Q&A: Judith Owen on Songwriting, Singing Backup for Spinal Tap and Music’s Role in Mental Health

Q&A: Judith Owen on Songwriting, Singing Backup for Spinal Tap and Music’s Role in Mental Health

With her new album Somebody’s Child, British singer/songwriter Judith Owen delivers an exceptional album conjuring the confessional Laurel Canyon music of yesterday — think Carole King, Judee Sill, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell — while infusing the artist’s own distinctive flair with sophisticated musical textures and hard-hitting lyrics.

The album, which features seasoned accompaniment in the form of renowned L.A. session vet bassist Leland Sklar (also part of Judith’s band while on tour opening for Bryan Ferry), drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Waddy Watchel, documents an extraordinary artist at the peak of her creative powers.

Enjoy an interview with Judith below.

Rock Cellar: What album did you wear out while growing up?

Judith Owen: No one has ever asked me that question (laughs) and I know the answer. As a really young kind around 10 or 11 I wore out Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. He was my idol growing up. I was brought up in a very classical household—my father was a very successful opera singer at Covent Garden. He toured all over the world. I was at Covent Garden every weekend of my life seeing all the dress rehearsals. It felt like my home.

That was such a huge influence on me, and classical music and orchestral music in general. It turns out I couldn’t read a note of music. My parents just left me alone at the piano because all I really wanted to do was write songs. I just wanted to write music and sing at the piano for my own joy so they left me alone.

When did you find your voice as a songwriter?

Judith Owen: My influences were so huge and large. I had classical music influence and my parents were obsessed with all black music, whether it was jazz, R&B. Motown, blues, gospel.  That was such a huge part of my growing up, which is unusual for such a classical household.

Then you’ve got this depressing Welsh folk music in the background. Then you’ve got the influence of my parents loving James Taylor and Carole King and then I came across Joni Mitchell much later than I should have.

So yes, you can hear all that in my music, but when I found my own voice I was a lonely kid. When I was growing up, I didn’t fit in. I had this home life that was very strange. On the one hand there was all this beautiful music — and my father, my musical role model. And at home I had my mother, who was an incredibly depressed woman who battled mental illness her whole life and lost the battle. When I found my own voice it was when she died when I was 15. Instead of emulating what I heard around me, I found my voice very quickly because my voice became my confessional songs. It suddenly became really serious and a necessity because I had to sing about this interior place and the pain.

That’s where a lot of it comes from for a lot of singer/songwriters. It absolutely made me immediately into a person who sang about difficult things or things that most people wouldn’t sing about or couldn’t speak about.

It became a way I could express myself that I couldn’t in words, ‘cause like other British people, none of us talk about anything. We don’t talk about the stuff that counts; we can’t do it.

So for me then it came down to playing and gigging and thousands of hours of really crap gigs in crap venues and crap clubs to really hone your art and become the best musician you can.

In regard to the seamless evolution in adaptations of various styles on the new album, Somebody’s Child, is that coming from a natural place or were you pressing yourself to broaden your artistic palette?

Judith Owen: I am such an open book. I am so easy to read. With every album I’ve made you can tell where I am and who I am in my life. I made it my life’s work to be a well human being and not to go the way that my mother went; that was the most important thing in my life.

Music has really saved me.

I know it sounds corny as hell.  I could have done drugs. I have clinical depression and I have an anxiety disorder but I’ve never looked upon it as “oh poor me.”  That’s not how I view any of this. I’m a very fortunate human being who was given a means of expressing myself, one that my mother never had.

I’m also somebody who, after hitting rock bottom emotionally, came to America for two reasons: one is I fell in love with my husband (Harry Shearer) and two, I knew if I had any chance of getting well I would have to go very far away to a place where people understand and where I could get help without the shame. I never would have reached out for any help if I’d stayed in Britain. The shame would have been too much.

Music saved my life. Look at someone like Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington from Linkin Park; these are amazing rock guys who we all adore and who, sadly, could not be saved. Music is so important for all of us who really battle with loneliness and with darkness. It was the best form of self-medication I ever had (laughs); it’s certainly the cheapest. Music was my lifeline and it’s always been the love of my life. It means the world to me for obvious reasons. It is life.

When you listen back to your record and bear witness to some of the darker moments, does it immediately take you back into that darkness or can you separate yourself from that?

Judith Owen: Another good question. With the Somebody’s Child album, I’m a very different person than who I sued to be. I’ve been getting better my whole life with every single thing I do and every single note that I sing. That’s been my quest. Now without even trying these songs came out and I think it’s an indication of how far I’ve come and how healthy I am; the fact that I can look outside myself.

As we all know, depression is a very interior thing, and you’re constantly looking inside and constantly talking about what’s going on in the interior. The fact that I wrote these songs about the world that I’m seeing outside of me is probably a sign of the greatest health I’ve ever been in my life.

Because I’m at the other end of the tunnel, we should all understand that there is no shame in having any illness and you have to manage it like you have to do with anything. Because you can’t see this illness, that’s what makes it so shameful and has that stigma.

But when I sing a song like “No More Goodbyes,” which is one of the hardest songs I’ve ever wrote in my life, a song about saying goodbye to my father, my greatest influences, and how it feels to actually let go of one of the people you love the most in life. I write it for all of us.

I didn’t realize I had to give him permission to leave; your loved ones are hanging on for you because they don’t want to leave you and they don’t want you to be alone. In singing that, does it throw me back that place? Yes, but it doesn’t annihilate me.

I think that’s not just a sign of health, but that’s who I always wanted to be. I didn’t want to be like Amy Winehouse, who was an amazing talent but every time I watched her I felt unbelievably sad and scared because I knew the pain and stuff she was singing about she was in it and still feeling it. She was that ill singing it.

I trained as an actress. Performing is about being an entertainer. I always wanted to truly entertain an audience and take them on a ride and make them laugh and make them cry. I told you about when I first started writing songs after my mother died? Every time I sang I would cry; I was unable to get through them because it was a way of getting this stuff out of my system. But I never wanted to be like that; I wanted to get to the place that I am at now where I can sing about the hardest things and sing songs from the past that are heartbreaking but not actually be in it.

One of the most amazing things I’ve come to realize, at the end of the show people in the audience come up to me and say. “Oh my God, you made me cry. I’ve been through that; I just lost my husband.” That to me is the gift of music, that’s it.

On your 2005 album Lost and Found, you reinterpret many classic songs. I was amazed by your beautiful reimagination of  Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. Proof that a good song is a good song in various permutations.

Judith Owen: The thing that I love about doing covers and reinterpreting songs is that it gives you an insight into my sense of humor. I’m married to an exceptionally brilliant and funny man. I’ve never a funny man or woman who also didn’t have the flipside to them. I think that’s what makes the whole dark and light thing so intriguing.

I have a very healthy sense of humor about most things in life. There are three things you can’t get through life without: music, humor and dogs. But that’s just me. I forgot to mention the influence of rock on me. My older sister had this boyfriend who was a crazy rock fan. My love of rock songs and rock anthems is huge!

So my sense of humor comes through when I cover songs like “Eye Of The Tiger,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Smoke On The Water” because I’m turning them into these sexy female songs. The joy and fun of it is turning these highly testosterone-charged song on their heads and making them very sexy in a female way.

Chris Cornell’s mum got a hold of me once to tell me how much she liked my version of “Black Hole Sun.” The height of it all is when the band, the writers, the performers hear it and go, “Oh my God, we love this!” I think you have to own covers and make them sound like you wrote them and they’re yours.

Your jazzy rendition of Spinal Tap’s “Christmas with The Devil” from your Christmas In July album is amazing.

Judith Owen: (laughs) Well, before I speak about that, I must say I found my musical soul mate in Leland Sklar—he’s ridiculously talented. He’s on tour with me now and plays on my new album.

As a kid, I remember being in the back of my parent’s car listening to James Taylor and little did I know that was Leland playing bass on those records. Given that history, I would never have believed that one day I would be working with someone like him. It’s kind of amazing what happens in life.

And while we’re speaking about soul mates, my soul mate of course is my husband. (laughs)  There is no way I could ever be with anyone as funny and as brilliant as he is, truly. I need that joy and I need that laughter. And he loves music more than anything in life. Doing “Christmas With The Devil” was the first cover I did. I did it for a charity project with Harry.

I was in The Troubadour in Hollywood and I’m singing this song that nobody recognizes because it doesn’t sound anything like it and then Harry, as “Derek Smalls,” his character from Spinal Tap, rushed down the stairs and joined me onstage and it was the beginning of a beautiful thing. It’s an utter joy to sing that song and out of it came a charity Christmas show we do every year and even more importantly is the fact we’ve collaborated ever since on so much of his comedy work.

Our collaboration and relationship is an utter joy. The poor long-suffering man, I’ve written so many songs about him; at least on this album he gets “That’s Why I Love My Baby” which is an apology for all the years he had to put up with me being a bit of a pain in the backside and he gets to play on that song too. It is a thank you to him.

As a partner, I feel I’m part of rock royalty here, let’s be honest. Two highlights in my career for me were being animated as myself in The Simpsons and another was singing backup vocals when Spinal Tap played the Live Earth show in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London and being overwhelmed by the joy and the fun and the deliciousness of being anywhere near Spinal Tap.

As a huge fan, it doesn’t get any better than that. The only downside to it was they had to follow Metallica and that is terrifying. I’d like to wrap this up by saying I’ve never been happier, healthier, more appreciative and grateful for the things that I do and the fact that I’m opening shows for this legendary artists, Bryan Ferry, and playing shows with him all over the world.

I cannot tell you how good it feels to be well and doing the thing that you love and to be loved and appreciated.

One Response to "Q&A: Judith Owen on Songwriting, Singing Backup for Spinal Tap and Music’s Role in Mental Health"

  1. Steve Lee   December 15, 2017 at 5:23 am

    Thanks Ken – Judith loved this interview.


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