It’s not exactly what the how-to-interview-musicians handbook recommends, but I’ve just suggested to Barb Jungr that her concerts are better than her albums. Ever so politely, you understand, and I knew that Jungr (pronounced “younger) is too nice to hang up on me.
My point was that on disc the British singer is often a pussy-cat and live she’s lioness. She’s so fearless she has sung unaccompanied sitting beside her hosts on a BBC TV breakfast show with zero self-consciousness. “That’s the great thing about the human voice,” she says. “You can take it anywhere. You can pick up somebody’s baby that’s screaming and sing to it. That’s a wonderful thing.”
Jungr, a kind of indie cabaret singer with jazzy leanings, is a potent interpreter of diverse song-writers including Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel. She was too young to latch on to Dylan when he first emerged, but when she did she was enraptured. “It was like somebody gave you the keys to a house,” she recalls, “and said, ‘Go there at sunset, cos it’s most beautiful at sunset, and then sit in the house for a week, and just look at the way the light plays in all the rooms.’ That’s what happened to me with Dylan. It was like finding a place to live.”
Brel, by contrast, she describes as “this sort of witch who screams as he’s being ducked into the water with his confessional songs. Brel’s confession is so primal. I come away from it and my insides are blown apart. I think that engaging with the primal elements of music is essential. Actually, I say that of all the arts. I see and hear so much where the distance between performance and primal is huge. It’s like the difference between that cheese that the government sells in America and a piece of brie in France.”
Jungr has ample reason to express primal emotions. In the last decade she has lost her mother, two sisters, her ex-husband, her ex-husband’s mother, her best friend from school and a long-term musical collaborator. “When I came to the end of that 10-year period I’d been emotionally stamped on,” she says. “It’s changed me and it’s changed my work and the way that I look at the outside world. And if you’re a musician you see the outside world through song. If I stand on a shore in a deserted place I start singing. That’s my response to it.
“It’s not a terribly jolly interview,” she adds apologetically, being as funny a barrel of monkeys in concert. Naturally amusing anyway, Jungr honed that side of her art sharing stages in pubs and clubs in the ’80s with such British comics as Julian Clary, Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton. “I learned about how they do what they do,” she says, “and I was able to intuitively take a tiny little thimble-full of that to find a way of linking the songs. Because if you’re taking people to places that are bleak, then, on a good night, they cry. And then when they come out of that you’ve got to make them laugh, because otherwise they’re going to really, really hate you!”
I have to disagree with her again. Hating Barb Jungr would be hard.