Around this time a few years ago, singer-songwriter Judith Owen was in the midst of holiday chaos, hurrying through the streets of Manhattan to hit Saks Fifth Avenue for some last-minute gift shopping. It was on this path that she saw something that stopped her in her tracks and has haunted her ever since.
“There was this truly gorgeous girl, who must have been, maybe, 17 tops,” she remembers. “It was snowing, but she had no shoes, no clothes. She had trash bags as clothes; one as a makeshift bra, another one as a skirt. And in between was the most perfect, voluminous pregnant stomach. It was almost like a seeing a painting it was so beautiful, yet it was the most inhumane thing you could ever see. I was struck by the thought that that’s somebody’s child. That’s somebody’s baby. She started like me but because of circumstance, luck, parents, home, whatever happened in that person’s life, she’s on the streets, and I’m rushing over to spend too much money on a load of rubbish.”
Owen’s anguish at that young girl’s plight sent her to her piano, inspiring the title track for her latest album, Somebody’s Child. The ballad that came out is wrenching and inspiring in equal measure. Her piano and voice carry the weight of this moral quandary even as the swelling string section offers some beams of sunlight upon her pleas to “spare a little thought for the down and out because… if the tables were turned and the deal were different, it might be you.”
That balance of light and dark, joy and tragedy has been the mark of Owen’s work since she started releasing music in the late ‘90s. A songwriter and performer in the tradition of Laurel Canyon greats like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, she has long sought out that sweet spot that all creatives pursue: the point in the Venn diagram where entertainment and emotion blend together.
Owen achieves that with near perfection on her new LP. Already available in Europe but soon to be released in the States via her own Twanky Records, Somebody’s Child sets bouncy, jazzy love songs alongside pleas for action to halt the damage done to our environment (“Tell All Your Children”) and for the return of a long-lost friend (“Josephine”).
For Owen, that quest for equity in life, where the highs and lows even each other out in some way, is a lifelong pursuit, even if looks as if she has achieved it. She may be sitting on a couch in the London home she shares with her husband, The Simpsons and Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer, beneath a framed poster for one of the bawdy Carry On films, and injecting her comments with spirit and laughter, but much of the conversation has been about depression and how music helped pull her back from the edge.
Born in Wales but raised outside of London, Owen grew up in a house filled with music. Her father was an opera singer who performed regularly at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and her mother was a jazz enthusiast with a deep love of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and big bands. She also speaks of spirited sing-a-longs involving her extended family whenever they got together under one roof.
But there was also a lot of sorrow in her home growing up. Her mother suffered from depression so severe that she says the tables were often turned with Owen and her older sister playing the role of parent. Though a sensitive child, she learned to hide away her fears and anxieties lest they add to her parents’ burden. But those feelings eventually found their way out. “I used to love going with my father and watching his dress rehearsals,” she says, quietly. “But I would cry and cry and cry during the overtures. It was the only place I could cry because I couldn’t do it at home. On one hand, there was such joy in seeing my father’s work, but on the other, I was still living under this constant cloud of worry that my mother would be all right.”
Those clouds have never really left Owen. They became a permanent fixture on her horizon at age 15 when her mother took her own life. It’s just that her emotional weather forecast depends on so many factors. Like a lot of us, the holiday season is when it’s particularly stormy in her world, connected as it is with the death of her mom, which happened right before Christmas.
What has helped pull her through this often-dark period has been the holiday parties that she and her husband host every year. It’s a tradition that began around 13 years ago, when the couple invited their talented friends over to their Santa Monica home for an evening of music and frivolity. The first one was a humble affair, but as word started to spread about friends of theirs like Richard Thompson and Keb’ ‘Mo stopping by, the shindigs started to get a little crowded.
“One year it got really overwhelming,” Owen remembers. “Martin Short and Tom Hanks came by, and Steve Martin with his banjo. Billy Connolly. It was madness.”
The couple soon started getting offers to take their holiday fêtes to bigger stages, an idea they rejected until Hurricane Katrina hit their part-time home of New Orleans in 2005. Wanting to do something to help the residents of the region recover from the storm’s devastation, they moved the party to Walt Disney Hall and made it a benefit concert.
Since then, these shows, a mixture of music and comedy subtitled Christmas Without Tears, have become a new holiday tradition for Owen and Shearer, and they’ve only grown in number and stature. So far this year, they’ve held events in London, Los Angeles and Chicago, and they’ll be rounding out the season this week with two shows—on December 22 and 23—at Le Petit Théâtre Du Vieux Carré in New Orleans. Each one will raise funds not only for the theater the shows are being held in, but New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation as well.
These performances are perfect for Owen, as it is onstage where she truly finds the inner harmony for which she yearns. At her recent London performance at The Forge, one that capped off a long European tour, she and her stripped-down ensemble (featuring longtime James Taylor sideman Leland Sklar on bass) played Somebody’s Child in its entirety with passion and potency, drawing out the heart of each song. Between each song, she was a riot, playfully chiding the audience and her band and offering up goofy and ribald commentary.
“I couldn’t understand why people in the music business didn’t like that I wanted to be very serious, but I wanted to laugh, too,” she says. “They didn’t get why I needed humor as well. I just didn’t want to be this mysterious quiet person onstage being moody and dark and wonderful. That’s just not who I am. If you write about authenticity and you want to be authentic, I don’t believe you can be sitting on stage being a bit of a fraud. At least I can’t do that. Believe me, I’ve tried.”