Judith Owen: ‘You take away the sting of depression by talking about it’

Judith Owen
Judith Owen
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It’s not uncommon for singer-songwriters to turn the microscope on themselves for material.

But few do it to quite the extent that Judith Owen has.

Since her mother’s suicide when she was just 15, Judith has had her own battle with, at times, crippling depression.

Four years ago, she used her experiences to write a show called Losing It with her close-friend, and fellow sufferer, the comedian Ruby Wax.

‘Because the show was about severe depression,’ she explains, ‘the first place we wanted to play it in was The Priory. The first audience we had were the patients in The Priory and their families.

‘We knew that we were doing this as two people with chronic depression and from the perspective of people who have had it and come through the other side, and are managing it.

The moment you bring it out in the open, you out it, it has no power

Judith Owen

‘Knowing that we were now in that other place and we were okay, we figured that by the very nature of speaking about it we could help destigmatise it.

‘It’s only by speaking about it that you take away its sting. The moment you bring it out in the open, you out it, it has no power.

‘We were performing to the people who needed it the most. And if they didn’t enjoy it, if they didn’t connect with it... this is the balm, the salve, this music – it saved my life.

‘It connects with people like nothing else on this planet. It‘s the most powerful tool we have to reach people, and not just people with depression, it’s people who are old, people who are ill, children who are struggling, it’s across the board, it’s human, it’s deeply connected to our psyche and connected to our humanity.’

Judith released her first album in 1996, and has always used songwriting as a means of catharsis.

After touring the show around mental health facilities, then taking it to the West End and the Edinburgh Festival, Judith found out her father was terminally ill with cancer.

‘When my father did pass away, it was a hellish couple of years. I had been writing these songs – the only way I can cope is to write songs, and it gets me through everything.

‘And I thought what can I do? I have to get back on the horse and throw myself into music or otherwise I will be in a pretty bad way.

‘That’s my way of dealing with stuff. I had to do something that was celebratory, something that was really a throwback to a time with my family, and what stood out as a really joyful thing?

‘It was being in the family car as a child, being on holiday, all of us singing along in the car to those songs by James Taylor and Carole King and having fun.

‘It made me want to write songs that were musically beautiful and were compelling. but had lyrics that had real weight and meant something truly confessional.

‘That period in the ’70s was one of the first times people were singing music that was utterly personal and it was okay to do that.

‘A song like (James Taylor’s) Fire and Rain, which is about somebody’s suicide, you can’t get anything more joyful, everybody’s singing along, but the content is so strong and heavy.’

The result was the critically acclaimed album – her 10th – Ebb and Flow, which she recorded with a band of musicians who were intergral to the original LA Laurel Canyon scene in the ’70s and are joining her on tour, bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and drummer Russell Kunkel.

As soon as Judith starts speaking about her band, the enthusiasm is clear.

‘They’re the originals,’ she says. ‘They are still monster session guys and live players,

‘Russ is pretty much on the road all the time with Lyle Lovett, Lee Sklar plays all the time, he never stops making records, and Waddy has been in the studio with Stevie Nicks, and does an awful lot of film music.

‘Those were the guys, along with Danny Kortchmar, they were James’ and Carole’s bands, Russ is on Blue and Joni is my idol, so that’s unbelievable.

‘I didn’t even know how many of the albums I loved that these guys play on – it’s shocking.’

Judith got to know Leland through her husband of 20 years, Harry Shearer, who does many of the voice on The Simpsons, but is also bass player Derek Smalls in the legendary mock-metal band Spinal Tap.

‘Lee Sklar was working on a comedy record my husband was making and it’s a small world. Everything comes back to Spinal Tap. I met my husband through Tap. I get to be the dreadful backing singer when they go out, which is the greatest role, let me tell you. Screw the serious stuff.

‘I am Mrs Smalls and I get to wear these appalling clothes. It’s the best fun you can have.

‘Russ was in Spinal Tap – he was Stumpy, one of the shortlived drummers. It’s a really tight-knit circle of people who know each other and love each other and work together. And it all goes back to that Laurel Canyon period of time.

‘Lee comes in and plays on Harry’s stuff, he hears me play, and that’s it, we’re completely glued together musically.’

When she suggested to Sklar her intentions for the album he called up his old buddies, who were on board ‘in two seconds flat.’

‘The truth is these guys are remarkable musicians, not just because they are so fine at what they do, but because they are music lovers and enthusiasts.

‘To them it’s not about needing to do this any more, they do it for the love of the music.

‘And they’re so much irresponsible fun like musicians should be. Having these guys in Britain with me, what can I say?’

Judith Owen is playing at The Cellars in Eastney on Tuesday. Tickets are £14 advance, £15 on the door. Doors open 7.30pm. Go to thecellars.co.uk or call 023 9282 6249.