BWW Interview: Britain's Celebrated Chanteuse BARB JUNGR Makes 54 Below Debut Tonight Set to Conquer Another New York Cabaret Club
Cabaret Features and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
When Barb Jungr takes the stage tonight for her debut at 54 Below (she also be at the club tomorrow night and Sunday night; all shows at 7pm), the acclaimed British chanteuse will have conquered another major New York nightclub venue, having in past years performed critically acclaimed shows at the Café Carlyle, Joe's Pub, and the Metropolitan Room. She even knocked them dead at the 59E59 theater twice in less than a year, with her show Dancing the Dark (read my review here) in December 2013 and Hard Rain (review here) this past November. While Jungr is still performing the Hard Rain set--amazing interpretations of some of the most intensely political Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs--throughout Europe, and has earned enormous praise for the CD of the same name, her 54 Below show, Mad About the Boy and No Regrets, will be an amalgam of Jungr's greatest hits from past shows and CDs, plus some songs she'll be doing for the first time.
Jungr may be spunky, fearless, opinionated, possess a cheeky sense of humor, and have years of experience playing rooms all over the world, but that doesn't mean she doesn't still get nervous and feel the adrenaline rush of playing in a club for the first time, especially one in New York City. "Of course I'm a bit nervous about the opening tonight," Jungr admits, "But I'm also extremely excited. I just love New York and I love playing in America. When I play in England, which is my own arena, I know the shape of things, if you know what I mean. When I come to New York, I know I don't know the shape of things. So playing at 54 Below will be a new thing for me and that's so exciting."
Just before Jungr was ready to get on a plane for her trip across the pond, I caught up with one of Britain's best cultural exports to the Big Apple for a few minutes of chat about her new show, the science of interpreting songs, and her current work as a director for a New York cabaret singer.
BroadwayWorld: Your new show tonight at 54 Below includes songs you've done on a number of your past CDs and in various shows through the years. Have you performed this set before and what will be new and surprising?
Barb Jungr: I actually did it for the Cabaret Festival in London last fall. At that time I hadn't done Hard Rain and there were some Hard Rain songs in it so they were new. There were some of what I like to call "my baby Dylans," a Jacques Brel song, and a few things I'd never done in concert, like "Mad About the Boy" (Noel Coward) and "Your Cheating Heart" and "Woman in Love" by The Gibb Brothers. I also do the Tom Rush song "No Regrets" that was on my Chanson CD [released in 2000].
BWW: So when you take a few things from different shows and merge them with new songs you've never sung in a show before, what's the result?
BJ: Well, what's fascinating about that is a different narrative emerges. And in this case the narrative that developed was a huge surprise to me. When I sang the songs I felt the connective thread was that this was a kind of dissection of the human heart. So that's why I'm calling it Mad About the Boy and No Regrets. It was how it felt when I was doing the songs. These are all about the different kinds of madness I've felt in my life and I don't regret any of them. When I performed it in England, people were very moved by it. So when I was asked to do a show at 54 Below, I didn't want to do the Hard Rain show again because I wanted that to be a standalone. I thought it would be quite nice to go from Hard Rain to something completely different with a completely different sensibility. Politics always starts in the heart for me so this show is about the politics of the human heart. So some people may have heard these songs before but not sung this way in this particular narrative. (See Barb Jungr's video on the Making of the Hard Rain CD, below.)
BWW: Is Mad About the Boy a metaphor for things you are passionate about in general or is it specifically about men?
BJ: Well it's both--kind of about all the things I'm mad about.
BWW: The patter in your shows, for lack of a better word, always seems spontaneous and you have a keen knack for being humorous before or after some very intense, serious songs. You do deliberately script those moments into the show?
BJ: Actually, I don't like to work off specific scripts for this kind of show. If you're an actor, that's one thing, but when you stick to a script in cabaret it always sounds stilted. I've seen some very great artists ruin their show because you can tell they were working off a script. The sensibility that I come from is the alternative cabaret circuit, which was all about learning and delivering comedy. Although I wouldn't say I'm a comedian, because it's a different set of skills, I did learn a lot from comedians. What I learned first and foremost was to say what you've got in your head when you've got it there, and learn to know when you've done enough of that. Learn to know when going off the script is working and when it's not and play with that dynamic. I always think of it being like stepping stones on a river. You know where your rocks are and how you've got to get from one to another, but how long you stand talking about the water is how you judge that.
BWW: Given your experience, do you have a pretty good internal clock that tells you when stepping on too many rocks during a show may make it run too long?
BJ: Yes and no. I have to watch it. But having that little edge of not quite knowing where you're going and how long the show might be is really great because it keeps it interesting. You also have to figure out where those moments of drama can be in each show. That's the skill of the trade. You know one of the frightening things is that I'm not a kid anymore [she turns 60 this year and isn't shy about admitting it]. But even though I've been doing this for a long time, every time I do a show it feels like a new thing and that makes you feel young. I love the intensity when that's happening. I have what I call my "Yellow vase in a blue room theory." If your room is completely blue than it's really dull. but if you put a yellow vase in it people say, "Oh my god, that yellow vase is beautiful and that blue is amazing."
BWW: Many critics have called you perhaps the best living interpreter of Bob Dylan songs and now you've added some Leonard Cohen's songbook to that list. In this show, you're also doing Jacque Brel, whose songs you've done in concert and on a CD [Chanson, which featured much Brel, is Jungr's second best selling CD]. How do you approach Brel material?
BJ: I consider myself part of the Jacque Brel police. I get really upset when Brel is done badly.
BWW: What is the definition of doing Brel badly?
BJ: For me, it's like when I come out of a massage, I want to feel like someone has really pummeled me and beaten me up. That's what Brel should be like. When you listen to Brel you should come out of it feeling that someone has pummeled your soul. Bad Brel is like getting an aromatherapy massage and the therapist saying, "This chamomile is so good for you."
BWW: You tend to sing more music written by men than woman. Is that deliberate?
BJ: Yes, my songs are almost exclusively by men, but I couldn't tell you why that is. It's not a deliberate choice at all. That's just what sings through me. Of course, I love women writers like Joni Mitchell and I do really like my version of "River." I have sung "Big Yellow Taxi." It has to do with imagery and a certain sensibility about the men songwriters. It's ironic because I've been quite outspoken about my feminist views all my life. But in a way, that's what's interesting. When you hear Dylan sing, "I Want You" which I'll do in this new show, it's a song about male sexuality being outgoing and grasping. When I sing it, it's a song about longing and wistfulness and quiet reflection and that changes the way you hear it.BWW: What is it about Dylan and Cohen that works for you?
BJ: I could try to academically justify why I gravitate toward Dylan and Cohen's work, but I don't think that's a helpful answer. The songs just ring my bells. I love all kinds of music that draws me in and that I would love to sing, but that I would never attempt to sing. I try as much as possible to work intuitively which is probably why Madonna's got more money than me.
BWW: Are interpreting the lyrics of Dylan and Cohen or coming up with a different arrangement of one of their songs a huge challenge?
BJ: I'm a great Shakespeare fan and a great believer that words have power beyond themselves. So the best thing you can do as the performer--which means you're the instrument--is get out of the way and just let the song sing itself. And don't tell anybody what it is and don't think about it. Just sing the words and let the words and the melody do the work. And sing the melody of the words the most appropriately--which doesn't necessarily mean the best singing--whether it's speaking the words or going softly in some places.
BWW: What is the science, if you will, of how you deconstruct a song to apply your own distinctive interpretation?
BJ: Well, I just sing the song the way I feel it. That's the science. I can't approach it that specifically because it would be too analytical and too contrived, at least for me. What I do is sing the songs in rehearsals and find where they want to be. It's a discovery. And then having made that discovery I try to let the songs be new every time I sing them. If I've got to sing these songs 400 times in a year, they've got to be fresh every single time because otherwise they're just chained to things. So I want to be as open as I can be.
BWW: Are you saying you never sing a song the same way twice?
BJ: I would say they are subtly different. They're not improvised but my phrasing changes each time because I want to find out what phrasing can happen. What I want from an arrangement is space so that you hear all the various elements of the arrangement as much as is humanly possible so then the words--particularly in the Dylan and Cohen songs where there are so many words--are like pearls on a string. The arrangement is the string, but the words are the pearls and can slide around.
BWW: That's a wonderfully metaphorical way to describe it. Very poetically Dylan-esque, Barb.
BJ: [Laughs] Well some of that Dylan had to rub off on me after all these years.
BWW: When you've performed in New York the last few years, Tracy Stark has been your Musical Director and will be again for the 54 Below show. What's the secret of your strong connection musically and on stage with Tracy?
BJ: I like not being tied to people because I don't think it's helpful and I've always worked with a variety of people and it still all sounds like me. So I like that I can work with different musicians and I learn from those I work with. One time I came to New York and I needed a pianist and someone recommended Tracy. When we rehearsed together I realized she was really good. So she was on my radar after that and the next time I came to New York I called her to be my pianist and we became friends. I like that Tracy doesn't only play the piano, but that she's a presence on the piano. And I like that she is also always learning.
BWW: Since your interpretations can seem so intricate and you admit to not wanting to not sing a song the same way each time out, is that hard for a pianist to follow you when you're actually doing the show?
BJ: I'm one of those singers who will tell the pianist to play less so I can have more space and that's really demanding for a piano player. And I don't want someone playing the melody because I'm singing the melody. I want a particular kind of sensibility and someone who is simpatico with me when I'm on the stage and I get that with Tracy.
BWW: You're going to be serving as the Director for Pamela Lewis (a.k.a. Champagne Pam) for her upcoming show at the Metropolitan Room, featuring Pamela's interpretation of the Billy Joel songbook (January 16 and 17 at 7pm). Why did you take on that project? [Full disclosure alert: I'm Lewis' press representative for that show.]
BJ: I don't make myself an open door for directing. In England, I take on directing jobs when people approach me and say they want me. In Pamela's case, I thought the idea of directing a show built around Billy Joel music sounded really exciting. I'm a picky, picky cow when it comes to singers and I really like the way Pamela sings. And I really hate when people accept a singer just because they happen to be in tune and don't forget their lyrics. I want to hear something there. And Pamela has been singing her pants off for years fronting wedding bands and doing cabaret. So you start from a really great place with her and she's what in England we call a "grafter," someone who works really hard and Pamela works really hard. She's not someone from a wealthy family who woke up one morning and said, "I'd like to do this" and had the financial ability to do shows. I like people who are driven to sing and they give themselves over to it completely. And Pamela has done that so she's my kind of gal.
BWW: It seems like whenever you come here to perform a show run, you leave with rave reviews. Are you surprised that you're so well received in New York?
BJ: You know, I spent a good 20 years of my life traveling the motorways of Great Britain and Europe playing to very small audiences and having no profile anywhere of any kind. I didn't just pay my dues once I paid my dues lots of times. So I'm f---ing grateful that I get any kind of response at all because I know what it's like to get none.
Barb Jungr is at 54 Below on January 2, 3, and 4 at 7pm. The club is at 254 West 54th Street. For ticket information, go to: http://54below.com/artist/barb-jungr/