Something Else! Interview: Jazz singer Barb Jungr

Singer Barb Jungr is enjoying herself lately. With trips, tours and events, she is kept very busy. One important reason is she is in possession of something a lot of people want: her voice. Barb has a voice to melt even the hardest of souls. I am not saying I have a hard soul but I am not a huge Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen fan yet Barb’s latest album Hard Rain, which covers several songs by each artist, made me view their work differently. Changing the pace, emphasizing the lyrics and adding that sweet voice, Barb gives the song a distinctive twist so you get Dylan and Cohen a la Jungr.

This sums up Barb almost. Everything she does, she does with enthusiasm and she seems able to find joy and delight in the most mundane of places. She shares this with friends, sending pictures of daffodils nodding in the park she noticed this morning or a view of London as she walked across a bridge — something you might do daily without really noticing the views but Barb sees the detail, the colors and the life in things we might take for granted. Her emails are interspersed regularly with the words, “fab!,” “wonderful!” and “brill!” Her infectious delight in life lifts your spirits.

Barb loves words and tries out new ones like “polyglot” (when describing someone who does different things) and “pants” (to mean something was rubbish, in this case the M6 motorway). She adores her music, people, things — life, in fact. There is a lot more to this songstress than her magical voice.
Barb was born in Rochdale and grew up in Stockport, UK. Her parents were Czech/German.

Barb describes her childhood: “We were a refugee family in Rochdale, among Irish Catholics. We — people from the Ukraine, Poland, Germany and Austrian Jews, and more, were absorbed and made welcome. There was always music. There was radio and an old record player and my parents took me even as a tiny child to the cinema, theatre, opera and ballet. Europeans have that view of art and culture as essential. The church had pantomimes and performances and everyone took part. This was in the mid ’50s, when TV was rare and people made their own music and entertainment. I was really, really lucky to grow up in this community. So I grew up singing. As a tiny little girl in a terraced house in Rochdale, I turned my front step into a stage and performed shows with my poor beleaguered dolls!”

Barb realized she could sing — and loved doing so — when she was small. “My dad said you couldn’t shut me up. I could remember tunes and melodies from the radio on one or two hearings and just launch forth. I learned the violin from age 7 through 15 and did all the exams. I appeared as a soloist at music festivals and played in the school orchestra. Somewhere around my mid teenage years, I formed a folk group with some friends from school and we trailed around Manchester singing our woebegone ballads. We called ourselves Arwen — you can’t make this stuff up! We were drippy and dreamy. I loved it. I dreamt of running away and joining the cast of Hair; I was that daft! I sang and played right through my youth and when I went to university at Leeds (where she studied botany). I played in jazz bands and folk groups. I sang anywhere and everywhere I could.”

Barb finished her degree and then moved to London, where she became immersed in punk and later alternative cabaret. She went to Goldsmiths College to take a masters degree in ethnomusicology, and later on and landed a job writing about world music for The Singer, before the publication went under.

Barb performs largely as a solo artist but also with other musicians and singers. She says: “I’ve been a soloist pretty much all my life but I have had a long association with my great friend Julian Clary, the brilliant comedian, and wrote with and for him — songs, that is. I have appeared with him on tour and on several TV series. I’ve performed with Ian Shaw, Mari Wilson, Claire Martin, Christine Collister and Michael Parker, to name a few. The composer Mark Anthony Turnage wrote a piece for and with me and that opened the refurbished South Bank at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at their festival of re-opening. But for most of my life, I was in bands or groups that I’d formed — the Three Courgettes, the harmony group I formed in the late ’80s had a Top 100 hit with our theme song. Jungr and Parker — we travelled the world singing and playing.”

Barb’s musical influences are varied and she listens to new music regularly, lapping up differences, new ideas and changes. She listens to contemporary music, jazz and right across genres.

“I listen to everything,” she says. “Recently someone sent me some Mongolian vocal nomadic song, so I got tied up in that for an hour or so (and yes, she shared the experience with her friends). I listen to classical music and I’m suddenly interested in Wagner and quite a lot of weird contemporary stuff. Instrumental jazz is another current big obsession. John Coltrane, of course, and Miles Davis — there’s not enough time in the day! Also Quincy Jones’ early jazz recordings, and I’m listening to singer Linda Thompson and the Full English and a lot of older traditional songs. I listen to tons of old soul, old gospel — the small harmony groups like the Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama, old blues. All of that is deep, deep for me. I love British traditional music and a lot of contemporary folk. I never tire of Philadelphia sound, Motown and Stax. I love all great singing by performers, such as soprano Maria Callas, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and singer and pianist Dinah Washington — the greats. I get involved with things and go off on a tangent and people send me things. It’s great!”

I recently asked Barb if she could describe her emotions on stage. Could she put everything she is involved in out of mind and describe how she feels? She replied: “No, I can’t describe the emotions. I can say that I ‘clear out.’ I try to just be absolutely in the flow. Listen and sing and nothing else. I’ve actively worked over the years to remove anything from my head that impedes that. I want to be a sort of vessel for the song and singing and nothing else. No thoughts — that stuff is for rehearsals. All the head stuff goes on beforehand and after. In the performing, there is just the music and nothing else.”

On how she would categorize her singing, Barb says: “Well, I’d say I’m a jazz singer because it’s the closest definition of what I do — and I sing with jazz musicians but it’s also cabaret because there’s a theme and a movement inside it.”

Barb is very aware of her fans’ reaction. “Well, audiences get emotional — that’s what they’re supposed to feel: It’s music. It’s emotive and, if I do my job right, they feel what the song wants them to feel. For me the song is sacrosanct. It’s the message, the medium, the vehicle and the elevation. If I get it right, the audience lets me know!”

On her philosophy on life and music Barb said: “That is an interesting question. Do I have philosophies? Well, lots, I think. Listen, listen, listen. Be good, be better, work harder, use every moment. If you can’t be kind, say nothing. Think more, talk less, all that. Work harder. I waste time still and, as time flies by these days, I’m conscious I have less and less to throw about. I’ve got to use it all.”

I asked Barb if there were differences in audiences and where the most appreciative ones were. She replied: “Well, in the UK, U.S.A. and Australia, all of which I play fairly regularly. London is my home. I was at the 606 Club recently and the Purcell (concert venue) last month. Our audiences are fearless. I played the Dylan song “Masters Of War” in the 606 and you could have heard a pin drop. Fabulous. I love playing in New York because they ‘get it,’ and Australia is fab because people are so happy you actually got there. It is miles away. People are amazing.”

On being aware of musicians on stage with her, Barb’s answer was direct and to the point. “I’m completely aware of the musicians I work with. I hear every note, and they do too. We are in that boat together. It’s a one way row and we’re all on the oars. I love the musicians I work with. I hear what they’re playing, and my whole life is in vibration. What a brilliant thing to do with your life, be in music. What’s better? And I work with such great people. I’m just blown away by how fabulous they are. A solo will come and I’ll go: ‘Wow, what an amazing place to take us!'”

Barb says of the future: “I’m back to the States in the summer — to Connecticut and in the autumn to New York — and touring in the UK through the year. I’m involved in a massive project in Corby, UK with local musicians and a choir led by the superb Gareth Fuller, so that takes up a lot of time. And I’m taking my new album Hard Rain every place someone wants it. I’m loving singing these songs.”

In her life away from the music Barb does yoga, walks and goes to films and theater. She is just as positive about these things: “I have friends I go coastal path walking with and I love Scotland, wildlife, emptiness and travel. I’m a terrible film buff and I write for children’s theater so I see a lot of theater. I write musical theater (she describes the writing as ‘total joy’) so I see a lot of musicals.”

Barb seems to be enthusiastic about everything — the number of times she has used the words “amazing,” “fab,” “brilliant,” “wonderful” and “fantastic” over these last few weeks is more than I hear from many people in a lifetime. And Barb means every one. Tthey are not just throwaway asides. She loves music and she loves life. She is generous enough to encourage musicians to solo and be amazed at their gifts, she encourages people around her to give things a go. Like she says, the song is the medium, the elevation.

So, where is that small girl singing on her doorstep now? Well, the girl might be a tad taller, her voice definitely bigger and her gifts. Well, I reckon there are still many delights to come.

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Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.