Judith Owen is a woman of many hashtags: singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, wife, daughter, sister, lover of dogs, resident of New Orleans, world traveler and Welsh. She has so many things in her palette that they all come tumbling out when she sits down to talk with you about her new album, a collection of reimagined covers she calls redisCOVERed, that you end up learning much more about the artist than you ever imagined. And that’s a good thing, because so many times people come off as one-dimensional, revealing only one aspect of who they are. For Owen, the joy is in the conversation. “I am a bit of a talker, Leslie,” Owen says with a laugh when she calls from Washington DC where she will be giving a performance.
Well, if Owen wants to talk, I’m all in, since I’m a bit of a chatterer myself, probably because of the Irish blood in my ancestry. “I can tell you already that if you have Irish in you, you are a talker. The Irish can literally talk your ears off. They are the talkers of talkers. And the Welsh are kind of the same thing but sort of more in a melancholy way. I describe the Welsh as basically being the Irish without the fun. That’s my favorite description. But just the same, we bloody well love talking because we love the voice. That’s what it is, it’s all about the voice.”
And Owen has one of those voices that transcends time. One minute she can sing a Welsh lullaby and the next be giving a Drake composition a makeover. “I don’t do karaoke. I don’t perform or sing music unless it means something to me,” Owen said recently. Always one to mess around with an original song’s anatomy to make it more her own, Owen found herself reinterpreting known songs during her early days playing piano in bars and clubs and hotels. “I found my own truth in them musically and emotionally,” she wrote in the liner notes of the new album, out this Friday, May 25th. “And I kept on doing it even when the lean years ended and I didn’t have to hear people ask, ‘Do you know anything from Cats?’”
Now finally, after much pleading from fans and people in the business, Owen has gathered up twelve mostly newer covers and put them in one basket of goodies, redisCOVERed. There are some juicy songs on the album, interpretations that you never thought could be culled from their original versions. From Drake’s “Hotline Bling” to her brilliantly sexy “Shape Of You,” a song Ed Sheeran took to #1 all over the world only last year, and her jazz-induced Soundgarden tune, “Black Hole Sun;” a song she describes as “The best song about depression and being in the darkness that I’ve ever heard.” She gave Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” a Bossa Nova groove and the sickly sweet “Summer Nights” from Grease a darker, more painful telling; while almost Sade-ing Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” from a disco sex romp to a slinkier flirtation.
So after chatting about mockingbirds, our dogs and the outrageous heat in the south, Owen, who will spend the majority of her year on the road before ending out 2018 with her and husband Harry Shearer’s annual charity Christmas show in New Orleans, told us all about her new record and how music has always been an art form of self-expression.
I understand that everybody kept telling you to do an album like this and now you’ve finally done it.
You know, I’ve always had one or two covers on every record that I’ve done, just because I’m inspired by the music that I hear, as well as an exercise in writing for me because, of course, it’s a complete reimagining of the songs and a way of making them autobiographical. The point for me is not to do a lazy cover, cause the original is the best, the original is the greatest, but that’s not it. It’s to find ME and my life and my truth in those songs. Like with doing Bryan Ferry’s song “More Than This.” That was exactly an example of hearing him sing that every night [Owen toured with Ferry last year]. I was in Scotland and I was listening to it and I had gone back to my room and I was just sitting on my bed feeling really lonely and alone and missing my husband and my sister and my dog and just really having that feeling that that song means to me. It’s not a romantic song to me or a sexual song to me or about somebody having an affair. To me, it speaks of how without those people in our lives, those creatures, those things in our lives that we so need and so depend upon, things don’t ever feel the same, it doesn’t mean as much and that really was what struck such a chord in me.
So this came after like years, I guess, of fans who’ve seen me do covers over the years – not many of the ones actually on this record, in fact, as only a couple made it to this record – but they’ve seen me do my version, seen me do these interpretations that make it sound as if this is my song and this is my life and I’m speaking about myself. And finally, I just thought, well, I’ve been on the road for four years with the last two albums so wouldn’t this be a nice, easier maybe, more straight-forward project to bridge the next Judith Owen record. Of course, that’s the most stupid thing I ever thought in my life because it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t straight-forward. I care as much about my rewriting and rearranging and reconstructing as much as I ever would with any of my own songs. It’s even more important that they be fabulous because I regard and respect these artists and these writers so hugely that I want to do these songs proud. I want to do right by them. And I am so proud of this record and I am thrilled with how it came out and how people are reacting to it, to the recorded music and to hearing it live. It’s incredible.
So it took you as long to do this as you would your own material
It did because I was on the road all the time. So I was squeezing in recordings, squeezing in all these things. It really was so hard; very, very hard. And again, I’m not just going to do something that’s lovely and okay and very nice. No, it absolutely has to sound right and have my heart and soul in it, be great performances. You know, I have the greatest rhythm section in the world with Leland Sklar and Pedro Segundo, these amazing musicians around me. I wanted it to be incredible, not just, eh, it’s a nice bunch of covers. That’s not it for me. That’s really not why we do this. So my heart and soul is in it all, because all of these songs, every one of them, mean something very personal to me. I don’t just mean where I was at the time of the song in my life. No, I have actually reimagined these songs in terms of they ARE my life experiences. They now speak of the things I’ve been through in my life. And in some ways, to be singing these songs that are not mine and yet sound and feel like they have my heart and soul and life in them, they’re even more personal and a clearer window into who I am and my life and what I’ve gone through.
Yes but then I realize it was extraordinary to me how, obviously, I have written myself into them or reimagined myself into these songs, and I sing them that way – it’s me, it’s my life – and my introductions to them, especially live, they’re absolutely about me and the things I’ve experienced. We all know the things I am talking about. Even as a most extreme example but a very clear one, with the first track, “Hotline Bling,” the most opposite song in the world from what I do musically. I had decided I was going to do contemporary songs. I wanted to do songs that were hits now or were successes now, that we all knew, were in our DNA, had all heard everywhere we went. Whether we love or hate them, we all know these songs, you can’t get away from them.
I had chosen already Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” and “Can’t Stop The Feeling” [Justin Timberlake] and I said to my husband, cause I don’t always want to keep looking back at great songs and looking back at classics, I want this to be an ever-evolving thing, which is the present too. So I said to him, “What do you think is the most extreme song that I could do that would be shocking to like anyone that heard it?” And he said, without even missing a beat, he said, “Drake, ‘Hotline Bling.’ I think you could absolutely do a real number on it.”
And I listened to it and got the melody and I got what it was and I immediately heard it as a very classical, almost Erik Satie piano-driven piece, with real darkness to it, so far away from it. Then I studied the lyrics, half of which I couldn’t use cause it means absolutely nothing to my life. And that’s the thing, you have to edit, you have to decide what verses to use, what lines I could use. And what really made sense to me were the first two verses and the chorus and the real hook because it was absolutely something you’ve gone through, which I think most of us have, this being in love, being crazy about someone who really isn’t that interested in you. And I remember this clearly, of someone I was obsessed with. I was so in love and in lust and obsessed and it almost tore my heart apart because every waking moment was waiting for that phone call, every second was thinking about him – who was he with, where was he, asking mutual friends if they’d seen him, going places where I thought he might be. He was kind of a cruel person too, which I also read into that song because the man I was with used to bring other women to my shows so that I would be performing and I would actually be watching him with other women. It was the most extraordinary cruel thing, which if it was me now, it wouldn’t even have happened; but of course as a self-loathing, young self-hating person, it was easy to take that torture. So when I think of that story and when I think of that life, when I read those words and saw myself so clearly in it, it made sense. And that’s why it works, why that interpretation works.
You have taken “Shape Of You” and made it into this like bluesy, purring R&B song with a cool sexiness and I didn’t hear that in Ed’s original.
What I heard in Ed Sheeran’s version is a kind of folky, very white, very kind of British vibe – he’s got that vibe going and it’s fabulous – but a guy with a guitar and he’s kind of getting a little bit into that field that every pop song sounds like; it’s in there a bit and obviously it’s at the club with the guy, sex, happy, joyful, I’m in love. Again, that is not my life. I know it was once but not really. All I’ve ever done is music and I kind of had that at like fourteen and that’s the last time I ever remember feeling that way. I shit you not! (laughs). But it’s just not who I am, that’s not my thing, that’s not my life now and hasn’t been for a long time, since of course I’m a very happily married woman. But I do recall that and I do know that feeling.
But I was listening to this and thinking, oh my God, if I could nail this, if I could take this somewhere really female and really give it that empowered female sexuality, and it was kind of what I was after the whole time. I really wanted to reach that place that was just really like, you know, a real powerhouse of a woman.
Then I was reading the lyrics again and I was like, none of this means anything to me now, I can’t relate to this, how am I going to do this? And then I hit the throwaway line right at the end of the lyrics and it made sense. It was, “Put on Van the Man and follow my lead.” And I thought, oh my God, he’s listening to Van Morrison! And that was it, because he’s listening to Van Morrison whose been listening to Black American music his whole life and listening to Stax and Motown and everything that we all love, all the great Black singers and everything that makes you want to get up and scream for joy, you know. And that’s when I thought, I’m taking it to like early Ray Charles, early Raelettes. I am taking it straight there and this will be a handclapping, hand jive, let’s just go and have the greatest time, with that feeling of those women onstage, those girls, those singers that just grabbed you by the throat.
So it’s not kind of a polite sexy song anymore or a cute, lovely, hang out with the girls song. Now, it’s a let’s just get on the floor and fucking dance like lunatics cause this is it! You know what I’m saying? It’s like how you feel when you see Tina Turner dance or the Raelettes or Martha & The Vandellas, any of those women. It’s that feeling of, “Yeah!” That is exactly what I was going for. I didn’t want it to be polite. I wanted it to be raunchy and rocking and live it goes bezerk it’s so out there and fabulous and the audience just goes crazy.
I think another thing is, I’m a big fan of big bands and bebop and having those big horn sounds, so baritone sax to me, it’s like the most underused horn there is in this world. To me, baritone sax is the sexiest sound. It is raunchy, it really is something that makes you want to jump up and down for joy. In New Orleans, I love watching my friend Roger Lewis killing on baritone sax and everyone in the audience has got their mouths open, just jaw-dropped, watching as this man is tearing the place apart. That’s what it’s about to me. So I think I actually upped the sexiness, I really do.
What about your love of Joni Mitchell? You don’t cover her stereotypical songs.
Oh, you’ve got to be very careful when you cover Joni because the woman is a goddess to us all. She’s the patron saint of female singer-songwriters, let’s be honest. We call her our leader and she opened a door for someone like me, for all like me, who want to sit at an instrument or write music or perform and be empowered and emotionally intelligent and have a sense of humor; and also be able to cross the lines between Jazz and folk and rock, whatever it is. To be fearless about this, just do it. So there is no way I would ever cover a known Joni Mitchell song because I think there are probably thirty million people who have already covered it, in the way it doesn’t need to be. With the original so breathtaking, why even bother.
But I came to Joni late because that wasn’t my time. I came to Joni when she was doing Night Ride Home. That was my first hearing of Joni. So it was this era, the late eighties, early nineties, where people are kind of a bit weird about this, I find. I don’t think she gets the recognition for that time in her life for her music and those recordings. I don’t think she gets the love and appreciation that she should for these incredible songs. “Cherokee Louise” and “Ladies Man” were standouts to me because they were the first ones for me. I was living in London and thinking, Good God, what is that?! How do I get there? And funny enough, the irony of ironies, when I come out to California to be with my now husband and the first record I make, guess who is playing bass for me – Larry Klein. I mean, the world is so bizarre. “Ladies Man” is about Larry Klein. “Ladies Man” is about how when you’re a tomboy and you like to be one of the guys in a guys world because you want to be on an equal footing to everyone around you. You know, that’s the point in this world, we’re equals, I’m one of the guys, we are absolutely in this together.
Okay, I’m the boss but I’m also the artist. There’s a slight difference, I know, but when I’m in the studio, when I’m on the road, wherever I am with my guys I’m one of the guys cause I’m a tomboy anyway and I love it and it’s a joy to me and it’s fun and every so often, in the past pre-Harry, I would maybe be attracted to one of the guys that was in my band or an engineer or whatever. I would have a real crush and it would occur to me that he didn’t even know I existed because, well, maybe because he didn’t fancy me, but also because I was one of the boys. I made sure I was one of the boys! That’s me, I’m a tomboy. And she nailed it in “Ladies Man.” They got married and divorced but at the time when she wrote it, she was massively in love with him and in lust with him and he didn’t even know she existed; in so much to him she was Joni Mitchell, you know, one of his idols, and also she’s a tomboy and she’s a really powerful woman. And this line says everything: “Why do you keep on trying to make a man of me?” It’s fabulous! Cause it’s what we all do. We build this kind of armor to make sure that you’re protected and that you’re an equal and nobody disrespects you, and yet there are times when you want to be a woman and you can’t be, cause you can’t be both and do this job. That’s my belief.
What about with her “Cherokee Louise,” which almost has a slight Laura Nyro vibe in there?
“Cherokee Louise,” to me, is the most important song on this record, as in it’s the one that moves me the most. When I sing it, I almost cry. I am astounded by this song and when I first heard it I could not believe the lyrics, because she’s a poet, such a fine poet, she’s so great. And so what I wanted to do, with both these songs, especially “Cherokee Louise,” was to shine the light on her words because they are profound. The fact that she was talking about the subject matter all these years ago, when nobody else was even speaking about it, and now we’re all talking about it and it’s out in the open and finally the walls are down and the secrecy is out and the brut horror of it all is there. But someone was speaking about it all those years ago. But of course again, I’m not going to be doing that version. The version I wanted to do, and why you’re hearing Laura Nyro maybe, is because I wanted to bring out all it’s cinematic weight and beauty, and I wanted it to feel like you were in a tunnel hiding with Joni and Cherokee Louise, and I wanted it to feel like you were watching a movie. And Nick Payton on trumpet gives it that quality of pain and faraway yearning and sadness. It moves me so much and I am proud to have done service to and justice to that amazing song with this version.
I have to admit that before I heard “Summer Nights,” I thought, oh, Judith is going to get happy.
Oh no. I love that you think I was going to get happy (laughs). That actually makes me more joyful that you think I’m going to get happy. You should know the minute you think I’m going to get happy, I’m going to take it down. And why not. But “Summer Nights” is one of the ones I’m most proud of. It really is, because there is nothing of the original meaning left in that. Nothing. It is my experience of someone I loved telling me that he’d fucked up and fucked someone else basically and please forgive me and can we just move forward. It was the end of everything cause I tried but I couldn’t stop thinking about it and wanting to know more and more and more, because I’m human and you can’t deal with these things easily. It ate into my brain. So I think I get a thrill from that song because I think it is the most reimagined of the lot and it’s heartbreaking and it’s a torch song.
Since you are Welsh, how has the music of your homeland and your ancestors integrated the most into what you do?
It has given me a true soulfulness and that is something I do believe is in the DNA of Welsh people. It’s funny because it’s sort of like when you think of Welsh singers, you think of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. For starters, Tom Jones, you could not get a more amazing singer in this world. He had THAT voice and I think Welsh people in their folk music and in their traditional music, it’s very melancholy, it’s very minor key, it’s so sad. You hear anything by a Welsh male voice choir, it’ll break your heart. It kills you. It is all yearning and sadness and sorrow and it’s probably because it’s a hard life. All my family grew up being in choirs and male voice choirs and if you went into the mines and steelworks and in tinworks and living an extraordinarily hard and cruel life, an impoverished life, you were singing. And that’s really it for the Welsh, the singing is the thing.
If you’re in Ireland, you’d be basically playing fiddle and playing this gorgeous music and it’s a different sound altogether. The Welsh are about singing and harmony and I think it is absolutely, completely in my voice. I think there is always a soulfulness and a yearning and a melancholy in my voice; there certainly is in my writing and in what I’m drawn towards, even in covering these songs, even in “Hot Stuff” for God’s sake. It’s like there is something in there in my voice that speaks more of like a loneliness and yearning for company, you know, and I think that’s just in me so deeply because I grew up listening to music, Welsh music and classical music. My father was an opera singer and music was around you all the time and I grew up listening to music that made me cry, that made me weep; and it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. It was wonderful and that’s why I was probably so drawn to New Orleans, so drawn to American music, so drawn to music that inspires and makes you feel like you found religion. That’s really it, the soul of it all, the soulfulness of it all. It’s utterly important and very, very much a larger part of why I sing the way that I do, why I sound like I do.
I could listen to Richard Burton read the phone book and be totally mesmerized because of his voice
Oh my God, I’m glad you said that because the tradition in Wales is not just singing, it’s the spoken word as well. And the idea that you could speak like Richard Burton did, which was music to your ears anyway, and then imagine Richard Burton being a preacher and preaching in Welsh, or in English or whatever it might be, and sounding that way, which is what preachers sounded like. And that’s where it comes from. It is religious, it is powerful and I haven’t come across anything that powerful. It’s probably why Dad was so crazy about gospel and music you would hear in like Baptist churches in the south and New Orleans and everything. That’s what drew me to that.
I remember the first time I went to Jazz Fest, I couldn’t get out of the Gospel Tent, I couldn’t leave, because I was seeing something that I connected with so naturally. I was going to the source, which is where the power of voice is. The power of someone speaking and delivering and preaching, it was incredible. And I’m not a religious person but I’m not talking religion, I’m talking about that feeling where a person’s life is dependent upon it and whose soul is in it. And that is what Richard Burton had. That is something so special.
Being that you are this creative interpreter type of artist by nature, did those early days in the clubs help or hinder you at that time?
It helped because even though it’s always been about my own songs or writing and that’s who I am ultimately, when I was in my late teens/early twenties and doing those four hour marathons that we all do to pay the rent, and which by the way is the best apprenticeship you can have in this world as far as I’m concerned. I have musical dyslexia, which is an actual thing. I can’t read notes. I can’t see them. Reading is hit and miss at times as well, across the board, but I do have a computer for a brain, it would appear. I have like one giant drive up there that just stores everything forever and I can hear everything and I can see it in my head. So I realized that if I was going to earn money and be a working, jobbing musician and do these gigs in the clubs and the dodgy wine bars and restaurants and everything else, I would have to do my own versions of every standard and hit song and classic that I knew. And that’s what I did and that’s actually where I got that interpretive skill from. It was out of necessity as a means to an end. But I also loved it and enjoyed it.
So I would rewrite, reimagine every song I could. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have got the gig and I would have been fired and that would have been the end of it. I’d slip in my own songs, you know. Every three songs, I’d slip in a couple of mine and that was it, no one noticed, and it was fabulous. I was talking with someone at a songwriting magazine saying the same thing, which is if you are a young singer-songwriter and if you are learning and honing your skills as a writer, look to what has gone before. You have to, you have to know what has come before you, you have to learn by what has been, because there is greatness there. It’s for all of us to learn and to blossom through and it’s a really important exercise for any singer-songwriter to take a song of somebody else’s and to completely deconstruct/reconstruct/reimagine it for themselves. It’s not only something that will teach you what great songwriting is but it will also develop your writing skills, your arranging skills; it will make you develop as a writer and as an artist.
I pity people who say they are Jazz singers, or whatever they might be, and I give that as an example, who have never heard or have no interest in listening to Ella Fitzgerald or any of the greats, you know what I mean. It’s an extreme thing to say but I’ve actually met people who just feel that somehow what’s gone before doesn’t mean anything to them and has no affect or worth in their lives. And I feel really sad for people who feel that way, because these are the building blocks for all of us. It is the greatness that we learn from and build upon and God knows, there is so much greatness to learn from. I grew up with so much of it, I feel like I was so fortunate. I was like a sponge taking it all in and being inspired by it all. Not everybody gets that kind of exposure to music. I don’t want to be too hard on people cause not everybody has that upbringing. I get it but hell, you know, there is a whole world of great music out there. Go out and find it. Now! And I would say this to any would-be artist: just immerse yourself. That’s not to lose yourself so you don’t know who you are but you immerse yourself enough to find out exactly who you are. That’s the job.
Have you ever, in songs you have written, gone too far into your emotions?
I don’t think there is such a thing as too far. Joni Mitchell is an example of this as I am of her school of thought, which is I write songs where I have said things about myself and my life that are very, very, very highly personal, hard for me to sing, and sometimes painful to the extreme. I’ve always been very aware that at the end of the day the listener is still listening to connect, be entertained and be drawn in and to feel and to not be smashed over the head by whatever it might be without there being something that affects them or moves them or makes them joyful or they love the melody. I think it’s an art form to put great melody and musical beauty with sometimes incredibly difficult lyrics. I think it is an art form and a skill to make sure you do not alienate your listener but draw them in and it makes that song a much more open-ended vehicle where the listener can actually hear their own life in it.
Just like what I am doing with these songs. One of the greatest things for me as a writer is when the audience members come up to me, or people write to me, and say, “I thought you were talking about my life. I felt you were singing about me. I could see my own life in your songs. I cried. It felt like you were talking about my family.” That is what music is about. It is a connective tissue between us all. It’s not something that is just for one person to do and for them alone. It is about sharing and connecting and nothing connects like this incredible gift, whether as the listener or the writer or the performer, whatever it might be. That’s why “Can’t Stop The Feeling” means so much to me. It’s about me as a kid wearing headphones to escape the sadness and the loneliness and the fear in my own young life. Putting the headphones on, I thought I was the person onstage, I was that person, that was my life. I would escape, I was overjoyed, I was inspired. Who hasn’t put headphones on or put the buds in and walked down the street listening to their favorite track and felt like they were alive again and it was all going to be okay? Because there was that soundtrack that keeps you going, that makes you feel like life is incredible. It is a connecting thing in our life like no other and I think that is probably the greatest gift for me is that people read their lives into my songs. Because God knows I’ve done that with everybody else’s too.
You know, if you and I listen to the same song right now, I bet your interpretation of it would be so different from mine it would be laughable. Because it would be personal to you. And that’s the beauty of it all. It means something so different to everyone. Whatever interpretation someone reads into my music or my songs, I’m happy. I just want to give them permission to feel and to know that I’m singing about stuff we all feel, that we all go through, that we all struggle with, because we are just these human animals who are just bumbling along and fucking up, struggling along like we all do. And I think in some ways with this record, there’s an almost added safety net inbuilt cause we all know these songs, we’re already there reading from the same book and then to advance it to these additional stories and additional experiences of my life that comes out of this, I found live, definitely, there is even more connection with the audience. I’m only at the beginning of trying these songs out live but I’m kind of amazed by how the audience connects to these versions and my stories that go with them. It’s all a joy, honestly.
What can you tell us about your musical history with Leland Sklar?
Leland is like a magical person as far as I’m concerned. He really is. Who would have thought that when I was a kid in the backseat of my parents’ car and we’re all singing along to James Taylor, that I was listening to Leland Sklar. That is always a shocking thought to me, and shocking in a lovely way, but it really is amazing when you think about it. But 2012, my father had just passed away and it had been a horrendous few years and I wanted to get back in the saddle because I know well enough of myself that the thing that keeps me healthy and mentally well is making music. So I wanted to get back on the saddle as soon as I possibly could, cause it’s also the thing that allows me to grieve and express myself and to do the work of grieving, and I decided there were two things I wanted to do: make a bit of a love letter to the music of Laurel Canyon, because of Joni, because of James, because of these people that I listened to back in London, but mostly because of that memory of being in the car with my parents, when we were happiest. I still sing in the car like a lunatic with my husband. And I defy anybody who says singing in the car isn’t one of the greatest joys in the world. It is genius! We should all do it. I am so happy when I am singing in the car and it’s always been that way because of my family and it’s a sweet memory of when things were good and we were well and stuff hadn’t gone really wrong yet. So I wanted to kind of run with that memory of us in the car singing, listening to James Taylor, and bring it all the way up-to-date.
I’d met Leland through my husband, through Harry, because he’d done a comedy record and Leland was guesting on it, doing live shows with it, and I was guesting at the show as well. And I thought, there he is, Leland Sklar. And I played and Leland’s mouth basically dropped open and he walked over to me and probably said the usual Leland line, something like, “Screw Harry, let’s you and me make a record.” (laughs) That’s Leland. He is so adorable and wonderful. He adores Harry but you know. But for him, he was hearing the kind of music that he cut his teeth on as a kid, those kind of professional, melodic, soulful songs. And that was the beginning of it and I said I would love to make a record with you and this is my idea and this is what’s just happened and can we do this and do you think Russ Kunkel would be interested and he called Russ and Russ went, “I’m in.” And the fabulous Waddy Wachtel, who was with Carole King and Linda Ronstadt, and the four of us went into Sunset Sound in Hollywood, right at the bottom of Laurel Canyon. It’s like a bloody joke but it was fantastic. I played through the songs and they went, uh-huh, uh-huh, and heard it and got it and I swear to God, from the first note that we recorded, and I just tried two songs at first to see if it would work, because just cause you dream it and imagine it doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good, you know. We’ve all been through that one where it’s like a great idea and it just goes tits up in the first minute. But from the first note, it was like, oh my God, there it is, there’s the sound. And we’ve been working together ever since.
Pedro Segundo came into my life in 2014 and we started touring in the US and he was playing some percussion on that and then came my beautiful string player, my cellist Gabriella Swallow. But Leland, Pedro and I went out on the road in 2014 and on the road I wrote all the songs on Somebody’s Child and we were trying them out on the bus. It was the most miraculous, incredible experience, because Pedro and Leland together, there is something really quite special about these two people. They are the greatest rhythm section. Pedro suits me so beautifully because he is also a classical percussionist as well as being a Jazz star. And to have all of that at his fingertips, the man has groove and a pocket like you cannot imagine. He knows exactly where I’m going wherever I’m going whenever I’m going. These guys move with me as if we are one unit and it is something so special.
But every day I spend with Leland on the road and with Pedro, they are exactly what I’ve always wished for in life. Being somebody who has great sadness and melancholy in me and quite a bit of darkness as well as a huge amount of joy and brightness and light as well, my desire has always been to spend as much time as I possibly can laughing and enjoying life and soaking up all the things I have not been able to feel or experience for the many years that I was on the wrong side of depression. So for me, being on the road with these guys is magical and it’s what life should be about.
If you’re lucky enough to do the thing you love as your job, to get to perform, to get to do music, to do this thing, and then get to be with people who make you smile and laugh every single day and treat every day as if it’s not just a bonus but one great adventure, then I don’t know how it gets any better than that. I mean, the only thing that could improve upon it would be if I could have my dog with me. And Harry dips in and out and we have the most wonderful time and I get to work with Harry and we get to do the Derek Smalls thing together and that is another fantastic joy in my life. But if you are not having an amazing time doing this, this thing you are here to do, that you love, if you’re not having a great time playing music then something is really wrong. And that usually is inside you, you know what I’m saying. It’s the greatest but it’s also rough, it’s also hard work, it also makes you want to cry sometimes and it feels like a body blow every other minute; it’s dreadful on many levels. But not the music, not the performing. It’s all I ever wanted. I hope I’ll be in my eighties at a piano kicking some major asses, elegantly tearing it up (laughs). What am I saying? Of course I’m going to be an eighty year old doing this. I have no choice. This is who I am, this is what I do. I really am having the best years of my life.
So you’re going to be on tour all year?
Yeah, that’s how it’s going to be. I’m doing the East Coast, the Midwest, Britain to do promo and then I come back and do California in July, then I do more American dates. I actually have August as a little holiday time, a couple of weeks, because I do need to sometimes regroup and see my dog. In September, I do Ronnie Scott’s in London, which is an amazing Jazz venue, and then I start a Scandinavian tour, then I think German, Italian, Spanish dates follow that and then Harry and I do a Christmas show, finishing, of course, in New Orleans, as we always do. And that’s my year.
And in the midst of that, I hopefully will be doing more recording for a Volume II, which I am very serious about. I thoroughly intend including some big band elements in this one because of how much I love going to Snub Harbor [in New Orleans] and soaking up the big band thing on a weekly basis. So I think it’s going to go even more into like the Jazz field in a very unexpected way. Nothing would make me happier cause that is one of the great sounds, as we know, of all time. My feeling is, there are no walls, no boundaries, no reason you can’t do it. Music is an act of absolute discovery and I grew up not thinking there was any difference between any genre because they were all there to enjoy. They just spoke of different moods and to me all music is a language and I don’t see any barriers. Again, I feel bad for people who live in a world of snobbery or a sense that you can only like this or like that or be pigeonholed in this one place. I think as artists you want to grow and try and push and develop until the day you pop your mortal coil.
Photographs by Alessia Laudoni, Susan Flood, Bernhard Kuhmstedt & Leslie Michele Derrough