Judith Owen’s Nice Set-Up
Does Judith Owen take her work too seriously? A singer and writer of songs oft times melancholy in spirit, she has recorded 11 wistful albums of honesty and compassion, but also of hope. Yet when she takes the stage and intros her songs, the fans who only know her nuanced jazz-pop catalog have a revelatory moment: This woman is hilarious. This woman is nuts!
Her witty prelude before a song can last nearly as long as the song itself. “I’m from Wales. I was built to talk. Shutting me up is a problem.”
She is the self-described “queen of bittersweet.” She told the Los Angeles Times, “My job is to give the listener or audience permission to feel the big stuff, and that includes joy. Honestly, it’s just like therapy – only cheaper.”
Her anguished yet joyous songs reflect the dichotomy of her life – the cultural whiplash of living in London, Los Angeles and New Orleans – and the ennui of fighting occasional bouts of clinical depression while in a blissful relationship. All this as her career, including outstanding but overlooked albums, is having a breakthrough.
She’s embarking on her most high-profile set of US gigs ever – opening for Bryan Ferry on his 10-city swing through the southeast, bringing her to The Tabernacle March 14. (She toured the UK with Ferry in 2015.) “This is a really nice set-up that is about to come my way. Because he mixes pop with jazz and classical, his audience is very welcoming to my kind of music.”
She will be accompanied in her sets by jazz percussionist Pedro Segundo and the innovative cellist Gabriella Swallow… Oh and also this this funny-looking bassist whom some musicians say looks like God: Leland Sklar. He actually is God-like in a way. At 69, he’s one of the most recorded artists in music history, with over 2,000 albums on his CV. He’s also quite recognizable, with his foot-and-a-half-long grey beard. “That’s where he hides his bottle of Jack Daniels,” joked James Taylor years ago.
Judith’s father was an opera singer, and it is not too surprising she has a flawless command of her voice and her piano. But as a teenager she sought out the Laurel Canyon sound of Joni Mitchell and the later recordings of Taylor and Carole King. Her critically acclaimed 2015 LP Ebb & Flow was a nostalgic tribute to that era, actually recorded at the legendary Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. She’s come a long way from impoverished days as a youthful pianist in London hotel bars.
Her new CD, Somebody’s Child, was originally available only in the UK, but now has a stateside release in time for the Ferry tour in March and April. Both albums feature the same crème de la crème of Los Angeles session musicians – Sklar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russell Kunkel. And she’s again teamed up with co-producer and mixing engineer David Bianco, who’s lately worked with Lucinda Williams, Beck, and Bob Dylan.
For this outing, Judith is stepping back from her usual self-confessional style. Of the past, she says, “I was very self-absorbed, as all artists are. This album is as much on an emotional level as it is on a social level. The things I see on the streets around me. [The title track] “Somebody’s Child” is about a homeless pregnant woman I saw on the streets of New York at Christmas time. That could just as easily have been me or any one of us with different luck, or parents, or a different life. How easy it is for any of us to fall off the edge into that situation.”
There’s a girl on the street
In a trash bag dress
There’s a baby in her belly
And milk in her breast
And I’m crossing the street
‘Cause she’s acting so wild
But she used to be me
And she’s somebody’s child.
On the other hand, Judith revels in sonic pranksterism. For those with a sense of musical impiety, her cheeky choices of cover material are worth seeking out. Deep Purple’s plodding chestnut “Smoke On The Water” was transformed into a swooping, delightfully-overwrought piano ballet on 2005’s Lost & Found.” Survivor’s migraine-inducing “Eye Of The Tiger” became a lilting jazzy waltz on 2006’s Here. (In both cases the inane lyrics sit naked on the bus.) And nestled on her 2006 holiday EP is a gently muted (and mutated) cover of Spinal Tap’s murderous “Christmas With The Devil”… a track that should have mandatory play each December at all Starbucks.
Playing live, bouncing from funk to torch songs, she owns the room. In between songs though her irreverent banter adds a ridiculous dimension, thanks in part to her 20-year marriage to wise and wise-ass cultural satirist, Harry Shearer.
In 2010, in a set at Eddie’s Attic, Judith was backed on bass by Harry. During a “you could hear a pin drop” ballad, someone’s cell phone started chirping loudly. The audience squirmed, and glanced at their devices in unison. This isn’t supposed to happen at Eddie’s, right? She stopped the song mid-verse, and the ringing continued, and suddenly came Harry’s realization that the distraction was his own phone – in his rucksack right on stage. For once Judith Owen had no words. Just as well, as the laughter went on for a full minute.
When Judith is apart from Harry, she admits it is tough. “When I was on the road (with Bryan Ferry) in Britain in 2015, I heard “More Than This” each night, in the wings, backstage. And I was so lonely, so homesick, missing Harry so much. The song meant something so different to me, not only about love and romance. It was saying there is nothing more important than being with the people you love, to share all your joys and sorrows. Nothing means that much, really, unless you’re with him.”
It was on that tour that she elected to do her own cover of the song, and it a standout track on Somebody’s Child. “What was really sweet about this was I ended up recording it at Bryan’s own studio.” This would be the recording suite known as Studio 1 in the heart of London – a complex consisting of six different spaces Ferry bought, section by section, from various owners over 20 years. “He has all these keyboards from the 1970s and onward; everything he’s ever used in his entire life! I loved the looseness of it all.”
Photo by Matthew Becker.