I first saw Judith Owen at The Cat Club in Melbourne in 2016. It was breathtaking.
Few artists can deliver a show where they demand total silence from an audience. When Judith sings you stay quiet and listen.
Judith Owen’s most recent album ‘RedisCOVERed’ was a lesson in taking well-known songs and completely making them her own. Judith has taken classics and some contemporary pop songs, deconstructed them, thrown out the “bling” and put them back together so you can hear their heart and soul.
Judith will be in Australia for the Port Fairy Folk Festival in March and also treat Sydney and Melbourne to a night of remarkable music.
And yes Simpsons and Spinal Tap fans, her famous husband Harry Shearer (Mr Burns/Derek Smalls) will be on bass for Port Fairy and Sydney. For those of you who have seen Judith before you already know Harry is a remarkable musician in his own right.
So let’s pick up the conversation with Judith Owen with her most recent album ‘RedisCOVERed’ and also find out what is coming next.
Paul Cashmere: How did you curate the songs for RedisCOVERed?
Judith Owen: They are songs that I either grew up listening to and loving or they are songs, like the contemporary ones, that are about the here and now. They are songs that I remember but also songs I can weave my own experiences into. The thing about great songs is that you can reimagine them. You can put your take on them. We all listen to songs and they become personal to us, the soundtrack of our lives. I am doing exactly the same thing. I am just taking it to a more extreme level.
Paul: What about a song like Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’? I thought his song is over-produced and had too many effects. You’ve stripped it back and you can hear the beauty Drake covered up.
Judith: What makes me so happy when I play these songs live is that people come up afterwards and say ‘I didn’t know it had that meaning’ or ‘I wasn’t a fan of that song but now I hear something else’. When I asked Harry (Shearer) what would be the most bizarre, contemporary song I could cover he didn’t even blink. He immediately said “Hotline Bling”. That was a challenge. What I do is I sit down and read the lyrics. I find something in them that relates to me, to my life, to my experiences, to my truth. Even a song like ‘Hotline Bling’, which is basically a booty call, lets me honest. It is really a song about one-sided love. Before I met my husband, I remember being with this one man I was so crazy about but he wasn’t really into me. I was the last person he would call on his list of people. He wouldn’t call for weeks or months and I’d wait, and I’d wait, and I’d convince myself that one day he would wake up and realize I was the love of his life which wasn’t the truth but we convince ourselves of that when we are in one-sided relationships. ‘Hotline Bling’ made sense to me and really made sense and it really spoke of something we all know.
Paul: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ is also a booty call but Ed is British so he is a lot more polite.
Judith: Hearing me say “booty call” is wonderful isnt’ it? With ‘Shape Of You’ I had to think how can I make sense of this song and make it relate to me. I heard the throwaway line where he says “put on Van the Man” and I realized oh my God, he is talking about listening to Van Morrison and Van Morrison was listening to Stax and all the black American music we grew up loving so much. It really made sense and that’s how I identified with it. As a Brit who grew up listening to Black American music all the time it just made sense to me and that is where I took that song. It is the pure joy of hearing that music.
Paul: You do have an Australian connection with Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Summer Nights’. Her original is a duet. Are you going to perform that with your husband Harry Shearer? Will he be your John Travolta?
Judith: Lets hope not. Divorce proceedings who occur very soon after. I like to turn songs on their head. Whatever they were originally I go in the absolute opposite direction. ‘Summer Nights’ is one of the most joyous, dance around the room, frothy 50s music from Grease. To reimagine it and to make it mine, I think the original is the best so why do that again? Its pointless. Its my job to interrupt it. The lyrics made me think of the first real love I had in my life. He had been away working abroad. He messed up, he had an affair, he came back and said ‘forgive me’ and of course I said yes. The truth of it is just because you can forgive doesn’t mean you can’t forget. From that point onwards I would think of him with her, wonder who she was, were they happy, was she prettier, all those awful questions that are in your mind when your imagination runs wild. That’s what that song brings about. It is now a jazz torch song. When I sing “tell me more, tell me more”, it is that thing that I cannot stop thinking about and I remember that. I was insatiable. I couldn’t stop. For me to sing other people’s music, great songs like this, it has to be the truth and it has to mean something to me. The audience has to believe it and you are not going to believe Harry Shearer being my John Travolta. That is why it is a no. But he will be playing some incredible bass on that version in the show.
Paul: If all of these songs have a special meaning to you are we learning something about you when we listen to these lyrics?
Judith: You absolutely are. The irony is my own songs are terribly revealing and it shows you all my flaws and my beautiful damage, as I call it. I speak from the prospective of things that we all go through in our lovely, flawed lives. These songs that are other peoples are as revealing as my songs because I have put myself completely into them. I tell a story in these shows, like I am doing with you now, I tell the audience about my experiences because they are shared experiences we all know.
Paul: What does Wild Cherry’s ‘Play That Funky Music’ and Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ tell us about you?
Judith: ‘Play That Funky Music’ is an absolute love letter to this city (New Orleans) I adore and live in. My dad was an opera singer and had an amazing collection of piano music from Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair. I’d hear the music of New Orleans and ended up living here and doing the very different kind of music I do. That song represents being so welcomed in this city and how amazing that felt.
‘Hot Stuff’, when I sat down and revisited the glorious Donna Summer, I realized she was the original cougar. That’s not who she was. She was a good Christian singer who ended up going to Munich, getting together with Giorgio Moroder and becoming this becoming this vixen. What I love about that song and what I read into it is that my version speaks of certain loneliness that we all feel to find love and companionship and company. I think my version has a sense of yearning. I do have a very funny story that I share in the live show about the only time I ever tried to be an assertive woman and how badly it failed. That’s all I am going to say.
Paul: There are a lot of fun songs but it goes complete opposite of that with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Cherokee Louise’.
Judith: I feel like ‘Cherokee Louise’ is probably my favourite song on the album. The way I feel about Joni Mitchell is near Religious. I saw her the other day at NAMM. It was beyond moving. It was post her illness, her coma. It was extraordinary for me. The first time I heard her was in the 80s. I was late. The very first songs of hers I heard where ‘Cherokee Louise’ and ‘Ladies Man’ which is why they are on the album. I was thinking, this is on another level of music. I was talking to her just a few weeks ago about my version and thanking her for it. Female singer songwriters looks at her as being our leader. It sounds really funny but I think she should be made the Patron Saint of Singer Songwriters. She is fearless. When she wrote ‘Cherokee Louise’ nobody was writing songs about child abuse. She wrote this exquisite piece of music about a kid she grew up with who was hiding from her foster dad. I’ve taken it to a cinematic place. I wanted the listener to see this all unravel in front of them like they were watching a movie. I am most proud of that song. It means the most to me.
Paul: Is Leland Sklar coming to Australia with you this time?
Judith: I’m in the studio mixing the follow-up to RedisCOVERed with Leland. It takes it to an even more remarkable level covering songs. I cannot take two bass players with me. I cannot be with Harry and then bring another player.
Paul: Is this next record part 2 of RedisCOVERed?
Judith: Yes, the next one is called ‘Both Things Are True’ because it is going to be half covers and half originals. It needs to be. It really does mean exactly that ‘Both Things Are True’. I see life this way. It is both exquisitely wonderful and terrible and painful at the same time. I think that is in all my songs, in all my writing. It is bitter-sweet. I think that’s how life is. I think I can sing other people’s songs and I can write my own and they are all real and the truth. They are both parts of me. Its who I am.
Paul: What is on the next record?
Judith: A jazz interpretation of Abba’s ‘SOS’. One of the ones I will be proudest of is a jazz, torch version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’. You can’t just do the same thing. It has to take you to a new and other place. You have to keep moving forward and up. That’s the job. You need to take further than the last one. You need to take it further, higher, better. You have to be emotionally honest and opening up yourself. It’s the same stuff we all get to experience but most people don’t get to say. It is too hard to say. At the same time, because I love to laugh, these are not bleak shows. This is not bleak music. There is that twinkle in my eye. I love being the one who makes the audience laugh, I love being that person. I love to laugh at myself as much as anything else and to bring on this music that can bring you to tears. That’s the music that affects me the most. I want it to be an evening that people remember.