Q&A: Judith Owen


One of the stars of the Marylebone Music Festival on the draw of New Orleans, Picasso’s forgotten women and why nothing in life is ever simple

Interview: Clare Finney

How did you come to be involved with the Marylebone Music Festival?
A few years ago, the festival’s founder, Meghan Cassidy, asked me to play music from my Somebody’s Child album in the Wallace Collection as part of the festival. Imagine it, playing on a grand piano, surrounded by Old Masters. I was like, good god—this is incredible! I love these people! And my involvement with the festival has just grown since. I love the charity they support, West London Mission, and all they do for the homeless. London is in a complete state at the moment when it comes to homelessness—it’s an offence to society and humanity, frankly, and anything you can do, you should do. So of course I immediately agreed to play again this year [on 20th June at the Rudolph Steiner Theatre]. I really hope people will come down and support—not just because it should be an extraordinary evening but because of the cause behind it. We all know how easy it is to become faceless and nameless in London, so to create a community that cares about its neighbourhood and neighbours, as West London Mission has, is a great thing. 

You grew up in London, but today you and you husband split your time between here, Los Angeles and New Orleans. What’s it like living between such different cities?
Having grown up in London, I am used to a city where I am constantly inspired. I’m in love with the arts and everything they bring to our lives, and the idea of being somewhere I can’t access that is very hard indeed. One of the reasons moving to the States was so tough at first was that we started off in Santa Monica, in LA. Of course the sea and the beach was nice, and I like hiking and rafting, but it’s not what inspires me. My sister lives in southern Ireland and it feeds her soul, but I am a city girl. New Orleans and London are both just throbbing with life, and I love that. I’m out every night in London, seeing friends for dinner, theatre, dance, classical music—and when I’m in New Orleans, it’s the same thing. Both cities share that mentality of wanting to savour all there is to offer, and the only difference there is that everything in New Orleans is walkable. It’s a far more manageable city.

Which city inspires you most, would you say? Not that we’re biased...
New Orleans is the place that inspires me the most. I see a level of musicianship that floors me, it is so amazing. I mean, sure London has hotel bars, Ronnie Scott’s, but there isn’t really anything to parallel the vibe in New Orleans, where you just stumble onto these patches of greatness; where the only bar for anyone playing music is that it has to be fantastic; where there is no pose or pretention, just a love for music.

Your husband is actor Harry Shearer, of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame. How do you sustain a busy, showbiz marriage?
I actually think it is harder to be married to someone not in the business—who doesn’t understand and ends up being the one left behind while you’re on the road the whole time. You get to do the true love of your life, your work, and the other person is just... left. You either have to marry someone who really, truly understands the nature of the business, or someone who is doing it themselves. I know this all too well because my dad was an opera singer at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and worked around the clock, and it was very lonely for my mother. To be married to someone in the business, you have to either meet on the road or really schedule your time to make sure you’re together as much as possible. I think Harry and I have a good balance because we understand this, and we support each other and each other’s work.

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Your recent tour to promote your album RedisCOVERed was subtitled ‘I don’t do karaoke’. What did you mean by the phrase?
It’s quite simple really: as a singer-songwriter and storyteller, I have always done my own thing. Even when doing covers of songs, I’ve done my own version. I have a deep-rooted dislike of bland, personality-less covers, without any new perspective. I was in a bar the other night, and heard a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, and it was the lamest, whitest thing I have ever heard. Just: why? And to one of the funkiest God-given talents in the world, of all people? If you haven’t got a new angle to bring to a song, if you don’t personalise it and take it somewhere, then don’t bother. So when I came to tour my album, I came up with ‘I don’t do karaoke’: it’s irreverent, funny and facetious.

How did you manage that?
With all of the songs on RedisCOVERed I want the listener to initially feel like they are hearing them for the first time—at least until they get to chorus. Then I want them to think they know the song, that they’ve heard it—and for the meaning to be just turned on its head. When I am doing a cover, I absolutely reimagine them. It’s something I have done since I was a child, alongside writing my own music. I want those listening to my covers to discover all sorts of new things.

You’ve written eloquently about your musical dyslexia. How has that informed your ability to create exceptional covers, do you think?
The first time my family realised I had a talent for music, I was four years old and my sister was playing the piano—a lovely piece by Debussy. I crawled onto the stool to try to copy her and whilst it wasn’t right, of course, it was close enough for my family to say, “She’s got the genes!” Yet the moment they put music in front of me everything went to hell in a handbasket. I cannot see music— it’s just wiggles to me—but that worked in my favour because I did everything by ear and that allowed me to be left alone really. I spent my time writing and playing. I taught myself how to ‘write’ music by hearing songs or classical music, sitting at the piano and doing my own version: their music, but in my style. Then, when I was struggling to be an actress in London, I gigged in the evenings, playing the piano and singing for four, five hours at a stretch wherever I could. Obviously because I couldn’t read music, I had to learn any tune that might be requested by heart—and as I went, I rearranged pieces and made them my own.

Tell us about the new collection of songs you’ll be debuting at the festival.
As well as songs from my future album, I’ll be playing a song cycle and a theatrical piece I’ve written about Picasso’s women. I will be telling the story of each of those women who were famously the muses for the look and style of Picasso’s paintings, and each of the stories will be followed by a song, which will take you into the world of that story and continue it. It’s like two pieces of a puzzle, I suppose. At present, I’ve a couple more songs to finish—and I’m excited. I’ve literally never done something like this, and I’m proud of this music. It is beautiful, theatrical and seductive, as was the man. As, of course, were the women.

What drew you to Picasso’s women in the first place?
I am really interested in the people who are behind great artists—usually women, because of the way society has been structured. Historically, the women behind Wagner, Strauss, Mahler and the great painters like Picasso were themselves often talented artists, but they ended up having to take a back seat. I like to know what makes people write, paint and perform. I am fascinated by artists and by their muses—and the more I read about Picasso’s women and his art, the more I was compelled to write something. Picasso reinvented himself numerous times during his career, and every time he did he had a new affair and a muse who would set him alight and help him create. It was fascinating and shocking, even painful at times, because he was abusive: an emotional vampire that treated women as goddesses, then doormats. But I think all art comes at a great price if not to the artist then to the people around them, and these were not second-place women. They were remarkable in their own right—and the brilliant irony is of course that they’ve been immortalised in spite of it all. You’re looking at them every time you look at a Picasso canvas.

 In an age where we are increasingly aware of toxic masculinity, this piece seems particularly pertinent. Where do you stand on the separation between art and artist?
You don’t necessarily like your heroes, and nor should you. I have met some and fallen in love with them, and there are others I wish I’d never met. I use this phrase all the time, but no one thing is true. Life is wonderful and it is awful. People can be monsters and be amazing. Michael Jackson had the most appalling childhood and turned into an abuser himself. You can’t pretend otherwise—I’ve known it personally for years and years—but I am not someone who believes his music should go away. He made one of the greatest records of all time, and he was also a groomer. Both these things are true, and to make out that he can only be one or the other is very undeveloped and childlike, to my mind. When you’re a kid you say: “I love you, I hate you.” As adults, we should know life is more complex than that: that it is not black and white, but almost entirely grey. It’s why I was drawn to Picasso: because out of shit came beauty. That’s the job of the artist, to make something awful into something great, and I’ve yet to meet one without trauma and a desire to be loved. I have great empathy with that, as someone who has had a difficult childhood.

How do you ‘write’ music, if you cannot write it down physically?
I record everything. I write the lyrics down, and I record any tune I think of on my voice recorder. I have been known to be walking the dog or wandering around Whole Foods, singing into the phone because I just thought of something. I thank America for making me a shame-free person: you lose your self-consciousness quite quickly there. The good news is, I can remember music very easily: I can remember thousands of songs because that is how my brain has developed—but it’s not left much room for names or simple facts or anything. I need more RAM.