Since Katrina, Judith Owen and Harry Shearer have been two of the most outspoken champions of New Orleans, preaching its charms throughout their travels with a religious fervor. They are part-time New Orleanians splitting time between Los Angeles and here, where they have a condo in the French Quarter. Owen recorded her last two albums, Here and Happy This Way at Piety Street Recording, and Shearer’s new album Songs Pointed and Pointless was recorded there as well. It includes a song, “Make New Orleans Whole,” with David Torkanowsky, George Porter, Jr., Raymond Weber and Shane Theriot. Recently, Shearer has taken his concern for New Orleans to the Internet, having recorded a number of short video features called “Crescent City Stories” for MyDamnChannel.com.
Two of his subjects for “Crescent City Stories” are Leah Chase and Phillip Manuel, who will be guests along with Tom McDermott and the Pfister Sisters at Owen and Shearer’s Holiday Sing-A-Long at the Contemporary Arts Center December 14 at 8 p.m. The show has become a holiday tradition for the couple, who recorded Christmas in July in 2004.
As you might expect, the Welsh Owen’s tendency to passionate embrace everything beautiful and ridiculous about the holiday finds a sympathetic co-conspirator in someone who voices characters in The Simpsons, appears in the Christopher Guest movies, and broadcasts his radio show “Le Show” on many NPR affiliates (including WWNO2 Sunday nights from 6 to 7 p.m.).
To fully appreciate this interview, read it like a radio transcript. Some interviews read like true confessions, but this is more of a performance with Owen and Shearer frequently assuming the roles they play onstage—Owen, animated and exuberant; Shearer, sardonic, but stepping out of character when it comes to one of his favorite topics, music.
Why did you start doing Christmas shows?
Judith Owen: Because I was so homesick. I longed to have the Christmas I dreamed of, the Christmas I had as a kid and the parts that involved music and singing around the piano. I’d get so miserable at Christmas because the weather was always so good here [in Los Angeles] and that made me sad. What I really wanted, of course, was dismal, dark, everyone hiding inside drinking, singing, watching TV. That’s what I longed for. I can’t help myself; I’m a Brit. So we decided to create the most fun and wonderful event in the house. We provide the alcohol and the house and the music and all the musicians, and we’d invite all our neighbors and friends. Our dear friend and comedy producer, Rob Long, is an amazing chef and he would cook food. That’s how it began, and it started to have a life of its own, didn’t it Harry? People looked forward to it months in advance.
Harry Shearer: The interesting thing I think about it is that every place we’ve done it, the audience has come up afterwards and said, “You’re going to do this again next year? You’ve got to come back.” There’s been a really warm response to it. It does have some shards of irreverence to go through it, as it would have to.
Owen: But ultimately people get do get all full up and joyful, mostly because singing en masse with a huge amount of people is one of the most phenomenal experiences. Anybody who has ever sung in a choir or ever sung with a large group of people knows how exciting it is, and you feel as if you are part of something. I think the thing about Christmas is meant to be about is being with friends and people you love, and companionship and sharing. Instead, it’s become what did I buy, what did I get, what’s on TV, how much did you eat, how pissed did you get? It’s the thing that people miss, especially urbanites. People miss that sense of community.
Are these your Christmas memories, Harry?
Shearer: Uh, no. Not at all. If you’re a Jewish guy in America and you marry a non-Jew, you either have to raise your children Catholic or have Christmas parties. I won the lottery.
Owen: Harry is a non-Christmassy person. For god’s sake, why would he be? But I must say, because it has nothing to do, let’s say with…
Shearer: It’s not a religious occasion. It’s more about the music and getting together. There was at Disney Hall an amazing thing where our friend, John Michael Higgins—who’s an actor but also a wonderful vocal arranger—did an arrangement of six really beautiful carols written by a very obscure but talented American composer called Alfred Burt. Catherine O’Hara and I from the Christopher Guest movies and then a bunch of real singers sang them in a little six-minute suite. We had exactly one-and-a-half rehearsals, and standing on the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall singing pretty serious music—that was absolutely thrilling.
Are there any moments that stand out from previous occasions?
Owen: The one in Disney Hall where we were doing, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” We divided the room into 12 areas and then it was the best singing and mime. But the first group of people, the partridge and the pear tree, literally every time it came to them, they had a very quick 30-second discussion about what their mime would be. And every single time it was impeccable until the last time, and they won the prize. They all, for some unknown reason, had virtually the same flip phone. It’s in the night, obviously it’s dark, and when it came to them, they all opened their flip phones and it was just a sea of blue light in their area. We couldn’t believe it. It was one of the funniest things imaginable. We’ll do this at the CAC, and there will be a prize.
So Christmas comes early.
Shearer: In this country, it comes just before Halloween now.
Owen: It’s already bloody here. This is the fun before Christmas. Christmas day is tough, let’s be honest. Christmas is difficult for everyone.
One of the things I find fascinating about Christmas music is that it’s one of the few genres of music that is virtually irony-free.
Owen: Believe me, when Harry sings it, there’s plenty of irony.
Shearer: Not just me. There are other songs by other people. I think Tom McDermott has a song that will be done this year.
Owen: Honey, you and I are singing the most ironic song!
Shearer: Which one?
Owen: “Christmas with the Devil.”
Shearer: Yes, right. A Spinal Tap favorite. It’s no longer an irony-free zone.
Well, yes, but these days people use irony as a defense mechanism and classically, Christmas songs and the holiday itself are straightforward and a little bit sappy.
Owen: The truth is, I agree with you 100 percent. These songs really are beautiful and they are earnest, and they are profoundly moving. They just are. That’s the beauty of them. That’s what makes people want to sing them. Honest to God, when we get to the singing section with the audience, they can’t wait because these are songs we all know and we’ve all grown up with and we love. We truly love. It’s not a bad thing to have an irony-free zone. It gets exhausting after a while to be so hip and cool you just can’t say anything real.
Shearer: [mock-blasé] Really?
Owen: Shut up, you.
We went and did the Christmas show in New York and you’d think everyone was dripping with irony, but no. They were absolutely full up, full on in heaven. These are truly great songs. It’s glorious singing them together. It’s wonderful.
What was your background with Christmas music, Harry?
Shearer: I grew up in L.A. I remember hearing Christmas music on the radio, but we didn’t celebrate Christmas. It was something that was all around, but it was part of this other world. Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, those were the people I listened to growing up and they made their mark with Christmas music. And later the Beach Boys and some of those people.
Because my birthday is two days before Christmas, I always had a mixed feeling about it like everyone was missing the point at this time of year. You know? Hey wait a minute, it’s about me. These were hymns in the wrong direction, I thought.
Owen: The Nat King Coles and Mel Torme and those great secular songs are so fantastic and special. You don’t have to be a Christian; these are just magnificent songs. The joy of singing them is lost on no one. In fact, I do think when we were in San Francisco, Harry, that we had more Jewish people in the audience than anybody. It was just hardcore wanting to sing the great American songbook.
A lot of Christmas songs are from the writers of the great American songbook.
Owen: I think some of the finest songwriting, and it’s just fantastic. Whether it be the Beach Boys or anybody else, it’s just the stuff that we know that is part of our culture that we understand whether we celebrate Christmas or not. Even when we sing the carols, it’s interesting because all I feel about carols is that they’re beautiful pieces of music. They are gorgeous. In my mind, I hate to admit this to anybody, Christmas wasn’t about religion. It was about singing.
Shearer: The other thing was that, now that the season has been extended, people are already starting to get overwhelmed by the music by the time of mid-December. There are radio stations playing Christmas music 24/7, and you’re hearing it in every store. Our show is trying to recapture it from that kind of existence, from the manufactured realm and return it to a handmade, individually sung deal, you know?
For that reason, I’ve made Christmas tapes or CDs for friends as my Christmas card, finding songs or versions that haven’t been beaten to death.
Shearer: If you want to do that, I really recommend you go really deep into your research to find these Alfred Burt carols, they are amazing. Burt wrote in the 1950s and he wrote angular, jazz-infected harmonies. And choral music sounds really amazing.
Owen: It’s stunning stuff.
Christmas music really is a challenge for musicians as they try to work with a limited subject matter and a limited body of songs, then try to put their own stamps on their performances.
Shearer: It’s very much like the New Orleans canon. It’s like the Hippocratic oath; first do no harm to the song. Then if you figure out an interesting new way to do it, that would be good, too.
Owen: It’s also why we wanted people, whether it be Richard Thompson or the Pfister Sisters or whoever might be our guests, to sing either really unusual versions of stuff known or better still, their own Christmas compositions. So that we are hearing something new, unique and different and fresh. That’s why it starts out with party pieces as I call them. So you actually got people’s unique view on Christmas, so it’s not a whole evening of schlock fest.
We’ve had so many people email us or write to us or say to us afterwards, “Wild horses could not drag me to this show if it had not been for my wife. I expected to hate every second of it as I do every second of Christmas carols and songs and Christmas and everything to do with it. And I left here tonight so happy, so thrilled that I had come feeling so differently about all this stuff.” That is absolutely what it’s about.
Shearer: I don’t think you’re doing this kind of music show to proselytize. It’s about an irreverent and reverent sense of community. It’s something New Orleanians know how to do intrinsically.
Owen: These are our folk songs. They are of our history and our civilization and great things of past. They’ve been handed down, and they are beautiful.
Published December 2007, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 20, No. 12.