Barb Jungr has never been to Memphis. But as a teenage girl in 1960s Stockport, she nurtured a longing for what it represented; the sweet soul music she danced to in clubs at night, and its sense of a bigger, more beautiful world than the Lancashire industrial town she couldn't wait to leave.
The journey Jungr subsequently went on was unpredictable and often dangerous, taking her from punk London to a besieged Sudanese island, and post-9/11 New York. All the while she was refining her art as an interpretative singer over numerous collaborations and 10 solo albums, taking on the songs of the greatest post-war singers - Elvis Presley, Nina Simone - and writers: especially Dylan, whose work she inhabits as fully as anyone except Dylan himself. Barb Jungr has travelled very far from Stockport. And now she is back.
Stockport to Memphis's title song is one of five written by her, a new solo departure. Its lyrics trace a life's arc. "I've never celebrated Stockport," Jungr says. "But when my dad died, I went back to help look after my mum, and home became a very real thing. It's the clear earth that you stand on. Stockport's in a terrible state now, there's no work, and it needs celebrating. And it was where I discovered Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay", this exciting and vibrant and personal music."
"New Life"'s jazzy ballad of rebirth maps Jungr's early 1970s escape route, taking the bus out of Stockport. It also reflects the harsher odyssey of her parents, Czech-born Miroslav and German Ingrid, whose playing of jazz at home was as formative as the soul she danced to at night. "My parents grew up in war zones," she says. "My father was in the German camps. I wrote "New Life" about the experiences of my parents, and my father-in-law Frank Bowling the painter, who came from Guyana. My dad remembered being on the ferry when they came over from the refugee camps, and dawn rising on the white cliffs. That imagery is the core of the song."
Jungr had played in bands with friends in Stockport, Manchester and Leeds. Arriving in London in 1976, as punk exploded, remade her. "My boyfriend said, ‘I don't understand why you don't become a singer.' It was like somebody opening a door," she recalls. "I moved into a flat in Earl's Court which was a hell-hole. My heart was like a runaway puppy then. I went wherever it went, in every single way. When I did my Nina Simone album, and "When I Was A Young Girl", where she sings about going "out of the ale house and into the jail house", someone said, ‘Oh no, you can't do that if you haven't lived it.' And I thought, ‘You shouldn't assume people haven't lived things because they don't trumpet them.' It was edgy then. And a lot of people fell off the edge."
"I've always hung on with one hand. But you're in places quite often where you're not in control of where the edge is - hitchhiking home at night for example, where you realise you're in danger and are going, ‘I have a set of choices here, and if I say the right things I'll be alright.' But saying the wrong things would be just as easy."
As part of the early 1980s alternative cabaret trio The Three Courgettes, Jungr deepened her vocal education, unpicking and adapting old gospel harmonies, when not busking down the Portobello Road with John Hegley. "We signed with Island, toured with Kid Creole, and had a hilarious time."
Jungr and Parker, her musical partnership with Michael Parker, was next. "We made six records, and worked on the alternative cabaret circuit. I've used an old Jungr and Parker song, "Till My Broken Heart Begins To Mend", on this album, because it's part of the journey."
In 1991, the British Council asked the pair to go to Sudan: Jungr's next transforming trip. "It was mind-blowing," she says. "We did some workshops there which were heartbreaking. This girl came over to me, and she had learned "Careless Whisper" from the radio and sang it perfectly, and she said, ‘I don't wear the veil.' She'd been stoned in the street. And you just go, the world is a very big place. And those edges are everywhere."
With the country on the cusp of civil war, Jungr and Parker "ran away" from their minders to an island occupied by South Sudanese rebels. Then they went still further out. "In Cameroon, we took a three-week tour into the bush. There was a different world the minute you left the street-lights." Everywhere music was played, exchanged, absorbed.
Jungr and Parker eventually split in 1994. "So I did a Masters, two years of hardcore thinking about music." Deeply schooled now in life and work, Jungr was finally ready for her solo career.
Landmark recordings followed, including The Men I Love: The New American Songbook (2010). Tackling singer-songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne, it rejected the notion that a songbook fit for interpretation closed with Cole Porter. "It was a deliberately challenging, provocative title," she says. "Just because songwriters of the last 60 years have sung their own songs, doesn't mean I can't own that material too."
Dylan has been her touchstone in this, the best of her interpretations so far collected on Man In The Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan (2011). On From Stockport to Memphis, she sings his "Lay Lady Lady", which she used to hate. The way she found her place in it demonstrates her art. "I suddenly realised that it was possible to lift it from what I had always thought was a slightly grim, macho view of sexuality. I thought, ‘You can reframe this as a memory of someone saying, ‘Lay lady lay...', a conversation in your head that your lover had with you, that you repeat in your head and think about."
Dylan's music took her to New York, where she began singing her show of his songs in 2002. "I was playing near where the Twin Towers had been, and the show on before me was the firemen's story. People were leaving in tears as I set up, and no one wanted to go to that part of town. But I got an award for that run. And because I don't have kids and don't have to worry about who pays for their food, as long as I could have a great time and sing, it didn't matter. Then four years ago, I crossed into having an audience in America. I found myself playing on Sunset Boulevard, and New York Town Hall, where Paul Robeson had been."
Stockport to Memphis's other songs include Rod Argent's Zombies hit "She's Not There", gender-switched and minus harmonies. And then there's Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come". On a long and rich journey with so many unplanned stops, it takes her back to the Stockport clubs where she started and, dreaming of Memphis, couldn't wait to leave.
"Yeah. And from a place of great love. Coming home is an important part of your journey."
UK - Alex Fane
USA - Gail Boyd