I first saw Judith Owen when she and her band gave a private masterclass to BIMM students in Brighton in 2014. Whilst you may not know her, you will almost certainly have heard of the musicians she played with that day as they are all musical legends: bass guitarist, Leland Sklar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer, Russ Kunkel, three of the best session musicians around. With Judith suffering from a throat infection, I got to chat with the three guys and left with plans to talk to Judith at a later date.
It took a while before we hooked up again. I saw her supporting Bryan Ferry in October 2015 and again a month later when she played Komedia. Just before that gig we sat down and the words flowed freely. It was a fascinating conversation, without doubt the most revealing I’ve been involved with.
We covered so much that this interview is spread over two parts. In this first part, Judith talks about her musical heroes, the problems they had to overcome and how, like her, they have channeled their troubled past to create emotionally-charged songs. As someone married to a celebrity herself — actor Harry Shearer of The Simpsons and Spinal Tap fame — I began by asking Judith a question about celebrity.
Who was the first really famous person you ever met?
Judith: Pavarotti. I was kind of brought up back stage at Covent Garden. As a kid, I got to hang out in the canteen where all the performers came. I didn’t realise it at the time, because it was just normal life, but I was unbelievably privileged. I was just a little girl and it had a huge effect upon me. I can remember thinking how fabulous he was…and how huge he was! So that was a bit of a corker, I know.
They say you should never meet your heroes. Have you met James Taylor, Joni Mitchell or Carole King?
Judith: I have. I’ve had dinner with Carole, who is amazing and I’ve met James a couple of times. He’s terribly shy, but a wonderful, lovely guy. You know, the greater you are, usually the nicer you are. The truly great people don’t have to be fucking arseholes. And they have fun doing what they do. It comes across in your generosity to other musicians, in your desire to have the best.
Is there one particular hero of yours that you haven’t met?
Judith: That would have to be Stevie Wonder. I did five records with John Fishbach who was the engineer on Songs In The Key Of Life and in all that time, he would talk to Stevie about me and to this day I’ve never actually met him. The one time I came close was at my ear, nose and throat doctor and Stevie was having his throat examined before my appointment. When he walked out I was actually so starstruck I couldn’t speak, which is really rare for me.
So you were speechless and he couldn’t see…
Judith: Yes, it was a fucking train wreck!
Both Joni and James have had to battle big issues in their lives. Joni had polio as a child and started writing songs to get away from an abusive husband. Today, she’s recovering from a stroke and from Morgellons, a brain aneurysm…
Judith: Morgellons is where you imagine things are crawling under your skin. As far as I can figure it out, it’s a psychological illness, but it’s real nonetheless. It feels like it’s absolutely real. And it’s horrendous.
James also has well documented issues…
Judith: It’s something I know a lot about. He has depression, clinical depression. He was incarcerated when he was seventeen. He’s been a drinker and a drugger for a long, long time — for much of his early career he was addicted to heroin — although he’s been clean for many years. When they have depression, some people drink, others take drugs, musicians write songs. It’s self soothing. There are many ways of self-medicating. Most of the people I know are saved by music.
Including yourself. You had to cope with a family tragedy when you were just fifteen. Your mother’s suicide.
Does having had a troubled life mean you can write better, more emotionally-charged songs?
Judith: If you have musical talent in the first place, yes. You can’t just write just because you’ve had something bad happen in your life. It does change everything in your world. If you are writing confessional music, which I’m in the business of doing, as are James and Carole, you’re basically going “Look, here I am.” The point is to reach out to other people who are also going through something similar, as we all do in our lives. I’m talking for the masses. If it were just about me, God how boring would that be? It would be like being a front room singer. I do it because I want to know I’m not the only one who is this fucked up. And I guess what it’s done is that when I sing about the things I sing about, you can hear it in my voice. You know what I’m saying.
Joni Mitchell once said “If you make a bad marriage, you become a philosopher” and you yourself have said “I’ve been on a journey to getting well with music as my best friend.”
Judith: As I said, it’s the best form of self-medication I‘ve ever found.
You also said: “Singing about the human condition, living under the shadow of loss and frustration and sadness and loneliness and not being gratuitously sentimental about it, instead making something beautiful out of it — that’s the songwriter’s job”
Judith: I think it’s to make something beautiful out of something really shit. I’m going to be very, very honest now. What’s shit is what’s inside me. And has been for a very long time. It wasn’t just my mother, it’s that I had the same illness as her. It’s in me. It’s shit. It’s an ugly, shameful, horrible thing that I’ve tried to hide for a very long time. And yet, here is this vehicle, where I can actually speak about it. And in turn, that’s what made me well. It’s taken me years.
And if you hadn’t been musically gifted?
Judith: I might have ended up like my mother. And that’s the simple truth. And, even when you do have music, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be OK. Look at Amy Winehouse. Or Kurt Cobain. If you have the survival mechanism still in you, like a flickering flame, and I luckily enough had that. But it’s a double-edged thing. What if I’d been a huge success at 21 or 19? Would I be alright now? Actually, I’m not sure about that. Could I have coped with fame when I was so horribly flawed and damaged?
Today, of course if you’re successful, your life is an open book lived out on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. There’s no room to hide. Look at One Direction. Five years in the spotlight. It’s now taken its toll and they’re taking a hiatus.
Judith: It’s taken a huge toll on them and think what fame did to Amy Winehouse. The first time I ever saw her I knew from the first minute that she was an unbelievably ill person. I know my illness when I see it.
You could tell that immediately?
Judith. Oh yeah. The real giveaway was when I heard her singing. It was like, fuck! You know it when you have the illness and been that way yourself. When you sing and you’re in pain when you’re singing.
But wasn’t that what made her the performer she was?
Judith: That is correct. And, don’t get me wrong, that’s what made her go straight through our hearts. She just didn’t have the people around her to take care of her. People who could say ‘Enough. Stop.’
In fact, she’s seemed to have the wrong people around her…
Judith: She had nobody but bad people around her. Including her family. And if you’re releasing a song called Rehab, that’s the hint. A young woman who basically is fucked up. This is the ugliness of the business. This is what it’s about.
But what about Taylor Swift? She’s made a career from writing thinly veiled songs about her own failed relationships. That hasn’t served her too badly has it?
Judith: The difference between someone like Taylor Swift and Amy Winehouse is that Taylor doesn’t have mental illness. She’s an incredibly together girl who’s been doing this since she was a kid with a great bunch of people around her. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s a great musician, she’s a real star and she’s clear about what she writes about, which is what pop music has always been about: love and loss.
And she’s done something that not many musicians have managed to achieve, crossing over from country to pop…
Judith: Yes, she’s done the smart thing and she’s exploded as a result. Most mothers would prefer their daughters to be resonating with Taylor Swift, than they would with Nikki Minaj. And, can you blame them?