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theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Judith Owen and Actor Harry Shearer | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Judith Owen and Actor Harry Shearer

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Judith Owen and Actor Harry Shearer

Montgomery Burns and Ruby Wax's best friend talk heavy metal, politics, and falling in love over Mojitos

Judith Owen and Harry Shearer: talking Ruby Wax and Metallica

You may know Harry Shearer better as Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons. His wife, Judith Owen, is as well known for her recent stage show with Ruby Wax, Losing It, as her own albums. But though they may have limited street recognisability, in the three cities they call home they are legendary for their hospitality. theartsdesk sampled some of this warmth in their London residence where, over tea, we discussed, amongst other things, dwarf choreography, mental illness and hanging out with Metallica.

The night before Owen was giving a promotional concert for her new album, Some Kind of Comfort, as part of a residency at The Pheasantry in London SW3. She looks slightly bleary-eyed as she opens the door to an elegant Georgian terrace in West London to a living room dominated by a grand piano and double bass. On the wall is a huge painting of a friendly dog. Shearer and Owen are dog crazy. Their labrador, Doris Day, is a failed dog actor from the film Marley & Me, and lives in LA. Shearer and Owen Skype her when they are away. 

With the Simpsons cast (Shearer also provides the voices for Waylon Smithers, Rev Lovejoy and Ned Flanders) currently locked in a pay dispute, Shearer is busy promoting his documentary on Hurricane Katrina, The Big Uneasy, and hosting his satirical radio show (Le Show). As he shuffles around the kitchen - his demeanour much like that of Derek Smalls, the character he played in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (pictured right) - his wife explains why she is so exhausted. Losing It closed the night before last night's gig. She hasn't had a good night's sleep in months. But it has been a labour of love. The rationale of the music and comedy show was to see the funny side of depression and Owen has battled depression all her life. She has also recorded eight albums, acted and recorded and toured extensively with folk-rock royalty Richard Thompson.

There's so much talent in the room, it should be intimidating. But the two couldn't be more welcoming. As Shearer offers more biscuits, Owen explains that her Anglophile husband actually grew up a child actor in LA. 

RUSS COFFEY: And what about you?

JUDITH OWEN: I grew up here in London because my father…

HARRY SHEARER: You’ve grown up?

JO: Harry keeps waiting for me to grow up, it still hasn’t happened. I grew up here in London because my mother and father left Wales when dad was at the Guildhall School of Music. Then he joined a company at Covent Garden and was, for 35 years, an opera singer.

And your mother was an opera singer, too?

JO: No, my mother loved music but was a mathematician, and a linguist. My sister was a great pianist and cellist and I copied her aged four, playing the piano, and people thought, she’s going to become a remarkable musician, until they realised that I couldn’t read. I literally can’t read music because it puts me in a state of anxiety because the symbols jump around.

So you have a sort of music-reading dyslexia?

JO: Yes, I do. I would just burst into tears. But I do have perfect pitch. I can hear something being played and immediately play it. It was lucky because it took me a long time to actually read music. I didn’t do exams and stuff like that because I couldn’t.

Did you study music or performing arts?

JO: I studied performance arts. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t think anyone would ever be interested in my music because it was personal, and when my mother died [Owen’s mother committed suicide] it was even more private. When I went to study drama and do performance arts and started performing my music that was when I found other people really were affected by it in the same way that I was affected by it.

When you left college what was your musical path?

It was Derek Smalls standing behind me. To me that was just like nirvana

JO: I was exceedingly ill in college, with depression. But after I went out and started gigging in London, doing marathon four-hour gigs, to earn money. I learnt to play just every song from the great American songbook, to learn my craft. The moment I realised that other people loved this thing then that was it. And within a couple of years of leaving college, I was still struggling, but yet playing Ronnie Scott's. It was pretty remarkable.

Was it at one of your concerts that you met?

JO: I wish I could say that we met at Ronnie Scott's. That would be really glamorous.

So where did you meet ?

JO: 5 July, 1992. I was still doing those four-hour gigs. I was doing a lunchtime jazz(ish) gig at the Conrad Hilton in Chelsea Harbour - what it actually was, was brunch at the Conrad – that meant sitting in there playing my own music and American songbook stuff. And then I did one of my own songs and then I heard this very appreciative ripple of applause behind and I finished and turned round and there was Harry and Christopher Guest [from This is Spinal Tap] and a dwarf called Danny who was playing the part of the Stonehenge elf [Spinal Tap were touring as a road show]. And they’d just flown in basically and Harry had the full facial hair and hair my length and actually it was Derek Smalls standing behind me. To me that was just like nirvana, I literally could recite the whole script by heart. So we met, and Harry fell in love with my voice.

HS: …among other things.

JO: And I love funny people more than I can say. The two things I think that make me feel alive are music and comedy. That, to me, was like a surreal moment. Harry had said, "I am going to go upstairs to change," and he came down looking exactly the same.

HS: I had grown a moustache and had hair extensions at the time.

JO: I said, "Can I buy you a drink?"

HS: And I said, "That was your own music, right?" And you said…

JO: …and I said, "I know who you are!" when they stood behind me. When Harry said, "It’s your own music?" That was the thing that really made me go, “Ooooh.”

HS: So we had a drink and then I invited Judith to the show we were playing at the Albert Hall.

JO: A drink that I asked him for and then realised that I didn’t have any money. So it went wrong, but then I finally went to the Albert Hall to see them play. We met afterwards and then had a date…

Because I can’t express myself in any other way, I’d written a song and recorded it, and shoved it into his handHS: ...on the Friday night. I had to get on the plane on Saturday to go to New York, and on Saturday morning she got over to my room a cassette of her music.

JO: Because I can’t express myself in any other way, I’d written a song and recorded it, and shoved it into his hand…

HS: …so I listened to it on the plane and got touched by it and when I got into New York I called her and said I was there for a week: "Would you like to fly over?"

JO: And that was it. And then two months later I sold the things that I had and that was it.

And when did you get married?

JO: A few months later.

Can you tell me about how you started the working collaboration with Ruby Wax?

JO: Harry introduced us. They’d gone out with each other for a bit. We didn’t get on at first because I found her to be too big and too scary and I was a bit cold and distant. We were both trying to hide our depression. It was only when we both could admit to each other how ill we both were that we clicked. It was on a plane. We’d both been at a really glamorous party in Italy and we flew back to London together. We were landing - Ruby thought we were crashing. I thought to calm her down I would tell her about my depression. I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea but when you are depressed you don’t really have anything to say other than “I am really depressed".

I think you can hear three very distinct influences in my music: classical, jazz and hymnal sad Welsh folk music

We realised that we were both very similar, but we still weren’t that close until she’d had another trip to the Priory. I was over and told her about an interview I'd done where I had been very outspoken about my depression and how my music is very much wrapped around that. I said, "I want to be able to do something like perform in hospitals, to do something." She said she’s always wanted to do something similar and being Ruby just picked up the phone to Mark Collins over at the Priory and said we’ve got to do a show for the patients and their families. That’s how it started. Then we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could do lots of NHS hospitals. Didn’t start this thinking theatre or West End. It was always about playing to people who were ill, because I had felt so lonely and isolated for so long.

Judith Owen performs with Ruby Wax in Losing It


How does Harry deal with your depression?

JO: Without Harry I’m not sure where I’d be.

Was humour the way?

JO: Yes. When I was depressed, music and comedy got through to me. Harry first did what every person does when they are desperate to see someone they love be OK. He would say, "Look, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful. Go for a walk. It’s lovely out, you’ll feel better." Well, you don’t, because you can’t get up, and beauty just reflects on your own ugliness. But Harry didn’t run for the hills. It’s very thankless being around depression. You get smacked with a lot of the anger.

When you are in a bad way can you still play music?

JO: Oh yeah. Since I was a child.

HS: There would be nights when it would be 20 minutes before a show, and I am thinking, I have never seen anyone like this, and she would go on stage and the negligible barrier between off and on was like the differences between universes. She would cross that barrier and come aglow and be in total command and be witty and charming and be in total command of her art.

Do you think people confuse depression with unhappiness? Can someone be simultaneously happy and afflicted with black moods?

JO: Yes. That’s the disease.

HS: It’s not a reality-based reaction.

Waw and OwenJO: That’s how you know it’s a disease: you cry for no reason, you hear the telephone ring and think that you have to go back to bed because you’re so scared.

HS: On other hand, if you’ve lost your job and are losing your house, and a loved one has died, you’re not depressed, you’re sad.

JO: What I had and what many people have has nothing to do with reality. That’s why I had Harry saying, "Look, you’re living in paradise, look at the sea, you were playing Hollywood Bowl last night," and I would be sitting there crying. It had nothing to do with reality. When I am healthy like I am now, I feel everything. It’s remarkable. What I spent was basically 17 years in hell.

But in 17 years you produced six albums.

JO: Eight actually.

What are your musical influences?

JO: Classical music: opera, Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninov. All the greats. I could live and breathe by classical music alone. I also love jazz hugely. Classical makes me cry, which I need to, and jazz makes me want to jump for joy. I think you can hear three very distinct influences in my music: classical, jazz and hymnal sad Welsh folk music.

Speaking of the folk, how did you get involved with Richard Thompson?

JO: We were both in Capitol Records in LA and languishing on it because at the time it was being stripped down and made into a catalogues-only label. Heartbreaking, as anyone who’s been in the building knows it’s a testament to music.

HS: It’s as close as LA comes to history.

JO: I was recording in the same room as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, my idols. I played through the songs on Nat King Cole's piano with his cigarette burns still there. I was recording in one studio, Richard was in another. Someone asked if I wanted to come in and see him. I knew very little about him at the time, I’m embarrassed to say. The fundamental thing about Richard is just what a great person he is. Without wanting to sound creepy, just one of the funniest, most entertaining people. There are plenty of great musicians around, there are few that are as funny or entertaining as him.

HS: He’s also pretty wicked smart.

Judith Owen sings "Cry Me a River" with Richard Thompson

JO: We immediately clicked. I then sang on Mock Tudor.

Which was the last of his Capitol releases?

JO: That’s right. Then he sang on Twelve Arrows, which was the record I was doing at the time, then I went back and sang on Old Kit Bag, then he said, “Are you interested in doing a show I am thinking of doing? I have been named as one of the Billboard Top 10 guitarists and they have asked me to name my Top 10 songs.” He said he didn’t think that was feasible to just pick 10 and that he thought wouldn’t it be great to do a show which had all your favourite pieces of music in it. Possibly make it into an historical and educational thing. He asked me if I wanted to be a part of it [this became the A Thousand Years of Popular Music show].

Was “Smoke on the Water” part of that [Owen's cover has become a cult favourite]?

JO: No, actually it wasn’t. Funnily enough I was on Deep Purple’s website for the longest time as one of their favourite covers of all time. I also did “Eye of the Tiger” (see video below). I take those songs that are highly testosterone-filled.

And give them the Smithers treatment? (Smithers pictured right with Montgomery Burns.)


JO: I give them the sexy Smithers treatment and…

HS: ...she puts the fuzzy sweater on them.

JO: It makes me so happy that these guys love this stuff.

The famous riff doesn’t come in...

JO: …oh yes, doesn’t come in till halfway through, so people are like, “I know this lyric - what is this? Montreux?" It makes me very happy when people don’t get it – same with “Eye of the Tiger”  – till the minute I sing “eye of the tiger” they have no idea what’s going on. I’ve done “Cold as Ice”, I’ve done a few Zappa songs. And I’ve done “Black Hole Sun”, Soundgarden. It makes me happy that the people who wrote these songs love the covers. I take pride in covering because if you don’t make it your own, why would you even bother?

[Owen gets a phone call and leaves the room.]

Harry, what’s your musical background?

HS: My dad grew up preparing to be an opera singer. I grew up around classical music, got dragged to opera, and moving away from that went to Frank, Ella, Mel Tormé, all that stuff, then The Beatles and rock'n'roll.

What did you play as a kid?

HS: I studied classical piano for eight years. I was the only student of my teacher who was not supposedly being prepared for a concert career so they were all practising eight hours a day. I told her, "You’re lucky to get one hour of practice out of me."

You knew you were going to be an actor?

HS: I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was acting at the time, but I thought I was going to have a serious adult career: "I’ll do this for a while but as I got into college I’ll do politics or journalism."

You knew you had the music in you?

HS: Yeah, I had perfect pitch, I knew that. And I started fooling around with the piano at four but I never thought it was anything I was going to do professionally. I picked up a bass, when I was living with the woman who became my first wife, a piano player. Thought this might be fun to pick up an instrument and learn to play it my way by ear. A friend of hers was the bass player in a band called Blood, Sweat and Tears and he gave me a few lessons and then I was off.

I'm sure Smithers would tear himself away from his Judy records long enough to attend a Judith concert

When Derek Smalls plays I think the viewers imagine that you have all been in bands all your lives?

HS: They had been in bands: Chris [Guest, who plays Nigel Tufnel] and Michael [McKean, who plays David St Hubbins]. I would just sit in my room and play along with the radio or whatever record came on next; I would try to learn the part and play it. That was my training and then, when we came up with this idea, I said, "I’ll be the bass player," and that was it.

What do you think your Simpsons characters would make of Judith’s music?

HS: Montgomery Burns would try to own it.

Smithers?

HS: She does have a big gay audience. We’ve noticed that that is a big component of people who get Judith so I’m sure that Smithers would tear himself away from his Judy records long enough to attend a Judith concert.

What’s going on currently with The Simpsons? [There have been recent reports on the news about a pay dispute.]

HS: Can’t tell you. All will be known soon enough.

What about the documentary The Big Uneasy? Why did you want to do this? I know that you are politically active.

HS: I’m not politically active. I don’t go to meetings, I don’t endorse candidates. In that sense I am not politically active. I write blogs. The vast majority of the things that I have written for the Huffington Post have been on the subject of New Orleans [Shearer and Owen's favourite home is the one they have in New Orleans where they also honeymooned]. Basically I have been doing the same thing the movie did, which is: “Here in New Orleans this has become known. It has not come through the national media. Here it is.”

Is there a Michael Moore in you waiting to get out?

HS: No, absolutely not.

Does the documentary have no element of satire?

HS: Absolutely no, it's deadly serious. Nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. No tongue, no cheek. Every choice was made to not get in the way of the people who really know what they are talking about, to put them front and centre, to make their stories as compelling as possible by photographing them beautifully in amongst what they are talking about. We have real New Orleans music, not cliché New Orleans music. Real New Orleans people, and we needed to get a version out by the fifth anniversary of Katrina.

Watch the trailer to The Big Uneasy


Could you talk more about the storytelling project you’re involved in?

HS: Yeah, there’s a storytelling festival which I don’t know much about except it’s a sort of non-stand-up event where people tell stories which have something amusing or gripping about them. I think they’re supposed to be true. These are the same people who did Celebrity Autobiography, which I did last year which I think is a fabulous show. It’s like three people - one reads Eddie Fisher's autobiography, one reads Debbie Reynolds's autobiography, one reads Elizabeth Taylor's autobiography. So it’s three people reading the same particular events but from different points of view. It’s not the well-known autobiographies, it’s the autobiographies of William Shatner and Madonna. You know, stuff where people are just like, “Whoa, wasn’t there an editor doing anything?”

[Owen enters the room again.]

While you were downstairs we decided that Smithers would enjoy you…

The other thing I lied about when I met Harry is that I don’t care about politics. I am a card-carrying member of the Viz party

JO: I think Smithers would.

HS: He’d bring a Judy photograph for you to sign.

JO: Smithers looks a lot like a lot of my fans.

Harry, your radio shows show political awareness.

HS: Well, I am very critical of this President. Because my radio show is satirical I’ve never thought it’d be a good idea to be court jester or a house monkey for one side or another.

Is politics something you share?

JO: One thing I lied about when I met Harry is that I don’t care about politics. I am a card-carrying member of the Viz party. I am not a political animal. My husband is such a political animal. I do live in a bit of a bubble but now that you know my mental history you can understand it a bit more. I’m just happy I can see daylight.

Harry, going back to music, what part does it play in your life now?

HS: I play this thing behind me [a double bass] as much as I can every day.

With Judith?

HS: She’ll write a new song and say, "Play it with me."

Is it true you like to entertain your friends with a Christmas singalong?

HS: We started that in LA. Judith was homesick for dark, cold Christmases. The warm sunny Christmases there depressed her. She wanted to do a musical Christmas.

What do you guys like to do together? Do you cook, or travel?

JO: Harry’s the cook, I’m the handyman. I'm the manual, practical person.

HS: We are occasional travellers, because we travel so much in our work that it's not necessarily the most fun thing to hop on a plane. But one of the first things when we first settled in here, it was like, "Hey, we are only two hours away from all these great places."

Judith, did you tour with Spinal Tap?

JO: Touring is sometimes how me and Harry are able to see so much of each other. That’s now the case with Richard Thompson’s latest show Cabaret of Souls [which Shearer narrates]. But I was indeed the awful back-up slut – can I say that? - for Spinal Tap. I have to say that was one of the pinnacles of my career.

HS: Back-up singer slash dwarf wrangler.

JO: I’m not sure you can say the word "dwarf" anymore but I actually was a little-person choreographer. I don’t know exactly how I got that job!

You made sure he didn’t trample the Stonehenge monument?

JO: That’s it. It turns out that there is a lot of choreography that goes into dancing around Stonehenge. And I felt so bad about being tall. I felt so bad about physically looking down on these lovely people – they were such sweethearts.

You played Glastonbury?

JO: It went from Carnegie Hall - what a shocker that was.

HS: Derek called it “Carnegie fucking Hall”, loudly, on stage. His first words on stage.

JO: Then Glastonbury and Live Earth. That was ridiculous. Following Metallica. I remember that I felt I was going to die, going to pee myself. They were fabulously amazing. I loved them.

It’s like you are standing next to a jet engine trying to play a ukulele

HS: I had never seen them live before.

Did you like them as people?

JO: Yeah.

HS: It was intimidating. We were going to have to follow them and they were laying down a hard, strong, loud, propulsive, intense balls-out show. We are standing in the wings…

JO: …literally hearing that sound which is like no other sound in the world when you hear 90,000 people all screaming. I did actually think I was going to wet myself with fear. And it’s not like me to do that but it was like, “What the heck.”

HS: And we’re just an “occasional” band. That just adds to the intimidation factor.

JO: They were so lovely. Seventeen bass players came on with us and played “Big Bottom” and they couldn’t have been more excited.

HS: But you can’t overstate even in the most controlled concert situation the incipient chaos that is flying at you as you step on a stage like that. It’s only the road savvy of a band like Metallica, or in our case five straight days of doing very repetitive rehearsals, that you can lock into something because there are really strong, chaotic forces at play. The whole energy level is so freakish, it’s not just the noise, there is an energy ball that’s in that place and that frazzles the nerve endings. It’s like you are standing next to a jet engine trying to play a ukulele.

Spinal Tap meet Metallica

 

So you’ve toured together. And does Harry help you write?

JO: Harry’s always the first person to hear my songs. When I am writing I always ask him to play along. And I’m mean to him because I am horrible to work with if you are married to me.

What is the significance of the album title, Some Kind of Comfort? Is it a reference to the therapeutic effect of music.

JO: Yes. Some kind of comfort, that’s exactly right. Not the answer to everything – not the thing that makes you absolutely well but boy, it really is a great comfort.

How did you record it? Did you start off on the piano here, knocking out demos?

JO: Not really. Some I wrote during the course of doing the show. I write about what’s going on in my life at the present time and the things that affect me. I was going to these hospitals, seeing these people.

Did it have a therapeutic effect?

JO: Absolutely. People would come up, there were people who literally you thought you couldn’t reach them and they would come up after and say the music made them feel good.

You joked at last night’s concert about transferring your depression from you to the audience.

JO: That was me being flippant because what it really is doing is giving people in the audience permission to feel. That is what music does for us. Music allows us to feel without words or anything. Unless you are dead or you are very strange, music will affect you.

Judith Owen performs "Eye of the Tiger"

It seems to me your two main strengths as a songwriter are your wit and another very honest and intimate and direct style about the day-to-day problems and insecurities of issues that affect people, women in particular.

JO: I think you’re right. I use humour and so there are those songs that have that little bite to them which is part of my personality, but I think that honesty, lyrically, is the thing that I am most interested in. I want to be that honest about difficult things; things that I have struggled with. That thing of knowing that you’re not alone.

It seemed, last night, that you also thrived on the intimacy of the cabaret setting. I don’t know if it was the size of the room or the fact that it enables you to have an actual conversation with people .

JO: I think that you can make any big hall or concert space as intimate as a front room if you do it right.

HS: Doubling back to what you said about the gatherings of musicians in our house, that became the Christmas show that Judith produces that we do every year. We're doing it this year at the Purcell Room. First year we did it, it moved from a couple of rooms in our house to the Walt Disney Rooms in Los Angeles: 2000 seats, and everyone who saw it said afterwards that you made it feel like we were in your living room.

What’s the format?

JO: Christmas in Wales was about harmonising and so when I went to Santa Monica, thinking that this could not be less Christmassy, and homesick for cold and that sense of bleakness, we started doing these parties. No PA, no nothing, just stand up with an instrument and you sing your Christmas song. The wine flows, the champagne flows, the food flows, and we are doing the thing that so few people now do, actually all sing together. Not only that, but I dress the stage like it’s my living room. That’s what I mean about making something like your environment. The tree’s there, the rug's there, sofa's there.

HS: In Disney Hall the dog was even there.

JO: And people cooking in the background and bringing mince pies out. The first act is everybody does their party piece just like at our house. Danny Thompson will be there on double bass, Ruby will be doing pieces. I make songbooks that everyone can go home with if they want and we all sing our little hearts out. Doesn’t matter if you can sing or not, and there are prizes. Great crap prizes. There is a joy to seeing people lose their inhibitions.

In your normal shows, what’s the target audience or the audience that you do seem to attract?

JO: People who’ve come to Losing It, a nice clutch of young gorgeous things, theatricals, and then a bunch of people who are just music lovers. The demographic is very broad. Ultimately it's people who like emotional music. Very honest stuff cushioned in, I hope, beautiful music.

It’s the sort of music I imagine that, once people have heard the words, they attach great significance to.

HS: There’s a lot of music that I don’t particularly like because it seems that the writing of the lyrics was the last act of the work, and what I find remarkable about Judith, as a biased observer, is that she then takes these moments of honesty and directness and wraps them in these beautifully crafted melodies. These are not accidental melodies. They're always about creating something beautiful, not just "here’s the latest spill from my soul".

JO: Ultimately you are still an entertainer and people have paid money to be entertained. That’s why they are there. I made a joke about it, ironically, but it’s not to go there to be depressed by someone else’s depression. We've all got problems, all struggling. It’s nice to sing these songs but not actually be ill whilst you are singing them.

Do you worry about being well affecting your talent?

JO: I have never been complacent. I have always been scared I will lose it.

HS: I’ve had friends who didn’t want to go and see a shrink because they didn’t think they’d be funny anymore. I think there are a lot of ways of staying hungry. If physical comfort or the lack of anxiety about the rent somehow disconnects you from the most rewarding, fulfilling experiences of your life then something is wrong. Those should be places you want to go in your wellness and serenity, not just in upset and chaos.

  • Judith Owen plays The Pheasantry, 152, Kings Road London SW3 on Friday, 4 November and Tuesday, 6 December
  • The Judith Owen and Harry Shearer Holiday Sing Along is at the Purcell Rooms, Southbank Centre, Purcell Rooms, South Bank, December 4, 2011
  • Judith Owen website

Judith Owen performs "Ruby Red Lips"

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