That Judith Owen’s new album Ebb & Flow evokes the spirit of the halcyon days of the great 1970s troubadours is not accidental.
In a set of potent songs about love and loss, pain and joy, dreams and despair, the Welsh singer-songwriter fearlessly explores the duality of the human condition – and to do justice to the songs, she turned to the legendary musicians who created the seventies’ troubadour sound.
Between them, her core band of drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Waddy Wachtel played on many of the landmark albums from the era by the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.
“The kind of music I write is so influenced by that sound and period that I wanted to go direct to the source,” Owen explains. “When I write songs, I’m hearing a sound in my head – and they knew the sound because they invented it.”
The songs on Ebb & Flow touch on the deepest emotions of Owen’s own storied life with an unswerving honesty. But although her songs are highly personal, the emotions are universal.
“Singing about the human condition, living under the shadow of loss and frustration and sadness and loneliness and not being gratuitously sentimental about it, instead making something beautiful out of it – that’s the songwriter’s job,” Owen says.
What she describes as the “bookends” of the album are two particularly heart-rending songs, “You’re Not Here Any More”, about her mother (whose suicide when she was 15, was the catalyst for her foray into serious song-writing) and “I Would Give Anything”, about the recent loss of the greatest musical influence, her opera singer father.
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 & Flow. “Yes, they’re incredibly sad,” admits Owen. “But they’re also cathartic because they’re the most loving songs I could write and are totally honest about the reality of loss.”
The theme of how to make it through the darkest night informs several other compositions on the album, including “Under Your Door”, “You Are Not My Friend” and “Train Out Of Hollywood”, songs about emotional vulnerability, but always shot through with glimpses of hope and salvation.
But, although Ebb & Flow is a highly personal, solo singer-songwriter album, in a real sense it’s a ‘band’ record too. “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.
There is a seductive wit and playfulness alongside the 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 Deep 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.”
The result is the most confident and assured album of Owen’s career to date. After emigrating to America in 1993, Ebb & Flow is Judith Owen’s eighth album since her 1996 debut Emotions On A Postcard. She’s married to the actor and humorist Harry Shearer and in addition to her acclaimed solo work, Judith 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 projects 1000 Years Of Popular Music and Cabaret of Souls. 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 London’s 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. Ebb & Flow, she says, feels like a homecoming. “It’s the sound I heard as a kid and which made me light up. I’ve brought it home and it feels nice to be here.”
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Artists’ website: www.judithowen.net