Judith Owen connects with '70s troubadours on her new 'Ebb & Flow'

 Judith Owen connects with '70s troubadours on her new 'Ebb & Flow'
Judith Owen's new album is "Ebb & Flow." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Judith Owen was in need of solace two years ago after her father died, so the Welsh-born jazz-pop singer and songwriter turned to three musicians who helped write the book on emotional reassurance.

Guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel — collectively known as the Section — were the threesome who delivered much of the rhythmic foundation and instrumental color for the signature works of Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and others whose music gave an earlier generation — including Owen's own family — comfort in the aftermath of the politically and culturally tumultuous decade of the 1960s.


"I'm such a fan of the '70s troubadour music," Owen said recently from the road on a tour stop in Nashville. "When my dad died, I wanted to do something life-affirming, so I thought, 'What if I did something I've joked about doing, but put off for all these years because I didn't have the confidence to see it through?'

"When I was younger, I remember blasting my lungs out singing along with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Carole King, music that influenced me hugely. It was a time I was really happy and something that I have great memories of hearing in the car with my parents, my sister and I. It's something I've always had in my mind."

Owen took a gamble and made the first call to Sklar, whom she'd met through her husband, satirist, musician, actor, comedian — and Spinal Tap's bassist — Harry Shearer.

His unequivocal yes led to similar calls to Wachtel and Kunkel, and "both said 'absolutely' without missing a beat," she said, even though they hadn't recorded together in 15 years. Now they've reunited on Owen's just-released "Ebb & Flow" album, which lyrically and musically makes a connection with the fertile Laurel Canyon music scene in Southern California.

Not surprisingly, several of the songs Owen wrote while grieving her father deal with loss, notably "You're Not Here Anymore," which she said was written chiefly with her father in mind, and "I Would Give Anything," an ode to her mother, who committed suicide when Owen was a teenager.

She's also included a rendition of Taylor's paean to the power of the troubadour, "Hey Mister, That's Me Up on the Jukebox," to which she brings more of a cabaret slant than Taylor's country-leaning original.

But there's also room for light with the dark, in her distaff version of Mungo Jerry's bouncy 1970 AM radio hit "In the Summertime," which she confessed to recording in part to subvert the quintessential male-centric pickup song by having a woman sing it.

In her own "Under Your Door," she reminds someone else — and perhaps herself simultaneously — that life's troubles don't last forever.

"That's why it's called 'Ebb & Flow,'" she said. "You know my writing — I'm the queen of bittersweet. I believe that both things are true — at the same time. That's why that ['70s troubadour] music was so fantastic. At the same time that James was singing 'Fire & Rain,' singing about a friend who had killed [herself], there was safety and comfort in these beautiful songs, which were plumbing the depths with lyrics that were absolutely going to the deepest places, but whose melodies and music was soothing your soul.

"Then there's the soothing quality of the human voice in addition to that," said Owen, who divides her time among the homes she and Shearer keep in Santa Monica, New Orleans and London. "I do believe that one of the most amazing things you can do is to put those two things together."

She pointed out that she'd taken the early '70s singer-songwriter motif by painting the album's richly impressionistic artwork herself.

"I was in a very 'What would Joni do?' mood while I did this," she said. "I went to art school for a year, but I always kept that light under my bushel. This time, I just wanted to break it all out. I was just a frustrated troubadour — a frustrated hippie."

Working with the Section in the studio — at Sunset Sound in Hollywood — helped alleviate some of that frustration; going on tour with them recently made things even better for her. That tour wraps with her June 13 L.A. homecoming show at the Mint.

It took a year for her to record the tracks for the album as she alternated between numbing bouts of grief, when she "was a complete mess," and bursts of creative energy.


Making the album and now sharing the songs with audiences has helped her reach the acceptance stage in the cycle of loss, and she senses it's doing something similar for listeners.

"After the shows, the number of people who come up to me and say, 'I lost my mum,' 'It made me think of my dad,' 'I miss my daughter,' 'Thank you for making me cry,' is remarkable, and a privilege," she said. "My job is to give the listener or audience permission to feel the big stuff, and that includes joy. Honestly, it's just like therapy — only cheaper."


Judith Owen

Where: The Mint, 6010 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Fri., June 13, 8 p.m.

Cost: Free