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Singer-songwriter Judith Owen on her new album of jazz classics


New Year's Eve can be a time to get cozy, slip into something more comfortable. And how about a little music to set the mood?


JUDITH OWEN: (Singing) Put on your bright-red tie. Slick back your hair. Then knock on my door, and we'll go from there.

SELYUKH: That's Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen, honoring a generation of female jazz musicians on her new album, "Come On & Get It"


OWEN: (Singing) Come on and get it, honey, while the gettin's good, good, good.

SELYUKH: Judith Owen has made her home in New Orleans for many years, and she assembled some of the city's top talent into the big band that backs her on the album. She joins us now.


OWEN: Oh, thank you so much. I loved hearing that for New Year's Eve. How exciting.

SELYUKH: Great plans, right?

OWEN: (Laughter) Yeah.

SELYUKH: This is an album of jazz classics. I understand you grew up with these songs near London. What did you make of them?

OWEN: I was born to a very unusual pair of Welsh parents. My father was a very successful opera singer at Covent Garden who had this undying love of jazz and blues, and he had a collection of 45s of these women - Nellie Lutcher, Julia Lee, Peggy Lee. And in amidst all of that classical music, I suddenly thought, this is what it sounds like to be a joyful, fabulous, unapologetic killer woman at the piano.


OWEN: (Singing) Ah, ah, da, da, da, da, lo - oh.

SELYUKH: Compared to a lot of today's hits, we think of the classic jazz songs as kind of tame.

OWEN: Yeah.

SELYUKH: But there are a lot of adult innuendo.

OWEN: Oh, yeah.

SELYUKH: Do you feel like that's a lost art that you try to sort of tap into?

OWEN: I do. I think Brits love double entendre and innuendo anyway. I mean, we just love it. But there's a certain fabulous, mischievous, wicked joy that comes with it. This is music to let go to. And there's no doubt that the reason I made this record in New Orleans is because it's not only the birthplace of jazz, but it is a place where burlesque meets the grease, meets the sexuality. It bubbles up from the street. There's nowhere else like it. And you can hear it in the musicians. You can hear it in the recording.

SELYUKH: Is there a song that particularly represents that on the album?

OWEN: Oh, yeah. I think "The Spinach Song."


OWEN: (Singing) I didn't like it the first time. I had it on a date. Although the first was the worst time, right now I think it's great.

It really gets it. As a kid, I didn't, of course, know what any of these songs meant. When I started to grow, I thought that it was all about sex. But it turns out "The Spinach Song" really is about marijuana, and it just has the most wonderful line in it. I didn't like it the first time, but, oh, how it grew on me.

SELYUKH: So as you were mentioning, you are tapping into these songs that were originally sung by other artists. Let's listen to "Satchel Mouth Baby," which was written and originally sung by Mary Lou Williams in the 1940s.


OWEN: (Singing) Satchel Mouth Baby, we could have a lot of fun, a lot of fun because you are, you are the cutest one. You're so neat, sweet. Walking down the street, all the ladies holler. They all holler, you are the cutest one.

SELYUKH: How much are you trying to make these songs Judith Owen songs or trying to pay tribute to the original artists?

OWEN: Really, it's 50-50 because I want to honor these women. You know, the person that got the huge hit with that song was Nat King Cole. But, you know, Mary Lou Williams - what a consummate woman, arranger, conductor, mentor to Dizzy Gillespie and Miles and Charlie Parker, extraordinary woman. And so I wanted to keep them very much akin to the original songs. You know, these women were leading with their musical abilities. They were consummate performers and entertainers, but they also led with their humor and their joy. They were joyful at a time when life was hard and brutal and difficult. But of course it's my sensibility. It's my humor. It's my sound. It's my voice. But I must honor these women and their songs.

SELYUKH: I know many people will hear that song and wonder, what is a satchel mouth?

OWEN: (Laughter).

SELYUKH: Can you enlighten us?

OWEN: I certainly can. It is basically somebody with big cheeks, a big, beautiful, lush mouth, like a big joyful, like, angel of a person with this lush face. And that's what a lot of these songs are about, is this incredibly outspoken, brave sexual attitude where it's like, you are good-looking, and I am looking at you, and I am telling you you are good-looking.

SELYUKH: And I'm going to write a song about it.


OWEN: (Singing) You're so heavenly. What a break for me. Baby, can't you see I'm in love, love, love?

And we're all going to know what it means. And all the ladies are going to just enjoy this so much. And how incredible that I get to, you know, do these live shows, which I did at the end of this past year - this tour's waving goodbye to. And the average age of the audience was 25, we found out. And they were loving it.

SELYUKH: And we unfortunately can't quite capture that experience you're describing of you actually performing live. You gave us a little bit of a taste of what that includes. What is it like to see you perform as, I understand you call yourself, Lady J?

OWEN: Oh, absolutely. I think she's a cross between Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Rita Hayworth - I mean, flaming-red hair, red lips, men's suits, always men's suits, high heels, white shirt, tie, very androgynous but so sexy. I wish I was her all the time.

SELYUKH: You've mentioned that you could only have recorded this album in New Orleans.

OWEN: Yeah.

SELYUKH: I think you've described it as a love letter to the city.

OWEN: Yeah.

SELYUKH: Your accent does give away that you've not always lived there. But you've interlaced the sensibilities of the city within your album. You can hear the signature brass horns in...

OWEN: Yeah.

SELYUKH: ...A few songs, including "Why Don't You Do Right?"


OWEN: (Singing) You ain't got no money. They will put you out. Why don't you do right, like some other men do?

SELYUKH: What did you want to capture about the city? And is it the city of the past or the city that it is now?

OWEN: I think it's both things in all honesty, because New Orleans is not a museum. You know, that's what's so great about it. It's not Vegas. It's not Disney. It never will be. It's too flawed. And I say that with love. It's old and chipped and damaged. She's an old lady. And there will always be brass instruments handed from parent to child to parent to child. There will always be piano players in the city because in the world of guitars, in New Orleans, piano is king. That's another reason why I was so drawn to it. And people play music here because they must.

SELYUKH: What's your plan for New Year's Eve?

OWEN: Oh. Well, I wish you were here. What happens on New Year's Eve is I get a whole rabble of lovely people, usually with a couple of piano players and a couple of musicians thrown in so we can have a bit of a session. We will climb to the top of my house and - from which we get out in the balcony - an old, beautiful lady in - she is in the French Quarter. And we can look over the Mississippi River and see the fireworks at midnight.

SELYUKH: That's Judith Owen. Her new album is called "Come On & Get It." Thanks so much for being with us, and Happy New Year.

OWEN: Oh, Happy New Year to you. Come on down.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.