Pianist-singer-songwriter Judith Owen is known for her love of musical variety and melding it into a great stylistic gumbo all her own. ‘Somebody’s Child’ is the culmination of this mix: voice and piano front and centre, songs that are vignettes of life crafted from the perspective that we ARE all “somebody’s child” – parental as well as planetary. An album about us.
“By nature, I am a diverse musician. It’s who I am because of all the music I grew up being exposed to, from opera to Sinatra, Joni to Stevie Wonder, and everything in between,” says Judith.
Whereas 2014’s critically-acclaimed ‘Ebb & Flow’ was personal and very much a love letter to Laurel Canyon, ‘Somebody’s Child’ takes a leap from the confessional to the observational, whilst recruiting the same crème de la crème of Los Angeles session musicians – bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russell Kunkel – and incorporating them with her British-based musicians – master percussionist Pedro Segundo and sublime cellist Gabriella Swallow – to create a fresh new dynamic.
“It’s a very British thing where you love mixing all those styles. It’s classical. It’s pop. There’s jazz. There’s rhythm and blues. Then there’s rock thrown in there too,” Judith emphasizes, as evident in the jewel-like, pastoral and melancholic ‘No More Goodbyes’ and the staccato, jazzy rocker ‘We Give In’.
The opening song, and title track, is intimately framed with a string quartet and “is the heart of the record. It sets the tone – a mission statement. I was in New York, in the middle of winter, and I saw this beautiful young woman, about nine months pregnant, barefoot in the snow, wearing a trash bag, that was all she had, stomach out and in a state. I was crossing the street, with everybody else, trying to avoid her, when I thought, “That’s somebody’s child, and if my life had been different, that could have been me. Or any of us! We’re all so dehumanized, and this whole record is about reconnecting with our humanity, really seeing what’s around us, discarding, even if it is just for a moment, our constant state of denial.”
Until recently, her pinpoint sense of observation was often turned inwards as she concentrated on her own feelings. “I made ‘Ebb & Flow’ right after my father passed away,” she explains, referring to her opera singer father who loomed large over her life. “Much later I wrote ‘No More Goodbyes’ about the hardest thing that any of us have to admit—that there’s a relief in letting go, that there’s a desire for pain to end.” Even though that sounds serious, Judith emphasizes that “this is a much more life-affirming, joyful record.”
“’Mystery’ is probably the most honest love song I’ve ever written. How any of us ever find love in the first place is hard enough; how any of us stay together is the true mystery” she gleefully admits. “There’s no planning to it. The last verse, which is the most important – ‘It takes patience, it takes time, today we might quarrel, tomorrow we’ll be fine’ – is the point of it all. It’s the rough with the smooth.”
“I’m with someone who doesn’t go by the rules romantically,” she says of partner Harry Shearer (Spinal Tap, the Simpsons) “However, I’m with somebody who makes me laugh, who adores me, who I have the best time with”. Judith turns these personal observations into the universal truths of ‘Mystery’ and ‘That’s Why I Love My Baby’. The latter features Harry on upright bass. “I get it now. It’s the things he doesn’t do that make me love him. Not doing the expected stuff. These are bookends,” she reflects about one of her favourite songwriting tricks, composing two sets of lyrics around the same topic.
Another pair of bookends ‘Tell All Your Children’ – all retro R&B cool with just a touch of Gaye – and ‘I Know Why The Sun Shines’ – which borrows from one of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s best-loved piano phrases – are both sending a message about what we’re doing to the planet (oil exploitation, fracking). “Sometimes I just have to put on a big, floppy hat, put a candelabra on the piano, and vent!”
Developing first name character songs like the wonderfully-sketched ‘Arianne’ (inspired by a trip to the Berlin Wall), ‘Josephine’ and the “buddy” of first single ‘Send Me A Line‘—a social commentary on people, including herself, “not being present but preoccupied by technology”— came easy to her. “They’re like tiny soap operas,” she says about the compositions that are adorned so sympathetically by the stellar musicians.
A Judith signature is also to turn the most unlikely song inside out. She’s done it before with her tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the Deep Purple rock anthem ‘Smoke On The Water’ and Mungo Jerry’s irresistible, irresponsible and politically incorrect ‘In The Summertime’. This time, it’s her languid interpretation of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’, endorsed by none other than its creator Bryan Ferry whom she opened for last year, that lingers long in the memory. In fact it was recorded at Bryan’s London studio on his piano. Not to mention her playful adaptation of ‘Aquarius’ from the rock musical ‘Hair’. “I love playing with overtly earnest lyrics like these, and putting them in a totally different musical context. I’m a serious person who likes to laugh a lot. I need to.”
The album ends on the beautifully uplifting orchestral ‘The Rain Is Gonna Fall’ whose intentions are opposite to what one might think. Yes, it will rain but that is life and all will be ok. Let it rain.
‘Ebb & Flow’ was when many discovered Judith’s highly seductive sound and was hailed as one of the releases of 2014 by The Independent newspaper in the UK, receiving further praise from Le Figaro in France, La Repubblica in Italy, Rolling Stone in Germany and the Wall Street Journal in the US. It also enjoyed sterling support at British radio, particularly from Jamie Cullum, Bob Harris and the late Sir Terry Wogan, stalwarts and tastemakers of the BBC Radio 2 network. All three hosted sessions featuring the Welsh-born songstress and demonstrated her commercial potential and wide-ranging appeal. In addition, ‘Ebb and Flow’ earned passionate support from Irish RTE Radio 1, Spanish RTNE Radio 3, German ARD Network, and Nordic National Radio and led to several key radio and television appearances on both sides of the Atlantic.
Recording with Kunkel, Sklar and Wachtel, studio stalwarts behind Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Laura Nyro among others, and touring with them “served as this incredible calling card for me. I waited a long time to be able to work with some of my musical idols. I’m a late bloomer,” she admits.
With ‘Somebody’s Child’, and its many moods and shades and a contemporary twist, Judith Owen seems well on her way into the Premier League of contemporary singer-songwriters and interpreters. Which is where she belongs . . .
by Pierre Perrone (2016)
- Somebody’s Child
- Send Me A Line
- Tell All Your Children
- We Give In
- No More Goodbyes
- More Than This
- That’s Why I Love My Baby
- I Know Why The Sun Shines
- The Rain Is Gonna Fall