pictures and from my position stage right I can watch her through the lense as she acts her way through the lyric as if she were in a light opera, performing a particularly complex patter song. She doesn’t just stand and sing, she is constantly in motion, hand gestures, body shapes, facial expressions all come together to create an intense and mesmerising piece of musical and physical theatre.

She switches mood almost immediately, sliding into a soft jazz version of Cohen’s memento mori Who By Fire, as graceful an interrogation of Death the Leveller as anyone has ever attempted. The song is full of dreamy Joni Mitchellesque vocal runs and emphatic pauses. It’s breathtaking stuff and the audience is so still you could hear a pin drop, or a shutter click, so I just listen and enjoy and wait for something more upbeat where I can shoot the last of my pictures without ruining the silence.

It arrives with a personal favourite of my own, one of Dylan’s finest later songs, the relatively unknown Oscar winner Things Have Changed. It’s a brilliant cascade of imagery and ideas, by turns funny, charming, bawdy and grotesque and Jungr performs it with relish, emphasising the comedy and loquacity of the lyric.

She takes a favourite line from the song –

“feel like fallin’ in love with the first woman I meet, puttin’ her in a wheelbarrow and wheelin’ her down the street”

as the text for a brief conversation with the audience about the difference between Cohen and Dylan, the former an engaging lovable old roue who could chat to you at a party for a few minutes and feel like your life is a better place because of it and the latter a fully paid up member of the awkward squad – bitter, a little perverse, full of testosterone and bile.

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The theme for the evening is to be the counterintuitive exercise of finding the most compassionate pieces of Dylan and the most vitriolic of Cohen, to compare and contrast each of them at their most atypical.
So we have a jazz version of First We Take Manhattan followed by a fine Chimes Of Freedom. Jungr performs the full version with the awkward verses left in, the ones that even Dylan never plays any more, and she makes them work. It’s Dylan’s greatest early masterpiece, (I’ll show my hand and admit that although I’m a near obsessive Dylan fan I’ve never been fond of the early acoustic stuff), and she brings out the poetry perfectly, turning the song into a diary note set to music (I read that somewhere), a tumble of narrative over a rolling, rumbling piano line from the always excellent Simon Wallace.

It’s a great show, with Jungr talkative and funny in the spaces between. That Clary fellow must have taught her well. Other highlights include a grimly humorous The Future, an up tempo jazz tinged Everybody Knows and A Thousand Kisses Deep which comes in as a bold confession, delivered in a spirit of resignation, not hope of absolution. Some things are too serious to be forgiven.

Even my pet hates, Masters Of War, (which Jungr performs as a one way conversation with an imaginary master of war who is sitting in the wings and pulling faces at her) and Blowin’ In The Wind (which she makes sound almost like the work of a grown up) sound better than I’ve ever heard them performed live (and I’ve heard them a fair few times).

Towards the end of the show there’s a special moment – a song I’ve known for years but never fully appreciated, the lovely Land Of Plenty, composed by Cohen and Sharon Robinson and taken from 2001’s Ten New Songs album. I’ve heard it frequently but it’s the one song on the set list to which I don’t know all the words and I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time. I guess that’s what listening to a great singer interpret songs afresh can do for you.

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It’s been a wonderful night and it’s Land Of Plenty that I find myself singing as we leave and for most of the rest of the weekend. fabulous. Now we have to find a way to get Barb Jungr to Grimsby to sing some songs. She’s just what we need. Oh and ten thousand new jobs. But Barb Jungr would be a start.

And I think she might go for it – she obviously enjoys singing to people just as much as she said she did.

Barb Jungr can be found at barbjungr.com and on Facebook and Twitter

This review appears in The Peoples Issue 33 Web Edition

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