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Saturday, 14 September 2019 19:21

Ten Questions for Barb Jungr, Jazz Singer

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Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer, of Czech and German parentage whose work challenges categorisation and spans popular music, theatre, cabaret and jazz. She is known as a performer of “contemporary cabaret” and a chansonnière, or singer of chansons—in the sense of classic, lyric-driven French songs; in the broader sense of European songs in the cabaret style; and in the even broader sense of a diverse range of songs interpreted in this style. She is also an acclaimed jazz and cabaret singer, and has become best known for her work with, or "interpretations" of, the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, The Beatles and, most recently, Sting. A song-stylist incorporating jazz and blues, her approach often includes radical re-readings of known writers as well as original material. Her most recent album, Bob, Brel & Me was released on 6th September, 2019.


1. You’re known for Dylan, musical theatre, cabaret, chanson and jazz – an eclectic mix. What did you listen to growing up?

I grew up listening to Nat ‘King’ Cole, the South Pacific soundtrack, which was the first record we had inside the house aside from Nat King’ Cole, Ella Fitzgerald – things that came on the radio, like (sings) Walking Back To Happiness, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf. All of those things. My dad used to take me to opera. My dad used to be a refugee, and we lived in a small, working class community in Rochdale – and it was really working class – coal got thrown down a hole in the front of the house, and we didn’t have an indoor toilet. So how I turned into the Princess and the Pea is a mystery to us all! We had a local catholic church who kindly took us in, and we used to go to there shows, and they all sang. So there was music all around. My family grew up with music, because they were European, so we went to the opera – even though we could barely afford it – because everyone went to the opera in Europe. And we went to the patomimes, and the cinema – they took me everywhere. And I tell my mum, “It’s your fault, all of this! I could have been a doctor, or a lawyer, but no!”

2. I read on your website that once toured with the great Kid Creole. Tell us a story about that…

I remember we were in Birmingham. Me and the Three Courgettes had gone out for a curry, and we came back to the hotel, and when we got into the lift, we were raucous! Practically hoarse from touring. Adriana (Kaegi) and the girls (the Coconuts) were in the lift, and they all put their fingers to their lips, and went “shhhhh!” They didn’t talk – they didn’t use their voices at all. They used to do a two-and-a-half hour show, and there was singing and dancing throughout. It was a big old funky sound! And that was when I realised that being off your tits, falling about laughing, rolling around town – was perhaps one of the reasons we were not in the best of voice sometimes. Terrifically professional people didn’t behave like that! We laughed for weeks about that, but they were right! It was a really valuable lesson. Musically they were really strong.

3. You first recorded Brel on an album called Fear Of A Red Planet. What made you return to Brel after all these years?

Yes! I did Jackie, with an electronic backing track. I recorded a load of Brel in 2000 for Chanson - The Space In Between. Then I stopped doing it, because everywhere I looked, people seemed to be doing Brel – often really horribly – and it annoyed me! So I decided to more Bob Dylan, and thought, ‘follow me there, kids!’ And very few people did, interestingly. And then people used to request Brel, and I started to revive some of the songs that I’d done. And I thought, ‘if I’m going to go back to it, I want to record some new things.’ So I started to look at Brel again, and began to fall in love with it. You have to fall in love with it, in that heart-driven way…

4. What attracted you to the new Brel translations by Robb Johnson?

I was attracted to the songs, first of all, rather than the translation. I sort of know what the songs mean, my French is good enough for that. And then I asked Rob, who was the reason I first got into it – because of Fear of a Red Planet. He would phone me and say, “this is fabulous” – and that’s good enough for me, because he knows what fabulous is. So I knew when I got a translation from him that I would love it. And he dealt with the Brel Foundation, because he’s good with stuff like that – he wants the translations out there as much as I do.


5. The new single, Rise & Shine, your Liver Birds Flying Home project last year, are both collaborations with Level 42’s Mike Lindup. Tell us how that came about…

Mike’s a wonderful songwriter. We share a publisher, and he arranged for us to meet. Mike is a very quiet and thoughtful musician, and he comes at it from a totally different place. I think we write really well together – and I like working with him. We’ve got a new project we’re working on. I’ve got several people I write with. John McDaniel and I are writing together now. I worked with Michael Parker for such a long time, and we really knew each other – and it takes time to establish those kind of things.  You’re so vulnerable when you’re writing lyrics; it’s very different when you’re writing to order, for the theatre, for example. But if you’re writing personally, you’re very vulnerable, and you want to feel the people you’re working with can feed back to you – that they’re as happy with your work as you are with theirs.


6. Reading the press release for the new album, and the liner notes, I get the feeling that this is a particularly personal project for you…

Yes, it’s very personal indeed. I would say it’s a mature album. What I mean is that while you could say it’s an album of love songs, and mean (sings), “Night and day, you are the one…” or, you could mean what I mean – your friend’s died – in the Jacques Brel way of looking at friendship. You have people around you – family and friends – that you love. It might even be yourself, when you own love turns inward. It isn’t all romantic love, and it isn’t all sexual love. But those are all part of a trajectory. There’s also love that goes wrong. A Simple Twist Of Fate. There is blood on the tracks, you know, and a certain point in life, there’s more blood than tracks. That’s interesting to me, and something I wanted to share. I get cross with the idea that these things are generational – Radio 1 is for these people, Radio 2 is for these people. Why is music not for everybody? So I like things like Jazz FM, which has such an eclectic view of what jazz is, and stations like Scala Radio – classical music for people who have a broader taste than Classic FM. So yes, it is personal, because all of these things are personal.

7. I loved the arrangements by Jenny Carr on the new album. when did you start working with her?

Somebody introduced me to her nearly twenty years ago.  I’d been working with someone, and told them I’d quite like to work with more women. It was a bit ridiculous being a feminist, and not working with any women. It felt like a conscious decision at that point. She’d come over from Australia with Jason Donovan – years before – was married, with two young children. She came and met me, was very down-to-earth and Australian, and over the years we’ve worked with each other consistently, and she became a friend. Jamie (Safir) described her as an elegant player, and I think that’s what she is. Her arrangements are elegant too. On this album, I really like the contrast with her and Jamie, because Jamie’s work is really fiery. He’s constantly looking around, listening, searching for ways of expression. I think it’s a really nice juxtaposition. They play well together, too, and they’re both collaborative. 


8. The Liver Birds Flying Home, Pixie and the Pudding, Chocolate Cake; you've done a lot of theatre work recently, what else can we look forward to?

I’m working on Soho Songs, with Mike Lindup, and I’m working on a pice called Jerome, with John McDaniel, and I’m working on an adaptation – which I’m not writing the songs and lyrics for – of the songs of 10cc. We’ll see where that goes, but I’m excited about that. I’m excited about all of them. Julian Clary used to say to me, “lucky to be working, happy to be working” – if anyone ever moaned! I’m not very fond of people moaning, and if I find myself doing it, I get quite cross.

And I'm doing more theatre for children. Theatre for children called me. It came out of nowhere, and I love it. I thank every star for dragging me into children’s theatre, and landing me there, because I couldn’t be amongst nicer people. 

9. You hint in the liner notes that this could be your last album. What makes you say that? 

You put so much into them – so much – and they cost money – but the returns are so small, we may as well all start busking again. I find that, frankly, dispiriting. And there are people of great quality, and I’m not going to name names, who by rights, should be household names. But who are excluded from mainstream media by virtue of age and genre of music. How is anyone supposed to learn about anything? That was partly behind that statement. But since I made that statement, I’ve been asked to do a few things, so you knows. Watch this space…


10. Tell us two things about you that might surprise people…

Not everyone will know that I was in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. My parents sent me there to meet my grandparents, who my father hadn’t seen since he left. In 1968, Czech was still behind the Iron Curtain, and I was there with my little sister when the troops marched in, and we didn’t know if we were going to get out.

I have been fortunate enough to see the Tanzanian snake dance. I was in Tanzania with the British Council and was up the coast – you can’t go there now – it was a little resort, and we did a gig there. It was open air, and people bought theirs cows and chickens to the show. I now know what its like to perform on stage with animals, because the animals just wandered around, which was hilarious. We stayed in this little thatched place by the sea, and the guy who ran it was a rather dashing Frenchman, with a very glamorous wife; there was something about them that made you think they were criminals, and had got out! If he’d told you he’d been a bank robber, and he’d got involved in this to get out, you’d have believed him! And he had a gun! The place was pretty much deserted except for me and Michael Parker.  I was talking to him one evening, and told him I’d love to see a snake dance.We have him coming tomorrow at 6pm. I can’t make it at 6pm, Ive got an afternoon concert, I told him. What time can you be here? 7. OK, I’ll put him on at 7. So there was me, Michael, a German tourist, just and a handful of people, watched the band get set up. They had these big wicker baskets, and this young boy. And they all danced like crazy, like they were in a trance, - amazing dancing, amazing music. At that point we were all dancing around, they opened the wicker basket, and snakes cames out. The little boy started dancing with the snakes, then puts the snakes head in his mouth. It was very peculiar, and very magical – under this African sky.


Barb Jungr goes on tour at the end of September to support Bob, Brel & Me. Dates and tickets can be found here.

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