Acclaimed singer interprets the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
By Brian Wise.
It is ironic that English chanteuse Barb Jungr is returning to Australia interpreting the songs of Bob Dylan, just as Dylan himself has released an album of classic American songs (none of them his own) and is also performing some of them in concert.
Interestingly, Dylan is also paying tribute to an era of songwriters that he helped to end when every singer decided that they also had to be a songwriter! Listen to Jungr’s reworking of Dylan’s songs and you can hear her inhabit them as much as Bob himself has tried to inhabit the songs once performed by Frank Sinatra. I’ll leave it to you to decide who does the better job. Jungr’s reinterpretations are compelling, whether she is singing Dylan, Cohen, Jacques Brel or Nina Simone.
Jungr began creating theme shows in the 1990s and has been travelling the world ever since to huge acclaim. She now works extensively in New York and tours Europe and Australia, also writing for theatre, other singers and herself.
This year Jungr will be bringing us Hard Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, after touring her other show, Shelter From The Storm (the album of the same name (subtitled Songs of Hope For Troubled Times) in the USA and Europe. That album also features songs from Dylan, Cohen, Joni Mitchel et al and she is assisted by long-time accompanist Laurence Hobgood. (For her Australian tour, Jungr has a different ensemble).
I caught up by phone last week to talk to Jungr about her forthcoming tour and her music and we start by chatting about the show that she will be bringing next month.
Let’s just talk about Hard Rain and your performance. How did you actually narrow the songs down? You’ve got two fabulous songwriters there. How did choose the songs?
I narrowed it down by theme, actually. I started by saying, ‘I’m going to use songs that are political or philosophical,’ because I thought it would be quite nice to do album that wasn’t an album in which the love song was the main feature.
Actually, on a larger scale, there’s so many songs about all kinds of things and it seems as though we’ve got really focused into the love song. It’s almost the way that we are distracted from the rest of life.
I’m all for love on every level, I’m all for it. I’m all for love as the redemption of the world. ‘Love’s the only engine of survival,’ as Cohen says. I think he’s right. I’m all for it but I thought it would be really nice to move into an arena where you’re asking yourself, the audience, to think. Not just to feel, to think, to feel and think.
It certainly lays down the challenge from the first song which is ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ It’s obvious the theme from there. And as we talk Bob Dylan’s latest album is just being released to the public. It’s interesting that you’re going back and you’ve got his songs as classic songs and he’s going back even further in time for his latest album.
I know. I know. A really interesting thing happened because when he made the album before, you know when he first went to the Sinatra songs, he talked about the way he sang them in the exact same way that I talk about singing his songs. I thought, ‘Whoa, I’m so glad.’
I think he really does understand that in order to sing something with your entire being, you kind of claim a sort of ownership of it in the second of singing it. You have to. You have to be whole with it and of course he got that completely with those songs. I saw him on tour in the UK last year just doing this material, not the new album but the one before, the Sinatra album [Shadows In The Night]. It was very interesting to see actually, very interesting.
Have you got any theories about why he decided to do this? You’ve studied his music, you’ve recorded his songs. Have you got any idea about why you think he’s decided to do that?
I think he may be giving himself a sabbatical from writing. He may be thinking, which one does sometimes, ‘You know? I’d like to just have some fun. I’d like to sing some things that are ………’ To be honest Hard Rain, from the singing point of view is for me a great deal of fun because it’s a really challenging set of songs to sing. It’s completely absorbing. I love it. He may have been thinking that. He may have been thinking, ‘Just give me a break. I want to have a bit of fun now.’
How do you approach his songs, many of which have been recorded many times? How do you bring something different to it?
I don’t know what the answer to that is. You just try to, do you know what I mean? You get the song and you go, ‘Okay, we’ll do this, we’ll do this. We’ll do a tempo change. We’ll re-harmonize it. We’ll try this. Okay, I’m going to do this. Okay, we’ll restructure it here.’ Then you listen to it and you go, ‘Have I brought anything to this song or is it better left alone?’ It’s a very easy question to answer. If I think the answer to that is, ‘Yes, I think I have brought something to it….’
‘Blowing in the Wind’ is particularly interesting, I think, in this context because what I tried to do with it and what Simon [Wallace, producer] and I tried to do with it was change the way you hear the questions. Just change the way that the lyric falls on the beats so that you actually hear what the questions are because for the most part, I’ve never heard those questions.
Suddenly, when I started singing it I thought, ‘My goodness, this is a really interesting song.’ Whoa! ‘How many times must a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?’ You could apply that to most of my government at the moment, let me tell you.
And ours, I might add.
There we are. Suddenly, you go, ‘God, this song is present in this day and age.’ ‘How many times must a cannon ball fly before they’re forever banned?’ How many times? How many?
They are both remarkable artists, remarkable artists, extraordinary, remarkable artists. When they go, the mould is broken
It doesn’t matter how many times we go about somebody new, ‘Oh they’re a young so and so.’ No, they’re not actually. The things that made that person are not here now. The events, the world, the backgrounds that shaped Cohen and Dylan do not exist now. Duluth now is not Duluth then.
You’re talking about Leonard Cohen. What an amazing comeback. I’ve seen him a couple of times over recent years. His live performance is just incredible, isn’t it?
Absolutely. I’m thrilled that he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s a joy to see him enjoy it so much, because he truly does enjoy what he does. To me, that’s kind of step one. If you’re not in step one, enjoying what you’re doing with this work, then it’s pointless, the whole thing’s pointless.
So that’s a gorgeous thing to see. To see an eighty-year-old man be on stage with this band and enjoying seeing the crowd getting what he’s doing in a way that maybe now he feels differently. That’s just fantastic, it’s a fantastic thing to see.
As an interpreter of songs, you obviously have your favorites. Obviously, Dylan and Leonard Cohen are some of them. You cast a pretty wide net over recent albums, from Sam Cooke and Neil Young to Joni Mitchell. You’ve obviously had a lot of influences on you.
Yeah. I like good songwriting. You can take that kind of any way you like. I think Holland-Dozier-Holland is good songwriting. I like good songwriting. I like the songwriting that takes me somewhere, whether that’s Prince or Bowie or whether it’s somebody incredibly current, Pharrell, whether it’s Pharrell. I like good songwriting.
Do you think that there is a lot of good songwriting these days? You obviously must listen to a lot of songs, a lot of music. How would you rate it?
I have some difficulty……… it’s partly a byproduct of home-recording where anybody can make the an album at home. It’s wonderful and I’m all for creativity. I’m all for it. If you have no understanding of chord progression then it’s hard to make things spontaneous because that’s what music does. When everything has to happen only through the rhythm and through extemporising a melody because the chords aren’t going anywhere, that for me becomes very slightly problematic.
Probably all these talent shows on TV haven’t helped all that, have they?
They do something different. Again, that’s problematic for me in a different way. I don’t think it’s just about talent shows. On British TV it’s all kinds of things, it’s ‘Anybody can be a brain surgeon’ and they are going to get somebody and they’re going to learn to do brain surgery.’ No, you can’t. You can’t.
This notion that everything’s possible without any effort is, I think, is a real one way street that leads to a really, really, seriously dead end because actually you can’t sustain it. We’ve seen that happen now over and over again. People cannot remember who won Britain’s Got Talent or whatever it is, The Voice, three years ago because it’s been and gone because it can’t sustain.
Funnily enough, I’m a teacher. I do master class teaching in a place called the Eugene O’Neill Conference Center at the Cabaret Conference. I’m very fortunate that I’m asked again to do it this year for the third running. It’s a joy.
There’s a young man who worked in their junior’s program, which are young people obviously. He is a real talent. He’s a real talent. Last year we were sitting and he came up to me and he said, ‘Listen, I’m not here this year working because I’m doing something.’ I knew it because I’d been sworn to secrecy. He said, ‘I’m doing The Voice.’ I said to him, ‘Listen, I want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘You’re a musician. You’ve got it in you. It’s in you. It will always be in you. Go away and do The Voice and enjoy every second of it, enjoy everything about it. Enjoy where it takes you, but don’t believe a word of it. When it’s all over, whether you win or you don’t win, when it’s all over you will still be a musician. You will always be a musician. You will always have that. This will come and go but the music is in you and that will stay forever.’ He got that completely.
I’m happy to say that there he is pursuing his dream of being a musician. He did really well. He was in America and he got the finals. He did really, really, well. He did bloody well. Do you know what? He’s still a musician. He’s gone back and that dream has been and gone, it’s been and gone. He’s learned from it and that’s what I think, what I think is, if you have got enough perception to know that then that’s great. If you think that it’s going to take you somewhere, you might be disappointed.
There’s someone else I wanted to ask you about. You’ve recorded her songs and she’s suddenly, recently come back into major attention due to a book and a film. Nina Simone. You recorded her songs quite a, what, eight or nine years ago now? What an amazing person she was.
Oh, extraordinary! For me, I’m less really fussed with the psychology, I’m interested in the work itself. As a piano player, her piano playing was extraordinarily good. She was the most remarkable jazz pianist. She was a remarkable performer and I admire incredibly because I come from a very different time.
That absolutely uncompromising capacity, I respect that enormously. I love it in people. I thought she was, again, a one off, an absolute one off. I love her voice, I just love her voice. I love what she does with it. I love that when she wants you to know that she’s cross, she’s cross. If she’s singing ‘Mississippi Goddam’, you bloody well know what she means. She’s not singing that with a cheery smile; she’s telling you what it is. I’m really glad she did.
Did you ever see her in concert?
No, I never did and it’s a source of great sadness to me. I’ve seen all kinds of people and I’m very glad I have, but she I never saw and that’s a real pity … Thank God for YouTube. Thank God for YouTube that we can go back and see so many things now. I’m grateful for that. I’m enormously grateful for that but God, I wish I’d been in a room with her. My goodness me.
Like you, she loved Bob Dylan songs and she cast her net fairly widely as well looking at popular songs at the time and recording her own really distinctive versions. There’s certainly that similarity between your work and hers, isn’t there?
Well, when I started singing people often said, ‘Oh she’s like a cross between Peggy Lee and Nina Simone.’ That’s quite an interesting little parcel to be a cross of. I took it as a great compliment actually, it’s been a great compliment because on both counts, both of those women were bloody brilliant for very different reasons, actually. They were both very difficult. They were difficult because they were really, really, good. They were really good and it’s hard to be really good at things. It’s hard. To go back to what we were saying about talent shows, it’s hard to be really good at something because it takes time, and commitment, and energy, and sacrifice. To go back to where we started, that’s what both Dylan and Cohen gave to their work.
Listen, we’re certainly looking forward to seeing you down here in a few weeks time. The shows are going to be fabulous, I know. Thank you very much for taking the time to have a chat to me.
Oh, Brian, thank you so much. Likewise, thank you. I can’t wait. I’m so happy to be coming back. I’m really looking forward to it.
BARB JUNGR TOUR DATES
Friday June 3 – Queensland Cabaret Festival, Visy Theatre, The Powerhouse – Brisbane
Saturday June 4 – The Byron Theatre – Byron Bay
Tuesday June 7 – Vivid Festival, The Basement – Sydney
Wednesday June 8 – Street Theatre – Canberra
Thursday June 9 – Monday June 13 – Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Adelaide
Thursday June 16 & Friday June 17 – The Bird’s Basement, Melbourne