After 20 years of interviewing female singers of every genre, I’ve decided to start blogging. The fruits of many of these interviews have appeared in publications ranging from The Singer and Gay Times to Wire, Wall Street Journal Europe, Songlines and Gramophone. This diverse array of titles suggests I’m not alone in my fascination with the woman in the spotlight with just a microphone for company, spinning tales of passion, betrayal, love and hurt: the quintessential image of the torch-singer.
Girl singers are big with the marketeers right now. Quite right too. But they’re hardly a new invention! And being flavour of the season only begins to redress the balance in terms of coverage, clout and status in the entertainment universe. In this blog, I’ll be thinking aloud, reviewing new work, recalling old conversations, posting new interviews and generally exploring the role and world of the female singer as an artist and an icon.
Torch-singing is not limited by the genre of the music. It’s more about a sensibility evoked by a combination of the singer, her voice, the melody, the story, her performance and the lyric, that touches the listener in a special way. It’s a mood. A particular sound. So armed with my own flexible definition, I’ll continue to look for the torch-singer in likely and unexpected places. There is so much more to her than the holy triumvirate of Garland, Piaf and Holiday – great as they are.
Barb Jungr and the ‘Lost’ Generation
They aren’t really lost, of course. Just undervalued. They’ve always been there if you could find them. But if you were led solely by the crass credentials of the music marketing machine, you would hardly know that singers of the calibre of Barb Jungr, Claire Martin, Sarah Jane Morris, Mari Wilson and Clare Teal even existed.
They’ve been out there, doing it for the last 20 years and more – building their fan bases, producing work of the highest quality, earning plaudits in niche genres and garnering small but good reviews for their albums in the catch-all-the-rest jazz sections of the nationals. Yet they’ve never troubled Brits nominations committees.
Stuart Maconie makes the point well in next week’s Radio Times (“Going Gaga for Girls”) – praising this year’s nominations for the high ratio of British female singers while casting an eye back to the sexism and blinkers of the years when the music industry couldn’t bring itself to look beyond the commercial security of yet another nod for Kate Bush and Annie Lennox – acceptable, instantly recognisable totems for a host of female artists who were too complex or sophisticated for the marketeers to categorise.
As Maconie also suggests, this long overdue recognition of female talent is welcome – but tinged with cynicism. The Brits, to a great extent, reward commercial success. Florence Welch, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Duffy, Pixie Lott and the rest are all delivering on that front. The reality is that for the moment, girl singers are big business. And on those grounds alone, why shouldn’t Susan Boyle get a nod, too?
But back to the ‘lost’ generation. Barb Jungr epitomises the craft, integrity and painstaking approach required to build a successful career as a singer without the weight – and will – of a big label behind you. Like so many of her peers, she has too often had to settle for snippets in the reviews pages rather than serious profile space in the features pages.
Jungr is the supreme reinventress of songs. She has taken material indelibly associated with her musical heroes – Dylan, Presley, Nina Simone, Brel – and recast them in her own, determinedly idiosyncratic, style through a series of highly-praised albums. Her voice is a startling vehicle for the introspection and emotional observation of so many of the lyrics: true, bell-like in its clarity but also capable of a keening, visceral anguish that takes the listener to the darkest places in the songs she favours.
The connection is often electric – as it was at a notable evening of chanson at the Almeida Theatre in July 2008; or, for this previously Dylan-sceptic listener, last summer when Jungr came to Jazz at the Fleece, deep in rural Suffolk, outsang the wedding reception that was sharing the venue, and opened a window into the great man’s lyrics for the first time.
In performance, any heaviness is balanced by her easy, off-hand banter. Jungr involves her audience with her self-deprecatory references, relating the material to experiences they might also have had – and that might, too, seem utterly ridiculous in the cold light of day. But which are also utterly devastating.
That, in part, is why she has found her natural home as a cabaret artist among New York audiences. Her ability to imply a hinterland of meaning behind a lyric doesn’t make for easy listening. But the story-telling is compelling.
Review – The Men I Love: The New American Songbook
Jungr’s new album – The Men I Love: The New American Songbook – released on 8th March on Naim – is as audacious as anything she has produced to date. Dylan’s material again figures large, along with Neil Diamond, Leonard Cohen and David Byrne, all with new and category-defying arrangements that have arisen from a fruitful collaboration with pianist Simon Wallace.
The spare, keyboard-centric accompaniment of recent albums has been extended to include cello (Frank Schaeffer), double bass (Steve Watts) and flute (Clive Bell). Jungr’s voice ranges across the resulting rich harmonic tapestry with a new freedom and assurance.
The feverish insistence of the Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime” becomes an almost wistful meditation with an unexpectedly oriental flavour (courtesy of Bell on the shakahachi). Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” is revealed as a sweet, revelatory, impassioned love song light years from the frenetic pop of The Monkees, while “Red Red Wine” lays bare the torment at the end of a love affair.
Springsteen’s “The River” is all the evidence you need of Jungr’s subtelty and honesty, honouring the lyric and story without compromising her own style. And then there is her take on “Wichita Lineman” – perhaps her boldest move on the album: Jimmy Webb’s strange, haunting tale of loneliness and separation, originally a hit for Glen Campbell, is three minutes of distilled, crystalline beauty – and frankly, it’s the high point of Jungr’s finest work to date. No Brit required.
If you can find a more intimate, sensitive interpretation of this great song, let me know.