Interview: Barb Jungr

Barb Jungr, Photo By Steve Ullathorne

Barb Jungr is known as one of the country’s leading interpreters of Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel. She has just released her thirteenth solo album Stockport To Memphis ahead of a new show at Canada Water Culture Space. Alex Hopkins caught up with her to talk cabaret, jazz and Julian Clary.

What can the audience expect from your forthcoming show? 

It’s a show of my own interpretations of Bob Dylan. My new album Stockport To Memphis is kind of autobiographical and features a Dylan song I’ve never sung before – Lay Lady Lay. For the last 12 years I’ve been singing Bob Dylan songs like a mad person and for a little while have been doing a sort of Bob Dylan collection. The Canada Water show is special as it’s the last time I shall do this collection. I will probably do another one though!

What is it about Bob Dylan that so draws you in?

The really obvious answer is that he’s brilliant and a genius and both of those things are true. Yet what I think that answer fails to do is to convey something very particular between the material and me. It’s about the way he looks at the world – with a very strange cruelty which I think I would love to have, but don’t – a kind of Cruella De Vil, cold cruelty, particularly in the way he examines personal relationships.  It comes from a capacity to look at the world without any sentimentality, which I can’t do – everything makes me cry.

You’ve said that you don’t ‘cover’ songs, but that you ‘interpret’ them. Tell me more about this.

I absolutely don’t cover songs – I do a real interpretation of them. If I were just to cover them then the songs would have no further meaning than they ever had. What I try to do is to just let the song work its way through and then I get something out of it. With Dylan’s songs this means that I understand what it is to see the world in the way that he does. It allows me to see things in a different way.

Jacques Brel is another favourite of yours. Do you see similarities between his work and Dylan’s?

They are both so unrelentingly male, neither of them are metrosexual in any way. They have that raw masculinity, that virility. Although Dylan is an intellectual he is intellectually virile. Yes, I would say they both have venal virility and in Brel it is so tangible. Someone said something interesting the other day about why many people prefer Scott Walker’s versions of Brel songs to Brel’s originals. Other than the obvious fact that they are in English, they said it has to do with Walker being such a pure, beautiful man, while Brel is sweating and angry! If he were at a dinner party I think he would be a tiny bit dangerous. There’s a sense of danger about both of these men and that’s incredibly appealing and fascinating lyrically.

You’ve been called ‘The British Edith Piaf’. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s an interesting one. The comparisons that often come up and between Piaf and Nina Simone and I need to say from the outset that I am very honoured. There are certainly similarities between Piaf and Simone. Quite often at my gigs people cry and laugh – the two polar opposites; they don’t just sit there with their arms folded. And in the middle of crying and laughing they feel. That’s what Piaf and Simone engender in an audience. That’s where I want to go in a concert – I want to be moved, to be transported somewhere else.

Would you call yourself a jazz singer and what are your thoughts on what passes as jazz?

Something that really pisses me off at the moment is when people say that what I’m doing isn’t “jazz enough”. I look at the other people they have booked and then think there’s much more jazz in what I do than in their material. I work with the best jazz musicians in Britain and the songs are different every night; there’s so much going on that is different!

I would say that I am a singer and I think people just get in such a tizz about what jazz is. You listen to some work and it’s not necessarily improvised and yet it’s classed as jazz when it could be classed as European cabaret. They count one thing as jazz and then they don’t count another. It’s infuriating!

You’re known for performing in a cabaret style. What does cabaret mean to you?

The other thing that pisses me off is the way that cabaret is used as a pejorative word by people on the X Factor – namely Gary Barlow: “Oh that’s a bit cabaret.” Well, I saw Barlow’s set at the music awards last week and right in the middle of it he burst into some songs from the Frank Sinatra song book with his band – who by the way swung like a rusty gate. What he was doing, if you don’t mind and in his own words, was the worst form of cabaret!

There’s some brilliant work coming out of cabaret at the moment – Meow Meow, Camille O’Sullivan, Fascinating Aida and Dillie Keane – really good people who are doing really good things, all of them cabaret in their own way. It’s fucking brilliant work and you can say that – fucking brilliant work! I’ve done work in both cabaret and jazz for a long time now and I get people saying they don’t want to book me in a jazz club as its I’m ‘too cabaret’. They don’t even know what they’re talking about – they’d book Frank Sinatra in a second and what was he doing if not cabaret?

Cabaret’s a real art. I can imagine one of the biggest challenges is pulling off a performance in a small, intimate space. How do you manage this? 

I don’t think intimacy is about smallness. I think there’s a misconception there. For example, if you go and see Barbara Cook, one of the greatest exponents of American cabaret in the universe, you see her at a large hall and yet she’s intimate because it’s about the performer, not the space. You could go and see someone in a tiny room and they could be as distant as Kuala Lumpur. It’s to do with the act, with the way a performer deals with the audience and the way the performance is structured.

Everyone builds that rapport with audiences differently. I was lucky as my training ground was the alternative cabaret scene of the 1980s. I’d do two gigs a night in tiny rooms above pubs and would have 15 minutes to win over an audience. They were often very cruel to music and would just chat all the way through so you had to learn how to grab them. That world was very mutually supportive, it was like a university of performing. It was there that I learnt how to communicate with an audience, how to talk to them. I’ve never told a story on stage that wasn’t 90% true. I might embellish a tale to get a laugh, but the bulk is founded in fact. People know when you’re not being genuine, they’re not idiots.

Earlier on in your career you worked with Julian Clary. I’d imagine he gave you some great advice on how to win over an audience…

Let me acknowledge straight away – Julian is a great friend, a great man and a fabulous human being. I am proud to know him and every single day I am proud of the work I did with him. Without Julian a lot of the things that have happened in TV simply would never have happened. We were on Sticky Moments together which was a ground-breaking program, and for the life of me I don’t understand why it’s not been repeated.

He was extraordinary as he was completely honest on stage. All the double entendres show that he is absolutely courageous about where he is prepared to go. I learnt an enormous amount from him and also from Alexei Sayle who I  toured with. Julian would meet every single fan who wanted to speak with him; he saw that as part of the job.  That kind of understanding of the relationship between you and your fans is one of the many things I got from him. He always gave his fans time and that’s massively important. I always say that Julian is my performing big brother and Mari Wilson my performing sister.

Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan is at Canada Water Culture Space, Saturday 1 December, 7.45pm.

Words: Alex Hopkins
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