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Thursday 26 April 2018

Hey Judith: depression, laughs and life as a she wolf

Judith Owen, whose mother took her own life, has been dogged by depression most of her life. But the singer-songwriter found solace in love and music. She spoke to our reporter

Judith Owen says that she proposed to her husband, actor Harry Shearer, who voices several of the characters in 'The Simpsons'.
Judith Owen says that she proposed to her husband, actor Harry Shearer, who voices several of the characters in 'The Simpsons'. "He had no chance," she says. "When I know, I know." Photo: David Conachy.
Shearer in his role of Derek Smalls in the iconic 1984 spoof rock documentary, 'Ths is Spinal Tap.' Shearer is on the left, and his co-stars are Christopher Guest, centre, and Michael McKean.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's funny how great art and great pain seem to go hand in hand. Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in the depths of a depressive episode; Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the deaths of their mothers; Milton wrote Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, and his eyesight. Such unrelenting pain would drive even the most balanced among us to counsellors and handfuls of Valium, but these artists transmuted their suffering into something that would help others.

Judith Owen might not have the name recognition of those greats, but the singer-songwriter has harnessed a lifetime of pain into a collection of savagely honest songs - Somebody's Child - delivered in a lighter-than-air, blues-inflected vocal. "I put a lot of my life, a lot of what I've been through, into this album," she tells me in an accent which, after 20 years in the US, miraculously remains crisply English (although she is, in fact, Welsh originally). "I've been through some tough times, but songwriting was always my salvation, my sanity, my crutch." On the day we meet she has come from visiting her sister Susan in west Cork, where she - the sister - is a therapist. "She does the real thing," Judith laughs. "I do it through music. As children we were inseparable."

The two women grew up just outside London but their ancestors had been steelworkers and miners from unpronounceable parts of Wales. Judith's father, Handel Owen, was a noted opera singer, who performed at Covent Garden. It was from him that Judith inherited her love of music, and, she says, her unusually deep voice. Her mother was, at various times, a dancer, musician and mathematician, a "dark and gorgeous creature", who could be the best fun but who also suffered from very severe depression in a time when the condition was little understood.

"I came from damage," Judith tells me. "It was a different time, and people didn't really talk in those years about what was going on with them internally. So she had nobody to tell her why she couldn't cope with life, why the smallest thing made her cry and why she was unable to deal with the day-to-day. It was more like a GP saying 'snap out of it and here's some Valium.'"

Her mother, Judith says, would "take to the bed" and various other euphemisms would be used to describe what she was going through. "It would be said, for instance, that she was highly strung. Or the word neurotic was mentioned. I realise now that they're the same thing. She never shouted at us, it was all turned inward. She was just so fragile, the slightest thing made her cry. I was always worried for her. It wasn't easy though. When you're the parent to your parent that can be quite a scary thing, your whole life becomes about saving that person. I did maybe have some anger in the past but the day you know you're an adult is when you say to yourself 'that's what they should have done, but they didn't'."

When Judith was 15, her mother committed suicide. "I was at home with my dad the day I heard. He was the one who told me. It was the most shocking moment of my life. My sister and my dad dealt with all the practicalities. We formed that tight huddle to protect ourselves from the world."

Judith was back at school within about two weeks of her mother's death, and she says that the period after this was when a lot of the problems, that would stalk her through adult life, began.

"I went off the rails. There was no drink or drugs, luckily, if you want to use that word, but the pain was expressed in other ways. I only managed to hurt myself with myself. I had anorexia, bulimia, I was an absolute mess. My friends tried to help me."

The terrible knowledge of what became of her mother haunted Judith. "I knew that I had the same thing that my mother had and for obvious reasons that really terrified me. I wondered to myself 'did I learn to be like this from her?' Or did I inherit it, or what? And I realised, just like with hair colour or eye colour, I had inherited this problem as a physical condition. I'd seen her my whole life where I was the protector and now she was gone and I felt I had no protection. I'd spend days not being able to get out of a chair."

Music was her salvation, even in those years, she says, and in her late teens and early 20s she began performing. "I wanted to be an actress, but when I started singing my own songs people became interested. I loved classic music first and foremost. Jazz and folk music were important for me too. Music just releases serotonin in my brain, but afterwards I'd deal with the same old issues. I'd be packing out Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, but when I got home I'd cry, then fall asleep through the strain of keeping up the pretence all day," she recalls.

Based on what she saw her mother go through, Judith did not believe that doctors in England would be able to help her at all. In her 20s she moved to the US and began performing there and getting treatment. "When you have real depression, somebody has stolen you, you have left the building and it's a slow death march," she tells me. "You walk around like a zombie. It will take every ounce of your creativity away. You have no energy and you can be very inward focused. In Britain there was, and to some extent is, a huge taboo around talking about it. In America, I just couldn't believe that people would speak openly and say, 'I have this condition.' I had never heard people speak like that and it did feel liberating." She had a thing for American men, she confesses, but all of her relationships were "terrible, just awful". And then, one day, everything changed. While playing the piano at a hotel in New York, she met the man who would be her husband - This Is Spinal Tap star and one of the voiceover geniuses behind The Simpsons - Harry Shearer.

"I was doing a four-hour marathon gig at a hotel in Chelsea Harbour," she recalls. "I was cursing the woman who hired me because I was dealing with four hours of American tourists coming up to me and asking if I knew anything from Cats. I thought 'this is my lowest point.' And there in a split second I finished a song and heard rapturous applause and saw three men; Christopher Guest, a little guy, who was a Stonehenge elf, and Harry in full Derek-Smalls-from-Spinal-Tap facial accoutrements. I rushed over and said 'I know who you are'."

As opening lines go, it doesn't seem all that impressive. But Harry had a thing for singers, she says, and she had a thing for comedians. "He said, 'those are your own songs, they're incredible'." He said that he was going to change and come back down to listen to more. He arrived back down looking exactly the same, it turned out the beard was his own. I thought he was brilliant and funny and anarchic. I went and spent a week with him in New York and then I went and sold every single thing I owned and moved to be with him because I knew it was my one chance in life."

Judith was intent on putting her best foot forward and was not upfront with Harry about what she was going through in terms of her mental health. "I lied to him," she clarifies. "If you imagine Pinocchio with his nose growing, that was me. The leaf was actually coming out of the end of my nose. It was shocking. We were trawling around each other conversationally, to find out about each other's lives. I told him I'd just finished with a guy, without mentioning that I kind of had a thing for American men. He said he'd gone out with a singer/songwriter who was very talented but incredibly depressed. I said: "how awful, that's something I've never had a problem with myself." I could have raised him his previous girlfriend. I was in the depression Olympics but I couldn't say that to him. Despite all that, I felt so at home with him."

It wasn't long before her issues began to assert themselves, however. "First time I started throwing plates in the kitchen and he realised 'well, she's not Greek, so this is something else,'' she tells me, smiling at the memory. "I'd say that's when he knew something was up. I don't know anyone else who could have held his ground and said 'I see who you really are.'" Harry has admitted in interviews that anger has fuelled a lot of his comedy but has said that this was never directed at his wife. He came up with a playful nickname for her - She Wolf - explaining in an interview that the name was taken from 'It's from Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS,' a 1974 German cult film, in which the lead character is a beautiful yet cruel Nazi officer.

Judith believes that Harry's stoicism in the face of her problems stems in part from his Eastern European background. His parents were Jewish immigrants, his mother came from Poland and father came from Austria, and were the only children on both sides of the family to survive the Holocaust. They met in Havana, Cuba, while waiting for entry permits into the USA in the late 1930s. They settled in the Pacific North-West before moving to Los Angeles when Shearer's mother was pregnant with him. Judith says that she feels this background played its own role in the formation of their relationship. "He married his mother. He was used to being around someone who had deep grief and survivors' guilt. "I felt terrible for what he went through but I married my dad too - someone strong and powerful and loud. His father had been training as an opera singer in Vienna before he had to escape. His mother once said, 'I always had a weakness for singers'."

Judith says she was the one that proposed. "He had no chance," she says, her eyes flashing mischievously. "When I know, I know."

That was in 1993 by which time the worldwide phenomenon that is The Simpsons was already kicking into high gear. Shearer was already famous through his role as Derek Smalls in the iconic rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap but his voicing of Simpsons characters like Mr Burns, Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders had copper-fastened his status as a counterculture legend. "I became aware of The Simpsons after meeting him," Judith says. "And it just became bigger and bigger. Harry has a lovely kind of fame, because people light up when they ask if he'll do the voices. He is a humble man; he knows he's famous because of the public, he's not some arsehole saying 'leave me alone'."

In 2001 Judith played herself on an episode of The Simpsons, titled The Blunder Years, something she describes as "an incredible honour and a little piece of history".

Judith's father died a few years ago, of cancer, but she says she particularly wishes that her mother had a chance to meet her husband. "But thinking back on her life, I know that when she was a young woman she was a huge Abbot and Costello fan. Harry had been in one of their films, Abbott and Costello Go To Mars as a tiny kid. So she had seen him, or a very young version of him, I'm quite sure. That's quite a comfort to me."

Judith has had a long and uproarious friendship with the comedienne and interviewer Ruby Wax, who is an ex and a friend of Harry's. Ruby blanked Judith to begin with but they bonded a number of years later on a flight when Judith soothed Ruby's terror of flying. They went on to become firm friends and even performed together in a show in which Judith did the music and Ruby did the comedy. Coincidentally, a few days before I find out I am to meet Judith I see a television interview that Lynn Barber does with Ruby. At one point Lynn, in true Demon Barber form, sighs "it does rather strike me that a huge component of depression is self-obsession…" I relate this to Judith, minus the sigh, and wonder how she'd respond to that kind of charge. "I think she's on the wrong tack there, I must say. Depression makes you horribly self-absorbed, you can't see or feel anything outside yourself. That's different, however from being a driven, self-absorbed artist. I don't believe that there is a creative person on this planet who isn't self-absorbed. You need that to draw things out of yourself. There's a difference between that and being an arsehole though!"

The artist thing seems to be the key for her. Despite being together for nearly a quarter of a century now, Judith and Harry never had children together, and I wonder if she has any regrets on that score? "I never wanted children because I want this [depression] to stop here," she responds, with disarming frankness. "I think Harry and I would have astounding children, he is a Renaissance man and has such an incredible brain. We'd have so much to offer a child and it might do really well with the genes from both of us. But on the other hand, what's to say they wouldn't end up with my brain chemistry and cooking skills. What Harry and I want to do more than anything else is our art. My priority was not to be a mother, and I'm not saying it didn't make me sad sometimes to think that. But he didn't want kids either, so it was bloody easy for me."

The theme of her show with Ruby was 'how to get through this life'. Given that she's still only 47 she must feel she's doing ok already? "I do. I don't consider depression as part of my identity, I consider it as something I have gone through. We're all damaged in different ways, we all have our struggles. It's how you handle those struggles that counts."

Judith Owen's new album 'Somebody's Child' is out now on Twanky records.

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