Barb Jungr, an inimitable song stylist and an inspiring chanteuse, recently released her new album ‘The Men I Love: The New American Songbook’. She candidly spoke of her minimalist yet furiously passionate approach to interpreting music, the assiduous process of creating the distinctive sound for the album, cherished venues, plus quite a few of her favourite things.
You’re renowned for being a great interpreter of famous songs. How do you rework songs that are familiar to people into your own style?
Well that’s very kind, and thank you. I don’t find it particularly easy to talk about my work and when I do, it sounds so banal I can hardly believe it myself. In a way it is very simple. I wait for songs to find me. I rarely sing things I don’t feel a connection with. It’s quite a narrow furrow I plough for myself - which in a way is good. And as for my own style - I guess if I pinpoint it myself I am a ‘less is more’ kind of gal. Do less, less notes, less stuff, more space - that’s what I want. I want space for music and songs to breathe and I want space for the listener to sit in that.
You have reworked songs by musicians such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone and Neil Diamond. How do you come up with the song selection?
It takes ages to find the songs, and part of that is just trawling - through repertoire, friends’ collections, anywhere and everywhere, and part of it is luck and people throwing things at me. Or just life - for example, I was sitting in a pizza restaurant in Salisbury when Mark Cohn’s ‘Walking In Memphis’ came on, and my publisher, the Australian Stuart Ongley, said, you should have a go at that! That song came to me in a pizza restaurant in Salisbury!
How do they react to the way their songs are interpreted?
Well, he - Mark Cohn - was absolutely lovely as it happens! He came to see me at Cafe Carlyle with his wife and he said he thought Neil Diamond would be thrilled to hear what I’d done with his songs, too!
It’s mentioned on your website that in order to create the spirit of live performances on your new record ‘The Men I Love’, a lot of time and effort went into it. What was the reason behind choosing to do that rather than recording a live album?
I dunno what it is about live albums - occasionally I love them - for example that brilliant Coltrane album with McCoy Tyner but - I guess it’s about the medium - a live show is a live show, and an album is an album. Though, of course now with downloading, you can cherry pick tracks, too.
That aside, the experience of sitting at home and listening or being in the car and listening is a very different one from that of sitting in a concert hall or club and watching and seeing and hearing and breathing with other members of the audience. I like to use the medium of recording, and what I wanted to do was somehow try to bridge the gap between the two but keeping the essential essence of the live work inside the recording process.
You worked very closely with the pianist Simon Wallace with the arrangements and during the recording. What were the a) most challenging part and b) the most rewarding part of that process?
I have been very fortunate to work with some fabulous accompanists and arrangers, and Simon Wallace is just the most superbly talented musician - as is Jenny Carr, with whom I have also worked very closely for some years. On this record Simon gave his heart and soul, I felt. We are just at the moment working on a collection for the next run at The Cafe Carlyle and he is doing some stunning work on that, too. The challenge for me is always to do less and make the listening process between voice and piano really strong. The rewarding part is when I listen to the piano and think - that’s simply beautiful.
How would you describe your voice and what elements and qualities go into creating your vocal tone?
Oh, I wouldn’t know where to start. The thing that goes into my vocal tone is life. I don’t lay anything on the voice, I get out the way and let the song sing.
You just had a gig at Greenham Park in Newbury, UK, showcasing the songs from your new album. How did the show go?
It was absolutely brilliant, thank you!
You’ve performed at numerous venues, including the legendary Café Carlyle and the Metropolitan Room in New York City. What difference does a particular venue make to you, the show, the audience and the energy of the place?
I love the Purcell Room in London, which is a concert space - I present almost everything I do there - I just love it. The piano is gorgeous so whoever’s playing is in piano heaven, and the sound is fab, and the stage and spatial layout I love. And it’s on the gorgeous South Bank.
I love the Vortex Jazz Club in north London, which is tiny and crammed. I love the 606 in Chelsea, both of which I use to try new things out. Both have been hugely instrumental in keeping jazz alive in London and fostering new talent and so on.
I love Pizza Dean Street Jazz Club - heart of Soho - intimate. I love The Cafe Carlyle - just knowing that Elaine Stritch and Minnelli and Barbara Cook have stood where I’m singing is thrilling and the place itself is beautiful with the painted walls and the champagne elegance of it all. I love the Metropolitan Room in downtown Chelsea, Manhattan, for its great sound, fabulous staff, lovely atmosphere and for their commitment to live performance of a certain kind.
I loved the Judith Wright Arts Centre in Brisbane - gorgeous playing there - it was packed and fabulous. I loved playing in Sydney and Melbourne. The Adelaide Cabaret Festival was an absolute joy. My Dylan series there was a sellout, I couldn’t have had a happier time in Adelaide if I’d tried!
Which aspects of a cabaret performance define the genre for you?
Well, for me good singing, musicality, individuality, attention to repertoire, attention to arrangements, style and performance skills. I think it’s both misunderstood and underrated as a form.
In 2006, you performed at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. What was your impression of the festival and the cabaret scene in Australia?
I liked Adelaide very much. I saw a few things, and enjoyed what I caught, but I didn’t form any great picture of anything from it because, to be honest, when I’m working, I keep as focussed as possible on my own work. When I do the Edinburgh Festival I rarely see anything unless I take time after my show run is over and stay on because if I’m working and watch too much, it’s distracting.
What was it like to return and tour the country the following year with your album ‘No Regrets’?
Gorgeous, because I hadn’t really seen much of the rest of Australia and I totally fell in love with it - we went to Byron Bay and that was just brilliant and Matthew (Carey) and I, in Sydney, went whale watching, and that was incredible. I had an absolute ball.
Last but not least, when you’re not touring, performing and creating music, how do you switch off and re-energise? What would be your ultimate holiday?
I dearly want to walk around the base of Mount Kailash in Tibet - it requires planning and taking a month off, which I’ll maybe do next year. Last summer I climbed Ben Nevis with my friend from New York, the director Andy Goldberg - it was stupendous!
I practice yoga and meditation, and I love walking the wilder places. I loved Byron Bay when I was in Australia - saw a long green snake there - and went whale watching. I like wilderness and air and rocks and sea. I like a good yoga practice - I like being with friends. I love theatre and cinema and read a lot - at the moment Chaim Potok.
I just saw Michael Hanake’s The White Ribbon, brilliant - and Enron in the West End - also brilliant - life is full of wonderful things.
I love Devon and the Isle of Skye - the list is pretty much endless! So any and all of the above and more…
Read the CD reviews here.
Read Piers Ford’s blog article on Barb Jungr here.
Read her Cafe Carlye show review here.
Barb Jungr’s Official website: www.barbjungr.com
Barb Jungr’s myspace page: www.myspace.com/barb.jungr
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