New Orleans — ON a soggy afternoon under a steel gray sky during the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival here earlier this month, singer and songwriter Judith Owen was full tilt into her performance, engaged in witty banter between songs with a small crowd of onlookers made up of the devoted, the curious and the oblivious.
Seated in front of a dazzling red baby grand piano, she quipped after a particularly intense ballad that she was ready to spark things up a bit. "We're going to go electric," she said, her eyes popping open fully. "I feel like Dylan!"
As if on cue, one onlooker answered: "Yeah ... Thomas!"
That pithy call-and-response neatly wrapped up a couple of key elements in Owen's music, which can be as difficult to categorize as it is easy to succumb to, from her Bob Dylan-ish penchant for artfully literary lyrics to the intrinsic melancholy in her subject matter, reflecting the Welsh heritage she shares with poet Dylan Thomas.
And that doesn't fold in the jazz inclinations that can make her come across as a drier, hipper Norah Jones, or her Celtic folk streak, much less her fondness for classical music and R&B, passions she inherited from her father, Handel Owen, a longtime member of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
During her Jazz Fest set -- the result of her first invitation to perform since she and husband Harry Shearer made the Crescent City their part-time home in the late '90s -- Owen flipped her long red hair mock-diva-like, shot verbal and visual daggers at a table full of loud talkers and tossed out one-liners, urging fans to join in and "Let's get depressed!"
The funny thing about her new album is that so much of it is about getting undepressed, starting with its title tune, "Happy This Way," an achingly upbeat missive to the mother who died when Owen was 15, a loss that shut her down emotionally for a couple of decades.
Mother, dear mother, well where have you been?
I've been searching 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.
She gives her dad equal time in "My Father's Voice," something of an early birthday present for the man who turns 80 later this year and whom she took to explore Monument Valley last week despite the impending release of her latest album. (She'll support it with a June 22 performance at McCabe's in Santa Monica, not far from their Southern California digs.)
Owen's crossed a lot of territory in the last couple of decades, and it's a tough call as to what represents the longer journey. There's the geographical trip to the U.S. from London, where she met Shearer in full Derek Smalls heavy-metal regalia while he was filming "This Is Spinal Tap" in the early '80s and she was struggling to get a music career going. Then there are the stylistic miles she covers, moving from folk to pop to jazz to soul to theatrical art song. Finally, there's her psychological trek from the darkness of primal loss into the light of emotional health, as well as making peace with her niche in a music world that favors easily categorizable artists.
"In this business, people get very scared of having different styles coexist," she says, relaxing on a couch at a Jazz Fest after-party thrown for her by a friend. "I am the spice-of-life-type person. I love variety, I love dynamics -- those are the things that move me hugely. I love music that takes you on an emotional roller coaster."
She takes in the burnished bronze late-afternoon sunlight filtering into her artist friend's 19th century shotgun shack. Its long history is evident in the raw wood plank floor and the lightly sanded decades-old paint on the wall, creating a rustic charm Owen describes as "beautifully damaged."
It's a description she uses for people too, those who, like her, have weathered life's brutal storms. She sings of one such kindred spirit on the new album in the song "Nicholas Drake," her ode to English jazz-folk singer and songwriter Nick Drake, who died of a prescription medication overdose in 1974 at age 26.
She sees in his life a cautionary tale that might well have been hers had she remained in the U.K. "Your gift was your curse," she sings, and during an interview, she laments that he, like Van Gogh and other artists who died young and were underappreciated during their lifetimes, was unable to flip the equation and simply claim the gift, as she does in much of "Happy This Way."
Musicians who fall between easy categories, or span several, often face a life of frustration unless they can come to terms with it. Owen spent time in the '90s on the Capitol Records-affiliated Java label started by superproducer Glen Ballard (No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, Michael Jackson). Now she says she'll never return to a major, preferring to release her annual albums, typically recorded in New Orleans, on her own and reaching fans virally online.