Barb Jungr is something else: funny, inspired, brilliant, mesmerising. She takes the songs you know and turns them inside out and makes you love them all over.
She comes to Byron for a very special show at the Community Centre on 4 June. This is the first instalment of her two-part interview. Don’t miss her.
What is it about the songs of such distinctive artists such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen that attracts you to re-imagining them?
It’s the sheer majesty, brilliance and laser-like precision in their analysis of the human condition. They both look at something – war, life, death – and see it in full colour and from every angle, and then they respond so poetically to that that it’s mind blowing. Singing the songs is like a learning; it’s like being connected to a font of wisdom; it’s transformative and energising. To me Dylan is the American Shakespeare, and Cohen is a kind of alchemist of the emotions.
How do you approach a classic such as Blowin’ in the Wind?
Oh lordie lord, that one was such a journey! It took ages. We messed about and messed about and I was adamant that I wanted it in – obviously, cos there was no way I could leave that out, no way! And it was tricky, like a naughty child; it just wouldn’t bend where you wanted it to. And I was in despair with it. I was ready to kick it out the window. Then I was walking home, onto my estate in Pimlico, and it was a beautiful spring dusk, and the moon was coming up in a darkening sky, and I was walking and singing to myself and I found the riff and spun it around the lyric and I got my voice notes out and sang it into the phone to make sure I had it and got home and sent it to Simon, with whom I worked on the arrangements and who produced the album. He and I went at it again the next morning and boom, when bam, thank you ma’am, we had it. It slipped into the bag like a jelly.
What more do you think you bring to the table when you step into these works – does re-interpreting contemporise them in some way? Or are the themes timeless?
Well I think you are spot on. I wish they were not timeless. I wish we weren’t still killing people and hating and warmongering and treating some people as different from others and killing and maiming in the name of what exactly? I wish that were not the case. So I think the songs represent the human condition, our ultimate tragedy of seemingly being unable to learn from our own historic mistakes. And what I think I bring to the table is being a woman and singing them, which immediately lends the ear a different sense of the song. So when I do them people come up – they did it just two days ago here in Lytham, a queue of guys who said: ‘I thought I knew these songs and it was like I heard them new’. That’s what I hope to do and want to do.
You studied Botany… and after some encouragement found your way into music. Why was that, do you think? Did it seem unrealistic to consider a career or were you passionate about plant science?
Neither actually. I came from a time and place where to study music meant being an opera singer or violinist. I did study violin to quite a high level, and was clearly musical, but pop and soul and folk and jazz and blues stole me away and I formed groups and sang through school and into university. I went to do Botany because I love the outdoors and trees and lifeforce and nature. I didn’t quite realise just how scientific it would be and was pretty surprised when I did well with it. But I left to move to London and fell straightaway into music again, and music had always had its grip on my heart and has never let it go. I love forests and trees and walking and I grow plants and they go wild, so I guess it’s my love and passion but music is my flesh and blood. I go to sleep and whatever I’m working on spins around and around my head and as I write these answers I’m listening to my Great Tracks playlist and it’s the B52s right now and they’re blowing my mind.
I love in your bio that you talk about understanding competition by being part of a convent netball team! Tell me, just what does it teach you?
Oh our convent was incredible. We were part of the Catholic League of hockey and netball and, honestly, winning was everything. There was none of this modern ‘it’s the game and not the result’. We did everything to win. We were killers! We went in with our sticks – hockey, at the legs of anything that moved and stood in our way – and in netball we were like Mad Max! I was wing defence and I recall our playing Loretta College and they were tough, man, they were tough! But I stuck to their attack – whose name was Basher! And we were even at the end. I used to go home covered in bruises like I’d done five rounds with Mike Tyson!
What are the passions that drive you?
I don’t know. I think maybe I don’t want to know. I’ve done all the usual talking therapies, and in my now-extraordinarily long life because I feel about 200 this morning on the day before my birthday, I think I’ve been so lucky. I had my ecofeminist warrior period, and my people dying being in therapy period, and my mad wild period, and it all feels like segments of an orange or pips in a pomegranate. I love people. I love stories, I always did. I love music and walking and conversation and politics and life.