Barb Jungr / Credit: Steve Ullathorne

Barb Jungr / Credit: Steve Ullathorne

Barb Jungr is a multi-award-winning seasoned singer in the industry, with music covering a whole range of genres including gospel, jazz, blues and folk.

Working with Billy Bragg and Julian Clary to name just a couple, she's managed to maintain her impact on the business since her 1970 start, and we got the chance to chat to Barb about her upcoming album 'Hard Rain', as well as her past, gender issues within the industry and just what it is she loves about music.

How difficult did you find it as a female to break into the music industry?

That's a wild card question because it was a completely different time - in the sense of the space the world was in - when I first arrived in London, in 1975, as green as the grass and filled with daft optimism. So it wasn't - for me - difficult to break into the music industry, it was difficult to break into life! But I was really fortunate in the essentials.

My Mother and Father had arrived in England after the Second World War and made their lives here embraced by the working class community of Rochdale and they all brought me up to think there was nothing I couldn't do, or say. That everything - with the exception possibly of Pope, was possible to me as an avenue for my life. They thought women should be free to do it all. My dad taught me to drive when I was 16 "because it gives you freedom" he said. They saw the world with the eyes of possibility. Which, considering what they had both lived through, is extraordinary in retrospect.

When people ask me "how can you have had this international career in cabaret coming from Rochdale" - that's how. In essence I don't think I "broke into" the music business, I think I slid into it atom by atom, over a long period of time!

How do you think issues surrounding gender in the industry have changed in recent years?

I don't know if they have changed as much as we'd have liked! There have always been women musicians in jazz and classical music - there have been drummers and bassists and every other instrument. But there are more violinists and cellists than women trumpet players.

If we take the industry to mean the pop industry, there are still noticeably few women producers and engineers. They are there, but they are very few.

In the classical music industry there are now female conductors - again, few, but there - at last.

In terms of women themselves I am not sure how much we help ourselves by claiming liberation and empowerment as a justification for certain kinds of promotion. I'm not mentioning the obvious here but think Robin Thicke and you'll get there.

The reality of our environment certainly at my end of the music field is that there is little mainstream media support for genres of music - where women are very prominent - so jazz, and traditional musics as an example, on the mainstream radio. And given that women are half the population and that of that half quite a lot of them are over 30 - there have to be some questions asked here.

The recent furore about older women on mainstream television cannot be forgotten/overlooked/dismissed. I want to see the same number of women on panels, on political television programmes, on everything.

Without a doubt, we should be farther along than this and as the music business doesn't exist in a vacuum, we are woefully under represented as people in all areas of it.

In a recent article the journalist Ivan Hewitt noted a number of examples of women's experiences inside the world of music as being less than perfect and subject to way too much sexism and I think things are much slower changing than anyone expected. But they are changing, so we have hope.

How has your career been affected if at all because of gender issues?

I don't think my career has been affected because of gender issues in the particular, but - as I've just said, if we are in a world where the mainstream media favours only a small part of the performing community then of course that's had an effect on me.

I have a team of superb women working on my PR at the moment with the new CD coming out. There's definitely a challenge in there because we're way out of the comfort zone. I'm not singing love songs and I'm a woman singing the songs of two incredibly male, older men. So lets see how far the world's come with respect to absorbing that... I'm hoping, a lot further than before.

What pressures did you face at the start of your career, and how do you believe they differ to the women of music today?

It was a different world when I began singing on so many levels. There are now wonderful courses at several major music study centres for pop and jazz, and these simply didn't exist when I was at college level. But the pressure to succeed in our current society is far greater. "Making it" and being on television at whatever cost are paramount. When I was coming into singing all I wanted was to be able to learn and be with like minded people.

The financial pressures also were very different. There is a whole raft of people who - like me, at the end of the 1970's, formed the amorphous mass of the now legendary "alternative cabaret circuit". That group of people, many of whom remain friends, fought to challenge racism, sexism and any other nasty "isms", and we were all able to support ourselves because of Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council's attitude to the arts - which was how we're all still here I suspect.

There is no real government support of arts - not compared to France, Germany, Sweden - the list goes on - and yet the arts in this country raise so much money for the exchequer its incredible. Our government's disdain for the arts has not helped anyone. So for young women starting today I think there are on the one hand far greater training possibilities and on the other our world is far less clement on the notion of "finding your own way in your own time" and that's how we get better at our craft, slowly and with joy, not under pressure at every level.

What is it about music that you love?

I wouldn't know where to start with that question. Music is life. It's blood and water and air, it's joy and pain and sorrow, soul and heart and head. It's communication with everything thats beyond our fragile understanding. It's transporting and empowering and enlivening. It's mediative and expressive and calming. It can help heal the sick and free the enslaved. Music is life.

What have been some of your best memories in your career to date?

I have been incredibly lucky to have had extraordinary opportunities through amazing flukes, so - just a couple of things that are standout - in the early nineties I was invited through The British Council to go to Cameroon, and I returned there for a whole tour into the heart of the bush, where we played in villages where there was no concept of "the concert" and we built stages and invited people for free and also local musicians to come and play, and the drums played in the distance and then stopped, many people appeared, and some came onto the stage area while we played and danced and joined in, and some brought their chickens and the odd goat with them, and at one point a man danced up and threw flowers over us just as the darkness fell and the sounds of the wild African night grew around us.

On another occasion, at the Winnipeg Festival, I sang on stage with - alongside several other international vocal groups - The now legendary Fairfield Four. During the course of the festival we had been bussed in and out of the festival site to and from the hotel and I'd taken to sitting with Isaac, the bass singer, and one of the most incredible voices in African American Gospel singing, and he and I had chatted about this and that.

During the Fairfield Four's closing of their segment, they incited us all to jing them, and at the improvisational moment of the singing, he handed me the mike and said "let's see what you got". When we'd finished, he walked over to me and said "Girl. You sing gospel." And my heart went about 2 feet higher in my body. That was up there with Elaine Stritch clutching me to her frail form after she'd watched my set at The Cafe Carlyle in New York, kissing me and saying "Girl, you're f**king funny. And you can SING too!" I'm not short of fab memories.

What can you tell us about the creative process behind your new album 'Hard Rain'?

I'd been thinking for some time that I ought to sing another collection of Dylan songs, and the Dylan fan community both here and in the States had been asking me what would be next. I'd come to the conclusion that I wanted to make a collection that was political and philosophical as it felt like the right calling, because I despair at the state of the world, and alongside that I'd been asked over and over to sing Cohen, too. So I thought I'd collect the songs and see whether that fit would be glorious or not. For me, it was. Then we arranged the songs, which is a matter of sitting with the songs and the piano and feeling our way around them till they speak to us. At that point the whole thing/being began to take shape.

The sound scape was decided between myself and my collaborator on this project, the composer and arranger Simon Wallace, and we'd decided to keep the palette tight on piano, percussion and bass.

Recording wise I like the vocals to go down alongside the piano, bass and percussion so that I can get a one take vocal as near as dammit to keep the narrative thread of the song in tact. Some of the songs were tricky and difficult like adolescent teenagers and some were effortless and went down with no trouble. Singing them live is a source of enormous joy. The process on this album has been essentially joyous.

Why did you choose to cover Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen?

I never use the word "cover". No one ever thinks that Ella Fitzgerald "covered" Berlin or Porter. She sang their songs. The songs were re-arranged and she sang them. I sing the songs of Bob Dylan and in this case, Leonard Cohen, because the songs came to me and demanded to be sung. That's always the way it happens. I keep my ears and being open and wait. The songs find their way to me one way or another. My joy in Dylan's work knows no bounds. He is Shakespearean to me. The songs have so many levels, they're so much more than the sum of words and music - they operate at some kind of visceral, subterranean level, and I found that the Cohen songs that came to me did the exactly same thing - both writers have a capacity to explore and express the ludicrousness of the human condition at an enormously high poetic level. Singing those songs is being in a state of grace. Singing them now live, on a regular basis, I find myself astonished every time at how much more they give as we perform them over and over. They are astonishing writers. I run out of superlatives. And of course their view is absolutely male and singing them as a woman, that view is skewed and new things emerge. And I love that - I feel I get such an entree into the male psyche, a very particular male psyche, and of course that's then there for anyone else to hear/experience, too.

Do you have any other projects in the works you can share some details about?

I've been working in Corby for the last 3 years having been originally commissioned to write a song cycle there, which I did, in collaboration with a group of musicians (we are Head of Snakes because I'm a Medusa fan) and with a newly formed choir and local but incredibly highly acclaimed choral director Gareth Fuller, and the local arts organisation Corby Community Arts.

Since then we are an established project Deep Roots Tall Trees with a website and YouTube short films and we have done two major concerts in the area and several smaller ones, and now I mentor a group of songwriters from the choir alongside the musicians Head Of Snakes, with whom I work. This year we have begun what will be a huge concert in August in collaboration with a major London orchestra.

So I spend a fair bit of time in Corby and the surrounding area, which I grown to love dearly, with a bunch of people I have similarly grown to love.

And I return to Connecticut to the O'Neill Centre for their Cabaret Convention as their senior mentor/tutor giving a concert and appearing in their gala performance in July and to the 59E59 Theater in New York and the Crazy Coqs in London for seasons in the autumn. So with the new album and tour I'm not going to be twiddling any thumbs - mine or anyone else's!

Barb Jungr's 'Hard Rain' is released March 24 through Kristalyn Records.

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