Living and breathing music, vocalist Barb Jungr tells OM that yoga is her go to practice for relaxation and inspiration. By David Holzer
She’s been called, “Possibly our best interpreter of Dylan’s songs” by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. A New York Times reviewer wrote, “The only word to describe her dramatic interpretations is revelatory…I was open mouthed with astonishment.”
Born in Rochdale to Czech and German parents, Barb Jungr took up the violin and mandolin at an early age. She sang in folk clubs while still at school, then blues bands in college and London. Her recording career began in the late 1970s, but really took off when she began performing on the London circuit of the early 1980s.
In her four decades as a performer, Jungr has toured the world, made successful, critically-acclaimed albums and also worked as a lyricist and composer. Most recently, she wrote the songs and music for the show How to Hide a Lion.
A veteran of radio and TV, she is currently featured in an hour-long performance for The Kate, an arts series on the US Public Broadcasting Service showcasing ‘bold performers with something to say’.
As well as being possibly the most respected interpreter of Dylan, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen and other legends of songwriting in the world, Jungr is a dedicated yogini.
She has practiced yoga for 20 years. Apart from the physical aspect, yoga has helped her with breathing and relaxation, especially beneficial when performing on stage or TV. But, as she’s said, “stage fright doesn’t only mean on stage. It can apply to anyone in daily life…and yoga can really help.”
Jungr and I chatted by phone. We share a love of yoga and Dylan, which got us off to a good start.
When did yoga first come into your life?
I was still at school and I went with my friend to a class in the local mental hospital. We did three or four classes of Hatha, but it was wrong time, wrong place. I did Aikido up until my mid-40s to brown belt level
but practicing every day and being thrown about takes its toll on the body so I thought it was time for a change. I started with Ashtanga and then got into Vinyasa Flow.
I’ve also practiced Iyengar and Yin and, in New York, Jivamukti. My teachers have included Stewart Gilchrist in London and Diane Long, who was taught by the great Vanda Scaravelli.
Why have you stuck with yoga?
For a start, I love the utter, relentless deepening of focus that comes with yoga. You suddenly realise you’re in this moment and everything has worth.
How does that relate to performing?
When I improvise in jazz, I absolutely have to be in the moment and yoga has helped me learn how to get into that mindset. Also, I choose tricky songs – Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is a good example – and I need to really give the words their full weight. It’s a bit like a Vinyasa. You can’t be at the end of a Vinyasa when you’re at the beginning.
How about learning all those words?
I learn words through body memory and repetition, in the same way as we’d learn a yoga asana. After a time, your body will naturally go to where it’s meant to be, even with the most complex and challenging asanas. You know where you want your leg to be before you move.
When and where do you practice?
I practice a little every day: Sun Salutations, core work and breathing practice. I also meditate and do some visualisation. If I don’t do my practice, I feel I’ve missed out. When I’m travelling, I take my mat. I also go to classes wherever I can, to practice with teachers I find especially helpful and inspiring. Any good teacher will always teach you something new. You’ll find something challenging that you find easy in another shala. I like that.
Is there anything you won’t do?
I follow the principle of one of my Aikido teachers who tried every single dojo in Japan. He always asked himself: ‘Is this safe?’ If it wasn’t, he wouldn’t go back.
Do you feel yoga has particular benefits for creativity?
For singers, definitely. When I teach singers, I ask if they have a physical practice. If they don’t, I always say try yoga. I know from my own experience that you get something from moving your body in different ways. It helps you learn a particular kind of attention, that being in the moment I mentioned before. And, of course, the more we learn about
the benefits of yoga – for people in prisons or other tough situations, say - we know it works. To me, it’s like the sea, the air or the joy of walking for the sake of walking. It’s a gift we’ve been given that has such benefits across every part of our lives.
Are there any particular asanas you’d recommend for performers and singers?
I’d say the really obvious things. Anything that opens the heart area has a knock-on effect on the throat and the respiratory system, as do asanas that open up the shoulders. The warrior positions are also so opening. Shoulder Stands take all the tension out of the neck and open up the entire back. Sun Salutations of every variety are great. I love them all.
Do you do anything before you go on stage?
No, because I’ve usually done my practice in the morning. If I’ve just got off a plane, I might do something simple like lying facing a wall with my legs up it at 90 degrees. Or I might lie across a chair to open up my back. Anything I do would be to open up my body because of the effect on my throat and breathing. Yoga has helped me enjoy the level of internal excitement I feel before I go out without it becoming too intense to manage. I actually want to feel nervous because being excited raises my energy levels. But, in any case, the butterflies are gone the moment I walk out on stage.
Do you come across many performers who also practice yoga?
I have lots of friends who do yoga and it’s increasing. People reading about it who discover the benefits. Friends of long standing who want to talk about yoga. There’s a growing community of people for whom yoga’s a beautiful thing.
Let’s talk about the music.
Everything came at once. Nothing came separately. I grew up listening to everything from Nat King Cole to Motown to Jethro Tull. All these amazing, totally different artists all crowded into the lift at once.
What is it about Dylan for you?
You just never get to the bottom of the songs. The work is limitless. It’s greater than itself. All I have to do is sing it and get out the way. There’s so much power. I feel that way about Jacques Brel and I’m delighted with the arrangements of the Brel songs on Bob, Brel and Me by Robb Johnson. He’s a great Brel aficionado and wonderful songwriter in his own right. There are plenty of translations of Brel but Robb Johnson’s are truly poetic and extraordinary.
Do you know if Dylan’s ever done yoga?
I can imagine Leonard Cohen doing yoga. But I don’t think Dylan had an ongoing practice. What do you think?
LISTENING TO BOB, BREL AND ME
I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan for most of my life. But I have to say I’ve never heard his songs interpreted in the way Barb Jungr does them. It’s taken me several listens to really get into Bob, Brel and Me because the versions of Dylan’s songs are simply so different from those I fell in love with many years ago. This is obviously a reflection on my ears and not Jungr’s singing. Now that I’ve listened to the album a few times, I’m starting to really appreciate what she does with songs that include ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, ‘Buckets of Rain’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and, my favourite Dylan song ever, ‘If You See Her Say Hello’, originally on his classic 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. The original has a lovely wistful poignancy but Jungr does it as a jazzy number with a cocktail lounge feel. At first, this sounded like an interpretation too far for me.
On my third or fourth listen I was able to listen to Jungr’s take on the song as if it was completely new to me. I became absorbed in her pure voice and the playing of her excellent band, all in-demand jazz players.
Jungr’s interpretations with her crack band really are ‘revelatory’, as The New York Times put it.
I had no such preconceptions with the Brel and Cohen songs so I could go straight to enjoying Jungr’s intepretations without that slightly unnerving period of transition. ‘Cathedral’ is a standout, mainly because of the wonderful description of England as a country where ‘all the time it’s raining tea’. Jungr’s pure voice and beautiful phrasing mean every word is always crystal clear. Of Jungr’s own songs, ‘Incurable Romantic’ has a gorgeous, airy, 70s West Coast feel to it that fits perfectly with the lyrics.
Jungr has said this might be her farewell album. Now that I’ve discovered her, I very much hope not.