Judith Owen (singer-songwriter & pianist) with Lawrence Cottle (bass guitar), Gabrielle Swallow (cello) & Harry Shearer (double bass)
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 3 October, 2011
Venue: The Pheasantry, London SW3
Singer-songwriter Judith Owen was recently seen alongside Ruby Wax at the Edinburgh Festival and in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in Losing It, a show that immediately transferred to the Duchess Theatre. Both women do their own thing. The furrow that Judith Owen ploughs is one that takes in all styles of music – from rock to classical (she has her own version of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament), all of which have influenced her writing. She has toured and recorded with many artists including Richard Thompson and since 1996 has produced several albums of her songs on her own label, Courgette Records, which she formed with her husband comic-actor Harry Shearer (noted for his contributions to This Is Spinal Tap and voice-overs on The Simpsons) and her long-time business partner Bambi Moé. The October date comprised all her own material but for November she promises to look at the songs of Judy Garland and Bette Midler.
Meanwhile, she was performing material from her latest album, Some Kind of Comfort (Courgette CGT 00115). She has been called “the female Randy Newman”, perhaps because, although her music is beautifully melodic, sometimes soothing, sometimes emotional, both funny and sad, the lyrics are always pointed, introspective and thought-provoking. Each song has something to say. Her work reveals aspects of her own life and those of others which may be at times uncomfortable (Owen herself is bipolar) and leave an air of depression, although most have a cathartic effect on both the performer and the listener. Singing about your troubles would seem to be the best way of getting rid of them. Music, as we know, is a great healer and it surely helps by sharing it in public.
Much of the material is soulful, earnest and hypnotic, as if the songs are searching for something positive. Yet there is nothing sentimental for the emotions ring true and cut deep into the psyche in short stories that have drive and urgency. In ‘Hungry is the heart’ Owen evokes the image of the heart as something tangible going on a journey. In ‘Trip and tumble’ she evokes dancing on stony ground while “every footprint has to end like a name drawn in the sand … Oh God, watch me as I trip and tumble, and fall from grace again.” Happiness in her songs is hard to attain as it is illusory, a delicate thing that can slip through your fingers even when you think you have worked it out.
Other emotions include jealousy in ‘Pretty girls’ with “all your straight teeth and perfect hair”, and depression in ‘Hide away’ when life becomes too much to handle, “when you’re not that strong … when your mind tells you to hide away…”. It may sound depressing but when performed these emotions become uplifting. ‘Some kind of comfort’ details how to escape depression by doing something other than smoking, drinking and shopping. In ‘The wreckage’ Owen’s subject is lifeboats searching for those lost at sea: there’s never a day when somebody isn’t drowning and when a woman is waiting “for her man to come home.”These songs made an emotive evening at The Pheasantry. Owen was accompanied by her talented musicians from the album – you can imagine the plangent mood that the cello evokes with this sort of material – plus Shearer on double bass. Judith Owen’s voice has a clarion sound that delivers the material in a forthright manner that gets to the point and the heart of the matter, and her sense of humour takes no prisoners. Catch her at The Pheasantry in November and December and you will not be disappointed.
- Judith Owen returns to The Pheasantry, 152 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW3 on Friday 4 November & Tuesday 6 December 2011
- Reservations on 0845 602 7017 (option 8)
- Pizza Express