“I’ve been searching for your face for so long, I want you to know just how happy I’ve been, I want you to know that I’m strong. Mother, dear mother, just look at me now.” (Judith Owen, ‘Happy This Way’)
“Soulfully cool and deeply retrospective”, claims The LA Times. “A charmer and a seducer” quips Variety magazine. “The kind of wailing folk-jazz voice that slices away surfaces to touch vulnerable emotional nerve endings and leave you quivering” harps The New York Times. She has been hailed as the female Randy Newman and a “drier, hipper Norah Jones” with fans that include Burt Bacharach, K D Lang and Jamie Cullum. Such plaudits might bring satisfaction and a sense of pride to most but to the brilliant singer/songwriter, Judith Owen, there have been some days that all that she could hear were the words “loser…you’re not good enough…or you don’t deserve any of this”. For, unbeknown to many, Judith suffers from clinical depression. It is a disabling condition that can manifest and adversely impact on a person’s family, work life, sleeping and eating habits, and general good health. It is a lonely disease and one of our last taboos. Simply no-one talks about it and those who do not suffer from it feel they have do not have much to offer on the subject. So, having spent most of her life left to deal with her incapacitating depression by herself, it is essentially now that Judith believes we must encroach on the subject and confront its misconceptions.
Together with her good friend, comedienne Ruby Wax, they have come up with ‘Losing it’, a collaborative show that engages the audience with ‘rolling in the aisle’ laughter (Ruby) along with a resonating and heart-felt soundtrack (Judith) that brings you back to your seat and very much makes you take into consideration the seriousness of the show’s aims. Ruby recants the progressive journey towards her meltdown but it is only in the second half of the show where both women sit and engage in discussion with the audience, that we really get to the heart of the matter. “We’ve had people speaking who haven’t left the house for 20 years and come to this show, desperate, lonely people who’ve lost their jobs, lives & loved ones to mental illness, who, like most of us don’t know where to go or what to do and who just aren’t able to help themselves when in the grip of depression”. Judith explains that part of the sadness that surrounds depression is that most people hide the illness behind a confident and bubbly façade. This is very much the case for both Ruby and herself, for both women were acquainted through Judith’s husband, Harry Shearer, but only became close friends once they realized their joint suffering, “that’s when the masks came off and we felt the relief of not having to ‘put on the act’. After that it was just a given that we’d be friends… both part of the ‘tribe’ we could now relax and be honest about what was really going on inside. That’s what’s great about meeting your own kind… there’s no stigma”. They came up with the idea for the show in Ruby’s kitchen at a time when Judith had just opened up about her depression for a piece in the New York Times and Ruby had recently come out from a spell in The Priory. They both agreed how life changing it would be to create a show together about their experiences through their different mediums of comedy and music, to perform it for the doctors and patients of the Priory, other hospitals and anyone else who would have them. They were, in fact, greatly received at the Priory, albeit a surreal and memorable event, “…in a marquee, planes landing overhead, the odd scream in the distance, the lost sitting with the luvvies…. a night I shall never forget”, Judith fondly remembers. It was when they were touring up North that Judith and Ruby came across essential ‘drop-in’ centres for the depressed, along the same lines as AA meetings, which made them both wonder why they’re not available throughout the country. For this reason they have now introduced weekly drop-in sessions at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark on Thursdays between 2 and 4pm where lectures and discussions are led by cutting edge doctors and members of ‘SANE’, who work as an information network and support system. A progressive step that Judith hopes will encourage more drop-in facilities in the future.
I join Judith after one such ‘drop-in’ session and she’s exuding a confident glow. “I’m in a really good place at the moment. I only know this comparatively to the person I used to be before I had proper medication and a good therapist.” Born and raised in Wales before moving to London where her father, Handel Owen, sang as an operatic tenor in the Covent Garden Opera House, Judith always knew that her family was somewhat ‘different’. Her own mother, Millicent Copp, was an amateur dancer, mathematician and linguist and also suffered from depression in an era when doctors didn’t know how to deal with it. She was constantly fobbed off, given a Valium and told to “pull her socks up”. Other children never came over to play with either Judith or her elder sister and instead she became her mother’s carer whilst she just slept and slept and slept. “Despite never talking about it, our house was filled with dysfunction and it became our norm. We didn’t know any different.” Tragedy struck when her mother took her own life when Judith was 15 and in her most formative years. This incident seems to have triggered the demons within Judith’s own psyche. “I was guilt-ridden in thinking that I could have saved her.” She progressed from panic and anxiety attacks to eating disorders and then developed agoraphobia. It was only when her weak 80lb frame started faltering her singing voice that she started eating properly again. When her music career took off she would pack out Ronnie Scott’s every night only to come home and burst into tears. “When it was about music, then I could function. It’s only when the music stopped that the negative voices, telling me how useless I was, would take hold. Music was my constant, my calm, and despite trying to keep as busy as possible you just can’t play 24/7. Whilst in the grip of depression you can’t access beauty and everything that is beautiful in life seems to laugh at you. You equate beauty with perfection and everything that you’re not, so you run away from the very thing that can save you. You regret and relive the past or catastrophise the future. Either way you don’t live in the moment and ultimately your bed is the only safe place left so you just sleep and sleep.”
Providence came in the form of actor, satirist, writer and musician, Harry Shearer, better known to the likes of you and me as Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap and the voice of Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. Harry was in London, touring with the rest of the Spinal Tap gang when he stumbled into the lounge of the Conrad Hilton to find Judith at the piano singing to her heart’s content. “I didn’t think anyone was listening and suddenly I hear this clap, clap, clap…it was undoubtedly the luckiest day of my life.” Judith then decided to take a chance and turn her life around. So, without giving herself the chance to hesitate, she left London and all that she knew in order to be with Harry in Santa Monica. Yet despite knowing that she had found the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, Judith was still reticent about her depression. Harry’s previous wife had also been a sufferer so he must have been privy to the tell-tell signs. “The time when I smashed every last item in our kitchen…yeah, he must have cottoned by then.” But instead of being angry at all the secrets and lies, Harry has proved to be her ‘rock’ in life and helped her back on the road to recovery. “Most people would run for the hills, but not Harry. He wants the person he first saw and fell in love with.”
This is ultimately a story of one very personal victory in an ongoing battle. The fact that Judith has now been able to return to London, to talk so candidly and publicly about her experience, to embrace the subject matter within her song writings and use it to help others just goes to show that she is no longer afraid to confront her demons. In fact, I believe she’s almost laughing back at them.
Judith Owen will be performing ‘Live in Concert’ on the 12th of June, 6.30pm, at The Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark. Special guests will include Harry Shearer on the Double Bass and Gabriella Swallow on the Cello.
‘Losing It’ starring Ruby Wax and Judith Owen will be running at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 18th June.