Hard Rain, Barb Jungr’s recordings of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s most political songs, was created to entertain, but also to provoke people to think – thought being something of a rare and dangerous past-time in the increasingly anti-intellectual modern world.
“There are just so many love songs and I feel like it’s time to engage with wider themes like injustice and the state of the world,” says the artist, the daughter of a Czech immigrant father and German mother who grew up in Rochdale listening to soul and Nina Simone.
She laughs while explaining that she was sitting having a glass of wine one night in 2000 when from nowhere a strong internal voice told her to sing an album of Bob Dylan songs. She was gobsmacked, claiming the directive from within was unexpected, but called a friend in LA who assured her to go for it. And so she released her first album of Dylan covers in 2002.
“With everyone singing love songs and the world full of suffering and poverty and corruption, it’s just like fiddling while Rome burns,” says Jungr, who has distinguished herself as a jazz and cabaret performer readily absorbing a wealth of continental influences.
“Singing the songs I have chosen for this album is a political comment on the state of the world. Which is not to say I want to preach - I want to entertain people while also encouraging them to become more politically conscious.”
Both Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are two of the heavyweight lyricists of our time, poetic and yet political, able to weave trenchant commentary into subtle lines that seem elegant and easily drawn. Jungr draws numerous parallels between them, and is of course a huge fan of both; she finds generic resonance and what she describes as a “base rock of Judeo-Christian imagery that unites their vision.”
Cohen she considers slightly more benign in outlook and delivery while Dylan is laser-sharp and often unsparingly direct; both are wise and move far beyond the formulaic pop lyrics of boy meeting girl and happy ever after.
I ask Jungr if she selected these songs because she felt they spoke to the contemporary political climate; eco anxieties, financial hardship, lack of social mobility, ineffective politicians, war, human rights violations.
“Of course,” she agrees, with the enthusiasm of an incipient revolutionary.
“I think increasingly today there are a lot of people feeling disempowered and unsure what they can do to affect positive change in the world.
“I think a lot of people decide to concentrate on daily life and not concentrate too much on what is happening in the world on a wider scale because we feel powerless to make a difference, even though all of us, in however small a way, can make a contribution to how things are.”
Does she feel disillusioned with the current British government?
“It would be impossible not to be,” she says, peals of incredulous laughter continuing unabated at the idea that any of us could be contented by our political representatives.
“I love the NHS and there are so many things I appreciate about Britain,” she qualifies. “It’s been home since my Czech father and German mother moved here very happily when I was a child. But these days it’s obvious we have allowed the bankers to run the elite show at the expense of the suffering of the masses and that saddens me.”
Does she have some favourite tracks on the Dylan and Cohen collection of covers? She immediately names Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which shows him at his most compassionate.
Here he sympathises and calls for action for “the disrobed faceless forms of no position”. He continues: “All down in taken-for-granted situations/ Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute/ Tolling for the mistreated...An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” For Dylan the chimes of freedom are a promise of hope, of a new dispensation where the downtrodden can find mercy.
“To me both Dylan and Cohen can make your heart and your soul soar,” adds Barb. “They are visionaries and poets who can envisage a fairer world and who have righteous anger at the sight of others’ suffering.
“Of the Cohen songs Land of Plenty is probably one that speaks to me most. It’s full of Christian sentiment and laments the ‘Christ that has not yet risen in the caverns of the heart’. It’s so moving: “For what’s left of our religion/ I lift my voice and pray.”
Jungr worries that people will find the new album heavy with preaching but really she is simply making a call for greater political consciousness, giving her passionate reinvention of songs by masters of the poetic lyric an ethical imperative. And this is a noble enterprise in an age of increasingly vacuous, disposable pop.
l Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, May 1.