Drama queen

You may not have heard of her, but England's reigning interpreter of song is holding court here in NYC.

Think of cabaret in New York. Chances are you’re picturing an audience of glamorous gay folk and sixtysomethings decked out in jewels and gold-buttoned blazers, clapping politely as a Broadway survivor belts out a well-worn page from the Great American Songbook.

You are not, most likely, picturing the earthy English chanteuse Barb Jungr. The British press has anointed her the country’s “leading song stylist” and “casually virtuosic,” but Jungr prefers the description bestowed upon her by another Brit performer, comedian Julian Clary. “He called me a one-woman emotional enema,” she says, her sweetly husky voice dissolving into waves of laughter. “It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one: I used it on my posters!”

The tactic worked: In her home country, Jungr plays sold-out shows at prestigious venues like London’s 2,000 capacity Barbican Hall. This January, New Yorkers get to see her tonsils at a week’s worth of gigs at the intimate 100-seat Metropolitan Room. A New York cabaret scene that has been strugglingto find a younger audience is eager to claim her as their own. The singer has been quietly putting on a handful of shows here since 2002, accompanied by pianist Charlie Giordano. After performing at tiny venues, such as the now-defunct Mama Rose’s, she went on to play 59E59 and Joe’s Pub, her reputation building on word of mouth alone. And word of the petite Brit’s radical and passionate reworkings of songs by Bob Dylan, the Kinks and Elvis Presley has reached a younger, hipper following. They swig beers alongside the gin-sipping chanson aficionados who come to appreciate the singer’s poignant interpretations of Nina Simone and Jacques Brel (both of whom she counts as inspirations).

Between songs, Jungr’s laugh-out-loud funny anecdotes provide much needed respite after the intense experience of hearing, for example, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” laid bare as a cri de coeur of resentment, disappointment and pain. As it ends, a look around the room reveals open mouths, teary eyes and, as the last note resonates, an audience sitting in stunned silence. It seems like an age before the applause erupts.

“She gets up on a stage and takes command of it,” says Scott Siegel, creator of the Broadway Unplugged concert series and producer of the Nightlife Awards—Jungr appeared at last year’s Unplugged at the Town Hall. “The more she performs in the States, the more cabaret will flourish because they feed each other.” “I’m interested in feeling and I’m interested in words,” Jungr says, explaining her approach. “I’m just a passageway that the words come through. Then people really hear the words, and the words can then affect them. The less I do, the better.” Well, Jungr’s rich alto voice has something to do with it, too (smoky and supple, it’s part Peggy Lee, part Nina Simone with a streak of Edith Piaf). When Jungr sings of sexual longing, heartbreak and despair, you don’t doubt that she has lived it.

The singer was born in a gritty town just outside of Manchester. The child of Czech and German parents, she listened to jazz, opera and Northern soul growing up. She got her start as part of the Brit alt-cabaret scene in the late 1970s, and went on to form a duo with blues guitarist Michael Parker. Their 12-year partnership created six albums and garnered a Perrier Award. It was after the breakup of that duo that Jungr explored dramatic- and physical- theater training. “It kicked me up the backside and changed my point of view,” she says. “And suddenly I just started putting these collections of songs together.” In recent years she has borne the deaths of her father and two sisters—her beloved sister Carolyn died at the end of last year. “You know, I have to be careful what I say at the moment, I’m so raw,” she says, “but I’ve stood a lot of shit to be able to do what I do now. I’ve worked in bars, I’ve worked in restaurants, I have done all the shit things you have to do in order to be where I am now. That’s why every show counts—everything, every time counts. Maybe that’s the key to the songs: Every word is important, every note that is played counts.”

Such attention to detail has won praise in the U.K., where she’s feted as a jazz artist, but her stripped-down interpretations and eclectic repertoire work equally well in the cabaret world.

“I used to worry about what people called me,” she says. “You could say I’m a jazz artist, because every time I sing a song I sing it a new way, but actually what I really am is a singer. That’s the difficulty with categorizing: I’ve plowed my own furrow so successfully that it’s not really clear where I fit.”

Barb Jungr, accompanied by Charlie Giordano, plays at the Metropolitan Room Jan 15–20.

Covering the aces

“When I first heard Elvis sing, I thought that I was listening to velvet. He could sing the phone book and no one would care because he has the timbre of an angel.”

“I’m like a born-again person when it comes to Bob Dylan: I see only the beauty, philosophy and intelligence of his work. He’s the most important songwriter of the last century. I am a bit biased!”

“I’ve always found Nina Simone inspirational—it’s the honesty in her delivery. She doesn’t make her voice sound pretty if what she is saying takes a tough line. That’s admirable.”


Barb Jungr on YouTube

Jungr performs Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"


Jungr performs Bob Dylan's "If Not For You"

Jungr performs Bob Dylan's "Beautiful Life"—just kidding, it's her own song, with music by Adrian York