Barb Jungr in Conversation with Nick Hasted, A Life-Journey

 

Barb Jungr has never been to Memphis. But as a teenage girl in 1960s Stockport, she nurtured a longing for what it represented; the sweet soul music she danced to in clubs at night, and its sense of a bigger, more beautiful world than the Lancashire industrial town she couldn’t wait to leave.

The journey Jungr subsequently went on was unpredictable and often dangerous, taking her from punk London to a besieged Sudanese island, and post-9/11 New York. All the while she was refining her art as an interpretative singer over numerous collaborations and 10 solo albums, taking on French chanson, and the songs of the greatest post-war singers – Elvis Presley, Nina Simone – and writers: especially Dylan, whose work she inhabited as fully as anyone except Dylan himself, on two acclaimed albums and transatlantic sell-out shows. Barb Jungr has travelled very far from Stockport. And now she’s back.

Stockport to Memphis’s title song, one of five written by Jungr in a new solo departure, mirrors the thrilling sound of the soul and pop she grew up with. Its lyrics trace a life’s arc from an escaping young woman needing “to find my way to the door”, to the mature realisation that “I’ve got everything I need deep inside”. “I’ve never celebrated Stockport,” Jungr says. “I always talked about how I was born in Rochdale. But when my dad died, I went back to help look after my mum, and home became a very real thing. It’s the clear earth that you stand on. Stockport’s in a terrible state now, there’s no work, and it needs celebrating. And it was where I discovered Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, this exciting and vibrant and personal music. My Memphis is in my heart and ears and soul.”

The album’s sound reflects that Memphis. “We recorded with almost everything live,” Jungr remembers, “with a rhythm section who know what rhythm is. Like the Tamla Motown, Stax and Chess records that I love, the rhythm’s the cornerstone: it determines the arrangement and the way you sing.”

“New Life”’s jazzy ballad of rebirth maps Jungr’s early 1970s escape route, taking the bus from Stockport to Manchester, Leeds University, then London. It also reflects the harsher odyssey of her parents, Czech-born Miroslav and German Ingrid, whose playing of jazz at home was as formative as the soul she danced to at night. “My grandparents walked across the frozen wastes,” she says of her family. “All four grandparents grew up in war zones, as did my parents. My father was in the German camps. I wrote “New Life” about the experiences of my parents, and my father-in-law Frank Bowling the painter, who came from Guyana as a boy. He said to me, ‘When I saw the white cliffs of Dover I cried, because I’d been told that England was home.’ And my dad remembered being on the ferry when they came over from the refugee camps, and dawn rising on the cliffs. I’m not sure my parents felt as hopeful as Frank. Their experiences were so grim, it took a long time for my dad to feel hopeful about the human race. But the imagery of the white cliffs is the core of the song. Mark Armstrong plays beautiful muted, Beale Street trumpet on it.”

Jungr had played in bands with friends in Stockport, Manchester and Leeds. Arriving in London in 1976, as punk exploded, remade her. “My boyfriend said, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t become a singer.’ It was like somebody opening a door.” She saw every band she could. One had as a member composer Paul Sand, son-in-law of playwright Pam Gems, beginning Jungr’s simultaneous connection to musical and theatrical worlds she’s never seen as separate.

“I moved into a flat in Earl’s Court, which was possibly my undoing,” she recalls. “We paid rent, but it might as well have been a squat. It was a hell-hole. You never knew who was living there – there’d be some mad woman who someone had picked up wearing somebody else’s clothes, they’d gone through your drawers. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of the things I did then. My heart was like a runaway puppy. I went wherever it went, in every single way. When I did my Nina Simone album, and did “When I Was A Young Girl”, where she sings about going “out of the ale house and into the jail house”, someone said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that if you haven’t lived it.’ And I thought, ‘You shouldn’t assume people haven’t lived things because they don’t trumpet them.’ It was edgy then. And a lot of people fell off the edge.”

Did Jungr fall herself?

“I’ve always hung on with one hand. But you’re in places quite often where you’re not in control of where the edge is. And I was really lucky – hitchhiking home at night for example, and finding yourself in situations where you realise you’re in danger and are going, ‘I have a set of choices here, and if I say the right things I’ll be alright.’ But saying the wrong things would be just as easy.”

The 1980s’ start brought further change. “The New Wave had spilled into everything else, and alternative cabaret was starting.” As part of the trio The Three Courgettes, Jungr deepened her vocal education, spending six hours at a stretch unpicking and adapting the gospel harmonies of the Fairfield Four and Blind Boys of Alabama, when not busking down the Portobello Road with John Hegley. “We signed with Island, toured with Kid Creole, and had a hilarious time.”

Jungr and Parker, her musical partnership with Michael Parker, was next. “Michael was like a one-man professor,” she says. “I never met anybody who knew more about country & western, blues and old soul. Our writing sessions were from 10.30am to 5pm, and most of that time we’d just be listening to music. We wrote most of our own songs, and the music we made was bits of country, blues, English and traditional folk ballads. I played mandolin and harmonica. We made six records, Billy Bragg put one out on his label. We supported Alexei Sayle and worked on the alternative cabaret circuit, which was my school – walking into a space like the Tunnel in New Cross, where the audience was ready to eat you alive. I’ve used an old Jungr and Parker song, “Till My Broken Heart Begins To Mend”, on this album, because it’s part of the journey.”

In 1991, the British Council asked the pair to go to Sudan: Jungr’s next transforming trip. “It was mind-blowing,” she says. “I still don’t know if I’ve processed it. We did some workshops there which were heartbreaking. This girl came over to me, and she had learned “Careless Whisper” from the radio and sang it perfectly, and she said, ‘I don’t wear the veil.’ She’d been stoned in the street, and her mother, who told her you don’t have to wear the veil, had been in jail. And you go, the world is a very big place. And those edges are everywhere.”

With the country on the cusp of civil war, Jungr and Parker “ran away” from their minders to an island occupied by South Sudanese rebels. “The bougainvillea’s hanging, the Nile’s flowing past your window, and you’re inside with a bunch of people who’d walked 100 miles for freedom.” Then they went still further out. “In Cameroon, we took a three-week tour into the bush. We knew there was a whole different world the minute you left the street-lights.” Finally came Malawi, and “another level of poverty, because most of it’s baked earth, and life is so hard.” Everywhere music was played, exchanged, absorbed.

Does she feel hopeful, after all that she’s seen?“

It would depend on what day you asked me. People are capable of so much – good and otherwise – and I fear for our souls, and the darkness inside, that gets fed a lot these days.”

Jungr and Parker eventually split in 1994. “So I did a Masters, two years of hardcore thinking about music – why Malawian music’s so interesting, and what blues singers do when they’re singing the blues.”

Deeply schooled now in life and music, Jungr finally started her solo career. “I began doing these themed records and shows, and some of it was spot on and some of it wasn’t. My instinct hadn’t quite honed itself. But in 1998 I put out Bare, just vocal and piano recorded live, like an old jazz record, which some people still think is one of the best things I’ve done.”

Other landmark recordings followed, including The Men I Love: The New American Songbook (2010). Tackling singer-songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne, the title rejected the notion that a songbook fit for vocal interpretation closed with Cole Porter. “It was a deliberately challenging, provocative title,” she says. “Because I’m a jazz singer, which is about improvising with words and melody and form. Just because songwriters of the last 60 years have sung their own songs, doesn’t mean I can’t own that material too.”

Dylan has been her touchstone in this, the best of her interpretations so far collected on Man In The Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan (2011). “He has stunning imagery, political awareness, and in the later songs, an awareness of the past and ageing, of looking back over things that you’ve loved and lost which is heart-tearing. I think it’s given to very few and very hard to live with, people whose gaze on the world is unflinching. I can’t look at the carrion of humanity with ease. I can’t write like that. I can sing it.”

On Stockport to Memphis, she sings Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lady”, which she used to hate. The way she found her place in it demonstrates her art. “I was walking and I had it playing, and I suddenly realised that it was possible to sing it, and lift it from what I had always thought was a slightly grim, macho view of sexuality. I thought, ‘You can reframe this as a memory of someone saying, ‘Lay lady lay…’, a conversation in your head that your lover had with you, that you repeat in your head and think about.”

Dylan’s music took her to New York, where she began singing her show of his songs in 2002. “I was playing four blocks south of where the Twin Towers had been, and the show on before me was the firemen’s verbatim story. People were leaving in tears as I set up and no one wanted to go to that part of town. I didn’t think anyone would be there, but I got an award for that run. And because I don’t have kids and don’t have to worry about who pays for their food, as long as I could have a great time and sing, it didn’t matter. Then four years ago, I crossed into having an audience in America. I found myself playing on Sunset Boulevard, and New York Town Hall, where Paul Robeson had been. So who cares, you know?”

As well as Dylan, Jungr’s interpretations on Stockport To Memphis include Neil Young’s “Old Man”, Hank Williams’ “Lost On The River”, Mike Scott’s “Fisherman’s Blues”, Tom Waits’ “Down In The Hole”, and Rod Argent’s Zombies hit “She’s Not There”, gender-switched and minus harmonies. And then there’s Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”.

On a long and rich journey with so many unplanned stops, it takes her back to the clubs in Stockport where she started and, dreaming of Memphis, couldn’t wait to leave.

“Yeah. And from a place of great love. Coming home is an important part of your journey.”

NICK HASTED

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