Judith Owen

We chat to Judith about the cathartic nature of songwriting and how she uses music to recover from emotional upheaval.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 7 Apr 2014
  • min read

The fact that Judith Owen's new album Ebb and Flow evokes the halcyon days of the great seventies troubadours is no accident.

Across a full set of potent songs about love and loss, the Welsh singer songwriter turned to the legendary musicians who helped invent that troubadour sound in the first place.

She enlisted drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who played on many of the landmark albums from the era by the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.

They recorded the songs on Ebb and Flow at legendary seventies studio Sunset Sound in LA, often in two takes, to rekindle the easy spontaneity present on many of those classic records.

Here, we chat to Judith about the cathartic nature of songwriting and how she uses music to recover from emotional upheaval. We learn how she has been immersed in music since a very young age and find out how her working relationship with revered English folk songwriter Richard Thompson OBE (The Albion Band, Fairport Convention) has lead to some interesting musical outings...

In fits and starts. I was reeling from my father's death and, as always, I turned to music in a time of pain and loss. I think sometimes when huge things happen to you, it's a reminder that life's not a rehearsal and it makes you want to live full out and do things you've been dreaming of but maybe putting on hold.

I've wanted to work with these guys since the first time I heard James Taylor and so I just reached out to Lee, Russ and Waddy and thankfully they said yes! We went in and did two songs at first just to test the water and immediately I knew that this was going to be a ’hand in glove’ experience. The sound I'd heard as a kid was now on my songs, just like I'd imagined it, and these guys knew exactly who I was and what I did, no explanations needed.

What was the inspiration behind it?
It's a love letter to the troubadour music of the seventies that I grew up with and was so influenced by - James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, the early Elton John, Fleetwood Mac. I spent many a happy family road trip with us all singing along to Taylor and King. These were happier times and I think it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream that brought me musically from a rainy London to a sunny Laurel Canyon in my imagination and in reality!

Can you describe it in three words?
Soulful, cathartic, classic.

How has your songwriting changed since you first started out?
I've always written about what I know and experience, and felt that my job was to take something painful and turn it into something beautiful. From the age of four I've been going to the piano and making sounds that made me feel better. That's never changed, but with age I've just got better at expressing and connecting, at making my personal experiences resonate with others.

You have spoken openly about your battle with depression - how do you think it has affected your music?
I've described music as being the best form of self-medication, and it remains so (along with good therapy and medication!). I realised as a kid that when I sat at the piano and expressed myself, the clouds lifted and it's been that way ever since.

There's a definite connection between the arts and depression; it's the reason I covered James Taylor's Hey Mister, That's Me up on the Jukebox. He struggled with it his whole life and the isolation and loneliness in that song really spoke to me.

Luckily I got the help that many don't and came through the disease and out the other side, and my experience of it and appreciation life since pours through and my music. I'm very grateful to be here, able to speak openly about it, as I did in Losing It, my West End two woman show with Ruby Wax. What's important to me is that the songs aren't depressing, but uplifting, hopeful and built on human understanding.

You’ve worked closely with Richard Thompson OBE – how did you two first meet?
We were both recording in studios next door to each other. We visited each other's sessions, got on like two Brits abroad and next thing we were guesting on each other's albums.

The friendship came first thankfully, and about a year later, having got to know each other properly, he asked me would I be interested in doing a show he was developing based on a Billboard interview in which he'd been asked to choose his favourite 100 songs.

Being the consummate musicologist, Richard's reaction was, ‘Why not my favourite songs over the past 1,000 years?’ and the 1,000 Years of Popular Music show was born.

We sang on each other's work over the next few years and toured the 1,000 Years show throughout the States and the UK and then Richard hit me with yet another remarkable project…his ode to Danny Thompson, Cabaret of Souls.

Is there anything you’ve learned from him?
Have fun, work hard and never stop learning or challenging yourself. And don't buy into the hype or get too up yourself - being a true artist is a privilege and an unglamorous one at that!

Was music a prominent force in your childhood?
Absolutely. My father was an opera singer at ROH Covent Garden for 35 years. My sister and I pretty much saw every Saturday open dress rehearsal from age five and it all went in - the emotional extremes and the musical beauty.

Unusually, my mum and dad were also jazz lovers. Add to that the melancholy Welsh folk songs that dad sang at the piano, and you can see where I came from.

It was music all the time in our house. The minute my dad started singing his face lit up and from as long as I can remember I knew that that's what I wanted to do in life.

Is there a song out there you most identify with? 
There are two actually. My Father's Voice is a song I wrote for my dad as a thank you for giving me the greatest gift of music. The older I get, the more precious it is.

Joni Mitchell's Night Ride Home is very special to me. It's about driving home with the one you love and it reminds me of my husband and me. We're either singing along to Frank Sinatra or listening to Debussy in the car, and that's the time I know how bloody lucky I am to be with someone who needs and loves music just as much as I do.

Ebb and Flow by Judith Owen is released on 7 April 2014.