While in Australia to perform at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Barb Jungr went whale-watching in Sydney Harbor. ‘They said, “It’s not pretty out there”,’ she reports. ‘What they meant was, “It’s fucking terrifying”. Of the 88 people on the boat, I think 20 of us watched whales while the rest spewed into little white bags.’
Facing down a challenge to reach something beautiful is what Jungr does on stage too. Her voice is one of the most glorious weapons in contemporary cabaret’s arsenal, able to prise open iconic songs – by the likes of Jacques Brel, Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen and Talking Heads – to reveal beautiful new depths of feeling and meaning. Her career has taken her from Stockport, where she grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, to punk-era London, the alternative comedy circuit and post-9/11 New York, where she was hailed as a superlative reinterpreter of Bob Dylan.
London audiences have had many chances to see Jungr lately, but July 2013 offers something special: a different show every Friday night, from a session devoted to recent American songwriting to a river-themed collection and a Dylan showcase. Jungr sees it as a clearing of the decks. ‘Come September, I feel I should start doing new things,’ she says.
The run opens with ‘Stockport to Memphis’, based on the album of that name in which Jungr explored her own musical journey and, for the first time, wrote original songs (with her frequent collaborator Simon Wallace). ‘It made me look at some stuff I’d been avoiding, like coming from the northwest and my dad being a political refugee from Europe,’ Jungr says. The song ‘New Life’ (listen to the Spotify link, right) describes his high-stakes journey to the UK and other family experiences of migration. ‘People come up [after I sing it] and say, “I want to shake your hand. I come from Serbia”, or “my father came from Poland”,’ Jungr reports. ‘It resonates, especially now that immigration is such a big thing.’
Not that politics, or any other strategy, dictates the shape of Jungr’s sets. ‘They just roll up. Increasingly I feel the less you try to choose things, the more you let it organically be itself, the better. And that can be really difficult because it makes it much harder and more confrontational. You look at certain songs and think, “Oh, come on! Don’t make me go there!” [Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone” – it’s like you walk into the bullring with that song. It comes out steaming and you just have to do your best. Springsteen’s “The River” is the same, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. They come out and you have to look them right in the eye, and they’re not easy to look in the eye. But there’s no point singing them if you’re not going to go there.’
The power of Jungr’s work grows from its commitment to truthful immediacy as well as the piercing richness of her voice. ‘We need things that aren’t the emperor’s new clothes, things that come out in glory, Isis-robed,’ she insists.
Jungr embraces the label ‘cabaret’ with the zeal of the converted. ‘I’m owning it at long last! That’s what it is. So were Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. If you don’t like it, fuck off. It’s political. It comes from Europe. It rises when the chips are down. The chips are down, look at it rising! When have we needed it more?’
Brave the waters of this month’s run, then, and you might just see something beautiful.
Barb Jungr performs at St James Studio every Friday in July.