Barb Jungr: 'I'm an obsessive kind of person'

How singer-songwriter coped with the death of her ex-husband and two sisters in the space of two years to became 'our greatest living interpreter of Bob Dylan'

Robert Chalmers
Sunday 14 April 2013 00:03

Barb Jungr's home town does not enjoy the most enviable of reputations. When it features in the national news, Stockport is almost invariably the subject of ridicule or tragedy, to the point that I have one friend who refers to it as Bad News Town.

The Moors Murderers, like Dr Harold Shipman, operated from addresses with a Stockport postcode. In 1967, a plane landed in the centre of the town (which has no airport) then exploded: the accident, which remains the second-worst air-to-ground crash in England, claimed 72 lives. Inquiries into the deaths by poisoning of three patients at Stockport's Stepping Hill Hospital in 2011 are ongoing.

A couple of weeks before I meet Jungr, the town is in the national headlines again: just months after two women police officers were ambushed and shot dead in the borough, an off-duty constable has been brutally murdered in Castle Street.

The writer Christopher Isherwood, whose work inspired the film Cabaret, was from Stockport, though he legged it when young. "The sense of weather," Isherwood whinged, "is overwhelming. Every view drips with melancholy."

Culturally, Stockport's more significant achievements have tended to be annexed by Greater Manchester, of which it is now a part. Its musical legacy includes "There's No One Quite Like Grandma" by the St Winifred's School Choir, and the late British crooner Frankie Vaughan's extraordinary anthem "Stockport". One of the few recordings that can genuinely said to be beyond parody, it is a eulogy to the town in the style of Frank Sinatra at the swaggering height of his powers. "That's S-T-O, C-K, P-O-R-T," Vaughan declares (in a cod Brooklyn accent), "Stockport – there ain't no place I'd rather be."

Stockport's renaissance has been a long time coming, but in Barb Jungr, at last, it has an internationally recognised artist whose most recent CD is called Stockport to Memphis and who has shown sufficient regard for her home town to incorporate its name both into that of her current band, and the long-running tour which has seen her appear at prestigious venues in North America. Her exquisitely crafted versions of songs by artists such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and (especially) Bob Dylan have had her regularly lauded in the pages of The New York Times.

We meet in the upstairs bar of the Plaza Theatre in Stockport's Mersey Square: a beautifully refurbished Art Deco room that could sit quite comfortably alongside Spec's 12 Adler Museum Café in San Francisco, or La Tartine in Paris, should Ronald Atkin ever decide to update his memorably definitive book Great Bars of the World. I grew up three miles from here, on the Manchester border, but I never suspected what lay behind the façade of what languished for years as a bingo hall.

Barb Jungr is 58 now, but retains a kind of irrepressible humour and spirit reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck in her role as a headstrong jazz singer who falls in with a group of elderly lexicographers in Howard Hawks's 1941 comedy Ball of Fire.

"We were driving in just now," Jungr says, "and Jenny [Carr, one of her two keyboard accompanists] said to me: 'Oh look – that's the viaduct you mention in the song.'" (Stockport viaduct is, as you probably know, the largest free-standing brick structure in Europe, yet, if you discount LS Lowry, has gone strangely unnoticed by creative artists.) "Then she asked: 'Is this Mersey Square? It sounded a little bit more romantic when you sang about it.'"

It's easy to forget, I suggest, when you look around this immaculately restored lounge, that Mersey Square serves as the epicentre of darkness in Paul Morley's intense memoir Nothing, which appeared in 2000 and described the events leading up to his father's suicide. Stockport, with its "slumped skies and enclosed air", Morley writes, was "the town I couldn't wait to escape from. The town where I didn't want to die."

Jungr hasn't read Nothing.

"I think that Stockport is essentially a very kind place," she says. "Unlike some of those wrecking villages in the West Country, say. There is something about a place that holds its history. Auschwitz, I suppose, would be an extreme example. Towns carry their baggage with them."

And a sense of place, in music, Jungr says, "is vital. It gets into your DNA, as a performer. Like it or not, we're all forged by place, both as people and as artists."

This may be why the use of the word "provincial" has become confined to metropolitan theatre elitists of a certain age. What does that term mean, I ask her, decades after the Beatles, Oasis or the Smiths?"

"The word 'provincial'," Jungr replies, "means absolutely nothing. I live in Pimlico [central London] and I love it there. I've been working on a project with local musicians in Corby, Northamptonshire, another place I love. At some point I realised that I had never celebrated the town I came from; and of course that celebration is not really about 'you'; it's about the place itself, everybody who ever came from there, and a kind of river that we are all in together."

Barb Jungr first came to prominence in the mid-1980s as a member of a group called the Three Courgettes: Jungr, guitarist Michael Parker and singer Jerry Kreeger. The group, whose choice of name probably ensured its stature as a footnote in British musical history, was popular on the so-called alternative cabaret circuit, where Jungr also toured with her friend and regular collaborator, the comedian Julian Clary. When the Courgettes went their separate ways, she worked for another 12 years with Parker, now based in Edinburgh.

Looking back at Jungr's musical history, I suggest, it's not easy to identify any kind of consistent path. "It's difficult," she says, "because there isn't one. I once heard a radio programme about this woman who was farming chickens on the Isle of Harris. They asked her, 'What have you learnt?' She said, 'Never say no to anything.' I've lived my life a bit like that. People believe you should be like Madonna: elusive and single-minded. I just can't think like that. My motto would be something more like: 'Oh, OK. Go on then.'"

In the early days, she recalls, "We'd listen to hours and hours of American gospel. The Blind Boys of Alabama or the Golden Gate Quartet."

The title of Stockport to Memphis may sound like nothing more than a playful conceit; yet, I tell her, "I've always suspected that there's some sort of umbilical connection, musically, between the North-West of England and the United States, going back to the trade routes, and the mutual suffering in the cause of the textile industry; this is something that Elvis Costello has written about, in songs like 'Red Cotton'."

"Absolutely there is. When I was growing up here, even in the rubbish little youth club around the corner, we were listening to records on Stax [the Tennessee-based label that was home to Otis Redding, among others]. We were exposed to, and we seemed to have a natural love of, American music that was incredibly exciting yet not in the mainstream. I think there is a special connection that binds the two coasts."

It was in 2002 that Jungr really found her niche, when she released Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan. The idea of reworking Dylan songs might seem as futile as rewriting Wuthering Heights given that it's fairly difficult, looking back over more than half a century, to think of more than a couple of Bob Dylan cover versions that are even faintly as interesting as the original.

Yet Jungr's extraordinary interpretations of songs such as "Every Grain of Sand" and "Sara" have seen her elected to an elite company of memorable cover artists, alongside Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds. She is, as Billy Bragg said, our greatest living interpreter of Dylan songs. The Wall Street Journal called Jungr Sings Bob Dylan "the most significant vocal album of the 21st century", adding, in the interest of prudence, "thus far".

Jungr herself is a highly gifted songwriter, and one of her finest compositions, "Till My Broken Heart Begins to Mend" appears on Stockport to Memphis. But Jungr's most distinctive talent as an artist lies in her capacity to forge an intuitive connection with a familiar song, then faithfully communicate the spirit – but not the style – of the original. In some ways her concerts are a sort of reinvention of the classical tradition of recital, where one of the performer's principal satisfactions is to allow other people's work to shine.

Central to her achievement is her long-standing collaboration with Simon Wallace, a virtuoso pianist and composer who produced Stockport to Memphis, and whose primary affinity is with jazz, rather than soul, say, or orthodox rock'n'roll. Wallace's subtle and understated accompaniment has been the perfect counterpoint to Jungr's unusually intense vocal performances.

"Something remarkable happens when Barb is on stage," says Julian Clary. "She combines strength and vulnerability, heartbreak and foot-stamping. I once described her as 'a one-woman emotional enema'."

Her work, as this last phrase might suggest, is not for everybody. Jungr's natural style, heavily influenced by French chanson, is capable of enervating hardcore Bob Dylan fans in the same way that the voice of the small man from Duluth can sound grotesquely off-putting to the ears of some classical singers.

Having written at some length about Dylan recently, I tell Jungr, I'm aware of the code of silence, verging on omerta, that seems to bind his inner circle. Has she received any sympathetic feedback from America?

She pauses to think about this. The singer, while polite and convivial, also conveys the very clear impression that, were you to moot something she considered irrelevant or stupid, she wouldn't hesitate to let you know. Even over afternoon tea there's something about Jungr that invites you to revive a cliché and call her "the sort of person you'd want next to you in a bar-room brawl".

It doesn't come as a total surprise when, later in this conversation, she refers to an incident during which "a brick went through the window of [Chelsea department store] Peter Jones". Verbal indiscretion, however, is not one of her failings. If you had to choose the single noun least suited to Barb Jungr, you could do worse than "blabbermouth".

"Jeff Rosen…" she begins (Rosen, Bob Dylan's manager, a discerning, thoughtful and – given his status – amiable and considerate character, is probably as close to his famously ungregarious client as anybody), "Jeff Rosen… has been very kind."

"Have you heard anything from – how can I put this – Bob?"

"Jeff Rosen," she repeats, "has been very kind." Jungr gives me an amiable smile which indicates that she's more than happy to keep this up for as long as I like.

In an age in which young singers have become incrementally proficient at counterfeiting certain emotions – not least suffering and grief – on shows such as The X Factor, Jungr has the voice of a woman who has lived. As her surname would suggest, her family connection with Stockport does not go back for generations.

She was born on the other side of Manchester, in Rochdale, she says, and moved here as an infant. She grew up in Stockport with her two younger sisters. Her father Miroslav was a chemical engineer, born in what is now the Czech Republic. Her mother Ingrid, a former nurse, who still lives here, is from Duisburg, near Dusseldorf.

You might assume Jungr, who regularly contributes to BBC radio programmes such as Ian McMillan's The Verb, and Start the Week, to be an English graduate from Oxbridge. In fact, when she left Stockport Convent, she applied to Leeds University, where she completed an MSc in botany. "It's funny," she says. "At school I remember thinking: well, there's no point doing English because I'm not bad at that. So I went on to do sciences, which I had less aptitude for. Somebody suggested I apply to Oxford or Cambridge but, foolish as I possibly was, I was set on going to a redbrick university."

"Why Leeds?"

"Because," Jungr replies, "they had two electron microscopes and the Who recorded Live at Leeds there." She laughs. "Seriously, I'm baffled by the fact that I am still alive, sometimes."

She went on to complete a Masters degree in music at Goldsmiths, in London.

Arriving in the capital in the mid-1970s, she fell naturally into a hedonistic punk community based around Fulham. She met her late husband, the occasional drummer and novelist Dan Bowling, at a concert. It's one of the things, Jungr observes, that a modern etiquette guide might warn a young lady against: "It may pay to be wary of somebody you meet at an Iggy Pop gig."

Dan Bowling was the son of the Guyanese-born abstract artist Frank, the first black painter to be accepted (in 2005) as a member of London's Royal Academy. Her husband's mother was the novelist and biographer Paddy Kitchen. Dan, a heavy drinker, produced one novel, End of '77, which he published in 1986 under the name of Richard Sheridan. Its hero, Jack Shaw, is a rock drummer "high on drugs, Carlsberg Special and illusions". Dan Bowling collapsed and died suddenly, of drink-related illness, in November 2001. He was 39.

In the late 1970s, Jungr and Bowling had started a band called the Stroke, whose debut "He's Gone" was voted single of the week by Danny Baker in the NME. The group, which had recorded the song in a west London bacon factory, proved temperamentally ill-suited to the demands of a major record label. In her marriage, meanwhile, Jungr encountered the predictable consequences of an alliance with a man possessed of great originality of mind, artistic vision, and tremendous thirst.

"Dan had a terrible drink problem. I really did try to work with it, but I couldn't."

How about you? "I'm an obsessive kind of a person but I don't have a completely addictive personality. I never wanted to be in that place where you can't stop. The tragedy with Dan was that he was such a lovely man. A kind, good-hearted person and, worst of all, really talented."

The couple had been separated for 10 years before Bowling died. (In the early 1990s, Jungr, funded by the British Council, travelled around Africa with Michael Parker, performing in Cameroon and Sudan.)

Her husband's death, she says, "took me years to come to terms with. It's true that we argued, often about the strangest things. That time when he lobbed a brick though Peter Jones's window, we'd been rowing about something ridiculous; like, were the Sex Pistols better than the Clash." She recalls, too, a collision with traditionally minded locals in a Home Counties pub. "You know how it is, in that odd moment where everything seems to stop, just before a massive fight starts? We were in this pub, where they didn't like us at all. It had come to that point. I remember just shouting, 'Run.' I got Dan out of there in my Toyota." k

Julian Clary recalls how, when he and Jungr travelled to the 1986 Edinburgh Festival, "Living together in a grubby flat and performing together in a pub basement established our friendship. We had as much fun as it's possible to have in three weeks. Barb is fierce. And funny. She would go at a bottle of cheap red wine with the same determined 'it's got to be done' spirit that she displays when marching across Dartmoor in a blizzard."

These days, he adds, "Barb doesn't drink. 'Unless I'm at a wedding, obviously.' In which case her Eastern European fortitude shines through… And through…"

As she was breaking up with Bowling, Jungr recalls, "my sister Kristina had developed an incurable disease; this galloping form of multiple sclerosis. I felt," she says, with regard to her late husband, "that I couldn't hack two people dying in front of me. It was just tragic."

Kristina lived until 2000. Then the youngest of the three sisters, Carolyn, died suddenly, of a heart attack, aged 44. "That felt like one slap in the face too many. I can remember thinking: that was over the line, that."

Jungr experienced, as she recalls, "a dark night of the soul. I went through these years where death seemed all around me. Dan died. I lost Russell Churney, the pianist [with whom Clary and Jungr had collaborated for years]. Then there was my best friend from Stockport; my mother-in-law, my father – this is not in chronological order – and both my younger sisters. Throughout that time, Bob Dylan's music, for me, served as a kind of handrail."

It's a series of misfortunes that, were Jungr to have lived in a Sicilian village, might have led locals to shun her as one cursed with the fatal malocchio.

"And all of that experience," I suggest, "does find its way into your work; it can't not."

"Absolutely it does. I'm not going to start saying things like: 'Oh, you have got to experience pain in order to sing.' I don't believe that. But every experience has its consequence. My dad was in the German work camps when he was 18. I remember he said, 'Don't ask me what I did to survive.' Isn't that what a lot of art – music, writing, or painting – is about? Coming to terms with stuff, and reshaping it, in a way that is bearable?"

The artist's preferred outlet for misfortune, I suggest, is often assumed to be humour.

One of the things she likes about Stockport, Jungr says, is that, "This has always been a place which has been able to laugh at itself."

Just as well, given comedies such as Jim Poyser and Damian Lanigan's: Stockport: So Great They Named it Once, which ran for two series, some years ago, on BBC Radio Four.

"Oh, I loved that show. And I have been very lucky in that I have worked with a lot of comedians. You do have to laugh. It does help."

"After Dan Bowling died, did you have a steady partner?"

"I've taken a decision not to speak about that," Jungr says. "When Dan and I broke up, Kristina was very ill. You know, with love affairs; it's quite hard to have them when you're walking alongside the rider on the black horse. They were doomed for that reason," she says, "the relationships I had in that time. My levels of anxiety were huge."

"Are you with anybody at the moment?"

"Now? No. Am I emotionally close to people? Yes. Very. I have many relationships that have been hugely important in my life. Like my great friend Ernest Hecht."

Hecht, 83, is a publishing legend as the founder of Souvenir Press, which he has run for 62 years. The Czech-born philanthropist, who has published five Nobel prize-winners including Pablo Neruda and Knut Hamsun, was also formerly literary agent for Pele. "Ernest," Jungr says, "has been my mentor and my saviour."

Jungr adds that, when it comes to lovers and friends, "I no longer make so much of a distinction. I have certainly slept with people I have less in common with than I do with friends; and in some cases those great friendships have meant a great deal more to me. Losing Russell Churney [who died in 2007 from pancreatic cancer, aged 42] was terrible. Musical relationships are huge; they are like marriages. All of those deaths were… horrendous." She pauses. "Words can't help me here."

"So you've lived alone for the past 20 years?"

"Yes. But I'd say I lived alone even when I was married, you see. Maybe I am 'a woman who lives alone'. I sometimes think I could live with 50 people and live alone."

She seems surprised when I tell her she seems robustly well-defended when discussing such things.

"Lord knows – as must now be obvious to you by now – I am not easy. I know that. My mum says I'm a softie. I suppose I must have made a kind of protective carapace. But I am a softie really. I admire steeliness in others because I don't have it. I am more responsive and reactive than I would have liked to be if I could have chosen."

Part of her reaction to the years of trauma appears to have been a determination to keep very busy. Her plans for the rest of this year include a tour of Australia and more work in Corby; then she's writing all the new songs for a production of Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt at London's Little Angel Theatre, and preparing a stage version of a musical co-written with Jonathan Cooper, Mabel Stark, Tiger Tamer. There's a project for a disabled children's charity called Kidz, and a new CD showcasing the golden age of the great American songbook; then another tour which will bring her, eventually, back here to Stockport.

Just recently I've noticed something odd happening in relation to her home town, I tell Jungr. A few years ago I bumped into a well-known figure who grew up miles south of here, in the heart of the Cheshire stockbroker belt – an area she referred to as "South Manchester". Recently, however, Stopfordians have been coming out of the closet. The Independent columnist and broadcaster Owen Jones, our most refreshing and articulate voice from the left, grew up in Stockport, and has never sought to conceal it. Simon Stephens's play Port, set here, recently completed a successful run at the National, to the horror of the Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts (what higher commendation could there be?), who complained that there was: "Not a mention of all the welfare money thrown at the town."

Mark Bussell and Jason Sbresni's inventive comedy series Great Night Out, set in Stockport – broadcast earlier this year on primetime ITV – has just been commissioned for a second series. Only a fortnight ago, it was reported that the population of Stockport was ranked second in a survey to find the happiest place in England.

"I know," Jungr says. "Even [the Government's high-street tsar] Mary Portas is there. There's something in the zeitgeist."

After we talk, Jungr, accompanied by Simon Wallace and Jenny Carr, performs a triumphant first solo show ever in her home town. In the bar at the interval, some loyalists were expressing disappointment that the Plaza was not entirely full, but their indignant enthusiasm indicated that every seat will be occupied next time.

Barb Jungr's audience make their way home, filing out across Mersey Square, dwarfed by the awesome view of the viaduct. I came across the following observation in a Victorian travel brochure while I was researching this piece. "Looking down at the place from the railway," The Express Guide to Britain of 1894 says, "one is forced to observe that Stockport cannot boast anything to excite any desire for further acquaintance with the town." At which point, Jungr's admirers would be entitled to reply: "Well, it can now."

Barb Jungr is currently touring the UK. For details: 'Stockport to Memphis' is out now on Naim Jazz

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