Diva 5+1: Barb Jungr

Barb Jungr is one of Britain’s top cabaret artists.  Her impressive bio includes a slew of major appearances, recordings, and even writing lyrics for an adaptation of The Jungle Book.

She had a highly-touted run in January at the Metropolitan Room: “A tragic clown, Ms. Jungr, wearing a goofy grin, wove humor and high drama into an emotional roller coaster ride that had me laughing out loud one minute and gasping at her theatrical bravura the next.” (Stephen Holden in the NY Times).

For those who missed her, she’ll be returning in September:

4th, 5th, and 6th and 11th, 12th and 13th, and 18th, 19th and 20th Thurs, Fri and Saturday New York, ‘No Regrets, The Remarkable Barb Jungr’ accompanied by Charlie Giordano, The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22, NYC, NY. 10010, (212) 206-0440, www.metropolitanroom.com, all shows at 7:30

1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.

Last July (2007) at the esteemed, respected and wonderful Almeida Theatre in Islington was a perfect experience for me. So was the Metropolitan Room in January of this year – both for very different reasons.  The Almeida in London was one of those occasions when every single note and word of every single song and introduction was perfect. My musicians’ solos were superb in every case – it was as though we were touched by something beyond us, everything was glorious, and the audience loved it all. The funny stuff got big laughs, and the sad stuff got tears, and there were cheers and a standing ovation and a dressing room full of flowers and an after show party at some friends’ house around the corner. It felt as though the whole night was blessed, somehow. The Metropolitan Room in New York in January was very different but perfect in another way. It was a Thursday, and it had rained heavily all day, I had gotten soaked through twice through to the skin, and arrived at the club feeling very much less than good. The audience came in and they must have been soaked through, too, because the atmosphere in the room was low. Instead of doing my usual cheery intros I drifted into a space where I sang from the deep well of my sad heart, and spoke to the audience from there, and suddenly I realised they were all with me, in this deep tunnel, and we played and sang from right inside, and the audience came along and stayed with us and Charlie Giordano played as though his life depended on it and we emerged, all of us, at the end of the show, into a new space which was warm and lovely, and safe. Two completely different, but both in their ways, perfect experiences.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet? 

I never really struggle with songs. If they aren’t coming I leave them alone. Years and years of writing and working have taught me that the ones that won’t come don’t come and struggling doesn’t change that. Last year I had to learn a concert of contemporary classical music written for me by the hugely famous  and very wonderful British composer, Mark Antony Turnage and I had to hire a repetiteur to help me learn the work, and it was a joy, it was hard, but it was wonderful, and I always knew it would work even though the journey was arduous. But some years ago I wanted to sing ‘Who know where the time goes’ by the sadly now deceased and absolutely great and deeply under rated British singer Sandy Denny and it just wouldn’t sing for me. I have friends who’ve done great versions of it since, but for me it never went anywhere.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?   

I prefer the term accompanist to musical director because that never properly represents my processes. It isn’t the way I work. I increasingly do my own arrangements then I work with my musicians and the arrangements grow from that soil. Then we write them out, Each person I play with uses the charts as a map, on which I usually want them to walk pretty freely – to improvise solos and to allow the songs to breathe every single time we play them. Its a more ‘jazz’ way of working I suspect. And I work with a variety of brilliant musicians worldwide, in America the superb Charlie Giordano, in Australia with a wonderful musician called Matthew Carey and in the UK my first call accompanist and often co-arranger is the brilliant pianist Jenny Carr alongside the legendary ‘acid jazz’ organist and harmonica player Jessica Lauren. 

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

Every song has its own panorama. Each time I sing a song it must be entered as if new, for the first time, it must retain its freshness and if I were to fix on an image that would freeze that process.

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

The world of cabaret needs recognition as a real musical direction with radio and television celebrating the best of it. In Australia there is a cabaret festival in Adelaide which is a wonderful celebration of all aspects of the form from the conservative to the fringes, and it has caused the work of ‘cabaret’ to have respect as a real genre in that country. In the UK cabaret is almost a dirty word, and participants of it regarded as somehow less musical than those say in jazz or world or traditional music. If the form is to survive, it needs to be expansive and recognised, and it needs champions and elevation to the art form that at its best can rival every other musical, singing genre.

+1a. As a major European cabaret performer, is there anything about the New York cabaret scene that surprises you?

Surprises me? I am happy to see a city where cabaret still is celebrated and where there are venues and audiences for the music who understand the form. And it’s lovely to find other performers all of whom have very unique ways of working and whose repertoires are exciting. I absolutely adore Krisine Zbornik and when I saw her show I almost had to be carried out I was hurting so much from laughing at the bravado and wit of it.

+1b. My own London cabaret experiences haven’t gone much past Pizza on the Park, so what should cabaret fans visiting London know in order to find great cabaret experiences?

Toughie this one, because we don’t any longer have any dedicated cabaret spaces – Pizza on the Park closed last year. You will find some cabaret at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho in Dean Street and also at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – in other words the singers who cross into jazz like myself, and Ian Shaw, are there. Then there is still the Jermyn Street Theatre, which does have runs of artists like Fascinating Aida, and visiting American artists. It’s a much smaller scene than in New York, I am sad to say. There are a couple of smaller places, but its a rare old prawn out here, circuit wise.

+1c.I once heard that in Europe “cabaret” usually involves someone removing their clothing and that the term one should really use is “in concert.”  Is this true?

Fascinating! And sort of, yes, cabaret can have a variety of not so great meanings over here. I think of myself as a concert artist and prefer the term ‘singer’ to pretty much everything else. When it comes down to it – all the terms are limiting, aren’t they? 

3 Responses to Diva 5+1: Barb Jungr

  1. Kathy Reilly says:

    Thank you, Michael. This is a terrific interview and will surely prompt me to see Barb in NY in September.

    I also learned a new term, repetiteur — so French, so aprospo.

    Kathy Reilly

  2. Emily says:

    fascinating and delicious. i can’t wait to check into all the new names and ideas expressed here. thank you to ms. jungr for graciously sharing her ideas to us. thank you to michael for this wonderful forum.

  3. […] the subject. There is a great interview archive, Diva 5+1, which includes – naturally – Barb Jungr, Ute Lemper and Liz Callaway, among many […]

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