For Judith Owen, music is a matter of survival. If not for the writing and singing of songs, she might very well be a basket case.
“I’ve been doing this since I was four, sitting at the piano,” says Owen, 47, whose life-defining moment occurred when she was 15 years old and her mother committed suicide just before Christmas. “And then, once the shit hit the fan and I went off the rails when my mom died, it became a thing of necessity in my life to keep me sane and happy.”
She adds: “If you were to ask me what my strength is, I think I am probably the queen of the bittersweet song. That’s what I do best. It’s all beautiful and really painful at the same time—that’s my strength.”
Owen, a ruby-haired daughter of Wales who sings like an angel (albeit devilishly at times), is a bit of a celebrity in Britain, where she starred on the West End in a two-woman show with comedian Ruby Wax. But in the United States, she’s probably more famous with her fellow performers than with the public. It’s a circumstance that she’s hoping to change as she embarks on a nationwide tour to promote Ebb & Flow, her 10th album, just out this week on her own label, Twanky Records. Starting on May 13, she’ll be giving concerts in New York and 16 other cities from Boston to Los Angeles.
“My job is to take real sadness and human struggle—which is what I sing about—and make it beautiful, so that you really get something incredibly cathartic and uplifting,” Owen tells me from her home in Santa Monica, one of three residences (the other two are in New Orleans and London) that she shares with her husband of 20 years, Harry Shearer, the satirist, This Is Spinal Tap star and The Simpsons cast member. (He voices Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and Mr. Burns, among many other characters.) “That’s how I see the whole thing—it’s wonderful and awful in a nanosecond.”
Owen’s songs are emotionally and psychologically complex, mixing memory and desire, light and dark, with frequent flashes of humor and piquant irony. They are informed, but not overwhelmed, by her epic battles with depression, the same ruthless illness that ultimately defeated her mother.
Her song You’re Not Here Anymore, one of her golden oldies reinterpreted for the new album, is a meditation on coping with her mother’s death:
Everybody misses someone.
That’s just the way that life is.
And everybody yearns for something.
The last look. A last kiss.
And yet this tune, like all of Owen’s tunes, is damned easy on the ears. “You have to have the catchy melody, of course. Otherwise, what’s the point?” she says. “I just love melody. I just love hooks. I want to immediately sing along with something.”
Beyond bittersweet catharsis and hooky harmonies, the album is Owen’s homage to the balladeers of the 1970s who most influenced her musical sensibility, notably James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Elton John. It features bass guitarist Lee Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and lead guitarist Waddy Wachtel—legendary sidemen who worked with many of those artists—as well as performances by the famed backup singing family The Waters.
These are among the formative sounds that Owen grew up with, “singing our lungs out in the car” on family road trips with her father Handel, a professional opera singer (named, not coincidentally, for the renowned composer), her mother Millicent, a big band fan, and her older sister.
“I was born in London, which was a great tragedy, because we were Welsh—I’m a London Welsh girl—and my heart is very much in the minor key, so I know I’m Welsh,” Owen says. “My dad loved classical music, but he was also a big jazz fan, and my mother was a big band, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald fan. And then there was all of this depressing Welsh folk music—and I think you can hear them all clearly in my music.”
During the time she was preparing to record the album, her father—an upbeat man with a twinkle in his eye—was fighting cancer. “I wrote most of the songs as my dad was dying,” she says. His death, at 82, as she was starting to lay down tracks, sent Owen into a tailspin and it took her months to recover sufficiently to get back in front of the microphone.
The song, I Would Give Anything, was inspired by her dad:
So I listen to your voicemail, to the messages you left
Because it makes me think you’re still here.
I look at all your photographs, to the face I love
Because it’s almost like having you near me.
“We did it at Sunset Sound Studios, on Sunset Boulevard and Cherokee in Hollywood, which was a 1970s staple and the studio where the Isley Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and an endless list of all these amazing people recorded,” Owen says. “It’s old-fashioned with all wood paneling. It’s got that ‘70s vibe to it, and a great piano.”
For Owen—a magnetic performer who is as commanding at the keyboard as she is on vocals, and says, “I’m the best accompanist for myself”—playing with Sklar, Kunkel, and Wachtel was a dream come true. “It was everything I hoped it would be—literally the easiest experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “I was basically sitting with the masters…It was exquisite and ridiculous.” They ended up polishing off two songs in the first session and, after the long break, ten more songs in two and half days. “It was bloody fast.”
The album—which includes Owen’s distinctive covers of James Taylor’s Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox and Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime—also features anthems to friendship and its opposite, a hymn to jealousy and disappointment, and a some cautionary notes concerning the addictive power of love.
Naturally, her marriage to Shearer, a fellow performer with whom she can replicate the feeling of family by also belting out Sinatra tunes in the car on road trips, influences her perspective on life and art.
“It’s a big, big thing, when you’re an artist, to have a partner who gets what you do and loves it and appreciates it,” Owen says. “We do laugh a lot, but we argue like monsters. We are the Bickersons. And we’re still trying to figure out why we’re arguing about the same crap.”
She continues: “Sharing your space with another human being is not easy for anybody…We’re all going to be irritated by each other. Why doesn’t anybody ever tell their children, ‘You’ll hate the person you love and then you’ll love them again, and then you’ll hate them and they’ll just drive you crazy and you’ll want to kill them, and then you’ll love them to bits again’? That should be put into the school curriculum.”
Owen hopes her own songs resonate as universal. “I don’t want this just to be about my experience,” she says. “People come to read into it what they need to read into it for themselves. You don’t want to make it so case-specific that nobody else can relate to it. The point of a highly emotional song is that I know what it means to me and I know who it’s about, but you should be able to take it and put it to your own experiences. That, to me, is the point of all this.”