Judith Owen: eccentric Welsh singer
performing at B.B. King's, New York, NY (10 June 2008)

Judith Owen began her set at B.B. King's last month, where she opened for The Strawbs with a jazzy, scat-laced version of "Smoke on the Water" that she introduced as a "female version of a rock anthem -- can you feel the anti-testosterone?"

And it dawned on me I'd never really heard the lyrics before.

Owen welcomed herself to the stage, saying she usually wears a suit and a hat, but "here I am looking like a woman" in a flowing, sleeveless dress. It was the middle of a heat wave, but the ethereal, wisecracking-sylph look suited her.

She utterly controls her rich, full voice, which soared into its soprano range for the aching "Creatures of Habit" (one of the album's first two singles). The song brought a lump to my throat -- and I've never been married. Something in the melody and the lilting emotion of her delivery just grabs at your insides.

"I wrote it to beg forgiveness for things I was going to do to my future husband," she told the audience. "Are you getting my humor now? Are you getting that nothing I say means anything?"

That husband is Harry Shearer, of The Simpsons fame, by the way. He's referenced in much of her stage patter, as so many of her songs are about being a woman, and about being a woman in a relationship.

"I go through life with someone who makes me homicidally violent," she said, calling "Walking the Dog" a "half love song, half complaint." Her cool, controlled voice almost (not quite) cooled down the muggy room. "Women and men have absolutely bugger all in common, and isn't it fabulous?" she exclaimed.

Owen's new album Mopping Up Karma came out in June, 10 years after she began working on it. She began recording in 1998, with Glen Ballard, for an album for Capitol Records (on its boutique label Java). It would have been her major label debut -- but she ended up striking out on her own, founding her own label, Courgette Records. Listening again to the tracks, she decided they were worth saving -- and re-recorded vocals and remixed tracks. The result?

A terrific blend of jazz, pop and folk-rock. It's moody, angry, compassionate, easy to listen to, hard to categorize -- imagine Kate Bush without the whimsy.

It followed hard on the heels of 2007's Happy This Way and 2006's Here, both of which got raves and attention from the New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, Boston Globe and so on. Richard Thompson sings on Happy This Way and has had Owen along as featured vocalist for his "1000 years of popular music" tour. She's also recorded and performed with Julia Fordham, K.D. Lang, Ian Shaw and many others.

I caught up with her backstage, where we bonded a little over the heat-induced longing for beer.

"I don't ever drink beer! Water seems not appropriate at all. All I want is a bloody beer!" she declared. "Water's just not cutting it with me right now! Would you like a beer?"

• • •

Can you tell me a little bit about your Welsh background, and its impact on your music? I asked her. Here in New York, people know a lot about Irish music, but not so much about the Welsh.

"The Welsh are the Irish without the fun. We're a very melancholy bunch, and we sing truly melancholy songs. When I say melancholy, I mean people talk about operations and death at the dinner table all the time."

Here, she goes into a comic, self-assured, Welsh-accented auntie:

"Well he's had it all out ... he's never been the same...." It makes me think a bit of the eccentric, sweet roommate in the film Notting Hill.

"The Welsh are eccentric, that's right," she said. "Dylan Thomas is an extreme version of it, but anybody who reads Under Milkwood will get an idea of the eccentricity of Welsh people."

"I call myself London Welsh," she added. Her father moved the family to London when she was little. There, Handel Owen sang at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and recently retired.

"I grew up backstage at the Opera House, from age 5 on. We went back and forth and back and forth. ... I found myself in that strange limbo where you feel like an exile because you don't belong in either place. In Wales, everybody was joyful and friendly and there was music.

"Then, I would come back to London where people aren't friendly, and everybody's out to get their piece of turf, and no one has eye contact. ... It's been a very long experience for me of feeling like I didn't belong.

"In London I was very Welsh, and in Wales I'd moved to London ... but I think it's one of the things that have fueled my music. A lot of the ballads that I write are definitely from a place of exile, of yearning."

What about musical influences?

"My father would sing me Welsh folksongs. They're always heartbreakingly morose ... they are the folk songs that American folk is based upon. Yearning, far from home ... it's always that thing about not being able to get to the people you love. I found it tremendously moving. It always made me cry. That, mixed with my father's operatic career, made me such a gigantic fan of theatricality and emotions.

"I sing operatically with Richard Thompson's 1000 years. I never sing ever without doing my scales and doing a little bit of Magic Flute, this piece from 'Queen of the Night,' which is the hardest thing to sing.

"The way I learned to sing was by mimicking my father. I taught myself -- taught myself piano, too. Can't read a note. My ear is everything."

Her sister, she explained, went on to become a phenomenal pianist and cellist. "Everybody in Wales is musical. We're all singing in choirs. It's very much about the male voice in choirs. It's all about harmony. The Welsh tradition is to sing in harmony. There was always music, always a piano in the parlor, always people singing.

"The Irish have the craic and they play fiddles, the Scottish do country dancing and play bagpipes and drums, and the Welsh sing."

Though Owen now opens for Fairport and sings with Richard Thompson, folk wasn't much on her radar growing up. Her parents were huge jazz fans, something she said was unusual for classical musicians. They also loved gospel and blues.

"I must be honest -- I didn't even know the first drummer I ever worked with at age 16 was Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention, but it just wasn't on my radar. Saw Richard Thompson for the first time in my life in Central Park with my husband.

"I met Richard when we were both languishing on Capitol. When we fell in love musically -- I then did my homework... and found out about Sandy Denny, and loved it ... I get it. When I started singing on his songs I absolutely instantly knew that folk place where he comes from. Ultimately it's still in my heritage. We're both Celts.

"My father would sing me to sleep by singing me 'Sally Gardens' -- it's one of the most heartbreaking songs ... it tears me apart -- and 'She Walks Through the Fair.' I didn't know where they came from ... and now I get to sing them with Richard, and I absolutely love them."

In your set, gender issues came up a lot. Is it difficult, today, being a woman in music? You're a woman who's really made her own way, too.

"It's fantastic, being a woman in this business -- when you own it. The reason I say that is I look out in that audience and it's full of big rough guys with hats and beards looking tough and ballsy and their wives, too, and I realize that somewhere between being bullying and charming is the dangerous road that I take and I pull it off ... I am tongue-in-cheek about everything. What I talk about in my music is the human condition and the struggle. How life is brilliant and awful and brilliant and awful in a second."

She pauses and expands on the thought about the human condition to include the life of an artist -- an artist who's found her voice by striking out on her own.

"The day that I stopped jumping through hoops to stop making someone else happy and prove myself -- that was the most liberating thing that can happen to a human being.

"I just want to be the best artist I can be. I know that the one thing that kills an artist is not getting music out there, not playing, not being allowed to reach the people that they love. Why do you do it otherwise? When I came out of that situation with the disappointment and pain that ensued from it, I made a personal promise to myself that I would never languish ever again."

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Gwen Orel

2 August 2008

what's new