Barb Jungr Sings Dylan in Newtownabbey

English singer interprets works by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen at Theatre at the Mill on May 1

Rochdale-born Barb Jungr has been variously described as a jazz singer, a cabaret singer, an English Edith Piaf and Britain’s answer to Juliette Greco. But never mind how you label her, what Jungr really is is an exceptional interpreter of popular songs, with a dramatic, sometimes theatrical style and a remarkable technique.

Her interpretive skills are thrillingly apparent on her current album, Hard Rain, on which she sings six songs by Bob Dylan and five by Leonard Cohen. ‘I’ve enjoyed this album because the songs are so deep,’ she says. ‘Dylan’s root is the blues and Americana and Cohen’s root is poetry, so their writing is very different but they strike a similar chord.’

And yet, certainly in the case of Dylan, most covers of his songs have been by rock and folk artists rather than by artists in the fields in which Jungr works. Jungr believes she knows why.

‘For me, when Dylan’s at his best, it’s almost as though the songs live and breathe and bleed and they’re visceral, but a lot of people don’t hear beyond his voice. I think he’s a great singer but a lot of people don’t and when I started to do Dylan songs a lot of my friends, who are jazz singers and musicians said, “My God, I didn’t know these songs were so brilliant”.’

Jungr will perform songs from the album at Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on May 1. Of the Dylan songs on the album, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ has been previously covered by Joan Baez, Odetta, Johnny Cash and hundreds of others, while ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ has been covered by the likes of the Byrds. Jungr offers her opinion on some of these interpretations.

‘I’ve got less patience with people who do the songs in the exact same way they were written. Joan Baez is slightly tricky because what she doesn’t do is bring a new arrangement. She just brings her voice to it, which of course changes it. I go in and out on Baez. Sometimes I love her and sometimes I want to really scream, “Stop it!”’

Some would argue that the pre-rock’n’roll songwriters of the Great American Songbook, like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin – whose songs are still part of the standard repertoire of jazz – were more meticulous craftsmen than the rock-era songwriters to whose music Jungr is so drawn.

Indeed Dylan, in particular, can seem a somewhat erratic writer, with even some of his greatest songs containing clunky lines. ‘Meticulous is a good word to use of the Great American Songbook writers,’ muses Jungr, ‘but I would argue that perhaps, at times, you could call those songwriters hacks.

'Sammy Cahn [lyricist of the Academy Award-winning 'Three Coins In A Fountain’], when asked what came first, the lyrics or the music, said, “The phone call.” In other words, it was a job. Whereas, after Dylan, people were writing because they were moved to write.’

Certainly the power of many of the songs on Jungr's album is irresistible. And yet the precise meanings of songs like Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ can seem elusive.

Jungr partially agrees: ‘[The songs] can seem slightly incomprehensible but you understand them at a very deep, spiritual level, although you couldn’t analyse why. Somebody once said to me, “What does that song mean?” and I said, “I haven’t a clue but when I sing it, it makes perfect sense.”

‘A lot of songs are analysed when they’re on paper and I don’t think that that’s the way to do it,’ she adds. ‘The way to do it is to sit and listen and feel, because I think music’s about feeling, really.’ 

Some of the Dylan songs in particular have huge amounts of lyrics in them, and are densely packed with unusual, complex images making them massively challenging for singers. One wonders if Jungr memorises the songs before recording them or reads the lyrics off a page.

‘I prefer to know them but sometimes that’s just not been possible because they’re quite monstrous to learn. They’re daunting, towering things. ‘Hard Rain’ is a tough old cookie. But the one that was a real monster to learn, and I still feel shaky on it, is ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ because every verse is so similar to the verse before but subtly different. It’s really tricky but I absolutely love it, so I have worked very hard on that.’

One of the Dylan songs, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, comes from his 'born again' phase in the late 1970s. At times during this period his songs seemed to become so pious and fundamentalist that many fans were aghast. Jungr, however, sees a wider significance in ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’.

‘The song explores what the damage is if you make a commitment to the wrong thing. If you take the ‘born again’ out of it, you’re left with, “Who are you serving exactly? Are you serving humanity or are you serving yourself?” We’re all human and that self-serve thing is strong in us. And it’s not humane or compassionate.’

So persuasively does Jungr inhabit the songs that listeners often observe that they prefer her interpretations to those of Dylan and Cohen themselves. Jungr isn’t prepared to accept such praise.

‘It’s really important to remember – and I think both Dylan and Cohen remember this – that it’s not about you,’ she maintains. ‘It’s about the song and the music. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking it’s you because that way lies the wrong fork in the road.’

But finally I can’t resist reminding Jungr of a comment she once made in which she described herself as a ‘little bit Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Ava Gardner'. So, in what ways exactly does she feel she resembles such legends? ‘Oh, God,’ she guffaws. ‘Did I say that? And I left out Mother Teresa!

‘I said it in jest but I grew up watching fantastic role models, watching Ava Gardner bring inflamed, passionate beauty to the world she inhabited. And Joan Crawford and Bette Davis didn’t look like the girl next door. They weren’t Kate Middleton.

'They looked like people that if you saw them on a train you’d be looking at them again and again and again. They had power and a force field about them and they made mad choices and I like them for that, and for their capacity to be on fire.’

Barb Jungr performs Hard Rain: The Songs Of Bob Dylan And Leonard Cohen at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on 1 May.