Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy
AAJ: You were talking about trawling earlier. Do you trawl far and wide? Or do you ever hear a song and just think, "That's the song for me"?
BJ: Yes, we do sometimes. We found this Ewan MacColl song called "Sweet Thames Flow Softly" and I've fallen completely in love with it. You know the man who wrote that book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat [Oliver Sacks], well he has written a book about music and all the brain problems that people have and I had to stop reading the book because I have got them all. And he is talking about them in terms of problematic mental illnesses and I think all musicians have them.
For example, if you are in love with a piece of music or if you are writing a piece of music, you can't take it out of your head. So this morning when I woke up and thought I really need to go back to sleep, I need to sleep a bit, I had to go, "Stop, stop, stop." I can't stop it. That Ewan MacColl song just keeps coming back, it is just the most beautiful song, so in a way I don't want to stop it because I want to hear it, you know. "Sweet Thames Flow Softly," it is the most beautiful song. This is the last verse: "But now alas the tide has changed / My love she has gone from me / And winter's frost has touched my heart / And put a blight upon me / Creeping fog is on the river, Flow sweet river flow / Sun and moon and stars gone with her, Sweet Thames flow softly / Swift the Thames runs to the sea, Flow sweet river flow / Bearing ships and part of me, Sweet Thames flow softly." And when you hear the melody, you go, "Oh, God, it's just gorgeous." So that was going around my head this morning. So yes, sometimes they do, and sometimes you find a song.
I love [Sandy Denny's] "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" which my mate Carol Grimes has done a great version of, my mate Christine Collister has done a great version of, and I can't sing it. I'm not saying I can't sing it because I can sing it but you wouldn't want to hear it; it's not any use; as an interpretation, it doesn't do anything. We were talking about this the other day because we had a go at "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and I said to Simon, "If somebody at the BBC had phoned me up and asked me to sing this for a particular reason, I could do it, it would sound all right. But if you asked me, with my hand on my heart, am I bringing anything to this song, the answer is no. I'm singing it but the answer is I'm not."
Whereas I do think I bring something to "Wichita Lineman." Obviously, I'm not a man but I think I'm singing something from it that isn't the same, and it doesn't take from the original; it adds to, so you go, "Oh." And if it works for me as a process, and if I'm doing my job right, if I'm singing it right and people get that, then what it makes people do is go back and listen to the original, then listen to mine and go, "It's like two different songs," which is what you want, which is what I would do if I was listening to Miles Davis play "Summertime" and then Sarah Vaughan sing it; they're different songsthey're not, they're the same song but that's the beauty I would hope.
AAJ: They're multi-faceted; you're just looking at it in a completely different way.
A lot of the songs on The Men I Love , the love songs, are melancholy, about the pain of love, aren't they? Is that part of the chanson tradition?
BJ: Well, it is partly, isn't it? You can count on the fingers of one hand Jacques Brel's happy songs. I suppose "Madeleine"; his funny ones like "Les bonbons"; his daft ones. If you compare those songs to "Les Marquises," for example, they are not in the same ballpark, are they? It is like "Little Red Bull" versus "Ch-Ch-Changes." Maybe we are more attracted by those; I like tragedy, I like drama, I like those things. That is not to say I don't like Billy Connolly, and all my various mates I have been lucky enough to work with Julian [Clary] and so on.
AAJ: Melancholy is a lot more powerful an emotion, isn't it, really?
BJ: I suppose there is something in my makeup, you know. There is something in that Slavic-y kind of thing that you do have, in the way that the Irish have. I remember somebody once telling me a story about being in a pub in Ireland, and there was a gang of old men sitting around singing ballads. One person sang then another sang. All these guys were getting on; they were in their advanced years. And one person would stand up and sing this ballad, and everybody's crying. Then he'd sit down, and everybody would say, "Sing us another song that makes us cry," because the capacity to cry and laughwe've got an awful lot of "making-us- laugh" in our culture but we do need the "make-us-cry." Because we need to do both as human beings; we need that. It is in our makeup. We all know this: you know when somebody says, "I never cry," you think, "You'd better get some therapy quick" because that's not right. Nothing makes you cry? I don't even have to cross the road, I can cry. I cry when I think about my elderly neighbors.