Home for the Holidays
With a new CD out and a show planned at the CAC, Judith Owen is loving life in New Orleans
Exceedingly talented Welsh singersongwriter- pianist and part-time New Orleans resident, Judith Owen is back in a big way with her latest critically acclaimed CD, Happy This Way, an eclectic, emotional and vibrant collection of songs that pay deep personal tribute to Owen’s beloved homeland of Great Britain. Owen brilliantly harnesses multiple musical stylings to result in her own remarkable, endearing sound: Happy This Way is at once beautiful, joyous, witty and heart wrenching. The recordings showcase the Celtic songbird’s expert ability to guide listeners through the emotional peaks and valleys of her unparalleled aural artistry, while proving that music and humor have sustained her.
In addition to being heralded internationally as a distinguished artist who seamlessly crosses musical genres on her dynamic albums, Owen consistently garners rave reviews for her spectacular live performances as well. To cap off her incredible year, Owen will gift New Orleans with her irresistible charm on Friday, December 14, as she joins her husband, actor and satirist Harry Shearer, at the Contemporary Arts Center for Judith and Harry’s Holiday Sing-ALong, an evening of holiday music and mirth with some incredible guest performers (past guests include Paul Shaffer, Keb’ Mo’ and Jill Sobule). As people who crave nothing more than the blissful celebration of life, New Orleanians should mark their calendars for this joyful, memorable evening of entertainment.
Hi, Judith! Your latest CD, Happy This Way, has gotten much praise from critics, fans and the music-listening population in general. That must make you feel great!
It does make me feel great, Christine. The idea is that with each record, you’re meant to get stronger, deeper and richer. You hope that that’s the way it’ll go, and it certainly has been with this one. It feels like all my hard work and being true to the music I write is resonating with critics, the media and the fans.
You are one of the few artists who get to make music on your own terms, a musician’s musician not pigeonholed by a category. That’s way cool.
I find that people enjoy the variety in my music. It’s always emotional, soul-bearing music, and I think I’m quite honest about the hard facts of life. I had an opera singer father who was a jazz nut, and at home we listened to blues, gospel and folk music, because we’re Welsh. I’ve never been a big fan of the cookie-cutter stuff; I love to hear music with depth, intelligence, content, wit and mostly heart. If it gives you goose bumps, then that’s it for me!
Happy This Way is filled with your trademark wit, longing, happiness, sadness, wistfulness—all those varied emotions that you allow your fans to experience through your music.
That’s exactly it. I think it’s incredibly theatrical, meaning there are points during the CD, like an opera or a musical, where you hopefully feel all the emotions. As a child, the greatest influence on me was sitting in the opera house where my father performed and being uplifted and overjoyed, and then crying the next minute, having my heart utterly broken. And that is the power of music, like nothing else! You confidently allow yourself to go to all these places and be emotionally vulnerable.
You can tell after listening to a couple of songs that Happy This Way really is a homage to your homeland, Great Britain.
My family is Welsh and I was born in London, and it’s about the memories of where I come from and the things that make Britain so entirely important to me. It’s the place of some of my greatest and most heartbreaking memories, those revolving around childhood, family, humor and the meloncholiness of someone who’s left home and yearning to go back. I didn’t remember childhood memories for many years because I was in denial and depressed for so long. Over the years, I started remembering incredible things instead of just the tragic stuff. The first song, “Conway Bay,” was like revisiting my childhood and actually remembering how amazingly happy I was, summering in Wales with my family. “Happy This Way” is about the first joyful memory of my mother, who died when I was 15. It’s been a struggle to get a grasp on the amazing life I have, the joy of what’s around me. This recording was fairly triumphant in that I could see the whole picture threedimensionally instead of categorizing myself as tragic. I’m not just a dark person; I’m a person of great humor, life and joy as well.
That joy and humor are evident on tracks like “Painting by Numbers” and “Cool Life.” I even hear a nod to the Beatles in some of your music.
It’s the Kinks, the Beatles, it’s that quintessential British sound that people just emulate constantly. It’s something that makes you feel so good from being there, as a musician you just can’t help yourself. And with “Cool Life,” of course I had to write a song about how the girls in London are just getting worse with trying to look like the celebrities on the covers of OK! Magazine and such. They’re really into the vibe of trying to emulate Britney, Lindsay or, God forbid, Victoria Beckham, so now in Britain, where everyone has white skin and freckles like me and just looks British they all have this sort of Naugahyde spray-on tan! It’s bloody awful!
You and Harry live in Santa Monica, but you make lots of music in New Orleans.
We’ve had a home in New Orleans since the late ’90s, and we’ve just gone gangbusters and invested in a new, larger home that we’re renovating. It’s exciting! We’re investing more time and money in New Orleans because we believe in it entirely and love it so much, and we want to support the economy. We wanted to just inject as much of our love and ourselves into the place as we could and apart from London, I wouldn’t dream of recording anywhere else in America.
You’re always working on music at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans.
Yes, John Fischbach, my co-producer, is my dearest ally and a truly remarkable collaborator, and pretty much all the tracks from Happy This Way were recorded at Piety. I’m always yearning to come down and be there, I love it so much. It feels like a home away from home. The great thing about recording in New Orleans is that in the morning I walk around the Quarter, I go record, I’m just relaxed and happy, and I just feel so warm and fuzzy! At night, I see friends, have the best food in the world, and then go see some music. It’s such a remarkable place for Harry and I. We fell in love with the music, food, architecture and people. What more can you ask for in life?
And I guess that’s what you were thinking when you suggested in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that New Orleans was an ideal place to be happy.
That’s exactly it. Harry and I are not people who can easily relax; we’re both horribly, tightly coiled. We live to work and we’re a couple of drama queens! New Orleans makes us relax. The weather has an effect, but it’s really the people and the way of life—it forces you to slow down, sit down in a fine restaurant with your friends, eat good food and talk and laugh, and none of us get enough of that. There’s real warmth in New Orleans, and I always find that people are very happy that we’re there and really appreciative that we love their city so much. I can’t imagine why people wouldn’t support New Orleans. To Harry and me, it makes no sense whatsoever. What it needs is love. It’s a very deep, rich place and historically and culturally, there is no place else like it in America. For a European like me who needs history, culture and a sense of things chipping and decaying around you a bit, you cannot find anywhere else like this. It’s the closest and the coolest thing, quite frankly, to being home. If you appreciate history, culture and richness and that sort of always strange bizarreness of the place, which I happen to love, and if you love music—that’s it! We love to encourage as many human beings as possible to visit New Orleans and see how great it is!
I love it! You and Harry are the ambassadors of travel to New Orleans! I also love that you’ll be performing Judith and Harry’s Holiday Sing-A-Long in New Orleans at the CAC.
I said to Harry, “Listen, there is no way in December that we cannot not do a Sing-A-Long in New Orleans! I mean, it’s Christmas! Everyone’s going to be in the mood!” I think New Orleanians will get a kick out of it. Normally, I have to bully people 30 seconds into the Sing-A-Long to sing, but I know I won’t need to in New Orleans! And I cannot tell you how much joy there is in this show; people perform and we get drinks onstage and it’s basically made to look like it’s our house; everything is covered in bunting and Christmas stuff, and everybody has their songbooks and then it’s just pure caroling. When we were kids, it was always about singing around the piano. And surely there can’t be a place where people understand and appreciate that more then New Orleans.
New Orleans really needs this kind of show right now.
Let’s be honest, Christmas is the hardest time of the year. You start looking back and missing the people that aren’t there anymore. And the whole situation in New Orleans makes for a sad, tough time. I find it difficult because my mom died just before Christmas, so the reason we started doing these parties is that we all missed being together en masse and no one wants to feel like they’re alone. Christmas should really be about people coming together and having a joyful, marvelous time where they feel they have a sense of community. It’s a bunch of people singing together around a piano, which I really think is the greatest thing to do. And I’m taking that you will be there on December 14. You cannot miss this!
I’ll be there with bells on! In addition to all the great holiday songs, I’m sure we’ll be treated to gobs of witty banter from you and yours.
Of course! Harry and I joint host it and we are very “at home,” and you’ll actually see us sparring together, which is amusing. It’s what we do every day in our house! We’re irritated with each other and then laugh at each other! [Laughs] Harry sings, plays bass and also piano and basically introduces, and we all perform and everybody does their thing, and I’m the musical director. I’m sort of like a fascist onstage, a lovely one, though. I’m a charming bully, and it all comes together quite magnificently! Now I have to make sure that every performer on my wish list will be able to do this!
Speaking of performing in New Orleans, you played for the first time at Jazz Fest this year. How was it for you?
It was amazing! It was almost rained out, but the sun came out and I played; there were plenty of people there and it was just marvelous. It was a complete joy, and I hope they’ll invite me back. I cannot tell you how much fun I had! Now I have to figure out how the heck to get on a float! I’m so crazy about Mardi Gras. But can you believe, I went and bought a house in New Orleans just so I could finagle my way into riding a float! [Laughs] I’m that desperate! Harry’s already been on two, and he’ll be on another next year, but I will do it one day, don’t you worry! I will get on a float if it kills me!