Welsh singer/ songwriter, London & LA based
That Judith Owen's album Ebb and Flow evokes the spirit of the halcyon days of the great 1970s troubadours is neither surprising nor is it accidental.
The Welsh-born singer-songwriter acknowledges the likes of James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell as the musical inspiration for her highly personal songs about love and loss, pain and joy, shadows and light, dreams and despair - the universal emotions that define the human condition.
And to do justice to those songs she turned to the legendary musicians who created the template for the seventies troubadour sound - a core band of drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, recently dubbed 'the knights of soft rock' in a celebratory article in Rolling Stone magazine, and who between them played on many of the landmark albums from the era, including Tapestry, Sweet Baby James, Blue, Jackson Browne's Running On Empty and countless others.
"The kind of music I write is so influenced by that sound and period that I thought I'd go direct to the source," Owen explains. "When I plucked up the courage to ask them to play on the record I was amazed when they said 'yes'. But working with them was hand in glove because when I write songs, I'm hearing a sound in my head - and they knew the sound because they originated and defined it. In some ways, the record is almost a love letter to those guys and the classic sound they invented."
Yet Ebb and Flow is so much more, too, for Owen's songs touch on the deepest emotions and the darkest moments in her own troubled narrative with an unswerving honesty.
"Singing about the human condition, living under the shadow of loss and frustration and sadness and loneliness and not being gratuitously sentimental about it - that's the songwriter's job," Owen says." People say I write sad songs and they're definitely emotional revealing. But they're also uplifting because out of human struggle comes something beautiful. Sad music can be elevating, because it's a direct route into your heart."
What Owen describes as the "bookends" of the album are two particularly heart-rending songs, "You're Not Here Any More", about her mother who committed suicide when she was 15, and "I Would Give Anything", about the recent loss of her father, the opera singer Handel Owen. Both songs are poignant expressions of the bittersweet duality that is perhaps the album's strongest theme and which is reflected in the title Ebb and Flow. "Yes, they’re incredibly sad," admits Owen. "But they're also beautiful because they’re the most loving songs I could write and totally honest about the reality of loss."
The suicide of her mother affected Owen deeply and contributed to her own lifelong struggle with depression, in which music has been her therapy. The themes of emotional vulnerability and how to make it through inform several other songs on the album, including "Under Your Door", "You Are Not My Friend" and "Train Out Of Hollywood" - although there is a universality even to Owen's most intimate songs, for the inspiration often comes from a compassion for others in adversity, struggling with the same issues of loss and longing and insecurity that have shaped her own life.
But there is a seductive wit and playfulness alongside the melancholic introspection, too. A trademark of Owen's career has been her irreverent ability to subvert well-known songs with unexpected and improbable covers. Over the years she has turned-inside-out songs by the likes of Dee Purple and The Police to render them almost unrecognisable from the originals. Here it's Mungo Jerry's 1970 smash hit "In The Summertime" that gets the unique Owen makeover treatment, rendered as it might have sounded if the song had appeared on Joni Mitchell's Ladies of The Canyon. "Great songs are like great bones. You can hang whatever you want on them," she says. " "In The Summertime" is a ridiculously silly song, and so I asked 'What Would Joni Do?' It's warm, with a glint in the eye and a sense of fun."
And given the history of the musicians who play on the album it would have been remiss not to acknowledge the roots of Ebb and Flow. A lovely cover of Carole King's "It Might As Well Rain Until September" is complemented by a stunning version of James Taylor's "Hey Mister, That's Me Up On The Jukebox". The suggestion that Owen should record the song came from Russ Kunkel, who played on the original on Taylor's Mud Slide Slim and The Blue Horizon album more than 40 years ago.
"It's a song that showed James's inner darkness at the time and how lonely he was," says Owen. "I changed the lyrics slightly to suit a female voice and made it a lonely piano player rather than a guitar picker. But I recognised the feeling of being isolated within yourself which he's singing about and I love the emotional juxtaposition of an easy listening sound with a deeper and darker emotional truth behind it."
But although Ebb and Flow is a highly personal album about the frequently difficult journey that has been Owen's life, it also has the feel of a genuinely collaborative band album. "One of the great things is that Judith makes space for what we add," Kunkel notes. "She turned it into a real ensemble thing," Wachtel adds.
The combination of personal songs and ensemble playing has resulted felicitously in the most self-assured and confident album of Owen's career to date. After emigrating to America in 1993, Ebb and Flow is Judith Owen's eighth album since her 1996 debut Emotions On A Postcard.. Married to the American actor and humorist Harry Shearer, in addition to her acclaimed solo work she has for many years been Richard Thompson's female foil of choice. Both have appeared on each other's albums and Owen played a leading collaborative part in Thompson's 1000 Years Of Popular Music and Cabaret of Souls projects. She also co-created “Losing It” with Ruby Wax, a funny yet devastatingly honest two-woman show chronicling descent into mental illness that was a box-office hit in the West End in 2011.
But it is her role as an unflinching singer-songwriter baring her soul that remains at the core of Owen's creativity and Ebb and Flow, she says, feels like a homecoming. "It's the sound I heard as a kid and which made me light up. I've been on a journey to getting well with music as my best friend. There will still be struggles because that never stops..But I've ended up with the sound that first inspired me. I've brought it home and it feels nice to be here."