Cult Q & A : Barb Jungr

❉ The acclaimed singer on childhood, cult faves, chanson and more.

Britain’s foremost chansonnier and song stylist, and a respected lyricist and writer in her own right, Barb Jungr is one of the country’s finest interpreters of contemporary song. Always original and inventive, Jungr has drawn comparisons with Nina Simone and Peggy Lee.

In March 2017 Linn Records released an anniversary edition of Barb’s classic album Every Grain of Sand on CD and on vinyl. On its original release date the album was hailed by The Wall Street Journal to be “the most significant album of the twenty first century thus far.”

Jungr is the co-writer (with George Seaton) and lyricist of Liver Birds Flying Home, a new musical based on the writer Carla Lane’s characters, with music by Level 42’s Mike Lindup. It received a showcase premiere at The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, in May 2017.

The delightful Barb pulls up a pew with We Are Cult to tell us about her background, her cult faves and inspirations & influences, and what’s she’s been up to recently.

Hi Barb, thanks for agreeing to join We Are Cult for this Q &A.

Total pleasure.

You were born in Rochdale of Czech and German parents. What was your childhood like?

Odd, and wonderful, as it happens. I was aware very early on of cultural difference. The way people’s houses smell, the food they eat regularly. We used to go to Manchester on a saturday to buy gherkins from a huge wooden brine filled drum at Lewis’s and to get rye bread. In Rochdale at my local butchers they had racks of tripe. And when I went into the houses of my “aunts” – they weren’t aunties, people felt sorry for me because my parents were there because of the war and we had no other family in Rochdale – these old “aunt’s” houses had a Virgin Mary with a candle on every wall and their coats, often fur, smelt very strongly of moth balls.

What were you like at school?

Naughty for the most part. Teachers in those days were not “child-centric”.  Some of them I’d like five minutes in a lift with, now. I was popular and a defender of the bullied. I got a fair amount of shit for wearing clothes that had been sent from Europe. I got used to it. I’m not a huge fan of mob mentality.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A singer or a dancer. Obviously I had the correct attributes for one and not the other!

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Practice more, and make your parents get you piano lessons.

What are your best and worst qualities?

Directly related, complete openness and complete closed-ness.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Do you know I don’t remember any of them as awful, they all had their moments. I got something from all of them. In my life I have done a paper round, worked on a Saturday and in school holidays in a cake shop, worked in the laundry of a big hospital, worked in the instrument cleaning department of a huge hospital, worked as a cloakroom girl in a hostess nightclub, worked as a receptionist to a group of music biz lawyers, and then been a musician. They’ve all had their moments.

Who were your heroes growing up?

Maria Callas, Julie Driscoll, Edna O’Brien, Angela Davis, Germaine Greer.

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

I’m going to be torn here between The Prisoner, Fawlty Towers, The Larry Sanders Show and Twin Peaks.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Yes, and it stands the test of time for the most part but you can see feminism hasn’t touched the sides of it, and that’s a sign of its time I suspect more than a reflection of the individuals’ personal opinions. Without doubt its groundbreaking television.

What was the last film that you watched?

Get Out.

What film could you watch every day?

Got to split between five here, The Producers. The original with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, The Long Goodbye (The Altman remake with Elliott Gould). Spinal Tap and Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man which makes me think of my parents and Czech family and the Second World War. And Antonioni’s Blow Up.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

Easy Rider. I saw it at an impressionable age and on the day Hendrix died. It resonates.

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

Eve Best, Tanya Franks, Dillie Keane and Miriam Margolyes. Comedy.

Which film, book or record last disappointed you the most?

The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick. I had imagined it would be a glorious return to form and it sent me out of the cinema within 30 minutes.

Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?

If they don’t have any sense of what jazz can be I give them Miles’ Kind of Blue.

Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?

Oh I’m happy for them all to go places where they can be listened to. I would’ve felt differently when we were all vinyl but now you can find everything again on the web someplace – I’ve found a ton of stuff there of my own I never had copies of for example, so I am good to go on this one.

Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

A Confederacy of Dunces. No question.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

Usually that it’s way better than most people realise and either under-appreciated or somehow tapping at the windows in a way that makes you look and then jump with excitement.

What are you reading at present?

I’ve got about 17 on the go in the kindle and another pile at home. They range from the new Michael Connelly (great for travelling and I’m doing a lot of that at the moment), Jimmy Webb’s autobiography about songwriting, a book about how you can make your brain better (because lord knows that’d help) and, at home, several Japanese detective stories (in translation – I hasten to add my sister in law is Japanese and she keeps me up to date, they have a very different way of looking at the world)  and a book about how trees have consciousness, because they do.

Here at We Are Cult, we are huge aficionados of chanson , which is a style you are intimately familiar with, having covered the work of classic chansonniers such as Jacques Brel and interpreted other artists’ work in this style: What for you is the enduring appeal of the art of chanson?

The stories, the narrative and the philosophical elements that are contained within that. The personal and the political. The deep reaching for poetry inside the pain of life, and the endless unbearability of life made toerlable by love and passion.

In 2012 you created the song cycle ‘Deep Roots Tall Trees’ for the Core Theatre at Corby, with local musicians, songwriters and poets. Can you tell us a little about that project, what was it like?

Well I’ve worked in Corby up till this year, so we’ve continued that work since 2012. Its been a joy, I’ve mentored and co-written with local musicians George Reilly and Mark Brennan and a Corby-based lyric writing circle (who’ve become friends) and helped direct and stage and present (with producer Rosalind Stoddart with whom I began the whole Deep Roots Tall Trees journey) several concerts most recently collaborating with a brilliant choreographer Neil Paris and a lighting wizard from Stuttgart, Laurenz Theinert.

Who has inspired you over the years?

A lot of friends, both singers and writers, yoga, friends and teachers and old friends who’ve been with me on the journey for the long haul.

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

I heard a woman say this on the radio, she was running a free range chicken farm in somewhere like the Orkneys, and she was about 200 and she said “Always say ‘Yes” to everything life puts in front of you because you never know where it will lead.”

What one person has impacted your life the most?

Two. My parents.

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

Probably, when I have it’s often gone a bit AWOL.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

When life give you lemons make some really good gin.

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

These days, water with a slice of lemon in it.

What are your three favourite cities?

Prague, Berlin, New York and London.  Four!

What do you do to chill out?

Run, walk in the open air, coastal path if I can but by the river if not, read, listen to classical music, catch up on good TV and films I missed.

Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?

I think we’re all entirely alike and utterly unique. That’s the joy of beings, isn’t it? Can’t live with them can’t etc….

What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?

When people respond to it.

What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?

Every single one in its own way.

Earlier this year Linn reissued your 2002 ‘cult classic’ Every Grain Of Sand, which made its vinyl debut and you recently toured UK and Germany support of the reissue. What’s it been like revisiting this work?

Beautiful and strange. I loved it, and I found a deeper love for it in the present. I have run out of superlatives to describe the work of Dylan, and its effect on my as a performer and its deep and resounding relevance to the world we live in and the people we are in our fortunate societies. Politically and personally it not only stands up but towers above all. I think I can’t move it more, and then I do. It constantly takes me further.

You created the cabaret show Girl Talk with the iconic Mari Wilson and Claire Martin.Can you tell us a little about it?

It was a joy. We are all close friends and we spent a good 12 years having a ball delivering those daft and sometimes deeply moving songs together and separately. I love Mari and Claire as singers, and we harmonised together brilliantly (though I say it myself). We had some very big laughs.

Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and your work?

I’m working with the fabulous American composer, arranger and brilliant musician John McDaniel again on a new piece Float Like a Butterfly – The Sting Project. We sing Sting. It’s amazingly lovely and we’re recoding it in February and releasing it next May. John and I are performing in the US now and again in January and in the UK in February and May. I’m touring Dylan in the autumn in the UK, everything’s on the website and I’m writing a lot.  I’ve done the songs and music for the Northampton Royal and Derngate Theatre’s The Singing Mermaid which will also be at The Little Angel in February. At Christmas in Manchester Royal Exchange my songs and music are in Polka Theatre’s How to Hide a Lion, and I’m writing a musical with Mike Lindup from Level 42 and George Seaton called Liver Birds Flying Home which we hope will be on stage in 2018. And I’ve begin work on my biography which as kick started by a commission to write a short story for Radio 4. So I’d better go and get on!

Thank you for taking time to talk to us!

Such a pleasure. Thank you.

Check out Barb’s YouTube channel and follow her on Twitter: @barbjungr

Become a patron at Patreon!