Judith Owen Talks ‘After Party Tour’

Judith Owen caught up with Pollstar ahead of next week’s “After Party Tour” to talk about the brief excursion and the show that inspired it – a spontaneous performance in her living room for 70 friends and strangers that came about after a gig at Royal Albert Hall was canceled.

The Welsh singer/songwriter was supposed to open for Bryan Ferry at the London venue when the gig was called off 20 minutes before show time because the former Roxy Music frontman was sick. With a quick change of plans, Owen invited members of the audience back to her nearby flat to hear her play with her band and husband, Harry Shearer (aka Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls).

Owen hopes to capture the intimate vibe of the evening with her six-date “After Party Tour.” She’ll be accompanied by bassist Leland Sklar, who is featured on her latest LP, 2014’s Ebb and Flow. Owen plans on ditching the microphone and leading the audience in harmonies.

As for the setlist, the tour will be fans’ first chance to hear selections from her upcoming as-yet-untitled 2016 album.

 The “After Party” begins Sept. 15 in Portland, Ore., at the Bossanova Ballroom. Owen has more dates with Ferry booked in October, followed by European headline shows. She returns to the U.S. for her annual Christmas tour with Shearer.

Photo: Susan Flood

Let’s talk a bit about the performance in your living room that inspired the “After Party Tour.”  

The Royal Albert Hall … [is] just one of those places that when you play there, you’ve really kind of arrived. It’s just one of those places. My father, as an opera singer at Royal Opera House Covent Garden, had sung there many times. My sister received her graduation degree there. My husband played there, you know, when Spinal Tap played there. I was the only person, it seemed to me, in my whole family who hadn’t actually played at the Albert Hall. So I was so thrilled to get this opportunity to be playing there. Sadly, Bryan had a horrendous virus and just got worse and worse and worse through the day and about 20 minutes before the show had to pull the show; he was so ill.

It was one of those things where the audience was already there so I had people who had flown in … some journalists from Italy and some people, I think, [from] Italy and Germany and there were a whole bunch of friends. And there were some London journalists. And I thought, “You know, what the heck?” It was so disappointing and it’s such a huge thing to get over not doing when it’s that close. I don’t know what it was. I think it might be the glass or two of white wine that I had to drown my sorrows. I just said, “Everyone’s getting in a cab back to my house,” because I live there and [New Orleans], so I go between Britain and America. Everyone piled into our house. And my fabulous band with me, my gorgeous, legendary American band – Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel and my Portuguese percussionist. … We did the show acoustically in the house, with everybody, about 70 people crammed, sitting on the stairs, outside, just pouring throughout the whole house.

There’s nothing ever that beats singing acoustically – no amplification … it’s just a magical thing when you hear people sing and perform and you’re that close to them and it’s that intimate. It’s one thing being on a giant stage and singing to like 8,000 people and it’s incredible and exciting, etc., but nothing beats hearing people performing in a living room, to you. … When I’m in that situation, hearing other people sing myself … I get chills because it’s really special.

How are you going to capture that feeling on your After Party Tour?

I’m actually going to just turn the mic off, turn everything off. I can’t, sadly, in some places keep the piano [off] … because some places [have] an electric piano. But I’m going to sing acoustically. … Amplification of itself changes the way your voice sounds. It changes the way you perform. … There’s an intimacy that’s lost because of it. And it doesn’t matter how real it sounds. It’s still not your human voice. I hope that I’m going to pull this off.

It sounds like it’s going to be a really special tour.

I hope so. I hope it will make the audience lean in and just feel that thing that is so different from an amplified performance. Fingers crossed I can pull it off. This is the first time that I’ve tried it and I hope it will work. … And I’m going to preface it with this story. I’m going to explain to the audience why I’m doing this.  

I grew up singing over a grand piano and I think that’s a big part of it. If you have a strong voice and you’re used to being your own amplification, then you can do this. If you have a teeny, tiny whispering voice, of course there’s no chance, whatsoever. But I actually think I can do this.

It must have been disappointing not to play the Royal Albert Hall, but you really turned the night around. And now it’s inspired this upcoming tour.

Yeah! My husband said, “Well that was a true turning lemons into lemonade evening.” … Part of the disappointment [in canceling a show] is not having released the energy that you have when you build up to a show because the nerves and the adrenaline, they build, they build, they build and you get the nerves … and then you’re pacing around like a cat. And then you get on stage and get to release all that energy. And when something like that is [canceled] … you’ve got nowhere for it to go. That’s why people do [after party] shows, like Prince and Tom Jones, I’ve seen so many people doing this. I’ve done it myself. You do your show and then you go back home or you go to the bar of the hotel or somewhere, you go to a club and you play again after your show because you’ve got so much adrenaline from performing, you don’t want it to stop. You’re still buzzing. And then you just want to keep it going. So that’s what I’m going to say to the audience: “Pretend I’ve just done a huge show down the road in some mammoth place (laughs) and now, here we are and this is the after party.”

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I was wondering if you had picked random audience members to come back to your house or how that worked.

I knew my friends. I didn’t know anybody else. ….  I think my husband was amazed and horrified that I just said to this whole bunch of strangers, “Just come on over!” because it’s just not like me to be like that. I tend to be a bit more kind of, a little bit more guarded in that situation.

It was like, “I’m not letting these people down who’d come all this distance.”… And also, I need to do something that stops us all from feeling so sad and so disappointed. And what came from it was a quite brilliant series of articles in newspapers the following two days talking about how special this evening was and how amazing it was to be in a room with musicians playing acoustically and for the pure joy of it. … I think that’s the thing about musicians …Whenever there’s a party you have to play at the end of it. You just all sing and I do it especially down in New Orleans, where we live. People are always coming over and everybody’s singing and playing and joining in. And it feels incredible because you are part of that event. And it’s a community thing. …

Ancient man sat in circles and sang together. Tribes sing together. Human beings have always sung together. At this point [in] Western Civilization, I don’t think we sing in a way that we have sung historically in the past. And I think we miss it. I really do believe that human beings, it’s part of our DNA to sing together. … They now realize that when people sing in choirs, all their heartbeats, they all sync up and go at the same speed. And to me, that’s just so deep. … If you sing together, if you sing in the car … everyone feels better singing, It doesn’t matter if you have a terrible voice, by the way. Everybody feels great when they sing.

I’m going to get the audience to hopefully harmonize with me. … [I’ll] teach them a couple harmonies and we’ll sing those together. … That is really the point of this. Less formal, less that sense of I’m putting on a show, you’re sitting there, you don’t do anything. It’s much more about the storytelling and the sharing and the participating.   

This is a brief tour, just six stops. Did you have any input as far as picking the cities and venues? Or did you leave that in the hands of your agent?

Well, I think there are only two cities that are missing that I would have loved to have played. We couldn’t get the date or venue to fit in before I whizzed back [to Europe].  And that’s New Orleans and Chicago. How I love Chicago so much. And of course, New Orleans is home to me in America. … In this tiny short period of time we couldn’t squeeze any more in.

When you have two weeks, if that, when you have that tiny window, it just has to make sense as far as where you’re going. America, you could be touring for a year and you still wouldn’t get everywhere. … I’ll have a new record out next year, as well, believe it or not, that I’m just finishing up now. So I’ll be out again next year in support of that. It’s been a year since I’d played in America. … I really wanted to at least dip my feet in and just say, “Look, I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still here.” I can’t wait. We’re looking forward to it.

You’re going to be touring with bassist Leland Sklar. Have you toured with him before?

Yes. … He’s one of those legendary players. When I was a kid and first heard people like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and Carole King because my parents were playing them in the car and singing along in the car – always singing – that was Leland playing as a kid himself on those records. And he’s such an exquisite player. When I came to America and I finally decided I was going to make this record, Ebb and Flow, which is a love letter to Laurel Canyon … to the music of the 1970s. It’s a love letter to that time of true confessional music, where you’ve got these beautiful melodic songs and these incredible confessional lyrics. It had such an effect upon me, it influenced me so much. So I just thought, I’m going to go to the source. I’m going to go to Leland and Russ Kunkel and Waddy Wachtel who all played on those records and just see if they’ll work with me. And that was just it. They got it; they knew what I was doing because it was the music that they originally cut their teeth on. And Leland and I have played a lot together since then. We’ve done a lot of trio stuff together with Pedro Segundo, my gorgeous Portuguese percussionist who’s back in Britain.

This will be a really nice intimate setup because Leland and I spend a lot of time just being on the piano at my place and just playing through stuff, trying stuff out, a lot of time on buses, just he and I playing. There’s something very symbiotic between the two of us. It’s really simple but it works incredibly well. It’s very natural to play with him and I think people love to see Leland. He’s just one of those guys. He’s a bit of a legend. I think we’ll have a fun time together. It will be very different from what I have been doing with the full band. Again, this really works with the intimacy of these shows.

Will the setlist feature songs from throughout your career? Or focus on Ebb and Flow?

I’m going to do a lot of songs from Ebb and Flow, because that’s what I’ve been promoting. I’m going to pull some songs from past albums … bring them back into the world and give them some life. I’ve got to pull those and get a few tricks up my sleeve. And I’m going to debut some of the songs from the new record, which I think is even more exciting because this is the first time I’ll be trying them out because nobody’s heard them yet.

A few days ago you posted on Facebook that you were doing a photoshoot for the new album. Have you already set a release date?

Haven’t set an absolute date but you can say that [I’m] hoping for a spring release.

What can you tell us about the album?

It’s a departure from Ebb and Flow, that’s for sure. It’s much more observational. It’s of course about me, as far as my experiences of life. But it’s much more outside of me, looking at things outside of me, from a world perspective … people living on the streets right outside my front door back to the craziness of how any of us find love and then manage to stay with the person we love.   

I’m very, very proud of it. Very proud of the way it’s sounding and very proud of the songs that are on this record. I think it’s a natural progression, a natural move forward. Because I think it’s important to keep moving, to keep growing. I don’t think you ever stop growing and learning and changing and hopefully becoming a better and better artist. I think that’s the job. To me it’s the love of my life and I’m a lifer. This is my lifetime in this music. I see myself hopefully being some elegant little old lady with very, very long white hair, playing the piano. I hope that’s how it ends. (laughs) I hope the songs never stop coming and this is how it keeps moving forward.

I think it’s very powerful sounding. … I’ve kind of re-tapped my love for orchestrations and strings. It’s a really muscular record. I’m very, very pleased with the way it’s coming along. I’m just mixing it right now.

I’ve yet to figure out what the hell to call it. But it’s always that thing where it’s in the last minute you know what this thing is and what it should be and how it should be. It’s going to be a really wonderful time on the road next year because I think the lineup will probably include a string section and definitely cello. … I think it will be me, bass, percussion, my cellist. I’m really excited about that.

Photo: Alessia Laudoni

After the “After Party” Tour you have a few more dates lined up with Bryan Ferry. What’s it been like touring with him?

Amazing. It’s just incredible. He’s a champion really of mine and a fan. … And I love him. I love his band. It will be amazing to see them again. We just fell in love with these guys. … It felt like family … just being with these guys on the road. It was just magnificent. So I can’t wait to get back and see these guys, especially because it ended so abruptly. It will be nice to be together again.

After then after that I tour for a couple weeks in Europe … and then I start a U.K. tour with Nell Bryden, who’s a wonderful British artist. [I] finish that mid-November and then I get my ass back to America and two weeks later I start the Christmas tour and that takes me all the way through to Christmas.

Are those the holiday sing-along shows you’ve done with your husband?

Yes, they are. They really are special to us. They’re something we started in 2005 to raise money for New Orleans post-Katrina. And we’ve been doing it ever since. … Now we actually raise money for other charities within each city so in L.A., we’re doing in for My Friends’ Place, which is for homeless teens. There’s so many homeless kids on the street here. It’s just insane. It’s a really fine organization. … In New York I think we’re tying that in with the Elton John AIDS Foundation because it lands on World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. So that’s what we’re doing this year – two in L.A., New York, Chicago and New Orleans. And that rounds off the year. It’s just extraordinary. In a week’s time I’ll be gone pretty much until the end of the year.

You’ve got a packed schedule coming up.

It makes me so happy. The only thing I find hard is leaving my beautiful dog, who’s lying here next to me, who I’ve just spend the last three weeks with, having a fantastic time.

What’s your dog’s name?

Doris Day is my large yellow Labrador. … She’s the best. I sing and she lies under the piano and just stares up lovingly at me. She comes to my gigs here. She comes to the studio. She’s just always with me. I would not put her on a plane. I won’t travel with her. … I just think that’s selfish. That’s the hardest thing but, you know, hopefully she’ll forgive me. We’ll spend Christmas together and it will all be good.  

Photo: Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Here’s the routing for the After Party Tour:

Sept. 15 – Portland, Ore., Bossanova Lounge
Sept. 16 – Seattle, Wash., Columbia City Theatre
Sept. 19 – Los Angeles, Calif., Hotel Café
Sept. 22 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Café Life
Sept. 23 – Boston, Mass., Red Room @ Café 939
Sept. 26 – New York, N.Y., Rockwood Room 2

Visit JudithOwen.net for more information. And be sure and check out her Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram pages.