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Barb Jungr: Hand in Glove

“I always feel, when I’ve got a new collection, that I don’t really know where it’s going,” says cabaret chanteuse Barb Jungr. “It’s kind of like paddling your boat out into the sea and not having a map.”

But the international songstress knows from risks, and has earned every inch she’s claimed on the cabaret ladder. After years gaining fans from gigs at the Flea Theater and the Metropolitan Room and earning numerous awards for her efforts, she is currently performing her latest show, The Men I Love, at the Café Carlyle, one of the top venues in New York City. With the exception of its opening and closing numbers, the show is full of new material for Jungr to sing, and for her fans to discover.

“Only crazy people do this!” Jungr laughs. “Only crazy people put completely new material on stage like this! But you’ve gotta do it—I think the only way to make your work better is to keep learning new material and bringing new material into yourself. And that’s exciting.”

To choose her material for this new show, Jungr consulted with friends and songwriters, who offered suggestions. As the concert took shape, Jungr found that each song she chose lead to another possibility. “It’s like I’ve mined this collection out of where I started,” she muses. “They have come to me because they just seem to be exactly the right song.”

With a unique combination of classics and contemporary numbers, Jungr defies traditional cabaret conventions to create her own style. She dismisses any attempt to categorize it. “I don’t do that!” she says emphatically. “It’s very nice if other people can do that, but I don’t think that’s my job. My job is to follow my heart and to try and sing the best material I can sing in the best possible way, and try to communicate in the best way the things that seem to be what I’m trying to communicate…So I try to work as far as possible intuitively, and not to question it too much, and not to analyze it too much, because that tends not to be the best way forward—which means that I often feel quite nervous about what I’m doing, but quite excited by it.”

To make a selection her own, Jungr works closely with her arrangers, tailoring the song to her skills and style. “If a song’s like a glove,” she says thoughtfully, “then the arrangement is the hand. The sculpture of the hand has to be exactly right for the glove to fit it, and for the glove to look beautiful. When I’ve got a song that I want to sing, I’ll spend months and months and months with the arranger until we’ve got the chords and the structure and the flavor right so that the song fits right.” With so much depending on the arrangement, Jungr tends to work with people who understand her style, whether she wants a song to echo Debussy or have a flavor of Otis Redding. “And they’re quite ruthless as well,” she says of her arrangers, “so they’ll go, ‘Actually, this chord sequence would be better here.’ And I think that’s a very helpful thing, so that we know that we’re really crafting something.”

While no cabaret career is easy, Jungr says that coming to America from Europe and building a New York fan base was especially challenging. “They’re all challenges. And that’s good,” she adds quickly. “You only move forward through those. New material is a challenge, because you go, ‘Oh, gosh, am I really doing the best work I could possibly do at this point in my life?’” Perhaps the greatest challenge she faced, however, was caring for her sister who ultimately died of Multiple Sclerosis. “Through that, you kind of realize that you just have to do the best you can all the time,” she says softly. “And I wish I could say that I did—I wish I could say that every situation I was in I did the best I could, but sometimes I fall by my own wayside. But I think you have to see the challenge in everything. I mean, getting up in the morning is a challenge for an awful lot of people.”

Likewise, while winning both a Nightlife Award and a Bistro Award have certainly been rewarding, one of Jungr’s proudest moments was when her family came to see her perform at the Metropolitan Room last fall—including her five-year-old nephew. “He was thrilled to be there,” she remembers with a laugh, “and my mum said he spent the entire time nudging the other people at the table and saying, ‘That’s my Auntie!’ So I was proud of that. That was lovely.” 

As her career continues to ascend, Jungr remains clear-eyed about her life in music. "Those of us who are in any of the arts, we're so lucky to do what we do," she says. "I'm so lucky to earn my living from singing. It's the most fantastic thing. People would give their right arm to do that. That's such a wonderful thing to be able to do, so I guess the challenge is to remember that, and to be the best person you can be." As for her latest concert, she hopes that her audience will enjoy the musical ride. "If people are going with you on the journey, that's the only thing that matters," she says. "You're all in that room or that concert hall or that festival space or whatever it is-you're all in it together. And you try to just kind of drive the train in the best possible way so that not too many people fall off!"

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