Judith Owen records original album with legendary musicians

August 14, 2014

“It’s never been enough for me to just be a musician singing at the piano introducing my songs,” British singer-songwriter Judith Owen tells me via Skype from a tour stop overseas. “I always wanted to be an entertainer who was gifted at connecting with an audience. It’s taken me a long time to hone every possible aspect of my art. And on this record, everything just came together.”

That record is her latest release, Ebb & Flow, which finds the multi-faceted artist in the company of legendary sidemen like bassist Lee Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. On a set of introspective originals and convincing covers (including the James Taylor classic “Hey Mister”) Owen proves she has honed her craft wisely. And while the album pays fitting tribute to forbears like Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Carole King, it auspiciously announces Owen’s arrival onto the A-list of singers and songwriters everywhere.

Tell us about the genesis of your new album, which seems like a salute to the heyday of the singer-songwriter.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a massive fan of 1970s “American troubadour” music. That’s what I grew up listening to, and what my family played in the car on holiday trips. We’d all be singing along to songs by James Taylor and Carole King. It was a very influential time for me, listening to artists like Joni Mitchell and Elton John, who made music that was interior, emotional, and breathtakingly beautiful.

In 2012, I’d been living in Britain for a couple of years because my father had been terribly ill with cancer. After he died, I asked myself, “What is it that I want to do the most?” I wanted to do something special that celebrated his life, but also something that connected me to that kid in the car singing her lungs out to those songs. I thought of how I had spent years emulating the sound of those classic records, wanting to work with the musicians who played on them. So I said to myself, “Why don’t I just go out and ask them?” I set out to make the record I always wanted to make, because I was finally ready to make it.

Did you have all the songs written before heading into the studio?

Oh, I had everything. I’d been writing the whole time my father was ill. A couple of them came to me right after he died, that’s for sure. But I write all the time and I write about what I know. Within a couple months of him dying, I was in the studio in Los Angeles with these amazing musicians, trying some of the new songs out. And it was just remarkable. It was the most effortless, “hand in glove” musical experience I ever had in my life.

Hearing you in the company of Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, and Waddy Wachtel made me realize why the albums they played on sounded so good.

Exactly. These guys had a huge part in making those classic songs and records by James Taylor, Carole King, and countless other artists sound the way they did. Do not underestimate how much they contributed to them! So I went into the studio thinking, “Worst case scenario is, I tried.” I was prepared for that. But what actually happened is that their eyes lit up, because what they heard in my songs was the music they cut their teeth on years ago. It was music they’d grown up playing, and the kind of music they rarely get the chance to play anymore. 

Photo, left to right: Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Judith Owen, and Lee Sklar.

On “I Would Give Anything” the silence seems as important as the music itself. There’s a spot at the end of the chorus where a chord doesn’t resolve to the tonic. It just hangs on what sounds like a sus chord.

Right, there’s no resolution. It’s like the experience I talk about in the song itself. So it was a thrill to work with people who understand that not playing is part of the art, as opposed to filling up every single second. All of us who write know how precious silence is in music. It’s the jewel, and you don’t just fill it up for the sake of doing so. For me, it’s about putting emotional intelligence behind every note that you play.

Ebb & Flow sounds great production-wise, as well. How was it recorded?

I went so “old school” it was ridiculous. It was exciting, because these musicians hadn’t all been together in a studio for 15 to 20 years. I co-produced it along with David Z., who has done a lot of work with Prince. I wanted someone who wasn’t into bells and whistles—someone who recorded with flat EQ and didn’t want to work any “wizardry” on any of the tracks. We booked Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, where so many of those revered records were made. And we played together in the round—I would play a song for them and they’d all make little notations and ideas. Russ would be thinking about rhythms, Lee would be charting it out, and Waddy would be working out how to play inversions within each of my chords. All three of them were constantly thinking about making the song shine. So we’d go through each song, and then record it completely live in one or two takes.

Did you record to tape? 

No, I didn’t, actually. I usually do record to tape. We messed around with it at Sunset Sound, but we ended up recording to Pro Tools. It sounds like it was recorded to tape because we mixed it with David Biancho, who’s another old-school kind of guy. He mixed the record through all of his analog gear. Then, Bernie Grundman mastered the record, and of course, he mastered every single album I grew up loving.

The only way you could be more period-correct is if you offered the album on eight-track tape! Well, I can tell you that it’s now available on vinyl, and I’m thrilled about that. From the artwork that I did myself to the way the album was recorded, everything on this project was about being authentic and honoring that time, because it was the time I wished I’d been in.

What was it about covering James Taylor’s “Hey Mister” that intrigued you?

It’s funny. When I told Russ Kunkel, who played with James Taylor, that I wanted to cover one of Taylor’s songs, Russ immediately said, “It’s got to be ‘Hey Mister,’ because you know about depression.” That’s been my war, and the fight I had before I had to fight with the bloody music industry. It was a fight with myself. I’ve been as ill as a person can be with it, and that’s been my battle. I’m thrilled to say it’s no longer an ongoing battle. I came to America because I wanted to be well more than anything in this world. So here I am, after getting better over the years and doing a show on London’s west end about depression, and then I get to make this record with this amazing bunch of musicians. So when Russ told me I had to cover “Hey Mister,” it was because James wrote that song at the height of his success—but when he couldn’t feel a damned thing because he was so depressed. I rewrote it from the point of view of someone who isn’t depressed anymore and wants to live. So what you hear in it now is defiance and determination.

Who played Hammond organ on “Hey Mister”?

That’s Jeffrey Young. His playing is gorgeous, and he played organ on every single song except “About Love,” which features Chris Caswell.

What piano players were you listening to when you were coming up?

Early Elton John—God knows, that man dug in like no one else. The guys in my band tell me that when the heard Elton play with his trio at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, they said, “it sounded like a f***ing orchestra!” His playing is still humongous to this day.

What other piano players have inspired you over the years?

When I grew up, my Dad was an opera singer, but in our house jazz was king. So we were listening to Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson. The piano to me was profound right from the get-go. But when I heard early Elton John, with all of his Americana influences like Leon Russell, I was knocked out. Then I heard Randy Newman with all the inversions he uses in his playing, and it was so good it broke my heart.

Do you plan to tour the album with this band?

It was hard to get all of them together for a tour, because Russ is out with Lyle Lovett and Waddy plays with Stevie Nicks. So many of the shows will be just Lee and myself, with some special guests. But that’s okay with me, because this whole project really came about because I got to do a show with Lee Sklar a while back. It was just the two of us, and it was spectacular. Playing my songs duo with Lee imparts a sense of intimacy that you just don’t get with a full band. The next time out, I’ll play with the full band.

What advice do you have for singers and songwriters who hope to have a career like yours?

It’s very hard to hear this when you’re young, but it’s the truth and something that’s encapsulated in my song “One in a Million,” which is, this is not a race. You can’t go through life comparing or judging yourself based upon how other people are doing. Sometimes life is hard and it isn’t always fair, and music is certainly one of the toughest industries you could ever be in. But if you get to do what you love most as your occupation in life, you are indeed the most fortunate human being in the world.

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