For a singer to cover one record by her favourite artist might be considered bold; to make an entire album of songs by her all-time heroes, who also happen to be icons of modern popular music, might be considered... "stupid?" suggests Barb Jungr, with a throaty laugh.
Yet, whatever the associated risks, that is exactly what the Rochdale-born chanteuse does on her forthcoming album, The Men I Love, tackling tracks by a handful of the male singers and songwriters she holds most dear. Running from Brian Eno and David Byrne's "Once in a Lifetime", through Diamond, Dylan, Springsteen and Cohen, to Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman", it's a diverse selection loosely unified under the album's subtitle The New American Songbook, which Jungr defines as "the great songs from the great writers that emerged during and post- rock'n'roll and everything that followed it".
What most obviously define this collection, though, are Jungr's husky alto – gentle but rich, pure yet at times beautifully cracked – and the spare, jazz-inflected arrangements by the singer and her long-time collaborator, the pianist Simon Wallace. In their hands, familiar songs are stripped back to a lyrical and musical essence that is underpinned by the easy sincerity of Jungr's delivery.
It doesn't sound as though it should work, but this is no cheesy lounge-bar "jazzification". Critics and fans around the world have already been hooked by Jungr's previous live performances and albums, which have seen her get to grips with a few monoliths of modern music. On Chanson (2000), it was Jacques Brel; Love Me Tender (2005) saw Jungr do Elvis; and Just Like a Woman (2008) was her musical tribute to Nina Simone. It is her interpretations of Bob Dylan, however, which, while naturally infuriating the odd hardcore Dylan purist, have done the most to earn her reputation as a heavyweight artist with a light touch, capable of breathing new life into material that never seemed to need it.
In her colourful, cosy flat in Pimlico and clutching a soya-milk latte (better for the vocal cords), Jungr is the same force of nature that she appears in her live shows, ranging breathlessly between MySpace, Miles Davis and Donizetti. It is difficult to better New York Times uber-critic Stephen Holden's description of her performance style, in a review of one of her frequent shows on the city's cabaret circuit, as "the best teacher you ever had, the one whose enthusiasm for a subject instilled a lifelong passion for literature, music or art".
By now Jungr has had plenty of time to get used to the reactions, good and bad, that her reimaginings of other artists' work inspire, but she continues to be fascinated by the potential to create new meaning from existing material: "I had no idea when I took on the Dylan stuff that I was going to upset the number of people I did. It seems to be a possessive masculine thing. The Brel people do it too: 'It's got to be done this way, this is how it is intended to be.' When I gave the tracks for this new album to the people at the record label, my guy there said, 'I don't know about the Springsteen, there's something very weird about you singing that.' And I said, 'Yeah! Isn't that great?' I love singing [in Springsteen track "The River"] 'then I got Mary pregnant'.
"What does it mean for a woman to sing that? There are very few instances where a woman gets to express something that explicitly male. I've got used to that part of the song now – it's the 'union card and the wedding coat' that I find interesting at the moment, that idea of disenfranchised masculinity."
Jungr's probing approach to her musical renderings, and indeed their success, is partly attributable to her wealth of experience as a performer. Now in her mid-fifties, she cut her teeth on London's alternative cabaret circuit in the 1970s and went on to form a long- running musical partnership with the blues guitarist and singer Michael Parker, releasing a number of albums of original material, and collaborating with comedians Julian Clary and Arnold Brown (with whom she won the Edinburgh Festival's Perrier Award in 1987). Her resulting sense of drama, comic timing and audience engagement are as apparent in her everyday speech and inter-song patter as they are in her vocal performances.
"We were just at the end of the time when the Perrier was given to acts that did music and comedy," Jungr recounts fondly. "I was lucky because I came up through that circuit and the people who were on it were Paul Merton, Julian Clary, Arnold, Steve Brown – the comedy was different. People had to do everything – it's called entertainment."
She has since managed to squeeze in a collaboration with the contemporary classical composer Mark Anthony Turnage, a Bhangra record, a masters degree in ethnomusicology, the music and lyrics for several children's pantos and the long- running cabaret show Girl Talk with fellow Brit singers Claire Martin and Mari Wilson, not to mention countless live shows internationally. With such a diverse body of work, is Jungr comfortable with being best known for her work as an "interpreter"?
If she is unhappy with the label, it is only on account of what it implies about the material she chooses to work with: "If I say I'm singing jazz and I put out an album of songs that Nat King Cole or Lena Horne sang, nobody would mention that they are covers. They would examine it from the point of view of it just being 'jazz', because it's acceptable for us to take classical music or great American songbook music and re-interpret it.
"When I was growing up, people didn't sing their own material – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Cliff Richard... not a great example I know, but good enough. That thing of the Beatles and Dylan, of writing one's own material, came fairly recently. And I'm happy that everybody in the world is now at a creative-writing workshop, but that doesn't mean we're all throwing out Shakespeare. We're not. And there's some great stuff already out there that bears re-examination and that is really the thesis of this album."
For a woman who has proved her own songwriting abilities, it's a humble attitude. Jungr is still composing original material, but at the moment it is within the theatrical parameters of a children's musical, The Fabulous Flutterbys, with The Little Angel Puppet Theatre, which will open in May; and a collaboration with composer Jonathan Cooper on a show celebrating the 1920s circus star and first female tiger trainer Mabel Stark.
Jungr prefers working on "specifics" such as these, as opposed to "simply pouring out your soul in that unrestricted kind of way". Is there a reason why she seems to thrive under self-imposed limits – be it a theatrical brief or the revision of another artist's work? "I'm not sure – it is like being trapped," she muses. "I think it's the same thing that I find in meditation and yoga. It's like being in a box and the only place you can go is further in. You're always burrowing and mining, but you never feel you can quite reach the seam."
For Jungr's dedicated following, the singer's position – just shy of the mainstream but always threatening to tip in that direction – is similarly tantalising. "I'm lucky that I get to spend my time working with fabulous musicians, learning from them and bathed in music," she says. Her gratitude is genuine, but equally she is too honest to deny her ambition: "I think there's a nonsense about, 'Oh, I'd much rather play smaller venues.' Why? I'd much rather play the Albert Hall, in a fabulous place with a Steinway that makes my piano player feel like Rachmaninov. Intimacy is not about the size of the stage, it's about how you communicate with people. I'd love to have a bigger audience. Love it." If she can manage to reach one with this album, the feeling will no doubt be mutual.
'The Men I Love' is released on 8 March on Naim. For live dates, see barbjungr.co.ukReuse content