Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish
Her mother's suicide and father's cancer informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
Wednesday 23 April 2014
"I am the queen of the bittersweet song, everything is extremes to me. Gorgeous, awful, beautiful," says singer-songwriter Judith Owen at the end of an interview that has occasionally bordered on a therapy session but has also been peppered with humorous asides in keeping with the self-deprecating quips she fires on stage. "My job is to talk about those things most of us can't put into words because they're so hard. In Britain, everybody is scared that they even feel grief or sadness. We're taught to get on with it, show a stiff upper lip. British people suppress so much. We're not great emotionally, though I think we're getting better."
We've talked catharsis, compassion, empathy and the human condition over tea – hers sweetened with honey – in the basement of a Holland Park restaurant, a stone's throw from the London apartment she shares with husband Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame – about whom more later – when they're not in their New Orleans or Los Angeles homes.
Born to Welsh parents in London, with her mane of red hair, and wearing an Alexander McQueen T-shirt under a blue suede jacket and trousers with matching boots, Owen looks like she has stepped out of a Stevie Nicks song. An appropriate metaphor given her fondness for the West Coast troubadours of the Seventies whose sound she has lovingly updated on her warm and uplifting album Ebb & Flow. "My parents would be driving us around on Sundays and trips abroad, and we would all be singing along to Carole King and James Taylor," she recalls about a childhood full of music, including the operas her father sang professionally at Covent Garden and the classical pieces she played by ear as she followed in her sister's footsteps.
This idyllic picture was shattered when her mother committed suicide. "The things I could never tell another person I just poured into the piano. It became my best friend, the best form of self-medication until I found proper medication," confesses Owen who struggled with depression for years but has conquered her demons. "I spent my whole life since I was 15 terrified about losing my father. He became everything to me," she says before tackling her second, more recent loss. "I was with him through cancer, every step, and said all the things that matter. This whole album is for both of them. 'You're Not Here Anymore' is about my mother, and 'I Would Give Anything' about my father. What I'm talking about is universal, the waves that hit you with the realisation that someone has gone. There's a state of grace when I write about these things. When I'm in the 'zone', it comes through very quickly. And then I walk away, I don't overthink it, I want the truth to come through. Every single song is autobiographical, even the covers."
Judith Owen with her husband, Harry Shearer (Rex)
While the classic Laurel Canyon era of Joni Mitchell, King and Taylor has become the touchstone for successive generations of artists, few have come close to matching the emotional insights and compositional brilliance of the originators. Until Owen came along with Ebb & Flow, one of the albums of the year, recorded with drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. This triumvirate, the crème de la crème of LA sessioneers, have backed all of the aforementioned as well as Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and myriad others, so Owen had to be on top of her game. "I was nervous but I already knew Leland so I reached out to the other two. When they start playing, everything in the world is OK. They hold me in the palm of their musical hands and they make the sun shine," she says of their modus operandi in the studio and for a recent showcase at the St James Theatre in London. "These players know the most important thing is the song. The fact that they see me as an equal is amazing. It feels like a band."
Indeed, Kunkel who, along with Leland, backed Taylor on the 1971 original, suggested rerecording "Hey Mister, That's Me Up on the Jukebox'', a composition penned in the depths of depression. "Being on the other side, it couldn't have been a better song for me to cover. It still goes to that same place: the loneliness of the solo performer," explains Owen who has adapted Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water'', participated in Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Music project and reworked Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime'' for Ebb & Flow. "I said to myself: what would Joni do? She'd switch it around to being the cougar lusting after the guys on the beach."
Another Ebb & Flow highlight is "I've Never Been to Texas", about a Texan she dated "on the run-up to the actual American" she married. Owen met Shearer in 1992 while she was resident bar pianist at the Conrad in Chelsea Harbour. "They were trying to make it into a rock'n'roll hotel. I played one of my own songs and heard this incredible applause behind me. I turned around and it was Christopher Guest and Harry with the full facial hair of Derek Smalls. I jumped up and ran over to them. It was truly one of the most surreal, ridiculous moments of my life," she remembers. "I had my 'game face' on. We dated once. Then I went to New York, spent a few days with Harry, and that was it. I had a very strong sense that this was not just a chance for me to be with this incredible guy but also a chance for me to be well. We realised from the first minute that the two things we rate most highly in life are music and humour. And we're both workaholics. We have flourished together and make quite a team."
However, Owen is keen to stress she appeared as herself in "The Blunder Years" episode of The Simpsons in 2001 not because her husband voices a dozen characters but after producer Mike Scully saw her play a show in Los Angeles. "I have a few cells they made of me at the piano, with this enormous nose, huge lips and the biggest blue eyes you've ever seen. I look like a toucan. It was hysterically funny. It doesn't get any better than that: The Simpsons, and being the hideous backing singer for Spinal Tap at Glastonbury and Live Earth."
'Ebb & Flow' by Judith Owen is out now on Twanky Records. She plays the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on the 1 May. More info at judithowen.net
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