Judith Owen: how to find your own truth in other people’s songs
The Welsh piano-playing singer-songwriter explains how learning to perform cover versions can help you discover what really matters to you
When I was cutting my teeth, playing four-hour marathons in dodgy clubs to make ends meet, rather than lose my mind when covering other people’s songs, it was possible for me to deconstruct and then reconstruct the tracks so they actually meant something to me. I look in the lyrics for a truth in my own life. I turn them on their head so that I can sing them as if they’re mine. It’s also a true exercise in arrangement and, as a writer, that’s such an important part of what you do.
I can’t sing anything unless I really mean it, because music means so much to me. I think one of the great things about doing covers is that it’s a baby step to being able to expose your own truth. This is not karaoke. It’s a wonderful way of developing as an artist.
The more you do, the more you become acquainted with great chord progressions, find your own voice and what matters to you. Here is how I found my truth in these five songs…
Hotline Bling by Drake
It’s a great pop song. Melodically and structurally it’s incredibly simple. I always believe that when it comes to your truth it has to be in the words, because I’m going to rearrange whatever is in the music so it sounds like me. So I sat down with the lyrics and read about a guy whose girlfriend only calls when no one else is around and she wants to have sex.
I thought about a time when I was in love with this man who only ever called me when he had no other options. Who would disappear for weeks on end and sometimes turn up at my shows with other women. It was torture, but the truth is I was crazy about the guy and if he called me at any time of day I would be there. That’s what Hotline Bling said to me.
Suddenly it all made sense. Musically I put it into a cinematic piano playing classical chords way back in the distance, as if you’re seeing a film, and I sang it from that perspective. I now had my own personal truth in it. Once you relate it to your own experience it’s golden. That’s what it’s all about.
Can’t Stop The Feeling by Justin Timberlake
It’s such a joyful song but it’s about being with a woman that drives you crazy and when you’re dancing it’s the sexiest thing in the world. That’s not where I am in my life or my truth. I read the lyrics, ‘I’ve got sunshine in my pocket, got that good soul in my feet,’ and they made me think of being a kid, walking down the street with headphones on, daydreaming that this was my life, making you feel like you’re the happiest kid in the world.
That really was what I did as a child to get through dark times. I would sit in a dark room with headphones on blasting music, pretending it was me singing on stage. The song then took on the spirit of a church hymn because that’s how important music is to me and to you and to all of us. How much music got me through at that time, it’s like, ‘Take me to the church of music.’ Having a really keen imagination is vital.
Cherokee Louise by Joni Mitchell
This song is about a young Cherokee girl who was Joni’s friend as a kid and was sexually abused by her foster father. The way it was recorded originally was very light-hearted. I understand why because it was a great way of getting this heavy story across, but I just thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to make it as dark and heart-breaking as it really is.’
Especially because this is the conversation that we are having right now and it seems to have even more weight than at the time I was first hearing this song. Everything about Joni is about her words, so I made it a very theatrical version and again, it was like a little film.
Summer Nights by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
I love Grease the musical and Summer Nights. I decided to take it right down and make it into a torch song about a women telling her girlfriends that the man she loves has come home from some trip and said ‘I fucked up but it didn’t mean anything.’ Then it all made perfect sense, it’s all about him telling her how it happened and it didn’t mean anything and it’s about her saying, ‘Tell me more.’ She can’t bear it but she has to know and it became this heart-breaking song out of this fun and wonderful track.
Musically not only did it go to a slow and sexy place, I also got snarky jazz horns to do an amazing part that goes against my chords to give it this slightly painful feeling. It’s a women in torment really. Again it’s the writer in me that wants to find the truth in the words and then interpret all that feeling.
Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden
When I first heard this song years ago I just stopped dead in my tracks and thought, ‘I don’t know what that is about but I’m convinced it’s about someone who is really struggling.’ It was like being in a life where everything appears perfect but inside it’s just thick dark molasses.
My interpretation was to make it sound like a Take Five [Dave Brubeck] thing, because I know all too well how on the outside you can be confident and peppy and you’ve got this sparkling bright face but then the inside is the darkest thing imaginable. That dark interior is in those words and I really wanted to bring out how different that is to the way you look, which is the music. So it’s dark, but in this strangely uplifting way. That’s the truth for me.