I first saw Judith Owen in 2014 when she gave a private masterclass to BIMM students in Brighton. I next saw her live supporting Bryan Ferry in October 2015 and again a month later when she played Komedia. We sat down for a chat before that gig and the words flowed freely. It was such as revealing conversation and because we covered so much, this interview is spread over two parts.
In this second part, Judith talks about what her inspires her songwriting, why she gave that BIMM Masterclass, the emotional problems she has with Christmas and how she became one of only two female musicians to appear as themselves in The Simpsons.
What is it that inspires your songwriting?
Judith: What influences me is life itself. The human condition, the struggle. That’s what fascinates me and that’s what I write about, what we all go through and how we all struggle and how wonderful and awful this life is. That’s what inspires me.
So it’s about writing about the human condition?
Judith: Look, Taylor Swift writes about what she knows and so do I. What I know is a long, hard slog and a rough road, but I’m not alone on that path. I’m out there with everybody else. The only difference is I can sing about it. And my real job as a singer/songwriter is to give the audience permission to feel. That’s what music did to me growing up at the Opera House, meeting and hearing people like Pavarotti. I would cry and I would be beaming, then I’d cry. It was the drama of it all. I had this wonderful alive father who’s love of his life was music. His face lit up when he sang and I wanted that. But I had this beautiful mother who was ill, so there was this blanket of sadness over everything.
So music was your escape?
Judith: Like my father, music was the place I escaped into. It allowed me to cry and release those things I was feeling on a daily basis, but didn’t know how to do with. None of us are very good about being honest about how we feel.
Talking of sharing things and inspiring people, the first time I saw you was here in Brighton last year when you and your band gave a masterclass to BIMM students. How did that come about and how important do you feel it is for artists to give something back?
Judith: It came about through my manager, Steve Lee. He’s been in the business a long time and he’d lectured at BIMM himself about the music industry. He thought it would be a nice thing to do for the students. Every time I have to put my makeup on in a toilet, or in a van or under a flashlight, we all burst into laughter and say “Living the dream!” I knew from an early age what it was like, but everybody needs to know the reality of the music business.
The so-called glamour profession…
Judith: The glamour profession! Well, guess what? There is no glamour. And I think that’s one of the best things you can instil in young musicians. Don’t get me wrong, there is glamour in Taylor Swift’s life and there is in mine too, but the majority of it is hard fucking work. And that goes for Taylor Swift. She might not be doing her make-up in the toilet, I’m sure she demands a gorgeous dressing room, but you have to understand it’s unrelentingly hard work. And you’ve got to want it so badly.
But these days, for so many, isn’t it all about celebrity and fame?
Judith: Kids used to want to be astronauts or doctors, now they just want to be famous. Not for doing anything, not for having a talent. I think that’s why the BIMM event was so great. Having a talent is one thing, but you’ve got to have passion for what you do.
In a world of cameraphones, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, isn’t it easier to be a celebrity today?
Judith: For a lot of people, life these days is an open book. Just look at the Kardashians. Every fucking thing they do from sunrise to sundown is filmed, photographed, tweeted about and shared with the world. It is you as product. It is you as brand. But people still want and need to go and see someone actually doing something, creating something, putting on a performance. Something that takes your breath away. That’s every generation. It’s always been art and commerce, but I despair of the bar being lowered constantly. I despair of people thinking that what is mediocre is great. But every time somebody sneaks through that net, I am grateful for it.
Like an Adele?
Judith: Like an Adele, like a Gregory Porter, even a Sam Smith. Yes, it’s pop at the end of the day, but there’s nothing wrong in doing something that’s popular.
Something else that’s popular is The Simpsons and you’re one of a very select circle of musicians who have? Indeed, as far as I know, you and Linda Ronstadt are the only female musicians who’ve appeared as themselves.
Judith: I hadn’t seen the show until I went to the States in the mid 90’s to be with Harry, so I had no idea how big it was. When I went over there I started performing and Mike Sculley, who was The Simpsons producer at that time, came to a gig and became a big fan. After seeing me, he came over and said, Judith, I’m going to write you into an episode. I had just signed to Capital and was about to release an album and I sent him an advance copy. I thought, that’s so Hollywood and expected nothing to come of it.
So what happened?
Judith: Well, about a year later, I got a call asking me to send a headshot. So the idiot who was looking after me at the time, sent an 8 x 10 of me, but the photo was cropped and only went to my shoulders. So here’s this incredible thing. I’m going to be on The Simpsons as myself, singing a song from my new record. Come the day, Harry and I are having this big party and we’re all watching and I see myself and of course I’ve got a yellow face and a nose like a toucan because I do have a Roman nose, but the worse bit was I had blonde shoulder-length hair! So it looked nothing like me at all!
Speaking of Harry, this year marks the 10th anniversary of Christmas Without Tears, the fund-raising event you and Harry do each Christmas…
Judith: It’s something we started doing in our house in New Orleans because as someone with depression, and as someone whose mother took her own life right before Christmas — on December 13th — I find Christmas a really, really difficult time. It’s a love/hate relationship I have with it. It’s left me with a permanent understanding and appreciation of how hard that time of year is. For an awful lot of people, it’s money, loneliness, not being happy, not being with loved ones, it heightens everything. It’s why suicide goes up at Christmas time.
So you decided to put on a concert?
Judith: Actually it began as a party. The idea was to do something that would help get me through the Christmas season. It started in our house. Every imaginable friend and artist would come round and sing or perform. We did it for five years at our place, before taking it on the road. Ten years ago we did it for Hurricane Katrina. We raised a lot of money.
And you’ve done one over here too…
Judith: We have. We’ve done it once here and it was remarkable. We had Alfie Boe and Rob Bryden and loads of amazing people. Alfie will be at our Brooklyn show, which is raising money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. I hope we’ll be returning with the show to London next year.