OPINION Nadia Kamil

NWR Issue 105

Honey Poo Poo and the Sad Songs of the Homesick

Depending on how you came across her, Judith Owen could strike you as several different people. Her range of work throughout her career is like a hall of mirrors, each genre reflecting a slightly differently shaped person. Once you spend any time in the Judith Owen hall of mirrors, you soon realise that the singing-songwriting persona appears to be the most accurate image of her, and the clearest distillation of her talent.

Owen was born in London to Welsh parents, and says, ‘I’ve been doing music since I was literally four years old.’ Not surprising when you discover her father was a professional singer at the Royal Opera House, though she professes that she always wanted to be an actress so she ‘never had to compete with him’. She followed that idea through and went to study at drama school, but soon realised the musician within her could not be ignored. In between acting classes, she would sit at a piano, as she had also done since she was four years old, and express herself through words and music. ‘Music was the most pure thing I’ve ever done, the most direct thing into me,’ she tells me. ‘I thought for the longest time that no one would be interested in my very personal and interior songs.’ It wasn’t until she played some songs for a few friends that she cottoned on to the fact that her music was connecting with people and that it could, and should, be the focus of her career.

Owen’s personal history is wrought in her work and this is especially evident in her latest release, Ebb & Flow, which she is currently touring. Following the death of her father she was spurred into creative action. She explains to me how the loss of a loved one makes you want to live, badly, and how she considered how she could possibly honour his life with her own. ‘What would be a dream for me to do? Well, how about getting into a studio with the guys that I was listening to in the car as a kid with my mum and dad, singing along at the top of our lungs to James Taylor, Carole King and Joni? Wouldn’t it be amazing if I made a record with them? That was my therapy.’ So she did. Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Watchel, a trio of hugely respected LA session musicians who have played for so many definitive artists, including those Owen had loved since those sing-along car journeys, agreed to record and tour the album with her.

The result is a record that exudes that classic 1970s West Coast personality which feels immediately familiar yet with a distinct Judith Owen touch. This album has been a long time in the making and is the culmination of Owen hitting her musical and emotional peak at the same time. Her career has seemingly careened about from playing the female foil for Richard Thompson, a live comedy cabaret show with Ruby Wax about mental illness and various projects with her husband Harry Shearer. And this all the while recording and releasing her own records.

It’s clear that Owen enjoys collaboration and many types of performance and it’s plain to see that Owen’s calibre is reflected in the people who collaborate with her. ‘I think you should do everything you’re capable of as long as you’re good at it,’ she states confidently, informing me that she even created the artwork for the album. She certainly is good at it. Her comedic and playful side makes itself known in witty asides between tracks in her live shows and her social media accounts. Her Instagram account is full of knob jokes being blatantly enjoyed between her and bandmate Leland Sklar. One example is spun around a big penis-shaped yam, Yammy, their lucky mascot on the tour bus. ‘I can’t be that serious all the time, I think it’s the flip side of being a dark person… the darkest people tend to be the people who need to laugh.’

Her dalliances with comedy are impressive, including an appearance as herself on The Simpsons, and the very fun-sounding Judith Owen & Harry Shearer’s Holiday Sing-Along, which has attracted admirable guests including Jane Lynch and Christopher Guest. Her forays into comedy don’t always match up to her prowess in music, however, as I found when watching the satirical web series she co-created with Shearer, Honey Poo Poo. This mini online series is a parody of the reality TV show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It certainly showcases Owen’s talent for performing big, silly characters, and is the result of being able to access everything in order to home-produce comic ideas. The downside here can be the lack of a critical eye, someone who might ask, ‘What’s the point? Is this more than a one-joke idea?’ But the amount of fun the performers are having is so evident it’s difficult to not be taken along with it.

It might be my fondness for the actual family that star in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo that makes me question what the target of this particular satire is. They’re a family who obviously love each other and enjoy being in each other’s company! That’s adorable, isn’t it? Who can resent that? I’m hoping that Honey Poo Poo is attempting to attack the increasing ludicrousness of reality TV shows rather than lampooning a sweet family who seem to have a great time mucking about with each other. However, I have to confess I’ve only seen one episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and that was on a plane, where for some reason I cry at pretty much everything I watch so my opinion of it is heavily filtered.

What we do get from Honey Poo Poo, however, is an unobstructed vision of the silly, playful side of Owen which stands in stark contrast to the earnest seriousness of her music. She says to me, ‘I take my music very, very seriously,’ and that is unambiguously obvious. But one facet of her music does hint at a more playful approach. Owen has a penchant for covering tracks and wholly making them her own. Often hugely well known songs, such as Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’ or Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’. She says, ‘Great songs are like great bones. You can hang whatever you want on them.’ On Ebb & Flow she’s recorded her own version of one of the most definitive summer songs that’s ever been written, Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’. This is a great example of how Owen luxuriates in fitting a classic song around her own shape, tailoring the recognisable fabric of the track into a new garment that suits her perfectly.
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I wonder if this proclivity for making covers her own stems from the fact that Owen doesn’t ‘know where home is’. Her covers are an exercise comparable to moving to a new place and making it distinctively her own home. She describes herself as London Welsh, which is to say neither truly Welsh, nor truly a Londoner. She recalls that her happiest childhood memories are of their family trips to Wales, that she felt the biggest sense of belonging to a country she never lived in. I ask her if she knows the Welsh word hiraeth and she jumps on it, ‘My dad used to say that to me, “Your songs are full of hiraeth.” Owen feels she owes a lot to her motherland, she asserts that ‘Wales makes great minor key music’ which has influenced her songwriting sensibilities. She describes the Welsh as a ‘glass-half-broken’ type of people and that she ‘inherited that sadness and yearning’ which inspires a lot of great music. She’s spoken about this with her sometime collaborator Richard Thompson, declaring that ‘Great American folk music, sad, sad songs, come from people who are homesick.’

You sense Owen is destined to be forever homesick, being without a tangible, single place she can call home, other than music. I ask her if perhaps this is the reason she enjoys being on tour so much. ‘If I could spend my life touring and performing, I’d be a very happy woman,’ she replies. When I spoke to her she was in Nashville, excited to perform in a city with a strong musical history, and maybe even catch some bluegrass in her down time. Gathering to watch music being played live is as instinctive to Owen as she says it was to ‘Primitive man…. That’s how we’re made.’

She describes touring as ‘Like being on the best school trip you’ve ever been on, and you’re the popular kid.’ She thrives on live performance, she says she’s a big believer in it. The shows on this spring’s tour to promote Ebb & Flow are all free to attend. That decision is a canny one. Owen appreciates that at the moment many people might be struggling financially. In the world of music and live performance this can mean choosing between buying the music or attending a live show. Owen’s smart decision to not charge for tickets is being rewarded with a lot of post-show CD and vinyl sales.

As a performer myself, I really respect that choice to open up the shows to anyone. To me, it’s more important to have a room full of people excited to see and discover you than to make a few bucks from an audience who wonders if the show will be worth the ticket price. As Owen points out, ‘People want to discover music, they want to find something they love and they want to support it.’ This is an especially clever move for Owen as it is really in her physical performances that her songs come alive. She has said that she is the best accompanist for herself, and when you see her at the piano, it’s hard to disagree. Owen is deliberate about this, she explains, ‘The music I write is meant to be seen first and then heard on the record afterwards.’

Watching her sing her own songs is akin to witnessing her going through the emotions which created them. The effect is raw, the unpretentious lyrics about her own personal trials allow for a universal interpretation. Everyone in the audience makes their own connection with the tracks, then they buy the album after the show. It’s hard for me to tell if the similarities between Judith Owen and myself are what made her music connect so directly or whether it is the skill of her song writing and performance that manages to speak so intimately to the listener.

The second song on Ebb & Flow, ‘I Would Give Anything’, explores Owen’s reaction to her father’s death, and nestled later in the album is ‘You’re Not Here Anymore’, a song about her mother, who committed suicide when Owen was fifteen. My own mother died when I was young and this profound sense of loss in her songs sparks an almost visceral response in me. The darkness and light in Owen and her work strikes a balance that is to me both natural and familiar.

Rocked by her mother’s loss, Owen has struggled with depression for much of her life. The disease appears to have played a big part in her life and her career. In 2010, Owen collaborated with Ruby Wax on a live stage show which directly dealt with their personal experiences of mental illness. Owen scored the show with songs embodying the feelings of Wax’s comic narrative about her own breakdown. The show toured hospitals and institutions before a successful West End run.

Owen is an evangelist about the importance of openly discussing mental health issues. The second act of the show, a discussion with the audience, ended up acting as a sort of therapy for the people who attended. As Owen explains, ‘It’s an isolation that you cannot get through by yourself.’ I ask her about the relationship, if any, between depression and creativity: she sees it as a dichotomy, like much of her career, and life itself. ‘It’s a double-edged sword. Life can be shit and wonderful at the same time… that’s the meaning of Ebb & Flow. It’s both things at once. Funny and sad. Wonderful and awful. Empty and full.’

Her depression has been the inspiration for much of her writing, and at the same time, music provided a life-line for her to deal with it. Writing songs could act as therapy. She tells me that ‘Songs are my journals’, a means to reach out and communicate her emotional struggles. Singing is one of those activities that releases chemicals that make you feel better, she says, like exercise. ‘When choirs sing together their hearts start beating at the same time.’ This biological response to the physical act of singing and of feeling better has solidified the connection between music and emotions for Owen. She acknowledges that sometimes getting to the point of being able to sing, or sit at a piano, can be a monumental struggle. The key for her is to be as open about it as possible. This is one of the reasons she has settled so well in America. When you tell an American you’re in therapy, they don’t raise an eyebrow. The British response often involves a classic stiff-upper lip and pretending you didn’t hear whilst looking at your shoes. She still, however, loves Britain and frequently returns to savour our sense of humour and other cultural quirks America can’t quite match.

Owen breathes this two-sided life. British and American. Silly and serious. Melancholy and joyful. The result is a pick and mix career: she is a bold, charismatic, silly, mischievous performer who sings deeply earnest, vulnerable and serious songs. ‘I am the queen of the bittersweet song, everything is extremes to me. Gorgeous, awful, beautiful.’ Ebb & Flow expresses a lot of that, but I distinctly get the feeling that to truly appreciate the work of this red-headed, wisecracking London Welsh, American transplant, it needs to be from the audience of a packed-out venue at one of her live shows. If only maybe to catch a glimpse of Yammy hanging out backstage.


previous opinion: Who are the Welsh Kale and What do They Say?
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