Arts / Barb’s ‘Hard Rain’s’ a-gonna fall

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Jazz singer Barb Jungr… “I feel with the songs, I try not to analyse them intellectually.” Photo by Steve Ullathorne

BARB Jungr’s hard-edged and incisive interpretations of the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have become legendary in the music industry and yet she’s never met either of them.

I’m talking to Jungr by phone to New York where she is about to perform at Joe’s Pub (Russell Crowe’s favourite hang-out when he’s performing rock ‘n’ roll) for four nights.

While there, she’ll also be rehearsing for the upcoming Connecticut Cabaret Convention and laying down a new album of Beatles songs.

It’s all in a day’s work for the hard-working singer, who was born in the north-west English mill town, Rochdale, also home to Gracie Fields, but she’s not the least fazed by interpreting the greats.

No eyebrows have been raised at her interpretations of Piaf, Simone, Dylan or Cohen, she tells me.

“We don’t have the same sense of things being culturally ‘ours’ that we had 40 years ago, so it’s not a problem,” she says.

And, besides, people have been very generous to her, she says, especially Bob Dylan’s manager, who told her that “these are very hard songs and you have done justice to them”.

She likes to call his songs “strong and powerful”, but denies approaching them with an ice-pick, angry though they may seem.

Jungr spends much of her time in the in Corby, Northamptonshire, where she’s been artistic director of the Deep Roots Tall Trees Community Arts Project since 2011. She also writes stage plays for kids, such as “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt” for the Little Angel Theatre in London.

Jungr will be at The Street Theatre in June performing songs from her album “Hard Rain” as part of the annual Capital Jazz Project.

Although we could just as easily talk about “Hard Rain” or about “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which are both on the album, it’s another Dylan number, “Masters of War”, that we turn to.

Jungr describes it as “a song from a mother in a graveyard, a mother singing, coming from a place of deep grief”.

And not just any mother.

“I’m talking about The Mother as a kind of archetype, maybe like one of those Hindu goddess mothers with thousands of children, each of them being cut off – that’s the only way I could deliver it, this song doesn’t cloak itself in poetry,” she says.

By contrast, Leonard Cohen’s songs are deliberately elusive and none quite so enigmatic as “First We Take Manhattan (then we take Berlin)”.

I’ve been reading how Cohen once described it as “a terrorist song”. That’s news to Jungr.

“Really?” she says. “It speaks to me of the Holocaust.”

Either way, it’s not about anything very pleasant.

“I feel with the songs, I try not to analyse them intellectually,” she says.

“I have to feel the song is coming from somewhere new, I have to grab it.

“A song is in a constant state of uncertainty, it has a capacity to give you a sense of things, but not give you an actual meaning… it gives you words and says, ‘what do you think?’ like a painting, like ‘Guernica,’ you go again and again and again – I like that.

“The best plays and poems and songs are those that are enigmatic, that get you asking questions.”

To her, great theatre, great art and great music are all as one.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Beatles or Bach – these are things that transcend,” she says.

Barb Jungr presents “Hard Rain: The songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen”, The Street Theatre, June 8, part of the June 8-13 Capital Jazz Project. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1233.

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