Andy Howells chatted with Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen as she released her album, Ebb and Flow in early 2014.
“I call myself London-Welsh.” American based singer-songwriter Judith Owen told me as we chatted over the phone, one day in late January. “I was born in London, although my mother was from Kidwelly and my father from Llanelli.”
“My Dad was at Cardiff college of music and drama planning to be an opera singer. He and my mother were going back and forth between London because Dad was wanting to become a serious opera singer, which he did by joining the chorus of Covent Garden for 35 years. So, I was basically a product of very Welsh parents who were constantly homesick for Wales and whose real home was the place they had left.”
Its clear from talking to Judith and listening to her acclaimed new album Ebb and Flow that she still feels a strong genetic attachment to Wales through her childhood recollections of family visits and her strong memories of her mother and father both of whom she has dedicated songs to on her new album. “We went back to Wales as often as humanly possible,” she tells me, “and that was what we saw as been home.”
Judith and her sister were exposed to frequent classical music rehearsals from an early age as their father was the popular operatic singer, Handel Owen; I ask why she didn’t follow her father’s classical path musically. “The overwhelming desire I had from an early age was to write music at the piano,”she says,“I could copy my sister playing Debussy and that wasn’t hard work at all because that was my gift. I faked it really well until everyone realised I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist at all and I was just pretending.”
“Ultimately it was all about self expression and it was an immediate thing that I realised I could express myself at the piano. There was sort of sadness around because although my mother was a beautiful alive and wonderful person she was also a very depressed person. It was a sense of great light and darkness in our house so watching the effect the music had on my father and how his face lit up when he could sing. I knew from a very early age that was the route to joy and life a love affair with a piano and singing.”
It’s the stark realisation of loss that inspired two “honest interpretations” of emotions through the songs You’re Not Here Anymore and I Would Give Anything on Judith’s latest release. “I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t go through this and beats themselves up,” she says, “All of us think we have forever and if you didn’t think that way you wouldn’t get through it. I don’t write music to be anything but cathartic and compassionate and that’s the point of it, I still think music needs to be beautiful and therapeutic for the listener it should still be a beautiful experience.”
“A beautiful experience” sums up Ebb and Flow, a set of potent songs about love and loss, pain and joy, dreams and despair, exploring the duality of the human condition with Judith turning to the legendary musicians who created the seventies’ troubadour sound. Between them, her core band of drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel played on many of the landmark albums from the era by the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.
As homage to the era Judith covers James Taylor’s Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox and Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime on the album, “I asked them which James Taylor song I should do and of course James Taylor is the king of taking over peoples songs and making them sound that they’re his anyway. Russ (Kunkel) said “you’ve got to do Hey Mister. We were on the road with James at the time and he literally heard himself in a bar it was about his loneliness despite his success he was a lonely person a little too long” and that’s the bit that breaks my heart when I sing it.”
I ask Judith if her husband, the comedian Harry Shearer gives her any feedback to her recordings. “Whenever I write a song Harry is always the first person who plays on it, he’s the first person I ask about mixes, the look, sound and everything that’s the relationship we have. I see everything he does, he sees everything I do, we are that to each other and I’d never release anything if I didn’t think he would be a 100% about it. That’s the implicit trust we have in each other, that’s the major perk of been married to your number one supporter it’s a rare thing.”
With numerous UK dates in the pipeline Judith also hopes to play dates again in Wales in the future. “Nothing makes me happier than coming back to Wales. It’s hard to describe to people how much Wales means to me and coming from a Welsh background the thing that comes close to the feeling I get when I come home are those are my happiest memories and they really are.”
- Ebb and Flow by Judith Owen is available to buy as a CD or download now.
- For more information on Judith Owen visit her official website.
- A version of this review appeared in The South Wales Argus entertainment supplement The Guide during April, 2014.